Monday, April 28, 2008

Harkin Vows to Break VA’s Silence on Veterans’ Suicide Crisis

In light of the adage “Truth is the first casualty of war,” the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is under fire for allegedly covering up the suicide crisis among our nation’s veterans in November.

The veterans’ rights group, Veterans for Common Sense, filed a class-action suit against the VA, and a federal court in San Francisco began hearing the case last Monday. The case, backed by internal e-mails written by Dr. Ira Katz, the VA’s head of mental health, and procured by CBS News, alleges that the VA is deliberately concealing the risk of suicide among veterans.

“The system is in crisis and unfortunately the VA is in denial,” veterans' rights attorney Gordon Erspamer told CBS last Monday.

Congress took up the issue Thursday, when U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., introduced a bill, the Veterans Suicide Study Act, which would require the VA to track veterans’ suicide rates annually and report its findings to Congress. Moreover, the bill would require the VA to report to Congress within 180 days the number of veterans who have died by suicide since Jan. 1, 1997.

“We are looking at a real crisis among our veterans and it is high time the VA recognizes it,” Harkin said in a statement. “Tracking the number of suicides among our veterans will help us to better understand the true depths of this crisis so we may ensure we are doing everything we can to address their mental health needs. It is shameful to lose those who have served our country to suicide simply because they do not have the support they need.”

Katz told CBS in November that “there is no epidemic in suicide in VA,” but changed his story a few months ago. In a letter written to his top media adviser, Katz wrote: "Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities."

However, an e-mail labeled “Not for the CBS News Interview Request” that was sent in November indicates Katz may have been trying to conceal the actual numbers.

The e-mail drew the ire of Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, last week. "This is disgraceful. This is a crime against our nation, our nation's veterans," Filner told CBS News. "They do not want to come to grips with the reality, with the truth."

In an e-mail late Monday to CBS News, Katz wrote that the reason the numbers were not released was due to questions about the consistency and reliability of the findings -- and that there was no public cover-up involved.

Nonetheless, Katz has drawn attention from congressional members, some of whom are calling for Katz to step down, including members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee: Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Patty Murray of Washington.

"Dr. Katz's irresponsible actions have been a disservice to our veterans, and it is time for him to go," Murray told the Washington Post. "The No. 1 priority of the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth."

Moreover, the Washington Post reported that Akaka, the committee's chairman, said in a letter to the VA that Katz's "personal conduct and professional judgment" had been called into question by his response to veteran suicides. Veterans, and the VA itself, "would be best served by his immediate resignation," Akaka said.

In the meantime, Feingold, the bill’s coauthor, is concerned about the mental health of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “The fact that the VA has no real data on the suicide rate among veterans shows how much needs to be done to address the mental health needs of veterans,” Feingold said in a statement. “With ongoing reports showing that service members are returning from combat with alarming rates of mental health problems, understanding and responding to these problems is critical to preventing deaths.”

The Veterans Suicide Study Act is a companion to the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act introduced in the House by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, and pushed through the Senate by Harkin, despite a procedural move by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that temporarily stalled the bill.

Similar to the bill introduced last week, a component of the suicide prevention legislation was to put more pressure on the VA and hold it more accountable by implementing mandates and deadlines that would implement suicide-prevention programs in a timely fashion and expedite the process for returning veterans.

Boswell’s bill was designed to help address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans by requiring mental health training for Veterans Affairs staff; a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility; and mental-health screening and treatment for veterans who receive VA care. It also supports outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention.

1 in 5 current vets suffer, study shows

Congressional pressure on the VA was prompted, in part, by a RAND Corporation study released April 17. The study indicates that nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of PTSD or major depression, yet only slightly more than half have sought treatment.

The RAND study also found that many service members said they do not seek treatment for psychological illnesses because they fear it will harm their careers. But even among those who do seek help for PTSD or major depression, only about half receive treatment that researchers consider "minimally adequate" for their illnesses.

In the first analysis of its kind, researchers estimate that PTSD and depression among returning service members will cost the nation as much as $6.2 billion in the two years following deployment — an amount that includes both direct medical care and costs for lost productivity and suicide. Investing in more high-quality treatment could save close to $2 billion within two years by substantially reducing those indirect costs, the 500-page study concludes.

