Friday, February 29, 2008

Senate Passes Bill to Protect Soldier’s Custodial Rights

The Iowa Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would help prevent Iowa soldiers from losing custody of their children because of their active-duty service. Senate File 2214 would protect Iowa Guard members’ and Reservists’ custodial rights during periods of federal activation. The bill would allow a court to order a temporary change of custody only if there is "clear and convincing evidence" that that would be in the best interest of the child. The Senate passed the bill 49-0 and now moves on to the House

“The bill helps give our soldiers a sense of security that things will be the same when they return,” Sen. Steve Warnstadt, D-Sioux City, told the Iowa Independent. Warnstadt, a current member of the Iowa National Guard who served in Operation Desert Storm as part of his active-duty commitment, knows that a lot of things can change during deployment that soldiers can’t control. He wants to ensure they aren't forced to give up authority when it comes to the things they should have some control over.

Warnstadt also said the bill will help provide soldiers faced with the prospect of deployment a sense of security with regard to maintaining custody of their children. “I have received some e-mails from people who served in the Guards or Reserves but quit out of fear as to what may happen to their custodial rights if they were deployed,” Warnstadt said.

The bill also stipulates that once the parent returns from service, the court would have to reinstate the custody order that was in place just before active duty. Moreover, a parent's absence due to active duty could not be used against him or her in future custody proceedings.

“I’m concerned that we’re putting people in situation where they are choosing between serving their country and keeping their kids,” Warnstadt said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty involved with being deployed, and I’m also concerned that some service members will be distracted, which may cause a life-threatening situation for themselves and those around them.”

The bill, highlighted by a case in Iowa, was drafted in response to cases across the country that have prompted a few states such as California, Kentucky and Michigan to amend their laws to stipulate that soldiers' deployments cannot be used against them in child-custody disputes.

Military and family law experts don't know how big the problem is, but 5.4 percent of active duty members -- more than 74,000 -- are single parents, the Department of Defense reports. More than 68,000 Guard and Reserve members are also single parents. Divorce among military men and women has also risen in recent years, with more than 23,000 enlisted members and officers divorcing in 2005.

The Iowa case involves Iowa National Guardsman Michael Grantham, of Clarksville, who lost primary physical custody of his two children when he was called to duty in 2002. He arranged to have his daughter, who was 8, and his son, who was 13, live with his mother while he was on active duty.

But while Grantham was ordered to active duty stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., his ex-wife, Tammara, asked a judge to grant her custody of the kids and won. Upon returning from active duty, the court's ruling prevented him from stepping back into his previous role as the primary parent for his children, and he lost an appeal of the case.

However, the new bill may have not made a difference for Grantham, whose attorney requested a stay of proceedings until he returned to civilian status, citing the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act (SSCRA). The Iowa Supreme Court rejected his plea, noting that the SSCRA does not mandate a stay in every case involving a parent who is called to active military duty. “To warrant a stay under this legislation, it must be determined that substantial rights of the absent serviceman will be prejudiced if the effort to postpone the proceedings is denied,” the Court observed in its opinion.

Moreover, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the district court’s finding that Grantham concealed the arrangement for his mother’s custody of the children pursuant to a military family care plan until it was too late for Tammara to seek judicial relief before he was called to active duty.

“Grantham’s case had some idiosyncrasies that I’m not sure about. Apparently he didn’t abide by his family-care plan and didn’t do all the things required on his end,” Warnstadt said. “The bill is not a carte blanche for service members. They have certain responsibilities and obligations they need to fulfill in order to be protected. It provides the certainty for soldiers and their families that, if they follow all the proper procedures on their end, they are going to return home and retain custody of their kids.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Culver Orders Flags Flown at Half –Staff to Honor Soldier Killed in Iraq

Gov. Chet Culver has ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff from 8 a.m. until sunset on Wednesday, Feb. 27, in honor of Army Spc. Chad Groepper, 21, of Kingsley, who died on Feb. 17 from wounds suffered in Iraq. Funeral services for Groepper will be held at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Kingsley-Pierson High School.

