Saturday, December 31, 2005

Postcard from Paradise

Okay, I took a big leap off this healing journey that I am on and left the country for the holidays, or Christmas, whatever sentiment makes you happy. I was looking for some time off, some downtime to figure out what happened in 2005, try to figure out what's in store for 2006. I *know* I'll never be able to make sense out of what happened in 2004, but that is not anything I can change. Ken's never coming home and I miss him ALOT!

Mexico in late December is definitely a place to go to try to forget about your troubles and think warm thoughts. I am grateful for the friends in my life. And that includes friends I have not met (I know you are out there) I am grateful that I live in the good old U S of A, but thanks to this administration, it is hasn't been too easy to be proud of what our country stands for these days. It's kind of like a recalcitrant child. You love them because they are your child, but sometimes you sure don't like them very much.

I was in a part of Mexico where the shoreline is not really meant for strolling, but the pounding of the surf and watching the waves is kind of comforting in a mindless way. I find when I am at home, that going to the beach and yelling at the waves, at God, at the sky, or whoever and whatever will listen to my pain sometimes helps. No one can really hear me, but I know God can. I don't know the answer to "Why?" and I'm not likely to find out, at least not in this lifetime. In Mexico, those waves beckoned for me. I wanted to scream and cry at the shoreline just like at home, but it was too foreboding this time. I knew if I ventured near the waves that I just might not stop....crying.... or I just might not stop. It was fear that kept the sorrow inside this time. No worries for me, I know the sorrow is there just waiting and maybe someday, I will feel safe enough to let it out. Or maybe it's a control issue. Sorrow so close to the surface is toxic, I think.

Palm trees swaying in the breeze, the sound of mariachis in the distance, blue-blue skies without a cloud in sight, the blazing sun and a midnight sky full of stars and a full all sounds idyllic. I was able to clear my mind, do some reading and get lots of sleep.

Christmas will never be the same. The thing is Christmas was the last
time I saw Ken back in 2002. I remember the excitement of that homecoming. We knew that a deployment to Iraq was likely. He was about ready to graduate from Officers Advanced Basic and then head off to Germany and his first post as a young Lt. I knew that Germany was Army code for "one step closer to the desert". I *knew* Ken was going to Iraq and to war, but we didn't talk about it. We just spent time together as a family; Ken's cousins, aunts, grandparents and me. We gambled in Reno, we relived all the family traditions we have gathered through the years. We opened our Christmas stockings and our gifts. If only I knew it was the last time we would have together. There are so many memories of that Christmas and then the next one from Iraq when Ken sent me a photo of him in a Santa cap. In photos from Iraq, Ken generally had a smile on his face. He always seemed to make the best of things, regardless. So many smiles, so many memories.

I found that it's easy to run away from home for the holidays but it isn't that easy to get away from this new normal that is my life.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Fighting for Democracy

Right after 9/11, GW said terrorists won't change American way of life . The terrorists are standing back laughing their asses off while GW is doing his own fine job of turning the American way of life upside down! I guess he's going for that happy way of life that he invisions behind his rose-colored glasses. The problem is, he hasn't asked any of us if we share the same vision. HEY GW!!! We don't! The outrageous tax cuts for the wealthy especially during a time of war and offset with budget cuts in education, healthcare, transportation, law enforcement support, and on and on and on does not represent the good old U S of A that the majority of the country wants.

GW is coloring outside the lines once again as he tells us "The American people expect me to do everything in my power under our laws and Constitution to protect them and their civil liberties," Bush said. "And that is exactly what I will continue to do, so long as I'm the president of the United States." Except there is one BIG fat problem here. He is playing fast and free with his Presidential powers given under the Constitution. He does that again and again, and when he uses his interpretation, we are losing the liberties that so many people have fought and died for.

This isn't the first time that this administration has played fast and free with the rules. The Geneva Convention has fallen out of favor in this White House and resulted in the mess at Abu Ghraib. Who suffered for that failure? The lowest level soldiers are the ones doing time for the disgraceful behavior we saw at the prison. Where are the top brass who either gave a wink and a nod or turned their backs when they knew the behavior was happening? And all the while Rumsfeld who is in charge of everyone in the Dept of Defense whistles away this and that problem as if they don't exist and he certainly accepts no culpability.

GW made no apologies for approving the illegal eavesdroppping. In fact, he had had harsh words for those who revealed the program to the media saying they acted improperly and illegally. One question please! How do you spell P-l-a-m-e? Improper and illegal doesn't only apply to those who disagree with the president.

It seems to me that the citizens of the US are having a harder time keeping democracy in our country than the Iraqi's who are being handed democracy on a silver platter. GW says that the domestic spying that he has authorized more than 30 times is critical to saving American lives and he has no intention of stopping the practice.