"There is a major health crisis facing those men and women who have served our nation in Iraq and Afghanistan," Terri Tanielian, the project's co-leader and a researcher at RAND, said in a statement. "Unless they receive appropriate and effective care for these mental health conditions, there will be long-term consequences for them and for the nation. Unfortunately, we found there are many barriers preventing them from getting the high-quality treatment they need."

Service members report many reasons for not seeking treatment. Many are worried about the side effects of medication or believe that family and friends can provide more help than a mental health professional. Even more reported that they worried seeking care might damage their career or cause their peers to lose confidence in their abilities.

"We need to remove the institutional cultural barriers that discourage soldiers from seeking care," Tanielian said. "Just because someone is getting mental health care does not mean that they are not able to do their job. Seeking mental health treatment should be seen as a sign of strength and interest in getting better, not a weakness. People need to get help as early as possible, not only once their symptoms become severe and disabling."

Researchers concluded that a major national effort is needed to expand and improve the capacity of the mental health system to provide effective care to service members and veterans. The effort must include the military, veteran and civilian health care systems, and should focus on training more providers to use high-quality, evidence-based treatment methods and encouraging service members and veterans to seek needed care.

Since October 2001, about 1.6 million U.S. troops have deployed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many exposed to prolonged periods of combat-related stress or traumatic events. Early evidence suggests that the psychological toll of the deployments may be disproportionately high compared with physical injuries.

Another side effect of treating PTSD is the costs associated with diagnosis and treatment. The RAND study estimates the societal costs of PTSD and major depression for two years after deployment range from about $6,000 to more than $25,000 per case. Depending whether the economic cost of suicide is included, the RAND study estimates the total society costs of the conditions for two years range from $4 billion to $6.2 billion.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Iowa Guard Stretched Thinner With Latest Deployment to Iraq

About 250 members of an Iowa Air National Guard unit, the 132nd Fighter Wing, will be deployed this week to support troops in Iraq, the Department of Defense announced this week. The deployment is the 132nd's second since Operation Iraqi Freedom began, and they are expected to spend about two months in the Persian Gulf region.

The deployment comes at a time when Iowa National Guard units have been stretched thin, placing stress on Iowa’s civilian soldiers and families. “Six years of war and more than 10,000 mobilized soldiers and airmen leaves no doubt we are an organization that is stretched and stressed,” Iowa National Guard Adjunct General Ron Dardis said in his “Condition of the Guard” address to the General Assembly in February.

“We see it in the faces of our warriors sent off on their second, and in some cases, third deployments since 9-11; we see it in our families, asked to endure lengthy and in some cases repeated separations; and we see it in returning soldiers and airmen, struggling to reintegrate with their families and routines of their daily lives,” Dardis said.

“Ladies and Gentlemen: this is what keeps me awake at night. I worry so much for the health and well-being of our soldiers and airmen and their families,” Dardis said. “We are trying to assist in every way possible and yet it never seems like enough.”

The Des Moines-based fighter wing is no stranger to flying in the Middle East region. About 400 members of the unit were deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2005 to launch F-16 missions over Iraq, and the unit was deployed six times to Turkey and Kuwait between 1992 and 2002 to patrol "no-fly" zones set up over Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War to protect Kurds in the north and Shiite Muslims in the south from the Baghdad government led by Saddam Hussein.

In their upcoming deployment, the airmen of the 132nd Fighter Wing will launch F-16 aircraft over Iraq to attack enemy forces and search for improvised explosive devices, Lt. Col. James Freese, the wing's executive officer, said in a statement. The Iowa Guard's F-16 aircraft are armed with radar-guided missiles, heat-seeking missiles and laser-guided bombs. The detachment headed to the Gulf includes pilots, mechanics, and specialists in aviation electronics, weapons and other technical areas.

"We've been gearing up for this for quite some time, at least two or three months. We are fully trained and ready to go do it," Tech. Sgt. Todd Fee, 33, a weapons systems specialist, told the Des Moines Register.

