Thursday, June 30, 2005

Shadow Soldiers

"Shadow Soldiers" is for me one of the more moving images from Lt.TL's Photos, Tommi's photo stream at flickr. This image speaks to me today, especially in light of the previous posts.

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No End In Sight

NYTimes editorialist Robert Herbert again composes his thinking in such a way as to help me sort through waves of information and keep at bay some measure of the confusion that is always swirling around me as I think about my daughter/soldier fighting a war right now in Iraq. Herbert’s reflections on the President’s Tuesday evening speech could be said to be generous in light of reports from other sources that even the Ft. Bragg soldiers received the President with such reticence as to need prompting for their applause. Herbert writes that “[t]he Bush crowd bristles at the use of the ‘Q-word,’” and by that he meant the word quagmire. I had been more hopeful that the Q-word would mean “quit” and the thought of bringing the troops home, but the President said:

  1. We have enough troops to do the job even though there are only 138,000 troops on the ground to secure peace in a country with a population of 26 million people.
  2. He won’t send more troops because the generals in Iraq are telling him that there is no need even when Maj. Chris Kennedy of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment makes it clear that there are too few troops to hold the ground once gained at the cost of American lives – a job that needs doing over and over again as insurgents repeatedly reoccupy territories left with too few soldiers to secure them.
  3. He won’t name a time for troop withdrawal: Our troops would stay “until the war on terror” is over or “until the Iraqi army is ready to take over” – which could mean forever but will certainly mean an undefined number of years. But we shouldn’t think about Viet Nam or stop to realize that the world is so much more a fearful place today than it was when the President of the United States started a war.
  4. And the President said “it was worth it,” meaning he was willing to spend the lives of our children and the future economic security of our nation to mediate a civil war on the other side of the planet.


The President is asking Congress for an additional $2.6 billion to cover shortfalls in the cost of VA medical care. The White House is explaining the need as one arising from having “vastly underestimated the number of service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Read the Washington Post report here.

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Americans Are Voting Again

Reports that the Army reached its recruiting goals for June are showing up in all the major papers around the country. The Center for Media and Democracy highlights the practice of the current administration to strategically present information in such a way as to sway public opinion, particularly in matters relating to the war in Iraq. The victory claim announced as success in reaching June recruiting goals is certainly a case in point. Markos Moulitsas Zuniga at Daily Kos “does the math” here and demonstrates the rhetorical turns taken in making the claim. Follow the numbers through May media reports and you’ll find that recruitment goals were lowered in May from an originally defined 8,050 – already more than 1,700 a month fewer than needed to meet the annual “replacement” minimums for the war we’ve engaged in Iraq, to a goal at that time of 6,700 recruits. Claiming to have met recruiting goals by enlisting 6,000 young people in June hardly tells the story like it is: Americans are voting again, this time with the lives of their children.

(via Google maps provides an Iraq War Casualties geographic visual of the number of young men and women who have died so far in the war. It is worth the look/see.

update: An interesting conversation has been taking place at Alice's blog somewhat along these lines. Comments from Dr. B were particularly powerful reflections on the (un)readiness of young people when faced with the practiced techniques of recruiters under the pressure of a numbers crunch. ...worth the read.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Apache Gunship Downed: Two Friends Die

It was the middle of the night at Camp Taji when she called. She was crying. “Mom. Are you there? I need to hear your voice,” she said. “I just needed to hear your voice.”

“I’m here, Tommi,” I said in return. “I’m here,” and I waited. Then again, “I’m here. Will talking help or is the connection enough?”

“The connection’s enough,” she said, still crying but now without sound. “…can’t say much … communications blackout.”

And I knew what that meant: a soldier on base had been lost and contact with "the outside world" was supposed to shut down until families could be informed. I waited and then slowly, carefully asked, “Was it someone you knew?” Silence. Then.

“Mom, remember my friend, Savannah? the pilot? She’s home on leave right now. She’s safe at home right now.” Then she cried again. She cried, and I held her as best I could from the other side of the planet. And as I write this bit of story about a soldier/daughter at war and the wrenching pain she felt at a loss and almost loss, I’m remembering the soldier/son of another mother huddled under a blanket in Ramadi, finding a some(other)where in a video game to go because he can’t call home from where he is – can’t “hear a voice” from home, and that maybe there are no other answers just then for why a friend died, and it hurts me to think of him so alone, to think of so many who must need a voice from home.