I think the whole world is turned upside down- I know mine is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Victory in Iraq

It's not that I believe or don't believe that GW's plan will achieve victory in Iraq, I'm just not sure what victory is and I think he likes it like that.

The dictionary describes "victory" as:

Defeat of an enemy or opponent.
Success in a struggle against difficulties or an obstacle.
The state of having triumphed.

In a recent poll, 55 percent said they did not believe Bush has a plan that will achieve victory for the United States in Iraq; 41 percent thought he did. So, I'm standing with the majority once again.

This administration seems to have a hard time with using the actual dictionary terms as we know them. The Bush-speak definitions for victory and noble cause and patriotism are just so darned ambiguous and elusive.

M'thinks this emperor has no clothes. GW seems to think if he tells a story over and over and over again that we will believe him. The good news is, not many are fooled by his rhetoric and he is going to have to change the course rather than stay on his disastrous course. And there are signs that this is happening. While his "Victory in Iraq" speech of last week didn't reveal anything new, he is opening his kimono just a tad, even if it took using the words of a former Duke University political scientist who now works for the National Security Council. Peter Feaver and others presented this premise to the administration that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.

Howard Dean compared the war in Iraq to Vietnam and said, "The idea that the United States is going to win the war in Iraq is just plain wrong." Those comments drew immediate fire from Republicans. In an interview with WOAI-AM in San Antonio, Dean criticized what he called President Bush's "permanent commitment to a failed strategy" while saying, "We need to be out of there and take the targets off our troops back." Dean recalled that the strategy to stay the course in Vietnam cost thousands more lives to be lost.

"Things did not always go as planned"? Duh! Come on, GW, that might be the understatement of the year. Things didn't go as planned, 2151 Americans dead, 15,000+ injured to say nothing of the unknown number of Iraqi casualties and all you can say is "Things didn't go as planned? Sheesh! It doesn' t sound like you care much at all. You say things didn't go as planned and 2151 families get to spend the rest of our lives with a hole in our hearts. Don't be so casual about it.

GW *is* responsible for this mess he got us into. He said he was responsible, but for what? Responsible for how messed up it is in Iraq? Sorry that he didn't get away with knowingly using false information? He *knew* when he used the intelligence 2 years ago- WHAT TOOK SO LONG TO ADMIT THAT THE INFORMATION WAS FALSE when we knew it all along!

"The American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power" GW said, speaking of Saddam. Ok, let's go with that, Saddam was evil, Saddam was a bad man, but does his being out of power make America a safer place? I don't feel safer and I suspect I stand with the majority on this, too.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

It's easy to forget about the soldiers...

That's what a female disc jockey said this afternoon on the radio after she played the song "A Soldier's Silent Night" "It's easy to forget about the soldiers, so you should take pause and think about them during the holidays", she said. At first glance it probably sounds thoughtful, but I found her comment offensive and sadly true and it stabbed me in the heart.

It *is* easy for people to forget about the soldiers and their families. The soldiers serving and the families of servicemembers who have been killed in Iraq are making the biggest sacrifice during this time of war and we can neither forget nor would we choose to.

I won't be hanging a stocking again this year and likely never again. Without Ken's stocking, mine would look kind of lonely and it is just another reminder that he and I will never celebrate Christmas or any other occasion together ever again. Were it not for people like me and other Gold Star family members speaking out, it might be easy to forget about the soldiers all the time.

When we speak out, we touch people's heart and maybe their conscience. You can see it in an audience's eyes when they "get it", if they hadn't already gotten it before they heard us speak. Sometimes we see tears and sadness and sometimes we see anger, but always people leave having been touched by the war and our words. That is important because before the 2004 pesidential election, too many people said "I haven't been touched by the war, so I'll be voting on gays, guns or god (you choose)". If people haven't been touched by the war, then it is easy to forget about the soldiers and then it is easy to forget that there really is a war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We know this administration hasn't been touched by the war because they refuse to acknowlege details and deaths and sacrifices. But, the reason so many people haven’t been touched is because this administration doesn’t want us to see the human cost of this war. They won’t let us see the flag draped caskets as they return to America, as if there are none.

The reason we haven’t been touched is that this administration refuses to acknowledge the financial costs of this war. They say they can’t possibly calculate the costs of the war so they cannot include it in a regular budget- there are too many unknowns. Instead, they submit one supplemental budget after another. They think we aren’t smart enough to see how much money is being spent. They thought we wouldn’t be touched by the war because the fiscal 2005 budget for the Dept of Veterans Affairs was based on outdated assumptions from 2002- 1 full year before the war began and before we had any idea the casualties and injuries would be so devastating. Sadly, they were off by about 2.6 BILLION dollars. Oops- let’s ask Congress for more money- it’s easy!