About 1,000 members of the Iowa National Guard are now on active duty. The number includes about 550 in Iraq, 50 in Afghanistan, 330 in Kosovo and 90 in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Since the September 2001 terrorist attacks, about 11,000 Iowa Guard members have been on active duty.

“We are going to do what we are asked to do, and hopefully come home safely,” Staff Sgt. Jacob Hermanson, an F-16 crew chief, told the Register. He said he expects to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Iraq.

Iowa Delegation Steps up Efforts to Give Guard Greater Voice

Recognizing the strain the multiple deployments have placed on civilian soldiers, members of the Iowa delegation, except Republican Rep. Steve King, sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, asking them to enhance the functions of the National Guard Bureau so that the National Guard has a voice in decisions made by the Pentagon leadership.

“As you well know, the National Guard is serving our country at an unprecedented level,” the delegation wrote in the letter. “Lengthy and multiple deployments are placing great strains on National Guard troops and families, as well as on National Guard equipment and readiness levels.”

Moreover, the delegation highlighted the National Guard’s shifting role from a strategic reserve to operational. We are concerned that Pentagon policies and culture have not shifted accordingly,” the delegation wrote. “Unfortunately, while National Guard soldiers are increasingly being utilized along with active duty forces, we have seen the Pentagon often make decisions that directly impact the National Guard without properly consulting the National Guard or incorporating their requests.”

Last year, Congress passed the National Guard Empowerment Act, which included a number of provisions that would ease the strain on state Guard units, members and their families. Moreover, Congress has proposed a bill, the National Guard Empowerment and State-National Defense Integration Act of 2008, which would address other provisions not included in last year’s bill.

Some key provisions of the latter bill include: making the chief of the National Guard Bureau a full member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as designate several key Air Force and Army positions for National Guard members, give the National Guard a formal role in identifying equipment needs, and protect the National Guard’s lead role in domestic response.

To help illustrate the delegation’s concerns, the delegation used the recent deployment of the 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry of the Iowa National Guard to highlight the disconnect between the DOD and the National Guard, and of the need for reform. The 133rd was deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2006 and was originally scheduled to return home in April 2007, but had its tour of duty extended as part of last year’s troop surge. When the Pentagon lengthened their tour of duty, the Guard members learned of this extension through the media and family members, instead of through the proper chain of command.

“This improper notification caused much unneeded stress and anxiety for them and their families,” the delegation wrote. “Currently, members of the 133rd, along with National Guard soldiers from other units, are still waiting to receive the Post Deployment & Mobilization Respite Absence benefit that they have been promised by the DOD. It has been over six months now since the last affected Iowa National Guard unit returned home from Iraq, and the Pentagon has still not made a decision about how to pay these troops for this benefit that they have been promised.”

Moreover, the delegation is concerned that the Pentagon may ignore requests from the National Guard that troops be paid in a lump sums, but instead require the National Guard to bring troops back onto active duty and give them days off. “We are troubled by this, because we have heard concerns from the National Guard that days of paid leave will be less beneficial to troops than a one-time payment, and that bringing troops back onto active duty will be an administrative burden for National Guard leadership and will be disruptive for demobilized troops,” the delegation wrote.

“Our National Guard members are going above and beyond the call of duty in the War on Terror,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, a member of the Senate National Guard Caucus, said in a statement. “They deserve a seat at the table with all the branches of the military.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Iowa Vets, Military Families Urge Latham and Grassley: ‘Invest in America, Not Endless War in Iraq’

While some Iowans lined up to pay Uncle Sam on National Tax Day, others lined up to voice their concern about how their taxes are being spent. Veterans, military families and community leaders joined other concerned Iowans gathered outside the downtown Des Moines Post Office Tuesday to urge Rep. Tom Latham, Sen. Chuck Grassley and the rest of Iowa’s congressional delegation: ‘Invest in America, Not Endless War in Iraq.’

