Friday, June 29, 2007

'Our Second Call to Duty': Iowa Democratic Party Courting Veterans

The GOP has traditionally owned the military veteran vote. But if you were to ask anyone at last weekend’s Iowa Democratic Party Veterans' Caucus meeting, odds are you would get a different answer.

“As a patriotic American, I can't help but be a part of the Democratic Party,” said Joe Stutler, Army veteran and Linn Count liaison for the veterans caucus. “As a veteran, it bothers me greatly to see how our veterans and current military are treated in this country, and I would feel as if I left my brothers in arms behind in a hot zone if I didn't speak up and support them.”

Sensing Stutler is not alone, but rather, a microcosm of discontent regarding how veteran issues have been consistently ignored by politicians, the IDP formed the Armed Forces Veterans’ Caucus. One pre-Vietnam War veteran even went so far as to exclaim: “If you’re not an activist under the Bush administration, you need to be resuscitated.”

The immediate goal of the outreach group is to organize Iowa veterans and to elevate veteran issues during the presidential caucuses. "This is an historic time in our country, and I urge you to answer this 'second call to duty,'" says chairman Bob Krause. "Your country needs your involvement now as never before.”

The caucus is not only concerned about the current influx of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also wants to make sure that those veterans who served in previous wars and peace-time duties are not forgotten. To bridge the multi-generational veteran factions, the group adopted the slogan, “Never shall one generation of veterans abandon another.” A few of the Vietnam and Korean War veterans in attendance not only voiced their concerns about the current problems and travesties facing the post-9/11 veterans, but also worry that their issues will be forgotten in today’s political discourse.

Democratic presidential hopefuls also have sensed a shift in veterans’ allegiances to the GOP and have been actively targeting veterans in and out of Iowa. Last weekend's meeting was attended by representatives from the campaigns of Joe Biden, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards and Barack Obama. Time was allotted at the beginning of the meeting for the representatives to speak on behalf of their candidates. While the representatives from the Dodd and Edwards’ campaign went over their respective candidates' veteran talking points, Biden and Obama’s people used their experiences as military veterans to illustrate their support.

Presidential reps from Obama, Dodd, Edwards, and Biden campaigns join IDP Veterans' Caucus chair Bob Krause (center) at meeting in Riverside

Iraq War veteran Stephen Dunwoody, who is Obama’s deputy veterans outreach coordinator in Iowa, told how and why he felt personally connected to Obama. While working at a campaign stop in Davenport, Dunwoody was approached by a decorated Vietnam veteran, who saw his monthly veterans benefits cut from $2,300 to $800 a month when he was diagnosed with cancer. He wanted to talk to Obama, but given the size of the audience, Dunwoody couldn’t make any promises. Nonetheless, Obama ended up speaking to him personally and assured the veteran he would have his staff look into his predicament.

J.B. White, another Iraq veteran as well as Biden's national coordinator of veterans, summed up his support with a paraphrase from Biden: “If I had $10 and veterans needed nine of those dollars, I’m going to give them those $9.”

After all the campaign reps finished, Krause made it clear that all the Democrat hopefuls would be given an equal opportunity to submit their specific proposals to the caucus, which will publish them on its site.

The rest of the meeting was dedicated to discussing and revising the group’s charter, developing promotional and organizing efforts, and brainstorming ideas on how to boost membership. A sense of urgency pervaded the group as one of the members indicated, “We need to strike while the iron is hot.” Others, including Joe Stutler, shared this sentiment, “The rights and freedoms I knew in my youth are being eroded, and the current bunch running things seems to have forgotten about ‘We the People’,” said Stutler. “We feel an obligation to support those who sacrifice for our freedoms. Without those who served before us, us, and those who follow our boot prints, there would be no ‘We the People.’”

To learn more about or to join the IDP Veterans' Caucus, go to the group's website. The next meeting will be held in Des Moines on July 28 (go to site for details and to sign up).

Monday, June 25, 2007

Keeping Real Time with J.B. White, Veterans for Biden New National Coordinator

Iraq War veteran J.B. White doesn’t waste any time when it comes to explaining why he and other Veterans for Biden support Sen. Joe Biden for president. “The thing about Veterans for Biden is not only do we support Biden, but we believe in him as well. We believe that he’s the one who can get his Iraq plan implemented,” said White. “There’s a big difference between having a viable plan and being able to implement the plan. Biden’s position in the Senate and his experience with foreign affairs make us feel he’s the one who can get it done.”

White, a native of McComb, Miss., was appointed National Coordinator of Veterans for Biden last week. The former Marine and Army National Guard member will work out of Biden’s Iowa campaign headquarters in Clive, where he’s been the past three weeks organizing the new outreach group.

Armed with a desire to protect and fight for his country, White initially joined the Marines just prior to the Gulf War in 1991. White’s basic training on Paris Island began two days before President George H.W. Bush’s Jan. 15 bombing deadline. “I joined the Marines with the intent of going to fight in Kuwait. We had no idea back then that the war would be over before I finished basic training.” White finished his six-year contract of the Marines but chose not to re-enlist. “I’m not a big fan of peace-time military service.”

Then along came the war in Iraq, and White joined the Army National Guard in 2002 with the intent of completing Officer Candidate School. Before he had a chance to begin OCS, his Guard unit was deployed to Iraq. Consequently, White didn’t have a trained MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), so he was assigned one based on his civilian experience as an English teacher. “Since I didn’t really have a trained specialty while in Iraq, I became a jack-of-all-trades. Primarily, I was involved with convoys and security logistics.”

After White’s deployment to Iraq, where he served with the 168th Engineering Group from February of 2003 to March of 2004, he returned home to serve his fellow veterans. White was named director of Hope for New Veterans, a pilot program in New York City. The program was designed to help troops adjust to civilian life upon their return by providing them with housing and resources to help minimize Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When he found out that Biden was running for president, White knew his next calling. “I’ve known about Joe Biden since I was 21 years old and always thought he would make a great president,” said White, who is no stranger to politics. Before re-enlisting in 2002, White was a graduate student studying political science at the University of Southern Mississippi . Seven months later, White was tabbed national coordinator of Veterans for Biden’s campaign.

Since he’s been part of Veterans for Biden, White’s convictions behind supporting Biden have strengthened through discussions among other people involved with Veterans for Biden. “When we hear Senator Biden speak about Iraq and other issues, we identify with him. Having been on the ground in Iraq, we can identify with what he’s saying,” said White. “When I hear others talk about Iraq, it’s like they’re talking about it in the abstract, as if they’ve never really been there and that they’re reading a script about Iraq.”

One of the main reasons White supports Biden is his plan in Iraq. “Biden’s plan is the best way to get our troops out in a responsible manner. We do have to worry about what we leave behind. His plan has bipartisan support and, having been on the ground in Iraq, I feel his plan if far better than any other plans I’ve heard pitched.”

Another reason White is supporting Biden, a reason that separates him from some of his Democratic rivals, is Biden’s "‘yes" vote in the Senate supporting the Iraq war supplemental funding bill. “By voting ‘no’ to fund the troops, the other Democrats are essentially doing exactly what George W. Bush does all the time, and that’s talk a good game about funding the troops but then not delivering for us.”

“Every troop in Iraq is on 'real time,' not American political time. Real time means what’s going to happen in the next five minutes,” said White. “A part of the Iraq supplemental bill was also funding for the MRAPs that will save up to two-thirds of the lives in Iraq.” MRAPs, or Mine Resistant Armored Vehicles, are new armored vehicles capable of protecting troops against the deadliest roadside bombs in Iraq. Nicknamed the “Bull,” these vehicles have already been tested by the Pentagon and were awaiting funding approval attached to the supplemental bill.

As White noted during the interview, “Any ‘no’ vote could have delayed the production of the MRAP by a week or a month. When I go on a convoy in Iraq, I’m not thinking about the politics at home, I’m thinking about whether or not I’m going to get my ass blown off in the next five minutes. If it hadn’t been for Biden, I’m not sure if anyone would’ve mentioned the MRAP issue. Biden definitely understands the next five minutes.”

