Friday, May 27, 2005

Come Home Safe: Come Home Soon

Barbara, an academic posting at bgblogging , spoke of her break from regular blogging as an “every-once-in-a-summer-while” pattern, and I can relate to the sentiment. Home again in northern Minnesota, I feel myself finally adjusting to patterns of another place, a process I doubt will ever become routine for me. Twelve weeks of summer vacation have already become ten, and I am ever more pushed by the demand of papers to write, course instruction to plan, and books to read before returning to Purdue in August. But such thoughts are not on my mind right now … not this week! Tommi is coming home.

I’ve learned that members of Tommi’s unit in Iraq are furloughed on a rotating basis, and Tommi’s turn came early on the list. I’m grateful for the opportunity to see her, spend time with her, rest with her while I’m home for the summer weeks of a school year. We already have more planned for ten days than twenty could hold, but that’s to be expected, even when great care is being taken to protect “carpet time” – those minutes for digging toes into the blues and greens of home or cat-lounging in front of picture windows or teasing music memories from a piano now too long silent.

Tommi’s coming home, and there’ll be fires out back, deck movies, glasses of wine, guitar time, and conversation. Then she’ll be gone again, and I know it already … I know it too soon.

I’m told transit is one of the more dangerous aspects of life in Iraq, so worry sits in balance with anticipation as I wait on word to hear that Tommi has arrived in the States. What had been expected to be a couple of days en route has already been riddled with delays. Thanks to Pat and Rich for their encouragement along the way, to Stormy for the bed, shower, and shuttle in Kuwait, and to Northwest Airlines for the first-class upgrades given to active-duty personnel on leave from wartime duty. All things as they should be from this point forward, Tommi will be on the ground in Bemidji tomorrow. She will be home.

There’ll be red, white, and blue flying in various forms as the first U.S. holiday weekend of the summer rolls up to Memorial Day on Monday, a day for set aside for remembering those who have died in service to this country. Along with others, I encourage us all to add remembrance of those citizen-soldiers currently serving in active duty posts around the world. I am grateful for their sacrifice, courage, and dedication to service with honor. Thank you all. Come home safe: Come home soon!

Friday, May 13, 2005


I first heard from Alice about the current legislative move to restore/enforce a ban on women in combat zones, a move the Army has skirted for some time now with a rhetorical play on the difference between “assigning” women to units likely to engage combat (an illegal placement) or “attaching” women to those same units – identical outcome but under the wire and within the letter of the law. …slick! That slick move is now under fire, and congress is pushing for a backup to President Bush’s state-of-the-union showpiece call for “No women in combat.” There are some interesting and complex realities apt to hit home on this one.

Sgt. Neva D. Trice leads a female Army search team on guard at the gates of Baghdad's Green Zone. Commenting recently on the president’s directive, she challenged, "If he said no women in combat, then why are there women here in Iraq?" The clear message here, as I discussed in an earlier post, is that all of Iraq is a combat zone. The Washington Post story presents interviews with both male and female soldiers directly opposing the restriction on women in combat, noting gender bias as the only real foundation for legislation: it’s not about whether or not women can do the job – they’re already doing it!

Female soldiers constitute nearly 15% of the “boots on ground” in Iraq, and of those who have served in this war/conflict/occupation, 314 of the dead or wounded have been women. Politics span the range from gung-ho to unofficially opposed to the U.S. action in Iraq, but the sentiment on this issue is consistent: gender should not be a reason for removing a soldier from duty. The Washington Post story is a great report of the sentiment to be found among female soldiers.

More than sentiment, however, pure numbers demand a reconsideration of the pending policy realignment. Recruitment goals set in contrast to the anticipated need for 80,000 troops in the upcoming Oct-Oct fiscal year are currently running at 9.9 percent – 1 for every 10 soldiers needed may be the real back-story on a new 15 month active duty recruitment tool announced Thursday by the U.S. Army. Today in Iraq runs the math: 12 months of active duty in Iraq and 30 days of furlough leaves only two months to train a fresh recruit for combat. And the “small print” on that baiting contract is a total military commitment of eight years, the other six and a half served with a National Guard, Ready Reserve, or comparable unit now essentially pooled as the on-call supply for regular army shortfalls.