"As thousands of Iowans head to the post office today to file their taxes, many of us want answers from our Congressional delegation about how much longer we will continue to spend over $10 billion a month of our national treasure in Iraq while shortchanging critical priorities here at home, like education and housing for our families,” Kathleen McQuillen, Iowa program coordinator for American Friends Service Committee, said in a statement. “For what we spend in just one day in Iraq, nearly 35,000 four-year university scholarships could be funded. For what we spend in just one day in Iraq, we can help nearly 6,500 families with housing.”

“With the war in Iraq now in its 6th costly and bloody year, with over a half a trillion dollars spent, over 4,000 U.S. troops lost, and nearly 30,000 others wounded – an enormous human and financial toll has already been paid by the American people and our troops on the ground,” James Mowrer, Iraq war veteran and Iowa director of, said in a statement. “It makes no sense to continue spending billions of our hard earned dollars each week in Iraq keeping our troops stuck in the crosshairs of a religious, sectarian civil war with no realistic and comprehensive plan to redeploy. But most importantly, we must never forget the sacred obligation that we owe to our veterans.”

The war in Iraq could end up costing $3 trillion when factoring in combat and other long-term related costs, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who argues in his new book, "The Three Trillion Dollar War" that the Iraq war has contributed to the U.S. economic slowdown and is impeding an economic recovery.

“A new CBS News-New York Times poll found that 89% Americans believe the war Iraq has contributed to the economic downturn here at home, yet Rep. Latham and presidential candidate Sen. John McCain are still 100% behind same failed Bush policies that led to both the downward economic spiral and the endless, costly War in Iraq,” Don Brown, vice president of South Central Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, said in a statement.

“Meanwhile, healthcare for our children, veterans, and seniors is being neglected,” Brown said. “For what is spent during one week in Iraq, 800,000 children could get health insurance for an entire year. It’s time to offer our troops and their families the best kind of support: bring them home safe.”

The effort to urge the Iowa congressional delegation to reprioritize tax expenditures was organized by Americans United for Change, which released the following video on the economic impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Cost of War (produced by Americans United for Change)

Related Commentary: “Lest We Forget…It’s the War, Stupid!”

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Culver Orders Flags to be Flown Half Staff for Soldier Killed in Iraq

Gov. Chet Culver ordered Friday that all flags in the state be flown at half staff on Monday, April 14, 2008, from 8 a.m. (CST) until sunset in honor of Maj. Stuart Wolfer, 36, who died on April 6, 2008 while serving in Iraq. Wolfer served in Des Moines from May 1994 through November 1996 with the Army Reserve's 19th Theatre Army Area Command of Fort Des Moines. Funeral services were held in Friday, April 11 in Des Moines.

The U.S. Department of Defense said Wolfer, who was deployed to Iraq in December 2007, died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with indirect fire. He was assigned to the 11th Battalion, 104th Division of Boise, Idaho.

Wolfer is survived by his wife, Lee Anne, whom he met while stationed in Iowa in 1995, and their three daughters: Lillian Wade, 5; Melissa Lacey-Marie, 3; and Isadora Ruth, 1. The Wolfers currently reside in the Emmett, Idaho, area.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Funeral Set for Des Moines Army Officer Killed in Iraq

For the second day in a row, Iowans will say goodbye to another soldier with Iowa ties. Maj. Stuart Wolfer, 36, who served in Des Moines from May 1994 to November 1996 with the Army Reserve’s 19th Theatre Army Area Command of Fort Des Moines, was killed Sunday in Baghdad, Iraq.

The U.S. Department of Defense said Wolfer, who was deployed to Iraq in Dec. 2007, died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit with indirect fire. He was assigned to the 11th Battalion, 104th Division of Boise, Idaho. Also killed in the attack was Col. Stephen Scott, 54, of New Market, Ala.

Funeral services, which are open to the community, will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Beth El Jacob Synagogue in Des Moines. Graveside services will directly follow at Glendale Cemetery in the Jewish section.

Wolfer is survived by his wife, Lee Ann, who he met while stationed in Iowa in 1995 and their three daughters: Lillian Wade, 5; Melissa Lacey-Marie, 3; and Isadora Ruth, 1. The Wolfers currently reside in the Emmett, Idaho area

"He was a very loving and amazing father," Lee Anne said in a written statement. "He called his children beautiful, because he said they looked like their mother. He held his family foremost in his life. Stuart was an amazing man and will continue to live on in the hearts of those he touched forever."