The production of MRAPs was not a new initiative but had been pointed out last fall by White’s good friend, Paul Reickhoff, author of “Chasing Ghosts,” contributor to “Huffington Post” and founder of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans for America. White indicated that many veterans have voiced their concerns about the current administration's record of ignoring their needs and how issues like these keep getting shoved under the rug -- until something like a Walter Reed incident surfaces.

When asked why he thought this might be the case, White said, “I think that everything in Iraq was going to be funded by Iraqi oil. Now that it’s not being funded by oil, we’re spending billions of dollars on this war. Now, everything is about cutting. When I was over there, the body armor issue came up. It’s been a real travesty how this administration has not only mishandled the strategic aspects of this war but the aspects dealing with the troops on a daily basis.”

It’s this travesty, along with other issues facing troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, that White hopes to tap into during the presidential campaign. White feels other veterans will be drawn to Biden’s candidacy because of he real-time issues facing troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: “The bottom line is that our troops need protection in Iraq now, and if you look closely, Biden has shown the leadership to do what needs to be done now.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Iowa Front: Military & Veterans’ Weekly Roundup

Political Front

“Iraq War Veteran J.B. White to Lead Veterans for Biden Committee”: Sen. Joe Biden’s campaign announced that Iraq War Veteran J.B. White will serve as National Coordinator of Veterans for Biden. White cited Biden’s Iraq War plan and his commitment to supporting the troops as his main reasons for joining the Biden campaign: “I owe it to my brothers and sisters who remain in Iraq to do what I can to give them the best chance to return home safely. For me, that means supporting Sen. Biden for President as he is the only candidate from either party to put forward a realistic vision to resolve the Iraq war.” (Be sure to check back this week for an Iowa Independent exclusive interview with J.B. White.)

Read Iowa Indpendent's Ben Weyl's “Debate Over the Flag Continues”: Last week, a bill sailed through the Senate that would allow governors to order the lowering of all flags in the state, including those at federal buildings. The bill passed the House in May, and is now on the desk of President George W. Bush--though it could be vetoed." Although Congressional staff members involved with the measure say Mr. Bush may want to sign it for patriotic reasons, he may also be reluctant to appear to be ceding power over federal officials to the states," the Times reported.

The Iowa Democratic Party Veterans’ Caucus: met in Riverside to discuss the group’s charter, policy plans, and initiatives to move forward and have liaisons in all 99 Iowa counties. The meeting, fascilitated by Veterans' Caucus Chair Bob Krause, was attended by four presidential campaign representatives (see below). Dubbed “Our Second Call to Duty,” the mission of the group is to elevate veterans and veterans’ issue during the Iowa Caucuses. To learn more about or to join the IDP Veterans’ Caucus, go to the group’s website. The next meeting will be held in Des Moines on July 28th (go to site for details and to sign up).

Presidential representatives from the Obama, Dodd, Edwards, and Biden campaigns join Bob Krause (center) at IDP Veteran's Caucus meeting in Riverside

Military Front

Why America is Less Safe Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: Part three of the series examining DADT’s impact on military readiness looks at how the policy has made America more vulnerable to attacks due to the firing of gay linguists.

Veterans’ Front

Sen. Grassley Calls for Review of Armed Forcers Mental Health Policy”: Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, along with a bipartisan group of senators, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, calling for an independent review of the personality disorder discharge process in the Armed Forces. The letter was prompted by a story in the Washington Post titled "The War Inside," which chronicled the struggles of Army Specialist Jeans Cruz, a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Grassley Calls for Review of Armed Forces Mental Health Policy

Sen. Chuck Grassley, along with a bipartisan group of Senators, sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, calling for an independent review of the personality disorder discharge process in the Armed Forces. The letter was prompted by a story in the Washington Post titled “The War Inside,” which chronicled the struggles of Army Specialist Jeans Cruz, a soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“Soldiers are putting their lives on the line to protect us. They deserve to know that if they become injured, physically or mentally, while serving our country they will be cared for upon their return,” Grassley said. “We must learn from cases like Specialist Cruz’s and ensure our men and women in uniform receive this care for all ailments, including mental health disorders

Cruz suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was given a personality disorder discharge which classified his condition as pre-existing to his combat experience in Iraq This discharge prevents Cruz’s from receiving disability benefits and medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The senators are concerned that this is a widespread problem in the military.

In February of this year, Grassley along with Senator Tom Harkin introduced the Joshua Omvig Veteran Suicide Prevention Act. Omvig was a soldier from Iowa who committed suicide after serving his country in Iraq. The legislation directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to implement a comprehensive program to prevent suicide among veterans. The program will identify symptoms of mental health disorders, encourage veterans to seek help, and train VA employees in the best practices for suicide prevention. The legislation is expected to be considered by the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.

Here is a copy of the letter sent to Gates:

Dear Secretary Gates:

We urge you to conduct a thorough and independent review of the personality disorder discharge process across the Armed Forces. We are concerned over continuing reports from Veterans’ Service Organizations, the media, and individual U.S. service personnel that personality disorder discharges have been implemented inappropriately and inconsistently. There are indications that personality disorder discharges are being used as a tool to discharge expeditiously U.S. service personnel who have service-connected injuries, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Even more troubling is the perception that the U.S. military is using these discharges to avoid disability and medical benefits payments.

The Washington Post deftly illustrated an example of this problem on June 17, 2007, in a piece entitled “The War Inside.” According to the Post—after serving a combat tour in Iraq —Army Specialist Jeans Cruz returned to Ft. Hood, Texas, crippled by the mental anguish of his combat experience. Notes from his medical files indicate “major depression,” and “anger from Iraq, nightmares, flashbacks.” The Army was so concerned that it even went so far as to have Spc. Cruz sign a “Life Maintenance Agreement,” a document stating that he agreed “not to harm himself or anyone else.” But the Army ultimately discharged Spc. Cruz with a “personality disorder,” in essence finding that Spc. Cruz’s medical problems had nothing to do with his service in Iraq

Since personality disorder discharges are considered “pre-existing,” personnel discharged under these provisions cannot collect disability benefits and may not receive medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs f or these “pre-existing” illnesses. Spc. Cruz experienced this first-hand. On August 16, 2006, Spc. Cruz received a letter from the VA stating that he had been denied disability pay.

To make matters worse, military personnel given a personality disorder discharge who have not fulfilled their service contracts can find themselves forced to repay thousands of dollars in re-enlistment bonuses back to the federal government. This can result in debilitating debt for military personnel and their families—many of whom supported our forces over many years of service and endured significant strain as a result of frequent and protracted combat deployments.

Defense Department records indicate that over 22,500 personality disorder discharges have been processed within the past six years. While this represents a small percentage of overall discharges, their inappropriate use and debilitating impact on personnel once discharged is cause f or grave concern.

Another egregious example of misuse was chronicled by reporter Joshua Korson March 29, 2007, in a piece entitled: “How Specialist Town Lost His Benefits.” A copy of the article is attached for your review. On October 19, 2004, Spc. Jon Town was injured and sustained major loss of hearing in a rocket attack in Ramadi, Iraq. His injuries ultimately resulted in memory loss and depression, ending his military career. But instead of sending Spc. Town through the medical board process—an in-depth medical review of a service member’s fitness that often results in the award of disability payments and allows injured personnel and their families to remain eligible f or medical benefits after active service ends—the command at Ft. Carson, Colorado, elected to give Spc. Town a personality disorder discharge. This action deprived Spc. Town of disability benefits and guaranteed VA care f or his injuries once he was discharged from the Army.

While the Army claims to have thoroughly evaluated and reviewed the Town case, we understand that neither Spc. Town or his fellow soldiers, who were aware of the rocket attack and his resulting injuries, were contacted to discuss the case. Hence in this situation, and we fear potentially in others, the Army review was inadequate and anything but thorough.

Consequently, serious questions remain unanswered about the use, or abuse, of the personality disorder discharge and a chain-of-command that allows the inappropriate use of the discharge to continue even as members of Congress from both parties seek to review the practice and the media points out the glaring inconsistencies in the manner in which the personality discharge is administered.