Groepper was killed in Diyala Province Iraq when enemy forces attacked his dismounted patrol using small arms fire. He had been serving in Iraq for nearly one year with the 2nd Battalion 23rd Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based in Fort Lewis, Wash.

Groepper enlisted in the Army after graduating in 2004 from Kingsley-Pierson High School. He leaves behind his wife, Stephanie, and their 4-month-old daughter, Clarissa, who was born just four weeks before he came home on leave last year.

Groepper is also survived by his parents, Darcy and David, and his two sisters, Denae, 26, of Granger, and Abbie, 24, of Kingsley. His unit had been scheduled to return to the United States from Iraq sometime between mid-May and July.

“We had just been counting the days until he came home,” his mother told the Des Moines Register.

Groepper was the 65th person with Iowa ties to die in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Exclusive: On Eve of Coe College Lecture, Trudeau on 'Doonesbury' and War

For the past 37 years, Garry Trudeau has communicated primarily through his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip, “Doonesbury.” However, the war in Iraq has indirectly prompted him to speak out on war-related issues, bringing the war home to readers through the experiences and perspective of B.D., a veteran of the wars in Vietnam, Gulf War I and Iraq. And now, as part of Coe College’s annual Contemporary Issues Forum, Trudeau will share his insights with Iowans Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Cedar Rapids.

For many Doonesbury readers, the war in Iraq hit home in April 2003, when Trudeau decided to blow up B.D’s leg while B.D. was serving in Iraq. B.D.’s leg had to be amputated and his injury, coupled by the psychological effects of his experiences, helped inspire more than 220 strips. It also resulted in two books: “The Long Road Home” chronicles B.D.’s journey home and transition into the civilian world, while “The War Within” captures B.D.’s internal struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to bringing the war home through “Doonesbury,” Trudeau has helped capture the day-to-day experiences of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan through his milblog (military-blog), “The Sandbox.” Lightly edited by longtime editor David Stanford, The Sandbox features dispatches from milbloggers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, who share their observations, comments, and anecdotes with readers at home.

The Sandbox was conceived in October 2007, after Trudeau had spent a great deal of time interacting with soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and reading milblogs online. During a telephone interview, Stanford stressed to the Iowa Independent that The Sandbox’s focus is nonpartisan and nonpolitical and that it provides an outlet for soldiers to share the details of their experiences, minus any classified information, of course.

(Be sure to click on to the new widget for "The Sandbox" on the right-hand column.)

Iowa Independent also conducted an e-mail interview with Trudeau, and here are his responses:

Iowa Independent: Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said writers need to be sadistic, meaning they had to do terrible things to their characters to see what they are made of. I gather the same holds true for cartoonists. That said, when B.D was wounded in the Iraq War and had to have his leg amputated, what did you discover B.D. was made of through your own creative process?

Trudeau: I think you've framed that question just right -- it has been a journey of discovery, albeit one that was hastily planned and with no preconceived notions about the outcome. I rarely think more than a week or two out in writing the strip -- I just commit to an idea and see where it leads me. When B.D. was wounded several years ago, there was a fourth-panel reveal in which the reader discovered that he had lost a leg. Equally shocking to some was that B.D. was not wearing his helmet -- for the first time in over three decades. What that signified was that life thereafter would never be the same, that for the first time, B.D. was no longer in control. So that's what I had to build on -- the expectation of profound change -- but where it would take him was initially unknown to me.

Only later, after I learned a lot more about real wounded warriors, was I able to weigh plausible possible outcomes -- including a path out of bitterness towards empathy for peers who had also endured the ravages of war. B.D., it turns out, isn't as self-contained as everyone, including himself, had always assumed.

Iowa Independent: B.D.’s experiences parallel those soldiers who have been physically and/or mentally wounded while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet, as the war comes home in staggered stages, we’re just beginning to see some of the problems our troops are facing in the short and long term. What do you perceive to be some of the biggest challenges for our troops in the future and what role will B.D play, if any, in this process?