Moreover, his wife said that her husband was straightforward, ethical and he stuck to the law. “Stuart was an amazing man and will continue to live on in the hearts of those he touched forever,” Lee Anne said.

An hour before Sunday’s rocket attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad, the Idaho Statesman reports that Wolfer sent an e-mail message back to his manager at Thomson North American Legal in Boise, where Wolfer was employed as a trial lawyer.

"Stu forged strong relationships with just about everyone he encountered," Peter Warwick, president and chief executive officer of Thomson Legal, told the Idaho Statesman Tuesday. "Stu was a wonderful person.”

When he heard the news of Wolfer's death, Warwick sent a message to company employees. In it, he included one of many e-mails Wolfer sent to co-workers:

"The last few weeks have been incredible," Wolfer wrote. "I spent a day visiting the Iraqi Military Academy at Rustamiyah. The flight over started off with me sitting across from a fellow Reuters camera man from Baghdad. We embraced and said hello and then I explained to him that we were on the same team. He let me take a photo with his camera at about 1,000 feet."

Wolfer’s family has requested that donations be made to the “Stuart Wolfer Memorial Fund” at any Wells Fargo bank. The fund has been set up as a college fund for his children.

Wolfer was the 67th person with Iowa ties to die in Iraq and Afghanistan since March 2003.

Map of Iowa's fallen soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003:

View Larger Map for easier navigation

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Culver Orders Flags to be Flown Half-Staff for Fallen Hampton Soldier

Gov. Chet Culver has ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff from 8 a.m. until sunset on Thursday, April 10, in honor of Marine Lance Cpl. Cody Wanken, 20, of Hampton who died April 2 at the Wounded Warriors hospital in San Diego. Services for Wanken will be held Thursday at 10:00 a.m. at the Hampton-Dumont High School in Hampton.

Wanken was injured in Sept. 2007, when he suffered eye, ear and other facial injuries while in Fallujah, and was then transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he underwent surgery. His parents, Rick and Susan Wanken of Hampton, said that his death was related to the injuries sustained in Iraq.

However, spokesperson 2nd Lt. Jaymie Sicking of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton in San Diego would not release details about his death, saying it is under investigation.

Wanken was a machine gunner in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
Wanken, a 2006 graduate of Hampton-Dumont High School, was the 2005-06 president of the Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates, Hampton-Dumont chapter. A standout football player, Wanken was named to the Class 3A, District 2 defensive team after his senior year.

In September, Des Moines Register columnist John Carlson reached Wanken by phone a day after surgery to talk with him about a letter he had written to himself and eventually sent to his parents. At that time, Wanken didn't want to discuss much about what had happened in Iraq, but wanted his friends back home to know he would be home soon for a visit."I haven't been home in a while," Wanken told Carlson.

"I just want to get back to Iowa and hang out with my family."Wanken did make it back to Iowa for a visit and spoke to students at Hampton-Dumont High School, where he graduated in 2006, Principal Trent Grundmeyer told the Des Moines Register.

"I wasn't principal here when he was in high school, but he did a very nice job talking to the students," Grundmeyer said.

Grundmeyer said it was a positive meeting, and that he thanked Wanken for serving his country."One thing I remember specifically about what he said is that the news media doesn't catch exactly what's going on over in Iraq. People don't see all the really horrific things, but they also don't see all the positive things," Grundmeyer said. "He had been injured pretty badly. I could tell ... there were scars on his jaw and it was a challenge for him to talk."

Wanken's body arrived at the Des Moines International airport Tuesday before being transported to Hampton.

Wanken was the 66th person with Iowa ties to die in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003.

Mapping Iowa's Fallen Soldiers

View Larger Map for easier navigation.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Monday, April 7, 2008

Grassley Keeps Dogging White House to Hire Vets

During his 27-year tenure in Washington, D.C., Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been a tireless advocate and watchdog when it comes to accountability. Whether protecting whistle-blowers or probing televangelists to divulge their tax records, the ranking Republican of the Senate Finance Committee has no reservations about sticking his nose into other people's business, and now he’s set his sights on the White House, urging President George W. Bush to “ramp up his administration’s efforts” in hiring recent combat veterans for federal jobs.