Like many veterans’ advocates, we are skeptical about an administrative process that suddenly diagnoses military personnel who have long and honorable military careers, such as Spc. Cruz and Spc. Town , with pre-existing personality disorders that reportedly become apparent only after combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan . We are particularly concerned that combat forces at the unit level and above are inadequately equipped to diagnose, treat, and work with personnel assessed with brain-related injuries, and that the mechanisms tasked with handling the discharge process and meeting unit manning requirements are also overwhelmed.

Therefore, we urge you to conduct a thorough and independent review of the personality discharge process and to implement appropriate measures to prevent the repeat of cases like Spc. Cruz’s and Spc. Town’s in the future. We also urge you to support the creation of a Special Discharge Review Board to assist the Board f or Correction of Military Records for each service in reviewing petitions from personnel discharged for personality disorders with honor able service records in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the Walter Reed Army Medical Center hearings demonstrated, the American people will not tolerate substandard treatment and rehabilitative care for those who have served. As members of the United States Senate, we have an obligation to ensure that our service personnel and their families receive the benefits and care they are entitled to. We are eager to work with the Department of Defense on the issues we have outlined and look forward to hearing from you.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why America is Less Safe Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (Part 3)

Former Army linguist Alexander Nicholson recently described how the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has impeded efforts to keep America safe. A shortage of Arabic linguists in the Department of Defense's national security unit meant that two crucial phrases uttered on Sept. 10, 2001, didn't get translated until Sept. 12 -- the day after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those phrases were "tomorrow is zero hour" and "the match begins tomorrow," Nicholson told a crowd last week in Des Moines. “Any of the 60 of the Arab linguists the DOD was forced to fire because of the DADT law could’ve easily translated those phrases from Arabic into English and helped save American lives,” he said.

Nicholson, a former Army linguist who was discharged after he was outed, joined the Human Rights Campaign’s, “A Legacy of Service” tour to speak out against the DADT policy. Joined by four other veterans at the campaign’s national kick-off at the Iowa Historical Building, Nicholson used his story to illustrate how DADT and the firing of gay linguists has made America more vulnerable.

“Congress is forcing the military to fire some of its best and brightest assets and will continue to do so until the Military Readiness Enhancement Act is passed and singed into law,” said Nicholson. “No one wants to play politics with the lives of your children and our brothers, but the mandated firing of critical personnel puts our troops into danger and makes America less safe.”

Nicholson, a trained human intelligence collector, was discharged six months after 9/11, when, out of spite, a friend of his used the military chain of command to “out” him. He is not alone. Since DADT was implemented in 1993, more than 11,000 soldiers have been discharged from the military. Of these, 323 were linguists, 60 of whom specialized in Arabic. Today, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has nearly 1,000 personnel, but only a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.

Meanwhile, as the Army struggles to recruit new soldiers and meet the demands of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is firing two gay people every day. Instead of pushing Congress to pass the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246 ), which would repeal DADT, the Army has taken other steps to meet these demands such as enlisting felons, extending the age limit to 42, and extending soldiers’ deployment tours from 12 months to 15 months. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that it was considering the idea of a maximum 120-day extension for roughly 15,000 troops currently serving in Iraq.

Not only does DADT hurt recruitment efforts, but Nicholson contends the policy undermines soldiers and the commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, who, by law, cannot speak out against military policies. “The ban on gay men and women in the military is an insult to the commanders on the ground, because it tells them that Congress does not trust them to do their jobs and keep order and discipline in their units,” said Nicholson. “And it’s an insult to our troops, because it assumes that they are so prejudiced and unprofessional that their own order and discipline would fall apart if they knew a gay man or woman was serving beside them.” A 2006 study conducted by Zogby International and the Michael D. Palm Center revealed that 73 percent of U.S. troops are comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians.

The military has traditionally led the fight when it comes to mandating policies that combat discrimination, but it has yet to fully open its gates to gay soldiers. “When I walked through the gates at my boot camp in Ft. Benning, Georgia, my drill instructor made it very clear,” said Nicholson. “If you have a problem working and serving beside women, leave it at the gate. If you have a problem working and serving beside African-Americans, leave it at the gate.’ And he could just as easily say, for the good of our country, if you have a problem working beside a gay man or woman, leave it at the gate.”

Related Story:

Lift the Ban” organization has released a short film, “’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and Gay Arabic Linguists.” The film was produced by the “Brave New Foundation” and features Stephen Benjamin, a former Navy Arabic Linguist, who was discharged under the DADT policy. Also, be sure to read Benjamin’s op-ed piece, "Don't Ask, Don't Translate," which was originally published in the “New York Times.”

Arabic translator fired from the Navy for being gay

Read Part 1: "Human Rights Campaign Launches 'Legacy of Service' Tour"

Read Part 2: "'Legacy of Service' Vets Speak Out Against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'"

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Iowa Front: Military & Veterans’ Weekly Roundup

Military Front

Dien Judge reported on Sunday’s Iowa National Guard send-off in Ottumwa: “Amid Fanfare and Emotion in Ottumwa, Guard Company Heads Back to Iraq.”

Iowa lost another son, when Cpl. Llythaniele Fender, 21, was killed in Iraq by an improvised explosive device. Fender was Iowa’s 57th fallen soldier with Iowa ties to have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read the “Des Moines Register” for more coverage.

Iowa National Guardsmen return to Iowa from tour in Afghanistan and are greeted by families and warning signs outside of Newton: “Desperate Women Ahead.”

Another Native Iowa Soldier Killed by an IED” on Friday.

Veterans’ Front

Iowa Veterans Blog” unofficially launched this week. The mission of the new blog is to keep veterans connected to news stories and veterans’ affairs in Iowa, monitor current legislation that affects veterans and their families, provide advocacy tools for veterans and their families, and serve as a home base for veterans to share their stories and experiences with other veterans. The site will officially launch sometime next week, beginning with an outreach campaign to other veterans and respective outlets in Iowa.

Political Front

Sen. Grassley sponsored tax-relief bill for troops.

The Human Rights Campaign kicked off its national “Legacy of Service” tour in Des Moines Tuesday night. The campaign features gay military veterans, who are speaking out against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy with the intent of replacing it with the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which attempts to eliminate the current discriminatory practices enacted against GLBT soldiers. Read Part I and Part II of the series; stay tuned next week for Parts III and IV.

Another Native Iowa Soldier Killed in Iraq by IED

The story coming out of Iraq is sounding too familiar: “Soldier Killed in Iraq by Improvised Explosive Device” -- while the acronym IED has become more commonplace in American households. Tragically, this familiar story has rung true in Iowa for the second time this week. Army Pfc. Michael Patrick Pittman, 34, was killed by an IED in Baghdad on Friday. Pittman is a native of Davenport, where he lived with his wife and four children until he enlisted in the Army and moved to Kansas in 2005.

Earlier this week, Iowa lost another native son, Cpl. Llythaniele Fender, 21, who was also killed in Iraq by an IED. Fender and Pittman, respectively, were Iowa’s 57th and 58th fallen soldier with Iowa ties to have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To read Pittman’s family and friend’s reactions to his death, go to the “Des Moines Register” for more extensive coverage.

Friday, June 15, 2007

‘Legacy of Service' Vets Speak Out against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (Part 2 of series)

Marine veterans Eric Alva and Antonio Agnone decided they no longer can remain silent about the discriminatory repercussions of the U.S. Armed Forces' “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Alva, a retired Marine staff sergeant who lost a leg in the Iraq War, told an audience in Des Moines on Tuesday: “I am a man who survived war, a man who survived a battle, only to come home to another battle, and that battle is for equality.”

Eric Alva (left) and Antonio Agnone (right) speak out against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in Des Moines

Alva was joined by Agnone and three other veterans (see below) as part of the Human Rights Campaign’s national kick-off of its “Legacy of Service” tour. The nation’s largest gay civil rights organization began its tour against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in Iowa because of the state's lead-off status in the presidential campaign. Tuesday's event was held at the Iowa Historical Museum.