“I’m here, Tommi.”

The Washington Post ran the story this morning of an AH-64 Apache downed about 10 miles northwest of Taji – both crewmembers on board killed. BBC News included an image of an Apache fighter with their report. I am reaching out to a mother at home who has gotten the news by now.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sober Conversation: Making Sense of it All

I don't understand what we're doing in Iraq. I don't know why we're spending the lives of our children or so astronomically increasing the national debt. I sometimes lose hours in a day trying to figure it out, and it can be too easy to "latch onto answers" that skim the surface of issues without accounting for the gnarly complexities embedded in details. I am encouraged as well as amazed by the number of people - not just "professional" types but regular folks like me or you - who are willing to wade into a tangle of information and work through it, trying to find patterns and a path that will take out of the conflict, the cost, the division. Passions run high on the topic for all kinds of reasons - "blood" on the line is reason for me, but while motivations for investment vary, I know I am learning from those who are working to make sense of it all, and I'm grateful for their efforts.

This morning Hunter at Daily Kos pointed me to this NYTimes editorial that seemed to help clear a space in my thinking for place at least to begin conversation about what's happening in Iraq, about whether or not anyone still knows, and most importantly, about whether or not there's a plan for what we're doing now. I am reposting the short editorial as a whole here - accessing the New York Times can sometimes be tricky, and I don't want to lose track of this piece in working for my own understanding.

June 25, 2005

Three Things About Iraq

To have the sober conversation about the war in Iraq that America badly needs, it is vital to acknowledge three facts:

The war has nothing to do with Sept. 11. Saddam Hussein was a sworn enemy of Washington, but there was no Iraq-Qaeda axis, no connection between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist attacks on the United States. Yet the president and his supporters continue to duck behind 9/11 whenever they feel pressure about what is happening in Iraq. The most cynical recent example was Karl Rove's absurd and offensive declaration this week that conservatives and liberals had different reactions to 9/11. Let's be clear: Americans of every political stripe were united in their outrage and grief, united in their determination to punish those who plotted the mass murder and united behind the war in Afghanistan, which was an assault on terrorists. Trying to pretend otherwise is the surest recipe for turning political dialogue into meaningless squabbling.

The war has not made the world, or this nation, safer from terrorism. The breeding grounds for terrorists used to be Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; now Iraq has become one. Of all the justifications for invading Iraq that the administration juggled in the beginning, the only one that has held up over time is the desire to create a democratic nation that could help stabilize the Middle East. Any sensible discussion of what to do next has to begin by acknowledging that. The surest way to make sure that conversation does not happen is for the administration to continue pasting the "soft on terror" label on those who want to talk about the war.

If the war is going according to plan, someone needs to rethink the plan. Progress has been measurable on the political front. But even staunch supporters of the war, like the Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, told Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a hearing this week that President Bush was losing public support because the military effort was not keeping pace. A top general said this week that the insurgency was growing. The frequency of attacks is steady, or rising a bit, while the repulsive tactic of suicide bombings has made them more deadly.

If things are going to be turned around, there has to be an honest discussion about what is happening. But Mr. Rumsfeld was not interested. Sneering at his Democratic questioners, he insisted everything was on track and claimed "dozens of trained battalions are capable of conducting anti-insurgent operations" with American support. That would be great news if it were true. Gen. George Casey, the commander in Iraq, was more honest, saying he hoped there would be "a good number of units" capable of doing that "before the end of this year."

Americans cannot judge for themselves because the administration has decided to make the information secret. Senator John McCain spoke for us when he expressed his disbelief at this news. "I think the American people need to know," he said. "They are the ones who are paying for this conflict."