Grassley first assumed the role of headhunter for veterans Feb. 27, when he sent a letter urging the president to establish a goal that 10 percent of new hires in all federal departments and agencies be veterans.

“You proposed in your State of the Union Address to extend federal veterans preference in hiring to the spouses of service members, which is one piece of what needs to be done to lessen the strain on military families that have sacrificed so much for this country,” Grassley wrote. “However, it is essential that federal departments and agencies do a better job of using the authorities given to them by Congress by proactively seeking out and recruiting veterans, particularly those who have served recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

To make his case, Grassley cited the most recent data published in fiscal year 2006 by the Office of Personnel Management, which found a wide range of discrepancies among federal departments and agencies. The Air Force led the pack with 46.4 percent of its personnel made up of veterans, while the Federal Trade Commission finished last with 1.6 percent.

“While some disparity is to be expected, the wide variety suggests that some departments and agencies have a much more successful approach to recruiting and hiring veterans,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley asked for and received a written response by April 1 from the Bush administration.

In an attempt to assuage Grassley’s concerns, Karl Zinsmeister, assistant to the president for domestic policy, wrote that the president "wholeheartedly agrees” with Grassley, in that “our nation owes a special debt of gratitude to those who have put themselves in harm’s way on its behalf, and to their families.”

“His State of the Union Address highlighted the need for Federal government hiring preferences to be extended to spouses as well as veterans,” Zinsmeister wrote. “This simple step will help alleviate the lower-than-average employment rates for military spouses.”

Zinsmeister's letter described the administration’s outreach efforts to veterans, namely the Department of Veterans and the Veterans Affairs Nation Veterans Employment Program: “…These multiple efforts have yielded significant results: the percentage of veterans employed in the Federal non-Postal workforce currently 25 percent – well above a 10 percent goal.”

Zinsmeister assured Grassley that the Bush administration is “continuing to implement the recommendations of the Ineragency Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes, which will likely continue the great success our veterans have had in seeking employment in the Federal government.”

However, Zinsmeister’s response did not assuage the concerns of Grassley, who responded to Bush in a letter Wednesday. “The response lacked much substance and the central request of my letter remains unaddressed.” Grassley wrote. “I am aware of the current figures from the OPM on the employment of veterans in the federal government overall. However, the overall figures hide a wide disparity between various departments and agencies in terms of their success in recruiting and hiring veterans.”

Grassley reiterated his call for a commitment to establish a minimum goal that 10 percent of new hires in all federal departments and agencies be veterans. “More than one-third of federal departments are not currently meeting that goal, according to the most recent data from OPM, and well over half of independent agencies fall short,” Grassley wrote.

Grassley, citing a report, voiced a concern that 18 percent of recent returning combat veterans are unemployed.

Moreover, he criticized Zinmeister’s initial response to his concerns. “I am disappointed that your staff’s response to my previous letter attempted to change the subject and ignore my request,” Grassley wrote. “I ask that you now provide me with a clear response on whether or not you will make such a commitment.”

Grassley end his letter with a new deadline: “As there has already been ample time to consider these issues, I look forward to your reply no later than April 11, 2008.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Friday, April 4, 2008

Eli Painted Crow’s Spiritual Awakening in Iraq Helps Guide Her to Peace

Eli Painted Crow, a 22-year retired Army veteran, experienced a spiritual rebirth while serving in Iraq in 2004, which paved her current path to peace. “The defining moment for me, when I knew I had to get out of Iraq and the military, was when I fully realized that I was participating in the very same thing that my people had suffered and are still suffering in the United States,” Painted Crow told the Iowa Independent during an interview.

“When I got to know the Iraqi people, I found a lot of commonalities between them and native people,” said Painted Crow, a member of the Yaqui Nation. “Not only were they the same color as me, but we shared similar food dishes, prayers, the drum, sage, councils, and they have the same representation of animals as we do.”