Pictured from left to right: Eric Alva, Antonio Agnone, Alexander Nicholson, James S. Taylor, and Jarrod Chlapowski

Not only does the HRC want to repeal the policy by educating politicians and the public about the facts and adverse consequences, but it also wants to put a face on the campaign. Veterans directly affected by the policy enlisted in the “Legacy of Service” tour to share their personal stories and sacrifices to audiences across America.

Eric Alva, a 33-year-old leading spokesman for the campaign, was wounded on his first day in Iraq in March 2003. “I was on a logistical convoy when we entered Basra,” said Alva. “I was preparing an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) when I stepped on a land mine. I was thrown 10 feet and remained conscious through the whole ordeal. I had several injuries, including nerve damage, and my leg had to be amputated.”

Alva was the first soldier to be wounded in the war and the first recipient of the Purple Heart. Alva felt it was necessary to speak up against DADT. “It’s my obligation, moreover, it was my responsibility to the millions and millions of people in this country that deserve the same freedoms as everybody else. I fought for a nation that exemplifies to the rest of the world that we are a country of free citizens, and I was fighting for those rights and freedoms for everyone, all Americans and not just some. That is why I decided to come forward.”

In March, Alva sat alongside U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., as he introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246), which attempts to correct the discriminatory and unworkable DADT policy.

“The reasons why this policy is repealed are crucial,” said Alva. “Mine is basic. Mine is for the human rights and what I have sacrificed. Losing a leg in Iraq was something that will never be replaced. I tell people today that of the 3,500 people who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the rights and freedoms for all citizens of our country, some of them are gay. And we must honor them.”

Agnone, now 27, comes from a long line of military service and earned his commission as an officer in the Marines out of a sense of duty to his country. “I think it’s one of the noblest things you can do.”

When Agnone was assigned to a combat engineer battalion, he knew he would be deployed to Iraq. “I was excited about the aspect of being deployed, because it would give me the chance to actively lead my soldiers in battle.” While leading his men in Iraq in 2004, Agnone’s primary goal was detecting and disabling IEDs (Individual Explosive Devices).

“The experiences of deployment are stressful enough, without having to deal with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” said Agnone. “I remember the day that I was first shot at while standing on a roof in downtown Baghdad, while fortifying quarters for a place for my men to sleep that night.

“However, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ places an additional burden on gays and lesbians serving," he said. "While deployed in Iraq, I had been with my partner for three years, and what I did not realize is that there would be a lot of worries that would pop up while deployed. I didn't know, beforehand, that if anything were to happen to me, there would be no way of getting a hold my partner to let him know what had happened.”

Therefore, when Agnone returned from Iraq, he consulted his family and decided to end his military career by not re-enlisting. “I am one of the untold numbers of people who decided not to continue their service because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I very much would like to continue my service in the military, however, I cannot deploy again. It’s not fair to my family and the people I love.”

Click here to read Part I of the series, "Human Rights Campaign Launches 'Legacy of Service' Tour"
Click here to read Part III of the series, “Why America is Less Safe Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’”

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Human Rights Campaign Launches ‘Legacy of Service’ Tour (Part I of series)

On Tuesday night, the nation’s largest gay civil rights organization kicked off its “A Legacy of Service” campaign at the Iowa Historical Society in downtown Des Moines. The Human Rights Campaign chose to begin its tour against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in Iowa because of its lead-off status in the presidential campaign.

“The eyes of the nation and the eyes of the world are on Iowa as we elect our next president,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the HRC. “As you already saw in the presidential debates, GLBT issues are going to be a part of the discussion as they were four years ago.”

The kick-off for the tour comes days after the Democratic and Republican presidential debates aired live on CNN, where the issue of repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" took center stage. When asked by the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, to raise their hands if they support the repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, all of the Democrats raised their hands. Not a single Republican candidate spoke in support of repealing the policy. “What this really says to us is the battle could not be more clearly drawn as to what’s at stake,” said Solmonese.

Upon entering the Iowa Historical Building, attendees were greeted with the presidential images contrasting the party views on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

After praising Iowa for its latest legislative efforts supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, namely amending the Iowa Code to extend civil rights protections, Solmonese introduced state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs (see pic).

Gronstal delivered a prepared speech that illustrated Iowa’s historical accomplishments in civil rights. Touting this year’s accomplishments during the legislative session, Gronstal emphasized how proud he was to have helped pass the gay rights bill. “No citizen should lose their job because of their sex, race, religion, or creed.” As for the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy, he said, “The battle to get rid of this ridiculous federal policy begins here tonight.”

He read off some names of GLBT Iowa veterans who have spoken out against DADT, called them up to center stage and thanked them for their military commitment and service.

GLBT Iowa Veterans receive acknowledgment and standing ovation from crowd for their military service

From there, the event moved to the big screen, where debate highlights of the presidential candidates' responses to whether or not they would repeal the DADT policy were broadcast. Before turning the evening over to the panel of veterans, Solmonese said the goal of the HRC and the “Legacy of Service” campaign was finding a smart way to move the debate forward. Holding events in places where the presidential candidates were going to appear was the first step, while education will be the second. “We can’t rely on Mitt Romney’s take on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ We need to get the real facts out there.”

Next, the HRC broadcast a video, illustrating the history of GLBT's serving in the armed forces:

HRC’s Legacy of Service Campaign

Part II of the series will profile the five veterans (below) who spoke at the event and their remarks as part of the panel.

Pictured from left to right: Eric Alva, Antonio Agnone, Alexander Nicholson, James Taylor, Jarrod Chlapowski

Read Part 2: "'Legacy of Service' Vets Speak Out Against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'"

Read Part 3: "America is Less Safe Because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'"

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Grassley Sponsors Tax-Relief Bill for Troops

On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced the Defenders of Freedom Tax Relief Act, along with committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. The measure includes $550 million in tax breaks for service members, veterans, and the employers of mobilized National Guard and reserve members.

“Military service makes taxes complicated and sometimes unfair,” said Grassley. “People shouldn’t suffer a tax hit to serve our country. We need to make sure military men and women have fair treatment under the tax code. It’s a no-brainer.”

The bill addresses a number of issues:

• It would make permanent a temporary tax provision allowing pay earned in a combat zone, which is not subject to income tax, to still be counted as income solely for the purpose of qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit. If troops cannot count untaxed income for that purpose, many would show no taxable income and thus would not qualify for the earned-income credit.

• For survivors, the bill allows the $100,000 death gratuity paid for an active-duty death to be put into an Individual Retirement Account or other tax-deferred retirement plan. The change would encourage survivors to save the money for old age.

• For military retirees who wait a year or longer to have veterans’ disability claims resolved, payments often are retroactive. The bill would make it easier for those with retroactive payments to claim a tax refund, which they would receive because some of their past retired pay would then become tax-free. Current law limits tax refunds to three years from the date of filing a tax claim, which ends up hurting some disabled veterans who, through no fault of their own, have waited far longer than three years to get their benefits. The bill would extend the statute of limitations to one year after a VA disability decision is made.

• When civilian employers make up the difference between civilian pay and military pay of mobilized National Guard and reserve members, the Internal Revenue Service requires special reporting for the differential pay that creates a burden for employers and employees. The bill would allow them to use the normal W-2 form to report income for differential payments and would treat the money as normal wages.
• Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees would get a tax credit for making up the salary of reserve component employees who are called to active duty. The tax credit would be equal to 20 percent of the differential pay, with a cap of $20,000 a year.

• Guard and reserve members called to active-duty for at least 179 days would be able to make penalty-free withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement plans. Current law imposes a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty for withdrawals made before age 59½.

• For three years, qualified mortgage bonds — used by some states to help veterans buy homes — would be available to veterans who are first-time homebuyers. The bond authority is set to expire at the end of the calendar year.

Originally posted at "Iowa Independent"

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Iowa Front: Military & Veterans’ Weekly Roundup

Military Front

The Iowa National Guard’s 833rd Engineer Company out of Ottumwa is headed back to Iraq to serve its second tour of duty. Send-off ceremonies will take place at the Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa. Earlier this week, the “Des Moines Register’s” John Carlson wrote a moving column, “Some of Iowa's 'Very Best' Troops to Return to Iraq.” The local paper, the “Ottumwa Courier” had two pieces related to the send-off: “Preparing to Leave,” and “A Brave Send-off for Our Troops.”