Citizen Soldiers

Brother and Sister, Abraham and Tommi are members of the Minnesota National Guard. They are pictured together here outside Como Park Conservatory in St. Paul, Minnesota. The picture was taken during Tommi's recent two-week furlough from deployment to Iraq. Charlie Company, the company with which Abraham is enlisted, is currently on alert status in anticipation of an early 2006 deployment. Overlapping deployments could mean it will be more than two years before they see one another again.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Knowing Just Got Harder

In the months that have passed since Tommi’s deployment to Iraq, I have learned how to read the news faster and better than I did before. I have learned to read electronically, to read RSS feeds through online aggregators like bloglines, and to appreciate the various watchers who collect, synthesize, and engage difficult issues circling around the topics of war and the U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Months of learning are bringing me to a new place now: each next story seems to raise in me a recurrent response. “Enough now,” I think to myself. “I don’t want to know.”

I don’t want to know that:

  1. after more than 1,700 dead and 13,000 wounded American lives have been spent, the insurgency is gaining strength
  2. the defense department is now working with a marketing firm to create a data base of high school and college age students most likely to enlist – that they have the wherewithal to access email records, records of academic achievement, and ethnicity to assist in targeting potential recruits
  3. that a congressional call for definitive U.S. military planning in Iraq is flatly resisted by this administration as too likely to enforce enemy strategies
  4. that rhetorical battles for “the high ground” can change the devastation of 9/11 into a bitter partisan game and change the Iraq/Afghanistan theater of war into “southwest Asia” to appease “politically sensitive international relations” when a U.S. pilot dies in a plane crash on the wrong side of a border
  5. that the bombs lacing the roadways of Iraq are getting smarter with every passing day, and that equipment that should protect our soldiers isn’t safe enough now

I especially don’t want to know that another company of Minnesota National Guard men and women have just been put on alert for deployment. Those in Charlie Company not already trained as infantry will likely be retrained as military police and qualified for deployment along with others of their company. I don’t want to know. I just don’t want there to be more to know.

My son is presently a cook for Charlie Company.

Knowing just got harder to do.

Soldier Smiling

Soldier Smiling
Originally photographed by Tommi.
I keep myself company with pictures like this one of Tommi, and I remind myself that it won't be long before she is home again.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Tommi's Photo Stream

Tommi is posting images from her days on duty in Iraq at her Flickr location. Check them out here. "Convoy Lookout" is one of my favorites.

Randy Said: Words That Bear Repeating

A few weeks ago Viet Nam veterans greeted Tommi and others deplaning in Dallas as soldiers on furlough or returning from service in Iraq. It was an emotionally overwhelming time for Tommi as well as for the veterans there working to insure that another generation of soldiers would not be “forgotten” for the sacrifice they are making in the name of country, integrity, and honor.

A few days ago a close friend and veteran of the Viet Nam war, left these moving comments for Tommi at Sentinel 47: Keeping the Gate. The words bear reposting here. Thanks, Randy, for the outpouring of heart and the faithfulness with which you care. Thanks especially for recognizing the difficulty of war that lives after a soldier returns.

Randy said:


It was good to see you back from the green world. Thank you for blessing us with a visit. Having been in that world I know how to pray for you and do. Saying I know how to pray for you I admit that I only know in part how to pray because there were no females at my base and I am not a female. I can understand and see where you have extra stress and baggage to carry and strongly feel the job carries enough burden and challenge without adding all the facets and issues that come with human identity and sexuality. Word that you were going to Iraq was such a trip. You are the same age as my boys and I had a good idea about the conditions into which you were going. More Prayers, need to keep you in prayer. More than just the safety in the here and now, Prayer for the rest of your life as you carry this baggage. Prayer for the bitters as it will taint your whole view of the world and life. Prayer that you don't grow to cynical because it takes the joy out of life and it's possibilities. Prayer for your heart with the loss of innocence to that side of life. Prayer for your being as you seek reason in all this. Prayer that you not seek reason in economics, politic ideology or philosophy. Prayer that you find refuge in Proverbs 3:5&6, Rom 8:28 and the whole book of Philippians just to name a few. My heart is heavy that you are even there but I am proud of you for being there and answering the call to duty. I respect the path you chose to walk and the integrity to walk it with strength and dignity. Words cannot explain but I understand. Walk with God keeping your eyes on Him and not the hell you find your self in. Remember it is only the valley of the shadow of death that you walk through, his rod and staff are with you.


Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Community of Remembrance

Tommi telephoned! It was wonderful to hear her voice – simply wonderful, and in no time at all we were talking as though she had just gone to town for a few errands and called only to wonder if there was anything she could pick up for me before coming home. The feeling of home covered the thirty minutes we shared together, and I rested in them – full exhale. Two weeks of Tommi concentrate can make for a whole lot of missing her when she’s gone.

We talked projects on deck, traded headline highlights from recent topics in the news, and drifted to “girl talk” for a few needed moments of feeling the feminine that is outlawed by the uniform she wears. (See Tommi’s blog, Sentinel 47: Keeping the Gate, for her own telling of a story along these lines.) Of course, we did get to her shopping list before she hung up, but there’s joy in shopping lists from a soldier on deployment; it can be hard to know how to stay in touch, and sending things can be so much easier than figuring out what to say in a letter – the gap between worlds being so far across. So … would I send some of the 3-M hooks and something heavy to hang across the window that will keep light and as much heat as possible out? Oh, and did I think I could find one of those little white boards, the kind they use in college dorms for hanging on the back of the door? And don’t worry, she’d send money for postage. And could I send coffee beans, too? You can’t get good coffee over there … oh, and number four filters?

The package will go out today or tomorrow and travel for ten days to reach her – no matter. ln days ahead Tommi and I will again build a habit of email exchange and find the occasional treat of instant messages. It’s a world of work for both of us, and the days pass. In the meantime, I am encouraged by friends who join me in remembering Tommi. Kat at Keep the Coffee Coming sent a song out yesterday for her, and Ken at Digital Common Sense passed along a moving dedication to heroes, naming Tommi as one of his own. There are, of course, many others keeping Tommi in prayer and remaining mindful of her and all the sons and daughters who have been sent overseas to fight a war. It matters. Knowing there is home helps keep a soldier safe. Together we become a community of remembrance, and it is from this place that I take my greatest encouragement and my most certain hope that we will bring all our children home safely.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Everyone Was Asking, "Am I Next?"

After a mild critique of Washington Post reporter Amy Scott Tyson in the previous post, I want to be quick to offer this follow-up of praise. As I was finishing my "catching up" reading today, I came across another story by Ms. Tyson. In this telling of events she masterfully condenses the complexity of loss that overwhelms an overworked unit of soldiers on duty in Ramadi. This is a story not to be missed, a story that may make a war too easily distanced more real in the reading.

New York Times reporter Bob Herbert writes here to an idea alongside this story in suggesting (in harmony with my often emotionally charged sentiments) that those who give support for the war in Iraq might best measure their conviction with a consideration of sending their own children into service. It is so much easier to think impersonally about "good causes." Herbert's editorial prompts a more searching reflection.

Finally, Beth Quinn of the Times Herald-Record writes from the shadow of the Downing Street Memo fiasco to challenge our president not only to a greater level of integrity but to a humane level of compassion for the families of those who are dying to defend what was now so obviously an international violation of law. Go here to read her words and those she was privileged to share.

Courage Under Fire

Tommi’s recent return to duty in Iraq prompted a turn of my attention to the recognition given Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester and her driver, Spec. Ashley J. Pullen, both receiving honors last Thursday for their performance under fire in an exchange of hostilities with Iraqi resistance troops. Hester “fought her way through an enemy ambush south of Baghdad, killing three insurgents with her M-4 rifle to save fellow soldiers' lives,” and Pullen “laid down fire to suppress insurgents,” exposing herself to heavy fire “in order to provide medical assistance to her critically injured comrades." Both Hester and Pullen, along with six others of that cracker-jack unit, received recognition last week: Pullen received the Bronze Star, and Hester became the first woman since WWII to receive the Silver Star, a medal signifying valor in combat.

What makes the story worth repeating for me is the demonstration these women so competently made of doing their jobs in combat side-by-side with their male counterparts. According to a Washington Post report by Ann Scott Tyson, lives were saved under Hester’s leadership. Her superb performance in guerilla warfare gives sound answer to those who would question the quality of work done by women in combat.