As I’ve said so many times in writing here, the issue of the war in Iraq is a complex concern – no easy answers, and I know that. I want my daughter home alive, and I’m beyond angry with the dishonorable methods of operation that have her stationed in Iraq in the first place, so part of me welcomes the “no women in combat” rule as a ticket home for Tommi. Ok… but that’s hardly the point here! And she wouldn’t willingly come home on those terms anyway: she's got a job to do, and she'll do it. The point is that if you tell me or Tommi that gender is a factor preventing her from doing the job she’s already doing with proficiency and commendation, my blood will boil, and if you tell either one of us that her life should be counted as of greater value than the life of her brothers, you’ll be facing down at least a couple amazingly ferocious women before you get to the men who will be backing us up on the issue. So, if this move to restrict women in combat makes as little sense as it seems to make, what’s the rest of the story?

At a press conference on Thursday, Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged patience in response to escalating violence and ongoing U.S. efforts to secure the democratic process in that region of the world. He said, “I wouldn’t look for results tomorrow,” adding that the insurgency could last “from three, four, to nine years.” Are we ready for that? I know it’s a bone I keep in the corner for chewing on these days, but with recruitment numbers at all-time lows, the projection of nine (or more) years of conflict remaining, and new congressional assurances that female soldiers will not be allowed in combat zones, tell me, are my foreboding anticipations of a draft easily dismissed? Are we ready for that?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

A Country at War?

In passing comments with Tommi recently, I spoke from a certainty that the “average” American is little aware (if at all) that this country is “at war” in Iraq. Oh, I see plenty of yellow-ribbon magnetic appliqués printed to read “Support Our Troops” decorating the tails of pick-up trucks and mid-size cars; I see news reports and headlines each time a significant loss of life is attributed to the next suicide bomber, but there nonetheless seems a disconnect between the (real)ization of our country at WAR and the all’s-well life of Jo(e) American getting ready of summer celebrations, holidays, the latest fashions, and baseball season.

Don’t get me wrong – this is not a rant against anything or anybody, and it’s not another impassioned call for a more interested or invested citizenry. It was merely an expression in conversation with my daughter of a conviction that the average American citizen doesn’t know (remember) this country is actually at war with another nation-state – and if remembered, would almost certainly not know why. Fascinating.

Well, Tommi passed my comment on to Pat (on duty with her at the gate), who disagreed with my contention, believing instead that Americans were diligently aware of the war in which their country was engaged – citizen soldiers killed daily, $4.7 billion American tax dollars allocated monthly, insufficient supplies and soldiers to get the job done, and no current plan for withdrawal. His counter to my position dogged me for a week or so, and then an interesting opportunity came to the fore: a stroll through the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota provided the chance for a bit of an informal survey. Ok… ok… I know the drawbacks and limitations of my method – it was the Mall of America after all, but I made bold to ask anyway, and the results surprised even me.

After politely interrupting, explaining that I was taking an informal poll for a article I was writing on “the current American political scene,” I asked first, “Would you be able to say whether or not our country was currently at war?” and secondly, if they answering to the affirmative, “Would you be able to say why?” Of the roughly fifty people with whom I spoke, no more than half knew the country was currently at war, some believing the war was over and the occupation all that was left, others not sure at all “what was happening over there.” When I questioned further those who seemed to know the country was at war, there were none among them who expressed with any confidence a sense of knowing why. “To free the Iraqis, right?” Free them from what? I asked. “I don’t know. From their terrorists, right?”