Speaking of John Carlson, he had another column in today’s “Register.” The piece, “Mom Planning Benefit Hopes Someone Cares,” is about P.J. Sesker Green of Grimes, aunt of Iowa National Guard Sgt. Daniel Sesker who was killed in Iraq in 2006, and her frustrating attempts to raise money for Operation First Response. Sekser-Green has been planning a golf fund raiser since February, but has received little response and support from the corporate world. All the proceeds are to benefit Operation First Response, a national organization that supports wounded troops and their families.

Veteran Front

Human Rights Campaign to Launch Nation Tour in Iowa to Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay civil rights organization, will start its "A Legacy of Service" tour against the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in Des Moines. The event will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Iowa Historical Society in downtown Des Moines. The national tour features the voices of a diverse group of veterans who have served under the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, including former Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first U.S. service member wounded in Iraq. Alva lost his leg on March 21, 2003, when he stepped on a landmine while traveling in Iraq in a convoy.

Political Front

On his way to the send-off ceremony in Ottumwa, Rep. Dave Loebsack made a brief stop at the Progressive Iowa Network conference in Iowa City and made a few brief remarks on behalf of military veterans:
“President Bush keeps sending more troops over to Iraq and Afghanistan, but when they return, his administration is not treating them properly – the way they’re supposed to be treated. There are three appropriations bills coming up soon in Congress, and the Democratic majority will be pushing for more money for our veterans.”

Human Rights Campaign to Launch National Tour in Iowa to Repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay civil rights organization, will start its “A Legacy of Service” tour against the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in Des Moines. The event will begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Iowa Historical Society in downtown Des Moines.

The national tour features the voices of a diverse group of veterans who have served under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, including former Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, the first U.S. service member wounded in Iraq. Alva lost his leg on March 21, 2003, when he stepped on a landmine while traveling in Iraq in a convoy. Alva was awarded a Purple Heart and received a medical discharge form the military.

The kick-off for the tour comes days after the Democratic and Republican presidential debates aired live on CNN, where the issue of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” took center stage. When asked by the moderator, Wolf Blitzer, to raise their hands if they support the repeal of the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, all of the Democrats raised their hands. Standing in stark contrast, not a single Republican candidate spoke out in support of repealing the policy.

Former Marines Corps officer Antonio Agnone also will join the kick-off event in Des Moines. Agnone responded to the Republican candidates' lack of support: “…Because last night those candidates did more than just not raise their hand. They dishonored my service and the sacrifice of my brothers and sisters. And we'll never forget.”

Antonio Agnone's Response

“This national tour will show the faces of those who have served and sacrificed under this discriminatory policy,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “The American people have already overwhelmingly decided that our military should be about service and not about holding on to policies that dishonor our troops.

“During the beginning of the 2008 presidential election, this tour will ensure that the debate around repealing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is focused on the real issue at hand,” Solmonese added. “Those candidates running to be the next commander in chief will have to decide if they believe the sexual orientation of an Arabic linguist is more important than their ability to potentially decode the next piece of intelligence that could finally capture Osama Bin Laden.”

Fact Sheets Compiled by the Human Rights Campaign:

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Poses Exorbitant Costs to the Military and Nation.

1. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Poses Exorbitant Costs to the Military and Nation.
Nearly 800 specialists with critical skills have been fired from the U.S. military under DADT, including 323 linguists, 55 of whom specialized in Arabic (Government Accountability Office report).

2. At least 65,000 gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans are already protecting our homeland (Urban Institute report). More than 10,000 have been discharge under DADT since the policy was implemented in 1993.

3. American taxpayers have paid between $250 million and $1.2 billion to investigate, eliminate and replace qualified, patriotic service members who want to serve their country but can’t because expressing their sexual orientation violates DADT (Government Accountability Office report). That money could be better spent on at least a dozen Blackhawk helicopters, armored plates for tanks and Humvees or Kevlar body armor for troops.

Americans Support Allowing Gays and Lesbians to Serve Openly.

1. Sixty-seven percent of civilians support allowing gays to serve openly (Annenberg 2004 survey). In 2003, Fox News reported 64 percent support, and the Gallup organization 79 percent, on a similar question.

2. Nearly three in four troops (73 percent) say they are personally comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians (Zogby International & the Michael D. Palm Center 2006 study).

3. One in four U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan or Iraq knows a member of their unit who is gay. More than 55 percent of the troops who know a gay colleague said the presence of gays or lesbians in their unit is well-known by others (Zogby International). The DADT policy serves no purpose, as troops already know and are comfortable serving alongside gays and lesbians.

4. All published Pentagon studies, including the 1993 Rand Report, conclude that there should be no special restrictions on service by gay personnel.

5. Twenty-four other nations, including Great Britain, Australia, Canada and Israel, already allow open service by gays and lesbians, and none of the 24 report morale or recruitment problems. Nine nations allowing open service have fought alongside American troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In addition, 12 nations allowing open service fought alongside U.S. troops in Operation Enduring Freedom.

6. Twenty-three of the 26 NATO nations allow gays and lesbians to serve openly and proudly. The United States, Turkey and Portugal are the only NATO nations that forbid gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed services.

7. Federal CIA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency and Secret Service agents all serve proudly as openly gay and lesbian personnel fighting the war on terrorism.
Related Commentary: Read Stephen Benjamin’s op-ed piece, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Translate,” in today’s “New York Times.” Benjamin, a former petty officer second class in the Navy, was an Arabic translator, who was discharged under the military’s DODT policy.

No Exit: The Plight of Veterans’ Health Care

The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive how the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation. --George Washington

For presidential hopefuls, Memorial Day serves as an opportunity to participate in memorial services and subsequent photo opportunities, while paying tribute to America’s fallen soldiers. This year was no exception, especially in Iowa, as politicians offered their support of the troops currently serving overseas. Now that the post-Memorial Day political dust has fallen, the question facing American voters is to what extent politicians support our troops, in particular, those veteran soldiers returning from the theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, where over 1.5 million Americans have served thus far.

Among these returning veterans, VA hospitals have seen a surge in health-related issues, both physical and psychological, that have far outpaced the funding provided by the federal government. Consequently, one of the biggest struggles between the Bush administration and veterans has been the fight over veterans’ health care policy. In 2006, Congress had to enact emergency legislation on two occasions to help supplement the VA’s budget by $1.4 billion to help bridge the funding gap. And it appears the 2007 budget is destined to fall short as well. In a study, “The Independent Budget,” coauthored by the DAV, AMVETS, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the VFW concluded that:

Congress will need to appropriate $26 billion for veterans’ medical needs just to maintain current service levels. The Administration’s budget for FY 2007 seeks $24.7 billion in appropriations for veterans’ medical services, which falls $1.3 billion short of the IB’s recommendation. The President’s FY 2007 medical care budget slightly increases the mental health services capacity; however, it continues the hiring freeze of all other direct health care providers at a time when an influx of new veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will place substantial new demands upon a system already struggling to meet its mission. This budget proposal estimates that only 109,191 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will seek treatment in 2007. This reflects a decrease of 1,375 below the number of these new war veterans the VA estimates it will treat in 2006.
This years’ budget for veterans’ health care expenses is optimistic and assumes fewer vets will seek treatment, which puts VA medical facilities in a financial quagmire. While the presidential hopefuls preach platitudes of support for the troops and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, voters need to weigh how vigilante they are in supporting the effects these wars are having on the welfare of out troops and their families.

While stumping for veterans in Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama, who voted against the Iraq war supplemental funding bill, faced critics, who charged him with not supporting the troops. Obama responded that the best way to demonstrate support for troops is putting programs in place to support them. "When our veterans come home we want to do more than slap a yellow sticker on the back of an SUV,'' Obama said. “We want to honor their service with health care if they get hurt and support for their families.'' Obama noted in his speech to Iowa veternans that there is no comprehensive plan to prepare for a soldier's return and one-third of the troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems.