GW has not attended a single funeral for any of the service members who have been killed. He meets with families of soldiers’ families who have been killed, but only those hand selected to insure they agree with his policies. He has not gone to Dover AFB to honor those soldiers he returns to their families in a flag covered casket. Rumsfeld couldn’t be bothered to sign condolence letters to the 1st 1300 families- a machine signed those letters. I have one of those letters and do I feel special!

Does this sound like an administration that has any emotional involvement in this war? This administration has not been touched by this war. But I have and
I'm feeling a bit testy these days; I'm sure you understand.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Iraqi Forces standing up.....or down....or up.......

The administration tells us that the Iraqi Forces are increasingly able to stand on their own. Rumsfeld is equally optimistic. But I'm not buying it. They say that my son and 2135 others died for a noble cause. They won't tell me what the noble cause is, so I don't believe it. One of the reasons they have given for us to be in Iraq is to bring democracy to that part of the world. I worry, actually, I'm pretty sure that it won't be the brand of democracy that GW has been dreaming of. Nope, Santa's elves won't be delivering a pretty package of democracy to Iraq this year, probably not even next year or for 12 more years. This year GW is getting coal and so is the American public.

The training of Iraqi security forces has suffered a big "setback" in the last six months, with the army and other forces being increasingly used to settle scores and make other political gains, Iraqi Vice President Ghazi al-Yawer said Monday. My son was killed in An Najaf, Iraq back in May 2004. Najaf is a holy city, home of the Imam Ali shrine, a religious destination. Najaf was turned over to the Iraqi people in September 2005. It was a huge victory that lasted all of 2 months. When peace broke out in Najaf, it wasn't supposed to be a haven for Muqtada al Sadr's militia that has infiltrated the Iraqi forces and made the city a place of corruption, undemocratic institutions, persistent violence and stalled reconstruction. Would Ken and his unit, who fought so hard to bring freedom to the city of Najaf, feel like they accomplished a noble cause? Was he in Iraq to help thugs like Muqtada al Sadr build their brand of politics in Iraq? I'm pretty sure he wasn't there to provide cover while locals settle generational scores.

GW insists that the citizens of Najaf are "gaining a personal stake in a peaceful future". Not so fast, cowboy. And when only 100 out of 700 of the police on the city payroll in Sumarra even bother to show up for work on any given day, that's nothing to brag about.

For all the arguments about the progress made in Iraq, has the U.S. government actually relinquished sovereignty to the Iraqi government? Maybe a better question is, does our administration intend to? Members of the administration don't talk about the plans for up to 14 "enduring" bases in Iraq, but they don't deny them, either. "Enduring bases" is military speak for long-term encampments that could house as many as 100,000 troops for an undefined period of time. That doesn't sound like an exit plan to me.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Imagine Living Life in Peace

The song "Imagine" was on a John Lennon album released in 1971. I had just graduated from high school and had my whole life ahead of me. John's wish for peace seemed like a lofty goal that year while the Viet Nam war was still being fought. But it touched our generation and the song is just as popular today as it was 34 years ago.

Fast forward to 1980. I had been married and was divorced. I was a single mom raising my son in the SF Bay area. I was taking some college classes to complete my degree. That December night, 25 years ago today, on my way home from school, I heard the news that John Lennon had been murdered. I remember the overwhelming feeling of sadness. John seemed to have finally gotten to that place in his life where he seemed happy and settled. He & Yoko had the rest of their lives together to share in that peace. My generation was faced with yet another loss of a symbol for hope and peace. JFK, MLK, RFK and now this?

Fast forward to 2005. Today, is the 25th anniversary of the day John Lennon was killed. This is the kind of day where most people can tell you where they were, what they were doing when they heard the news. Days like this always make me look back at my life and see how far I have come. My son, Ken grew up, he graduated from college and he had his whole life ahead of him. He was serving our country in the Army and was sent to Iraq to fight this president's war. Today, Lt Ken Ballard is dead because of the war and I have an overwhelming feeling of sadness every day.

Wikiepedia says, the song, "Imagine" is often used as a celebration of peace. I imagine that if John Lennon were alive today, he would be standing with us questioning and protesting the US involvement in Iraq. I am guessing that he is looking down on us even now.

This holiday season consider doing something out of your comfort zone to speak out to bring an end to this war. Make a resolution in the new year to write a letter, make a phone call to let your legislators know that you want an end to the fighting. Can there be a better holiday gift?

You may say I'm a dreamer,but I'm not the only one,I hope some day you'll join us, And the world will live as one. We can hope!

John, we miss you and your spirit. You are not forgotten.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bing Crosby Crooning

My friend, Annette wrote this. She's right, you know.

Bing Crosby crooning, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” every 15 minutes in malls and elevators and grocery stores is bringing some Americans to tears this season. Yet most people go about their shopping, buying, wrapping, cooking and partying with hardly a thought for these fellow citizens or our troops suffering far from home. For 2,000+ families of casualties counted and many more uncounted, being all together for Christmas is something that will never happen again. Thousands more are struggling to help their maimed veterans find some hope in the holiday season. Still thousands more families are going through the holiday motions while their hearts and minds are tortured with worry for their loved ones still serving in harm’s way.