Trudeau: I have no idea what role B.D. might play (see above). And I don't imagine the challenges facing returning troops will differ greatly from those who've returned from past wars. In some respects, those difficulties will be mitigated by greater public awareness -- as well as significant advances in rehabilitation, both physical and emotional. (For instance, PTSD wasn't even formally recognized as a medical condition until well after the Vietnam War.) The biggest problem now is one of resources; there's just not enough infrastructure in place to manage the huge array of readjustment issues our troops face when they get home.

Iowa Independent: “The Sandbox” provides soldiers an opportunity to share their experiences and insights by connecting with other soldiers, family members, friends and civilians. After World War II and Vietnam, when soldiers returned to their civilian lives, there was a “gulf” of experiences between soldiers and civilians that led to a number of psychological disconnects and ensuing problems. What role do you see The Sandbox playing in regard to bridging the psychological gulfs of experience between Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their civilian counterparts in America?

Trudeau: It'd be a little grandiose for us to think of The Sandbox in those terms. I don't think any one blog can have the kind of impact you're suggesting, but we do hope that by posting stories of real-time, everyday soldier experiences, we are providing a small window into what it's like to be downrange. At the end of the day, though, if you haven't experienced combat firsthand, you're probably never really going to grasp what it's like. For that reason, soldiers will usually prefer to talk about war in the company of their peers.

Iowa Independent: As the end of the Bush reign closes in, you will have to let go of a certain degree of familiarity, stemming back to your days at Yale with George Bush. Do you see, or feel, a sense of creative rebirth with the next presidency?

Trudeau: Well, not exactly. The dismal truth of my profession is that what's bad for the country is great for satirists -- and vice versa. It will be extraordinarily difficulty for any succeeding administration to fail as spectacularly as the Bushies have. All of us are sad to see them go.

Originally Posted on "Iowa Independent"

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Guard Readiness Center Receives Long Overdue Funds

Built in 1937, the 18,000-square-foot Iowa Armory National Guard Readiness Center in Iowa City served as a riding arena and stable for the Iowa cavalry, accommodating 125 men and their horses. Seventy-one years later, the same facility houses training facilities for five Iowa National Guard units with nearly 400 officers. The increasing demands of the National Guard and the building's poor conditions have required expensive repairs and renovations.

After 20 years of collaborative efforts to procure funding for a new readiness center for Iowa National Guard troops, members of Iowa’s Democratic delegation, Sen Tom Harkin and Rep. Dave Loebsack, announced the center’s groundbreaking this summer, thanks to the procurement of $13 million in federal funds.

Sen. Harkin (right) and Rep. Loebsack (middle) talk with members from the 109th Medical Battalion

“I feel proud to have been able to secure these funds for the brave women and men who serve our country every day. The construction of this new facility will help the Iowa National Guard complete essential mobilization and readiness training and prepare for their missions,” Harkin told members of the 109th Medical Battalion gathered at the ceremony. “Iowa Guard members play an integral role in strengthening our nation’s defenses, and they deserve the very best as they prepare for their duties.”

Loebsack joined Harkin at the press conference, echoing his commitment to Iowa Guard members. “I must compliment the Iowa National Guard for your resourcefulness in maintaining the operational capacity of this readiness center. But at 71 years old, it does show its age, and enough is enough,” Loebsack told Guard members. “It’s time for something new. The citizen soldiers who serve the Iowa National Guard deserve only the finest training facilities, and this is clearly not up to par. We have a responsibility to serve you with the same dedication that you have served us, and I believe this readiness center reflects our commitment to doing so.”

Rep. Loebsack addresses 109th Guard members while standing next to picture of proposed readiness center

The federal funds were the final notch in the funding scheme, for the state of Iowa had already earmarked $5 million in matching funds in 2003 and 2004, and the Iowa Legislature approved appropriations each year since then, Adjunct Gen. Ron Dardis said. “This journey truly has been a partnership,” Dardis said. “In addition to the federal and state funds, we couldn’t have done this without the land swap with Johnson County in 2001 and the City of Iowa City providing sewer and water capabilities.”