Obama’s Democrat rivals, John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton, also stumped for veterans in Iowa last weekend and addressed the need to focus more attention on veterans’ health care. All three of these candidates have addressed veterans’ health care issues on their campaign websites:

Barack Obama:Honoring Our Veterans

John Edwards:Sacred Contract with Our Military and Veterans Community

Hillary Clinton:Fulfilling Our Promises to Veterans

After perusing the rest of the Democratic candidates’ web sites, the only other candidate to specifically address veterans’ health care is Dennis Kucinich.

Of the GOP presidential hopefuls, the only candidate to address veteran’s health care issues on his website is John McCain ( “Commitment to America’s Service Members: Past and Present”), the only veteran among all the candidates running for president. Most of the GOP candidates have taken an aggressive, hawk stance on the war in Iraq thus far, however, only one of them is openly addressing the inevitable consequences of this stance, at least not on their campaign websites. Ironically, it’s these very same candidates who have attacked the Democrat hopefuls for not supporting the troops.

The Bush administration has drawn fire from both sides for not having an “exit strategy” before going to Iraq, and now, four years later, our wounded troops returning from the theaters of war are seeing that the same holds true on the this end as well.

Iowa Student Loan Offers Interest-Reduction Program for Soldiers

To help ease some of the financial stress on soldiers serving their country during wartime, Iowa Student Loan has implemented a zero-percent interest rate for up to 24 months. The Iowa Student Loan Armed Forces Interest Reduction Program will provide the loan benefit to borrowers on active duty in the United States Armed Forces Services between Sept. 11, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2008.

“We want to recognize borrowers who are serving our nation during this time of war,” said Steve McCullough, CEO of Iowa Student Loan. “We’re proud to honor these brave men and women and provide some relief to them and their families during this difficult time.”

The nonprofit lender is Iowa’s largest college lender, and estimates the interest-reduction program will cost $500,000. In 2006, the average debt for a student graduating from an Iowa Regent University was $29,992. At the program's interest rate of 3.5 percent, a recent graduate deployed in the Armed Services would pay an estimated $1,050 a year in interest.

Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation and local military officials praised the program. “I commend Iowa Student Loan for stepping up and assisting those Iowans, our veterans, who are so bravely serving our country. This practice should be replicated throughout the lending industry,” said U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-3rd District. "This is exactly the type of service I have come to expect Iowa Student Loan to provide to Iowa students and families,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican who represents the 4th District.

Lt. Col. Gregory Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard, said the interest-free program "very tangibly honors the sacrifice of Iowa’s service members."

To qualify for the Armed Forces Interest Reduction Program, borrowers must meet the following criteria:

• Have a non-defaulted private loan owned or serviced by Iowa Student Loan (or have completed payment on such a loan) during the eligibility period of Sept. 11, 2001, to Dec. 31, 2008.

• Provide a copy of military orders confirming eligible service.

If you were deployed, are currently deployed or become deployed during the eligibility period, call Iowa Student Loan at (800) 243-7552 (a representative can call on your behalf) or go to A copy of your military orders that confirms eligible service is required.

Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Stump for Vets in Iowa

Two of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton, descended upon Iowa over Memorial Day weekend, crossing the state and pitching their support for Veterans. Although Sen. Joe Biden’s presence registered on Iowa’s political radar, in lieu of addressing veterans’ issues, he spent most of his time on the stump defending his support of the Iraq War supplemental funding bill. On the Republican side, there were no sightings of presidential hopefuls stumping for veterans in Iowa.

John Edwards’s campaign has become ubiquitous in Iowa and this weekend was no exception. Edwards unveiled his “Sacred Contract with Our Military and Veterans Community” and made this the focal point of his most recent Iowa tour:

“I believe in a sacred contract between our country and America’s veterans and military families. We must stand by those who stand by us. When our service men and women sacrifice so much to defend our freedom and secure peace around the world, we have a moral obligation to take care of them and their families.”

In a press release, Edwards provided an overview of the three cornerstones of his end of the contract, focusing on guaranteeing quality health care for veterans, supporting military families, and providing education and economic opportunities for civilian life.

While stumping for veterans in Oelwien, Edwards told a crowd at the Dancing Lion, “"We have a sacred responsibility to the men and women in Iraq. Every troop should be evaluated when they return to see what they want to do and make sure they can do it.”

One thing missing from Edwards’s stump speeches in Iowa, at least explicitly, was his “Support the Troops./Stop the War” campaign, which was scheduled to officially launch Memorial Day Weekend. The campaign’s intent was to reclaim patriotism by making the distinction between supporting the troops, while simultaneously criticizing the Iraq War and calling for its end, an act of patriotism. A large part of the reason Edwards may have stepped back from his call for Americans to “get vocal” and “get active” in opposing the Iraq War on Memorial Day is the criticisms targeted at his campaign on behalf of veterans groups:

Paul Morin, national commander of the American Legion, posted an open letter of the group’s website blasting Edwards for what Morin says is an inappropriate political calculation that “blatantly violated the sanctity of this most special day…Revolting is a kind word for it,” Morin wrote. “It’s as inappropriate as a political bumper sticker on an Arlington headstone.”

For some veterans, Memorial Day is considered sacred and should not be politicized, whether explicitly or implicitly. This holds true for Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), who said his group is also planning to pen an open letter denouncing Edwards’s call to protest:

“Memorial Day is a solemn occasion to remember the service and sacrifice of more than 1 million American servicemen and -women who gave their lives to create our nation, to save our union, and to help free the world from tyranny. It is not a time to call people to protest the war under the guise of supporting the troops.”

Other veterans and their family members, however, said they support what Edwards is suggesting, saying the best way to honor the troops is to protest the war.

Ironically, Hillary took the stump in Iowa to defend her decision to vote ‘no’ on the Iraq War supplemental spending bill. Either way she votes, Hillary appears to be ensnared in a “catch-22” campaign quagmire. When not defending her vote, Hillary argued for increased spending on veterans’ health care, in particular soldiers suffering from severe head and brain trauma caused by roadside bombs:

"Many of them were coming back with a new problem, called traumatic brain injury. It could be up to 10 percent of all those who have been deployed."

After last week’s campaign memo leak suggesting the notion of bypassing Iowa in during the Democratic caucuses, Hillary reassured Iowans she’s still “In to Win”:

"I'm going to spend so much time in Iowa I'm going to be able to caucus for myself.”

Flag Flying Half-Staff for Iowa’s Fallen Soldiers

On the day after Memorial Day, all flags in the state of Iowa will continue to be flown at half-staff in honor of Tipton native, Specialist David Behrle, who was killed by a roadside bomb on May 19th of this year. Behrle is Tipton’s, second Iraq casualty, will be buried in Tipton on Tuesday, where he joins Sgt. Aaron J. Sissel, who was killed on Nov. 29th, 2003, in Iraq when his vehicle was hit by enemy fire.

Spc. Behrle will be the sixth fallen Iowa soldier to be honored by a state-wide directive by Governor Culver, whose first executive order in office called for flags to be flown at half staff to honor fallen Iowa soldiers. Last Thursday, Culver ordered that all flags in the state be flown at half staff on Tuesday, May 29th:

The Governor's directive applies to all U.S. and state flags under the control of the state. Flags will be at half staff on the state Capitol Building and on flag displays in the Capitol Complex, and upon all public buildings, grounds, and facilities throughout the state until sunset Tuesday, May 29th, 2007. Individuals, businesses, schools, municipalities, counties, and other government subdivisions are encouraged to fly the flag at half staff for the same length of time as a sign of respect.

“Once the governor learns the date of the funeral, he will issue an order that the flags will be flown at half staff on the day of the respective soldier’s funeral,” said Brad Anderson, Culver’s press secretary.

Other directives have been issued by Culver for fallen Iowa soldiers who have died in the line of duty since the executive order was signed on Jan. 27, 2007. These include Iowa Army National Guard Command Sgt. Maj. Marilyn L. Gabbard, 46, of Polk City, Jan. 20; Army Reserve Cpl. Stephen D. Shannon, 21, of Guttenberg, Jan. 31; Army Reserve Pfc. Brian A. Botello, 19, of Alta, April 29; Army Pfc. Katie Soenksen, 19, of Davenport, May 2; Army Spc. David Behrle, 20, of Tipton, May 19.