My casual survey at the Mall of America made clear the idea that being “aware” is slippery (at best) and difficult to pin down with a certain meaning, but I still left the experience more certain than I'd been before of the general disconnect between the fact of war in Iraq and the sense of knowing that the general American population has of that action. As I write this post, however, I am anxious for your response to these questions: Would you be able to say whether or not our country was currently at war? Perhaps more importantly, would you be able to say why?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Touching on Beginnings

OMGoodness… four posts in a single day! Think of it as catching up on ideas that have been waiting for me while I finished the last days of the semester. There’ll be another dry spell coming up while I make my way back to Minnesota for twelve short weeks of summer: papers to write, books to read, and new course material to plan. … but I’ll do all that as the boat drifts from one end to the other of lake Bemidji, so who could complain?!

This blog began as a platform for considerations of age, aging, and the strength of women moving through the second half of life. It was a noble beginning even if misconceived in the notion of what a blog is and does best. Though circumstances soon turned the focus of my writing toward Tommi and her deployment to Iraq, it is to the topic of age and aging that I return as I end the semester in anticipation of a bit of time away. I share with you here a handful of interesting ideas I picked up along the way as topics deserving of a write. Enjoy!

From Yahoo Finance, January 24, 2005: Contrary to conventional wisdom, life gets better with age. “When you’re in your 20s, 30s, and eve 40s, it’s common for women to put their lives under a microscope and feel like they’re not living up to their full potential in terms of work, home, and family,” said Carrie McCament, senior director for Frank About Women. “By the time she reaches her 50x, she’s really hit her stride. She is happy, she is confident, and she is financially astute.” In a survey of 1155 women ages 20 to 97, only 42 percent of the women in their twenties reported themselves to be “extremely” or “very satisfied” with their overall wellness. It rises to 46 percent for women in their fifties, and to 50 percent for women in their sixties. When women grow older than 70, the percentage jumps to a whopping 66 percent.

For My Next Act, Women Scripting Life After Fifty (Baar, 2004)
Fifty Celebrate Fifty (Collins, 2002)
How to Plan a Great Second Life (Burgett, 2003)

Broadcast media can convey a false sense of what women of age look like. More than wise and gracious, there is confidence, strength, tenacious determination, accomplishment, and depth. Age is fascinating, even mysterious.

Women blogging with whom to consider the journey through the second half:
Elaine at Kalilily Time
Kat at Keep the Coffee Coming
Millie at My Mom’s Blog
Ronni at Times Goes By
and others you’ll find at The Ageless Project

Combat Zones: Women on the Front Lines

Several stories in the last couple of days have folded into single thread of thought for me. The trail began when I came across this bit of sensationalist journalism from Sean Hannity where he speculates that the effort to capture Osama Bin Laden might have succeeded had female soldiers not been training with their male counterparts who would otherwise have been deployed in a more timely fashion. My blood began to boil, and the situation got worse when a next report of rockets hitting nearby training grounds came in from my Tommi.

“On the books” female soldiers are barred from serving in units involved in direct combat or with units “collocated,” those units directly supporting front-line combat. Mike at Everybody’s Crazy counters from five years of service experience with the 82nd Airborne Division:

Every single person in that unit is a paratrooper, and they are all dropped into battle in the same place — right on an enemy airfield (usually). Cooks, mechanics, technicians, commanders, clerks — doesn’t matter. They all jump. And since they are quite a few women in the unit, effectively, every one of them is a front-line troop by default, already. So, the Army is violating its own policies about women in combat — because if you’re a female mechanic, dropping into a hot DZ, you’re in combat no matter what. By the way, there are quite a few women MPs in the 82nd, and the MPs usually see almost as much combat engagement in modern conflicts as infantry troops.

Molly Ginty reports for Women’s Enews that so far in Iraq a record number of U.S. female soldiers have been killed in combat, due in great measure to the 1994 change of rules that opened 90% of the jobs in the military to women. Women aren’t on the front lines? Former Congressional Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colo.House Armed Services Committee 1973 to 1996, had this to say of service in Iraq: "The whole place is literally a front line." Listen here to the stories of three women who live now with the aftermath of battle on the front lines.