The Iowa Independent had a chance to speak with Painted Crow last Thursday in Iowa City, where she was in town from California to speak as part of the University of Iowa Anti-War Committee’s Peace Week. During the interview, Painted Crow opened up about her experiences in Iraq, genocide, her culture, the power of language and meaning, and her latest peace-activist efforts.

When discussing issues about Iraq and her native community, Painted Crow wanted to make it clear, usually with a “speaking-for-myself” attribution, that her thoughts were her own and should not be attributed to all Native Americans. “It’s been a really hard road to get people to talk about the invasion in Iraq, but the native communities are beginning to open up,” Painted Crow said. “Native peoples are still afraid to talk in a bigger context, for they fear speaking out against the government. This fear has been embedded in us our entire lives, so people are still afraid.”

That said, Painted Crow shared her views on what’s happening in Iraq. “What I saw happening there is an instant replay of what happened to our people here. We are doing the very same thing,” Painted Crow said. “This United States was founded on violence and an invasion. It took away our land and tried really hard to execute genocide against a people that was already here, because they wanted the land. They redid the history books, and despite the truth, they are not changing the history books to illustrate the truth.”

Painted Crow says a lot of her people think she is crazy for speaking out, but she can no longer, with clear conscience, remain silent. “I can choose to speak this under my breath, or I can speak up and hope that people can see that we need to change things on a much deeper level than just saying, ‘Stop the war!’,” Painted Crow said. “The war abroad and the war at home look relatively the same, but you would only know that if you live in a community that sees oppression, racism and violence on a daily basis. Most people, who don’t see this firsthand, are more concerned about the war abroad -- which really isn’t a war but genocide.”

Painted Crow knows that people do not like the word genocide and don’t want to use it to describe the invasion in Iraq. “But if you look up the eight steps of genocide, you will see that we meet every criteria in Iraq,” Painted Crow said. “Nobody wants to use that word, because then we would have to look at our history, how our nation was founded, and that means we would have to have a healing process, a conversation about race and oppression that exists to this day. And who really wants to admit that we have to do this work?”

The U.S. is in denial when it comes to Iraq, Painted Crow says, claiming the nation cannot admit it has a problem, but instead, points its fingers at Pres. George Bush and Vice Pres. Dick Cheney. “We are a mirror of what this nation has become. We are a part of it and we are accountable for it. It’s easy to point fingers and say it’s his fault, but we all are accountable and responsible and need to step up for something different.”

Moreover, Painted Crow draws similar parallels to what is happening in Iraq to her peoples’ history. “It is the very same thing in Iraq. We are going over there and it’s not a war, rather, it’s an invasion, and we need to make that distinction clear,” Painted Crow said. “We did not have a conflict with them. They did not bomb us on 9/11.

“When you defend, you’ve done something wrong, and there is a truth that is not coming out. To me the word ‘defend’ is attached to a truth that hasn’t been revealed, so in order not to reveal that truth, we use the word ‘defend,’” Painted Crow argues. “We use the words ‘protect’ and ‘defend’ so interchangeably that people don’t know the difference. For me, defending this country isn’t real because what we are defending is a lie.

“This divide-and-conquer strategy has always and still exists in our country and that’s why we have gangs,” Painted Crow said. “If Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans can kill each other, that is one less thing the government has to deal with. The same holds true in Iraq. If the Shias and Sunnis keep killing each other, that is one less thing the government has to worry about.”

Painted Crow is convinced that her native people are seeing what is going on but are not quick to stand up to the government because they don’t have much to lose. “It’s scarcity thinking,” Pained Crow said. “If you are already oppressed, why do you care about what’s happening over there. It’s not that you don’t care what’s happening in Iraq, but if you have so much oppression in your backyard to begin with, it’s too much.

“If you have only so much, you’re going to fight to keep it, because you are under a scarcity mentality that there is not enough,” Painted Crow said. “Because the government teaches us that, this is where we operate from and we are too afraid to trust that there is an out. As a native person who feels connected to the Earth and the universe, I don’t think that the universe would put us all here and tell us there is not enough.”