At the federal level, the flag is displayed at half-staff on Memorial Day, in mourning for the death of designated principal government leaders and the death of the current or former President of the United States, or when directed by the President. There is no directive or code that honors individual American soldiers killed in the line of duty. Although, in the wake of President Bush’s recent order that all American flags be flown at half-staff for one week in honor of the 32 students killed at Virginia Tech, Army Sgt. Jim Wilt questioned Bush’s decision. Sgt. Wilt, who was stationed at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan at the time, was upset by the irony of having to fly the flag half-staff for the 32 Virginia Tech students, yet the same honor was not bestowed upon Sgt. Alexander Van Aalten, a member of the his task force, who was killed in Hemland province during the same week.

"Individual states have taken it upon themselves to raise their flags to half-mast when one of their children dies. I think it is sad that we do not raise the bases’ flag to half-staff when a member of our own task force dies… If the flags on our FOBs were lowered for just one day after the death of a servicemember, it would show the people who knew the person that society cared, the American people care."

So what about the 49 fallen Iowa soldiers who were killed in the line of duty before Governor Culver was sworn into office and issued his first executive order? Maybe one day in Iowa, flags will be flown half-staff in their honor. Until then, the sacrifices of our native sons and daughters will not be forgotten.

In Memory of…

Killed in Iraq 2003: Marine reservist Sgt. Bradley Korthaus, 28, of Davenport, March 24; Marine Gunnery Sgt. Jeff Bohr, 39, of Ossian, April 10; Army Pvt. Kenneth A. Nalley, 19, of Hamburg, May 26; Army Pvt. Michael Deutsch, 21, of Dubuque, July 31; Army National Guard Pfc. David Kirchhoff, 31, of Anamosa, Aug. 14; Army National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Bruce A. Smith, 41, of West Liberty, Nov. 2; Army National Guard Sgt. Paul Fisher, 39, of Cedar Rapids, Nov. 6; Army Pvt. Kurt Frosheiser, 22, of Des Moines, Nov. 8; Army National Guard Sgt. Aaron Sissel, 22, of Tipton, Nov. 29.

Killed in Iraq 2004: Army National Guard Spc. Joshua Knowles, 23, of Sheffield, Feb. 5; Marine Lance Cpl. Benjamin Carman, 20, of Jefferson, April 6; Marine Cpl. Michael R. Speer, 24, of Davenport, April 9; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Trace W. Dossett, 37, of Orlando, Fla., formerly of Wapello, May 2; Marine Pfc. Brandon Sturdy, 19, of Urbandale, May 13; Marine Pfc. Nick Skinner, 20, of Davenport, Aug. 26; Marine Cpl. Jarrod Maher, 21, of Imogene, Nov. 12; Army Spc. Daryl Davis, 20, of Spencer, Nov. 29.

Killed in Iraq 2005: Marine Sgt. Thomas Houser, 22, of Council Bluffs, Jan. 3; Marine Cpl. Nathan Schubert, 22, of Cherokee, Jan. 26; Army Spc. Dakotah L. Gooding, 21, of Des Moines, Feb. 13; Army Sgt. Eric Steffeney, 28, of Waterloo, Feb. 23; Iowa Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Richard B. ‘‘Brian’’ Gienau, 29, of Peoria, Ill., formerly of Tripoli, Feb. 27; Iowa Army National Guard Sgt.Seth Garceau, 22, of Oelwein, March 4; Army Sgt. Donald Griffin, Jr., 29, of Fort Lewis, Wash., family from Mechanicsville, March 11; Iowa Army National Guard Spc. John W. Miller, 21, of West Burlington, April 12; Robert J. ‘‘Jason’’ Gore, 23, of Nevada, April 21 (inactive National Guardsman working as private security officer); Army Spc. David Lee Rice, 22, of Sioux City, April 26; Army reservist Sgt. Casey Byers, 22, of Schleswig, June 11; Urbandale native Army Pfc. Eric Paul Woods, 26, of Omaha, July 9; Keven Dagit, 42, of Jefferson, Sept. 20; Cedar Rapids native Army Pvt. 2nd Class Dustin Allen Yancey, 22, of Goose Creek, S.C., Nov. 4; Iowa Army National Guard Sgt.Gregory Tull, 20, of Pocahontas, Nov. 25.

Killed in Iraq 2006: Army Reservist Maj. Stuart Anderson, 44, of Peosta, Jan. 7; Army Sgt. Nathan Field, 23, of Lehigh, Jan. 7; Iowa Army National Guard Sgt. Daniel Sesker, 22, of Ogden, March 20. 36. Des Moines native Army Spc. Antoine McKinzie, 25, of Indianapolis, March 21; Iowa Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Mark Wall, 27, of Alden, April 27; Marine Lance Cpl. William Leusink, 21, of Maurice, May 22; Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jaime Jaenke, 29, of Iowa Falls, June 5; Army Pfc. William ‘‘Willy’’ Thorne, 26, of Hospers, Aug. 24; Iowa National Guard Staff Sgt. Scott E. Nisely, 48, of Marshalltown, Sept. 30; Iowa National Guard Sgt. Kampha B. Sourivong, 20, of Iowa City, Sept. 30; Army Lt. Col. Paul Finken, 40, of Earling, Nov. 2; Army Sgt. James Musack, 23, of Riverside, Nov. 21; Marine Lance Cpl. Clinton Jon ‘‘C.J.’’ Miller, 23, of Greenfield, Dec. 11; Army Cpl. Jonathan Schiller, 20, of Ottumwa, Dec. 31.

Killed in Afghanistan: Iowa Army National Guard Spc. James C. Kearney III, 22, of Emerson, Nov. 1, 2004; Army Staff Sgt. Shane Koele, 25, of Hartley, March 16, 2005; Remsen native Army reserve 1st Sgt. Tobias Meister, 30, of Jenks, Okla., Dec. 28, 2005; Army Spc. Travis Vaughn, 26, of Cedar Falls, Feb. 18, 2007.

Military Death Benefits: Bureaucratic Casualty of War

Well before Navy reservist Jaime Jaenka, a single parent, was killed by a roadside bomb last June in Iraq, she had made it clear whom she wanted to be her beneficiary. In a letter written to her mother, Susan Jaenka of Iowa Falls, Jaenka wrote:

“There is a smaller policy that goes to you that is for 100.000. That is for you to raise Kayla with and 25,000 of that goes to the barn.”
To help assure these wishes, Jaenka designated her mother the beneficiary of the death benefit on her official paperwork. Unfortunately, federal law only allows a spouse or child to be named the beneficiary, and the money for the latter is to be kept in a trust until the beneficiary turns 18. “I saw the paperwork. Jaime had put her mom’s name in the beneficiary box, but in the fine print it says that only a spouse or child may be listed as a beneficiary,” said Patrick Palmersheim, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since Jaime Jaenke’s death, her parents have been left with the task of raising her 10-year-old daughter, Kayla, without any additional income. Jaime’s military paychecks were not only used to help cover Kayla’s living expenses, but also were used to help her struggling family make ends meet. Susan Jaenka took her case to Washington, D.C., and told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee that the loss of income had imposed an economic hardship on the Jaenke family.

On behalf of all the Iowa Congressional delegation, Rep. Tom Latham introduced a bill (H.R. 1115 ) in February that would amend the United States Code. It would provide additional options regarding the designation of the death gratuity paid to members of the Armed Forces who die without a surviving spouse but are survived by a minor child. As of now, there are 142 cases similar to Jaime Jaenke’s. Latham included a “look back” provision in the bill, “Treatment of Earlier Deaths and Death Gratuity Payments,” which would cover members who “left a clear expression of intent regarding payment of the death gratuity to another person on behalf of the surviving child or children.” Based on the letter to her mother and the original paperwork, Latham’s staff and Palmersheim agree that the Jaenkes have a solid case proving her intent. But this remains a moot point until the law is amended.