The new 80,000-square-foot facility will be located on approximately 25 acres, providing an assembly hall, kitchen, classrooms, and administrative and recruiting space. It will include parking for personal and military vehicles. The project has been the Guard’s top priority for the past three years and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2010.

Harkin, a Navy veteran who served during the Vietnam War, addressed some of the current readiness concerns that face Iowa’s citizen soldiers. “As you all know very well, this is a new era for the Guard. You are shouldering a major share of the combat burden of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Harkin said. “Many Guard members are on their third or fourth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it speaks volumes that four times as many Guard members have been killed in Iraq than there were in the entire war in Vietnam -- my war.”

“Like you, during all my years of training in the military, there was one thing that was always drilled into my head: Never leave a buddy behind,” Harkin told Guard members. “That not only applies to the battlefield but to the home front as well. We owe you the best facilities and equipment, and on that score, we have been falling woefully short. In my opinion, we have been leaving many of our guard members behind. The good news, however, is that we are not in denial.”

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Friends and Family Brave Weather to Honor Soldiers at Send-Off Ceremony

Due to heavy snowfall and hazardous driving conditions, all schools in the Iowa City area shut down Wednesday. This, however, did not deter Regina Catholic School from opening its doors to host the Iowa National Guard’s 109th Medical Battalion’s send-off ceremony.

109th Medical Battalion stands at attention to begin the ceremony

Hundreds of friends and family members braved the weather and the partially plowed roads and parking lot to say goodbye and wish the civilian soldiers well on their deployment to Egypt. However, not everyone was fortunate enough to conquer the elements left in the snowstorm’s wake. Spc. Robert Otto was held up in traffic on Interstate 80 and missed the entire ceremony after a 90-minute commute from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City. A number of accidents and an earlier closing of the interstate had reduced traffic to a slow crawl.

Fortunately, Otto made it in time to join his family after the ceremony. Otto, a unit-supply specialist, joined the military during his senior year in high school. “I joined the 109th right after they came back from Iraq in 2004. I joined to serve my country and to receive the college benefits,” Otto said. “And right now, I’m ready to go.”

Spc. Otto (center) takes a moment to pose with his family: Exie (mother), Joseph (brother), and Terry (father)

Otto’s mother, on the other hand, was less eager for him to go, but she understood why he wanted to go. “I have the typical mother anxieties,” Exie Tobin said. “Although, better Egypt than Iraq.”

The 109th was joined by two other units, the 209th Area Support Medical Company and 67th Troop Command, as part of the Multinational Force & Observers peacekeeping mission, which will deploy to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt after a brief mobilization at Fort Lewis, Wash., where they will be stationed for two to three months before final deployment.

The members of the 109th Medical Battalion will command and control three companies providing logistical, medical, aviation and explosive ordinance removal support to all 11 Multinational Force & Observers contingents. The mission of the MFO is to supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms.

The 109th was last activated on Jan. 24, 2003, and served 14 months before returning in March 2004.

In addition to friends and family, local dignitaries attended the ceremony, including Iowa City Mayor Regina Bailey and newly elected Iowa City council member Mike Wright. Neither Gov. Chet Culver or Iowa’s state delegation members were in attendance, but Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood read a letter from Sen. Chuck Grassley, and 2nd District Rep. Dave Loebsack’s aide, David Lesch, read a letter on his behalf.

Originally posted on the "Iowa Independent"

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Culver Orders Flags Lowered to Honor Soldier Killed in Afghanistan

Gov. Chet Culver ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff on Monday, February 4, 2008, from 8 a.m. (CST) until sunset in honor of Staff Sgt. Robert Miller, 24, of Iowa City who died on January 25th, 2007, from wounds suffered in Afghanistan.

Miller, a native of Harrisburg, Pa., died from wounds he received during enemy small-arms fire during combat operations for Operation Enduring Freedom in Barikowt, Afghanistan. Miller, a Special Forces weapons sergeant was assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) based out of Fort Bragg, N.C.