All many of these families ask is that America take pause and remember. When your feet hurt from shopping, think of our troops who have lost legs and arms. When you’re stressed about friends and families visiting, remember our soldiers who have not seen their families for many long months. When you struggle to find presents for your children, think of the parents who will never buy their sons or daughters another present. As you gather to celebrate familiar cultural and family traditions, think of those serving in a foreign, often hostile environment. When greeting cards arrive with dreamy angels proclaiming “Peace on Earth”, take a moment to consider what you personally and we as a nation have done to make that a reality.

By all means, enjoy this season of love and peace. At some point in your preparations and festivities, take a moment to remember that throughout our country and far across the globe, many families are not able to share in the joy. It’s very hard to think of war and death and pain at such a happy time, but this is when it is needed the most. When you make your new year’s resolutions, think about what you can do to support our troops 2006. Resolve to take some kind of action to end the war, bring them home. Make that commitment to them as they have laid their lives on the line for you.

Annette Pritchard
Aunt of PFC William Ramirez, KIA Baghdad 2/04

Two Wolves: A Cherokee Tale

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people.

He said, "My son, the battle is between two "wolves" inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith."

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: "Which wolf wins?"

His grandfather answered "The one you feed the most."

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Dover Test- flunking fast

I've been having a hard few weeks. I am going to guess that it is the holidays. I get Thanksgiving, my birthday- 3 days before Christmas, Christmas and New Years in about 5 weeks time. These ready made milestone days are really tough to take. They are so, well, scheduled and I think the anticipation of those days doesn't make it any easier.

My niece reminded me today that I haven't written here about my struggle to get a photo of Ken's flag covered casket being returned to Dover AFB. The day that we were notified of Ken's death, I told myself I would make sure he received all the honors and money that he deserved (easier said than done, I found).

That first day, May 31, 2004, Memorial Day, after I was told the awful news, I asked for a photo of Ken's flag covered casket as it was returned to Dover AFB, Delaware, the mortuary for the Department of Defense. Dover is where all soldiers are processed before they are returned home. I wanted to see Ken's casket being treated with the dignity and respect that he had earned. My request was refused, they told me "it is against regulations" and "it is to protect the privacy of the families" (oh, okay, the families....)

I told them that I am a mother and I want the picture of my son's body being treated with dignity and respect. They still told me "No". Eery time I spoke to someone from the Army that week, regardless of why they were contacting me, I asked for the photos, and time and time again, I was told no. I never got a photograph of Ken's body as it was honored at Dover. Rebecca Carr from the Cox News Service captured my story nicely
Pentagon denies mother's plea for photo in March 2005.

An Army factoid you may not know- it takes about 7 days from the date of death for the body to be returned home. They had plenty of time to find someone to bend the regulations, but they didn't.

I found this website tonite, (full disclosure- you may want to grab the kleenex now, before you watch) This is a poignant presentation of photos of soldiers who dies in Iraq, the plane arriving at Dover, the honor ceremonies...all of the photos I wanted to see of Ken. You see, even if, or maybe especially that he is dead, these are still memories of his life.

There is controversy to seeing these pictures, of course. Only 700 photographs have been released by the Department of Defense from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Both times photos were released as a result of a Freedom of Information request/ lawsuit. By releasing the photographs, the DOD concedes that the photos belong in the public domain. The 2nd release of photos in April, 2005, the DOD redacted many of the photos to remove identification of many of the honor guards. Because they were "forced" to release the photographs, it is possible that Dover is no longer documenting the honor ceremonies by taking photographs. We will have lost this part of our military history if that is true.

They call them "Honor" guards for a reason. They are the soldiers who HONOR my son and his comrades. They are honored to be chosen to participate in these ceremonies. We honor the remains that return from wars long ago, but we hide these young men and women as they make their final journey home as if there are none.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, explains the Dover Test this way:

The Dover test is an informal test and a journalistic phrase to describe whether the general population of the United States is supporting the participation of the United States in a war or other military action by the public reaction to returning war casualties. The test is usually used to support a partisan position concerning the United States government's actions than to actually determine the level of public support for the war.

We are flunking the Dover test badly . 48% of the general population thinks GW has handled the war in Iraq poorly. His numbers are free falling and he is still in denial.

There are good people who continue to work to get those images released from the Department of Defense and I thank them. Beyond, the obvious personal reasons of seeing Ken being honored, Ralph Begleiter from the University of Delaware shares my reasons for wanting the photos. This country needs to see the bodies being returned home every night on the evening news. They need to be reminded of the human cost of this war. And if it ruins their dinner, well, welcome to my world!