Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Iowa National Guard soldiers mobilize for Afghanistan deployment

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 3, 2008

VoteVets hopes to make politics in Iowa friendlier to veterans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From citizen soldier to veterans’ advocate

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

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

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

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

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

VoteVets.org vow to hold public officials accountable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nonpartisanship and the swift-boat factor

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

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

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

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

ts for Freedom seeks to rebuild support for war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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