To help speed up the bureaucratic process, Latham attempted to add the bill as an amendment to a Defense Authorization Act, but the amendment died in the House Rules Committee, where members last week voted along party lines to reject the amendment 9-4 along with a number of others. Latham’s press secretary, James Christiansen, said he has no idea why the amendment died in committee, given that it seemed bipartisan and neutral in nature. “You’ll have to ask the Democrat majority of the Rules Committee, who unanimously voted against the amendment. Did they see the big ‘R’ behind Latham’s name and dismiss the nonpartisan amendment? This committee has a lot of power in deciding what amendments move on to the House floor.”

Despite the setback, Latham and his staff are optimistic about the bill and intend to move forward on behalf of their constituents, the Jaenke family. “The amendment may be dead, but the bill is still alive,” said Christiansen. “We’ve been working with the House Majority Leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who is trying to help push the bill into law, and we’ve received support in the Senate by members who plan on introducing a similar bill.”

Until then, the Jaenkes are left in the balance, where they are left waiting for the political process to take its course. For now, single parents currently serving active duty in the Armed Forces have only two options regarding their death benefit gratuity, and cases like the Jaenkes are bound to happen again. “The problem will continue unless it is fixed,” said Palmersheim.

Weinstein: “VA Committed a Crime against Humanity”

Michael “Mikey” Weinstein, the lawyer representing Navy Veteran David Miller, said “What the people are doing at the Veterans Administration Hospital {Iowa City} are committing, quite literally, a felony against Democracy and a crime against humanity.”

Weinstein agreed to take the case, when David Miller, reached out to him screaming: “I am not an animal. I’m not a Jewish animal. I am a human being. I am an American human being.”

“We got a man screaming in pain due to angina,” said Weinstein. “What he’s been through is unimaginable pain, and he’s screaming for the nurses to tell the evangelical VA Chaplain to go away and this is when he began evangelizing him, telling him that Jesus came for him. This is torture.”

This is one of the primary reasons Weinstein decided to take Miller’s case. “It’s simple, I took the case for the humanity,” said Weinstein. “It was off the scale, and I’ve seen just about everything. This was another manifestation of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and Walter Reed. It’s as simple as that. We are not a complex meal. We are not hamburger. We’re simply telling the military and the Veterans Administration that you are going to be at least as constrained as a shift manager at Starbucks or at the KFC or Cosco.”

Michael Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and an attorney who worked in the White House under President Reagan, is filing a suit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in federal court over David Miller's treatment, while hospitalized at the VA medical Center in Iowa City. Miller is on full disability for angina, a painful medical condition that causes severe chest pains due to an oxygen shortage to the heart. In the suit, Weinstein claims that David Miller’s constitutional rights have been violated and the VA has overstepped the line separating the church and the state:

“This isn’t a Christian versus Jewish issue; this is a subset of people, who call themselves Dominionist Fundamentalist Evangelical Christians – roughly 12.6 percent of the American population, but still that’s roughly 38 million people. This is the Dominionist Fundamentalist Christians versus the Constitution issue and their revisionist history about the founding father’s intent when they crafted the Constitution.”

Weinstein said David Miller’s case is just the beginning and suspects there are other veterans who have been treated similarly and hopes Miller’s case will be a catalyst for a class-action lawsuit. During a telephone interview, Weinstein said he’s been contacted by over 4200 soldiers and military veterans, who feel they have been victimized by the indoctrination of institutionalized Christianity. Due to fears of a backlash from military leaders for speaking out, only 112 of them will go on the record publicly and voice their complaints. “David Miller is an American hero,” said Weinstein. “He had the courage to speak out about.”

Administrators at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iowa City have gone on the record saying they’re taking Miller’s allegations very seriously. A spokesman, Kirt Sickels, said "We will look into these concerns that Mr. Miller is talking about. The Iowa City VA respects the rights to religious beliefs for every patient. If they have a request for any kind of religious needs, we try to accommodate whatever those needs or beliefs might be."

On of the major complaints cited by David Miller is that the VA hospital neglected to provide a kosher food alternative during all three of his visits to the facility, nor would the facility contact his rabbi to bring him some kosher food.

“We got a man screaming in pain due to angina,” Weinstein claims. “What he’s been through is unimaginable pain, and he’s screaming for the nurses to tell the evangelical VA Chaplain to go away and this is when he began evangelizing him, telling him that Jesus came for him. This is torture. During his last three visits, he wasn’t given food, because they didn’t have kosher food. Look, when you go on cruises they have kosher food. Even high school football players are provided with kosher food options. And the VA by its own accord is supposed to have kosher food.”

“Kosher meals are available to Jewish VA patients in Iowa City,” Sickels said.

Weinstein is confident he has a strong case against the VA: “We put people under oath and they’re swearing to tell the truth and we’re going to provide a number of witnesses that will support David Miller’s account. We’re in it to win it. We have military regulations up and down the line that specifically state you cannot use the Draconian specter of command influence to push anything on anyone, including Mary Kay products.”

Troops in Iraq Blocked from YouTube

The Vietnam War brought the first televised war into the living rooms of Americans, where families could gather around the tube and watch war correspondents report on the war. Since then, the birth of the Internet and the YouTube boom has changed the dynamics of video footage and war correspondence. The theater of war’s direction has shifted from the embedded journalist’s camera and reporting to the actual soldiers’ raw and unscripted footage.

Not any more. US forces Korea commander, General BB Bell, released a memo indicating that the Department of Defense will put the kibosh on this practice, blocking US military portals that provided military personnel access to YouTube, MySpace and 11 other popular sites. According to the memo released by Bell, the policy is being implemented to protect secure information and to reduce the drag on the military’s computer system:

“This recreational traffic impacts our official DoD {Department of Defense} network and bandwidth ability, while posing a significant operational security challenge,” the memo said.
The armed services already has a policy that prohibits military personnel from sharing information that could jeopardize their missions or safety – including anything from classified information to declassified information. The new blanket policy is different because it blocks all communications on these site mediums, where troops had been exchanging messages, videos clips, and audio bits with friends and families.

Whether or not this new policy has had any impact on Iowa soldiers and their families remains to be seen. “We haven’t had a single call yet from family members regarding this policy change,” said Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, Iowa National Guard Public Affairs. “If their was a major concern, I imagine somebody would have called by now.”

Military personnel and their families can still access the sites on their personal computers; they just cannot use the DoD networks. Although, this poses a problem for soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters of war, for this is the only access for most soldiers. The new policy doesn’t cut off communication between soldiers and their family and friends. “Soldiers still have access to their own personal e-mail account provided by the DoD, and they can send messages and images through these accounts,” said Lt. Col Hapgood. “They also have phone cards and access to satellite phones, but again, access to these modes of communication depends upon where they’re located.”

Recognizing the unprecedented capability of disseminating information and portraying the positives or successes of its mission abroad, the Pentagon began posting its own videos on YouTube. Targeting a younger audience, the Pentagon’s channel, the Multi-National Force-Iraq, has posted videos showing soldiers in action and performing acts of kindness towards the citizens of Iraq. In just two months, the “M-F F-I” channel has climbed to 16th in YouTube’s most subscribed-to listing and has surpassed the one-million views mark. The following videos illustrate the two types of video strands the Pentagon has been posting. The first video captures soldiers in a firefight, while the second focuses on the troops’ goodwill efforts.

Baghdad Firefight, March 2007

Troops Give Gifts to Iraqi Children

Although the DoD cites safety and band width as its primarily rationale for implementing the new regulation, the concern or lack of control has to be on their minds. With public support of the war in Iraq dwindling in America and abroad, the military can ill-afford another Abu Ghraib unfolding during its watch, or worse, broadcasted for the entire world to see on YouTube. Alleged war crimes and abuses committed by American soldiers have already been broadcasted on YouTube, although, given the raw nature of the footage and the lack of authenticity of the videos, it’s hard to determine if soldiers have violated any laws

(Warning: The following video has violent images and profamity. Please view at your own discretion.)

Witness to a war crime - US Soldiers Shoot Unarmed Civilians

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the YouTube boom adds another dimension to the communication, security, and information dissemination issues the DoD already faces. Blocking YouTube and similar sites is one way to help control some of these concerns, but if there’s a will to get something up on YouTube, soldiers are bound to find a way around the block to make it happen.