Do I think that the sons of a nation should bear greater risk at times of war than do a nation’s daughters? No! The rules are wrong for so many reasons, but the old rules aren’t holding in 21st century warfare anyway – at least not in the field, even if they do throw a thin veil of comfort over reality for those who would rather think in terms of grand and elevated notions of war. What disturbs me in this lineup of stories is not an issue of gender equality but one of deception.

On Tuesday last David McSwane, a high school student from a small community just outside Denver, received national media attention when he recorded two recruiters advising him about how to cheat his way into the Army. The military calls it “recruitment improprieties,” and reports nearly 1,200 cases on record last year alone. According to Damien Cave reporting for the NYTimes, five out of every ten recruiters were found to have committed such improprieties as falsifying diplomas, drug-check records, criminal background checks, or medical records. Last September a 21-year-old man only three weeks discharged from a psychiatric ward was enlisted and shipped for training. His parents’ search for him led them to the recruiters who had signed him up, and though sympathetic, they denied ever having seen them. The father’s tenacity outed the story, but the recruiters are still on the job.

From the security of anonymity, two recruiters shared consistent accounts and records to back up their stories.

The recruiter who had fought in several conflicts including the current war in Iraq, said one in every three people he had enlisted had a problem that needed concealing or a waiver. “The only people who want to join the Army now have issues,” he said. “They’re troubled, with health, police, or drug problems.”

The father of the psychotic young man mentioned above was able to secure a cancellation of his son’s enlistment, but only with the help of court-appointed lawyers and a sympathetic judge. Of the recruiters he said, “They were willing to put my son and other recruits at risk. It’s beyond my comprehension, and appalling.”

When Tommi enlisted with the Minnesota National Guard, the recruiter sat at our dining room table and assured her (and me) that she would never see a combat situation. “Women are not allowed to serve in combat,” he said. “It has never happened, and it never will.”

The Censor's Veil

Bob Herbert is a writer for the New York Times. I encourage you to follow his work there, but today he caught my attention with this story: “Lifting the Censor’s Veil on the Shame of Iraq.” Many of you have let me know that you don’t take the time to follow the links I include within the text, so I’m providing the brief writing here in its entirety … so very worth the reading.

"Nobody wants to come forward about this," said Aidan Delgado. "I didn't want to come forward about this."

One of the distinctive things about the war in Iraq is the extraordinary proliferation of photos taken by G.I.'s that document the extreme horrors of warfare and, in many instances, the degrading treatment of Iraqi civilians by American troops.

When Mr. Delgado returned to Florida last year from a tour of Iraq that included a traumatic stint with a military police unit at Abu Ghraib prison, he thought he could pretty easily resume the ordinary life of a college student and leave his troubling war experiences behind. But people kept asking him about Iraq. And he had many photos, some of them extremely difficult to look at, that were permanent reminders of events that are likely to stay with him for a lifetime.

There are pictures of children who were wounded and barely clinging to life, and some who appeared to be dead. There was a close-up of a soldier who was holding someone's severed leg. There were photos of Iraqis with the deathlike stare of shock, stunned by the fact that something previously unimaginable had just happened to them. There were photos of G.I.'s happily posing with the bodies of dead Iraqis. This is what happens in war. It's the sickening reality that is seldom seen in the censored, sanitized version of the conflict that Americans typically get from the government and the media.

Americans' attitude toward war in general and this war in particular would change drastically if the censor's veil were lifted and the public got a sustained, close look at the agonizing bloodshed and other horrors that continue unabated in Iraq. If that happened, support for any war that wasn't an absolute necessity would plummet.

Mr. Delgado, 23, is a former Army reservist who was repelled by the violence and dehumanization of the war. He completed his tour in Iraq. But he sought and received conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged last January.