One aspect of Tyson’s report troubles me, however; she first reports the 23-year old Hester as a retail store manager enlisted with the Kentucky National Guard’s 617th Military Police Unit then goes on to conflate that part-time military status with full-time enlistment, referring to Hester as having “…joined the Army in 2001.” A soldier? Yes. Ready to serve? Yes. Capable, competent, and courageous? Yes, yes, yes … as proven alongside hundreds of thousands other National Guards men and women whose service is currently being appropriated to compensate troop shortfalls for an increasingly demanding war! But there is difference between “joining the (full-time) army” and joining the National Guard, and I’m guessing that those who volunteered for enlistment in the National Guard knew that difference and were counting on us to know it, too.

According to current Pentagon figures, tens of thousands of American women have served to date in Iraq: 36 have been killed and 285 wounded. All told, 1720 U.S. soldiers have died in an operation call “Iraqi Freedom,” and more than 13,000 have been wounded. I’m grateful to Sgt. Hester and those of her unit for the work they did and the lives they saved – I’m glad they made it out alive, but for everyone’s sake I think we need a better answer, and we need it soon!

Republican Representative Walter B. Jones (No. Carolina) exercised another kind of courage last week when he spoke on behalf of a bi-partisan committee to demand greater administrative response to growing public discontent with the situation in Iraq: he called for a commitment to a clearly defined timeline for troop withdrawal. Read more about that effort here. I am grateful to Rep. Jones for being one among his party to do what can be done in bringing this concern into public debate.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Just In Case

Just In Case
Originally photographed by Ric Hoff, GoldenEye Studios.
No one wants to imagine any "good-bye" to be the last moment shared in this life, but when on Monday I sent my daughter/soldier back to fight a war in Iraq, the shadow of could-be outlined a promise of Tommi's safe return. I am forever grateful to my good friend Ric Hoff, artist in residence at Golden-Eye Studios, who traded time in front of his camera in exchange for a amateur haircut: I left the richer with a collection of favorite memories from Tommi's two weeks at home. Here's one of the best: "Just In Case".

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Two Weeks With Tommi

Ten anticipated days with Tommi turned into two weeks, and I practiced normal with quiet celebrations, squeezing all the life I could into pictures, stories, traces, and lingering smells – a cache of hope stockpiled in memories with which to arm myself against the coming months of absence. Nothing of Monday’s departure was right: it wasn’t right to go back to the desert, the war, the confusion but it wasn’t right to stay either. Pain ripped through to the bone when she tore herself one last time from the sandwich of hugs and holding that didn’t want to let go. She crossed the lines of airport security, touched hands through the glass that separated us, and turned to walk away. She didn’t look back. She didn’t look back. And she was gone.

Karen Liubakka owns a magical shop in Grand Rapids, Minnesota called “Stained Glass With Class,” where every manner of delicacy plays with light and sound and shape and movement. Tommi went there with her brothers and sister to shop for treasure on the Sunday before leaving. She buys the wares of local artists when she can and came home from the glass shop with a generous portion of “finds” from the collection on display there. Though Tommi is reserved in conversation, resistant to the drama of discussions that can surround issues of war and her military service in Iraq; nonetheless, curiousity and polite exchanges at the checkout counter turned in the direction of Tommi's work as a soldier and her impending return to Baghdad. The shopkeeper excused herself and disappeared for only a moment before returning with a “gift for your mother … something to help her through the time.”

Ms. Liubakka had given Tommi a five-pointed star of blue and clear stained glass; the center section of the star provided a place for a photo to be mounted. Karen explained that the star was fashioned after a design common to those used to remember service men and women gone to war during World War II, that a photo of the soldier was placed in the center of the star and the star hung in the most prominent window of the family home. She packaged a star and wrapped it as a gift to me through Tommi. It’s hanging in the front window now.

Tommi was scheduled to leave Kuwait on transport to Baghdad sometime in the early hours of this morning. Schedules are unreliable at best, but it is reasonable to think she’ll have boots on ground within the next 24 hours. There are too many two-letter conditions: “ifs” like dark clouds of possibility, but ififif all goes as thought as planned as hoped as scheduled, Tommi will be back on U.S. soil by the first of next year. We’ll do birthdays together in February – I have to believe that, and until then I’ll draw a deep breath and hold it … again.

I am remembering you, Daughter. Come home soon. And Pat, I’m holding you to your word.