Painted Crow also has a theory that there are a number of prophecies starting to stand out for native peoples, so they are standing back and letting them happen. “Things have to happen for change to take place,” she said. “The government has to fall, and we need to hit the bottom so we can rise. And some native people see no need to try and stop it.”

Similar to a number of people from native communities, Painted Crow joined the military for economic reasons. When she enlisted in 1981 at the age of twenty, Painted Crow was a single mother of two boys, living on welfare, had only a GED, had no support from her family and saw the military as her only escape from poverty.

“Although as I got older, I became more patriotic in my service, because I was being recognized by my people, the Yaqui Nation, which is trying to instill the pride of being a warrior that exists in native communities,” Pained Crow said. “We have this understanding of warriors and how warriors in our history have protected our country or our families or our land, however, not so much in the U.S. This has translated into being soldiers, because our native people have equated being a soldier to being a warrior of our native past.”

Having experienced 22 years of the military, Painted Crow says this is not entirely true but admits it is the closest thing her native people have to becoming warriors for the country. “We don’t understand that as warriors of our past, we protected our families, whereas U.S. soldiers are charged with defending our country, which are two different things,” she said. “To me, when you defend, it is because you know you’ve done something wrong and you know you have to protect it. You have to put these walls up. On the other hand, when you are protecting something, you are not out looking for trouble, rather, you’re protecting your families and holding this space for your community to grow.”

While serving in Iraq in 2004 (from April to September), Painted Crow experienced and witnessed a number of discriminatory, racist, and sexist incidents, which she recounts during a talk at the 2006 Veterans for Peace Conference (see video below).

Although Painted Crow experienced a mental and spiritual awakening that told her she needed to shift direction and follow the pathway to peace, it was a physical problem that brought her home from Iraq, six months into her tour. Shortly before she was expected to deploy to Iraq, painted Crow was diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful condition in which uterine tissue grows into other parts of the body. Her commanding officer assumed she was making it up, so she was shipped over to Iraq anyhow. A military assessment of her health condition was not enough to prevent her from being shipped to Iraq.

While in Iraq, Painted Crow says she felt excruciating pain related to her endometriosis on a daily basis, and the closest gynecologist was four hours away “I wasn’t about to travel that far, facing IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the way, just to see the doctor every time I needed help with my condition.” A female first sergeant told her to get a hysterectomy, and she took her first sergeant’s advice and had the operation at a VA hospital while on a 10-day leave.

Meanwhile, her commander in Iraq marked her as AWOL, even though she was recovering from surgery in a military hospital. Painted Crow thinks her commander was out to get her and wanted her back in Iraq. “I think she wanted to keep me under her control because of all the in-your-face racist things she said that I called her out on.”

Thanks to the help of a military friend who was able to pull some strings, Painted Crow was kept from being marked AWOL. However, her stay at the VA hospital was extended to eight weeks after the surgery was not successful and caused her to have a prolapse of the fallopian tube.

Painted Crow never returned to Iraq and retired from the military upon hitting her 22-year mark and received her discharge papers on Nov. 1, 2006. “Ironically, I was discharged on the Day of the Dead,” she said.

However, this did spur her spiritual rebirth in the peace movement. Painted Crow is committed to advocating for peace. “You cannot fight for peace, you have to be it. If you can be at peace, you can connect to people and that is my focus.”

Currently, she is involved with Turtle Women Rising, “an organization of women committed to making a difference in the world by bringing the heartbeat of the drum in response to our Mother’s cry,” her web site states. The group is in the process of organizing a Heartbeat for Peace in Washington, D.C. Oct. 10-12.

“The drum gathering will be led by women, but we need men to hold space for us to be the protectors, and we need children there to understand the power of the drum,” she said. “If we speak drum, we might come to an understanding without having a difference. No peace, anti-war signs, and don’t come representing an organization. Just bring yourself and your drum -- the heartbeat.”

Painted Crow is also involved with Services Women’s Action Network (SWAN), a leading voice of military women and veterans. Her focus with SWAN is to help women in the military and inform women who are considering joining what they will be dealing with, if and when they sign up. “The military system is not designed to help women, so it’s important they get the fact from someone who is not trying to enlist them,” she said.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"