Miller is survived by his parents, Philip and Maureen Miller, brothers Thomas, Martin, and Edward, and sisters Joanna, Mary, Therese, and Patricia, all of Oviedo, Fla.

Miller is the 64th person with ties to Iowa to die from injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan since March 2003.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Braley Vows Justice for Tortured POWs after Bush Veto

Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, had no inclination that President Bush was going to veto the Defense Authorization Bill on Christmas Eve, let alone the reason why he vetoed the proposed legislation. It was the latter that caught him off guard the following day. Bush vetoed the $3.5 billion authorization package that would have provided resources for military members, their families, and veterans, because it contained a provision that would have allowed Operation Desert Storm Prisoners of War (POW) to continue their case against the Hussein regime.

“I was stunned, shocked, outraged, and ashamed when I found out why the president vetoed the bill,” Braley said at the National Press Club last week. “What is more disturbing is the fact that this administration cannot justify why these soldiers should receive the judgment they so richly deserve and have faced roadblocks every step of the way. These POWs waited years and years for justice only to see this justice stolen by the Bush administration.”

In 2002, 17 American ex-prisoners of war who were brutally tortured in Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War sued Saddam Hussein’s regime. The veterans eventually won a judgment against Hussein. But shortly after the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration stepped in and had the judgment overturned.

According to a Dec. 28 report in Congressional Quarterly, Bush issued his veto after lawyers for the Iraqi government threatened to withdraw $25 billion worth of assets from U.S. banks if the provision was allowed to become law.

The American POWs were granted damages by a U.S. federal district court in July 2003. The court awarded $959 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the 17 POWs — some of whom remain on active duty today and are serving in Iraq.

But earlier that year, after signing a bill that allowed Americans to collect court-ordered damages from the frozen assets of terrorist states — a list that included Iraq at that time — Bush had confiscated what was then $1.7 billion in Iraqi assets held in private banks. He allowed the payment of two judgments, including one for so-called “human shield” hostages held by Iraq in 1990, but none for the Americans taken prisoner in the 1991 Gulf War.

Moreover, after digging a little deeper, Braley found something even more disturbing regarding the president’s rationale for the veto. “The president chose to respect corporate interests over human interests and corporate rights over human rights,” Braley said at the Press Club. “This is something we have seen from this administration in the past in unrelated matters.”

"One of the things this administration doesn’t like to tell you is that while they have been denying these brave prisoners of war their just compensation, they have been quietly working to settle Gulf War commercial debt with foreign corporations like Mitsubishi from Japan,” Braley said. “They have done this without taking a single penny from the war effort in Iraq.”

Despite bipartisan support for the provision, Congress agreed to strip the language from the bill to ensure its passage into law, granting Iraq immunity from such claims. Braley also told the audience at the Press Club that he was perturbed that there was no response from congressional leadership and he vowed to fight for the POWs, regardless of the bill’s outcome. The revised Defense Act was signed into law by the President this week.

Staying true to his word, Braley introduced a bill that aimed to correct a flawed Defense Department Authorization Act (HR 4986) by introducing a bill to restore a provision allowing American veterans and victims of torture to pursue legal claims against their torturers.

Braley’s bill, the Justice for Victims of Torture and Terrorism Act, would effectively restore the provision and allow American torture victims to pursue legal action against state sponsors of terrorism.

“American veterans tortured as prisoners of war don’t deserve to be left behind by a presidential policy that keeps them from seeking justice,” Braley said in a recent statement. “We need to hold countries accountable for torturing American troops so it never happens again. And we need to get our priorities straight. Protecting American veterans and POWs should come before protecting Saddam Hussein’s assets.

“Congress needs to act quickly to correct the flawed Defense Authorization Act by passing this bill. I’m confident that there is strong bipartisan support in the House to right this wrong and send a message to the president that American soldiers deserve the right to bring torturers to justice.”
Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"