Some of the most disturbing photos in his possession were taken after G.I.'s at Abu Ghraib opened fire on detainees who had been throwing rocks at guards during a large protest. Four detainees were killed. The photos show American soldiers posing and goofing around with the bodies of the detainees. In one shot a body bag has been opened to show the gruesome head wound of the corpse. In another, a G.I. is leaning over the top of the body bag with a spoon in his right hand, as if he is about to scoop up a portion of the dead man's wounded flesh.

"These pictures were circulated like trophies," Mr. Delgado said.

ome were posted in command headquarters. He said it seemed to him that the shooting of the prisoners and the circulation of the photos were viewed by enlisted personnel and at least some officers as acceptable - even admirable - behavior. Mr. Delgado said that when his unit was first assigned to Abu Ghraib, he believed, like most of his fellow soldiers, that the prisoners were among the most dangerous individuals in Iraq. He said: "Most of the guys thought, 'Well, they're out to kill us. These are the ones killing our buddies.' " But while at work in a headquarters office, he said, he learned that most of the detainees at Abu Ghraib had committed only very minor nonviolent offenses, or no offenses at all. (Several investigations would subsequently reveal that vast numbers of completely innocent Iraqis were seized and detained by coalition forces.)

Several months ago Mr. Delgado gave a talk and presented a slide show at his school, New College of Florida in Sarasota. To his amazement, 400 people showed up. He has given a number of talks since then in various parts of the country. His goal, he said, is to convince his listeners that the abuse of innocent Iraqis by the American military is not limited to "a few bad apples," as the military would like the public to believe. "At what point," he asked, "does a series of 'isolated incidents' become a pattern of intolerable behavior?"

The public at large and especially the many soldiers who have behaved honorably in Iraq deserve an honest answer to that question. It took many long years for the military to repair its reputation after Vietnam. Mr. Delgado's complaints and the entire conduct of this wretched war should be thoroughly investigated.

Being Stupid

Really, she meant to sympathize. We’d been talking about Tommi, about the increasingly tense conditions for her on duty in Iraq – it’s not an easy topic to wrap the mind around: the rabbit hole on this one goes deep. Speculations … projections, and the conversation eventually turned to a consideration of her own child, a son now approaching age 18 and the government mandate for registration with Selective Services – a U.S. euphemism for “draft registration.”

Maybe she didn’t think before she spoke. Maybe she didn’t mean the other part of what she said when she concluded, “Jason won’t be so stupid as to sign up. I can tell you that.”

I know her heart. She didn’t mean to say Tommi was “stupid” for volunteering to serve in the Minnesota National Guard … (read) Minnesota … (read) National Guard. It was a study of civic service by young adults in other countries around the world that inspired a sense of civic responsibility and moved both my daughter and son to volunteer for service: the Red River Valley flood, a child lost in a natural game reserve, staffing the local telethon, standing by to secure civic calm should need arise.

Maybe they should have known how “stupid” that was.

Tensions are escalating in Iraq, and Tommi’s feeling it at the gate. “They’re throwing everything they’ve got at us now,” she says, returning from a bunker for the fourth time today.

And here’s what I think: When the full-time army can’t handle the war Mr. Bush has engaged on our behalf, when there’s not enough “volunteer army” to do the job, then a reevaluation of the initiative is in order – let the people of this land face the real questions of resource distribution. There is a price tag on this pastime! Are we really making the best use of $4.7 billion dollars a month in funding this war? And if there aren’t enough soldiers, are we ready to legislate a draft of U.S. citizens to supply the number of soldiers needed for the job we’ve committed to do? How ‘bout that? Are we ready to include our able-bodied daughters this time around? … your child sent to “the sandbox” for a promise of democracy in Iraq? If you had to vote an answer on whether or not to send your own child to dodge rockets in support of this two-year-old “victory,” would your thinking on the subject change? Would your representatives hear from you then?

Instead, we are willing to steal an easy answer! … to take what was never freely given. We DRAFT those who were once willing to commit six years of their lives as citizen soldiers serving in the gap for “homeland security” when those words still meant security at home.

Folks, in the long run (and there will be a long run) that is “stupid.” Think about it.