Monday, July 31, 2006

3700 Troops Extended

The Department of Defense announced last week that 3700 soldiers from Alaska's 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which has been deployed in Mosul since last summer, will be extended for as long as 120 days to boost security in Baghdad. These soldiers were 2 weeks from coming home. My heart goes out to these familes. I have walked in their shoes.

Back on April 3, 2004, Ken's unit had turned in their weapons, had shipped their personal items home. They had taken their unit photos, a tradition well known by members of the military. These guys had been in Iraq for nearly a year and were heading for the march out of Baghdad, the following week. The families who had held their collective breathes for that year were trying to decide if it was time to breathe. The plans for the Welcome Home parties were in full swing. I had planned the menu for this grand party. We had stopped sending CARE packages. They were COMING HOME!

The next day, on April 4 in Sadr City, Iraq, Ken's unit lost their first soldier, Sgt Mike Mitchell of Atascadero, CA.

In April, 2004, the First Armored Division had already spent a year trying to gain control of Baghdad, one of the most dangerous assignments in the country. Units were then sent to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala to battle the Mahdi Army, the militia founded by Moktada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric. Morale plummeted among soldiers of the First Armored Division when they were asked to stay beyond their yearlong tour in order to quell a Shiite uprising

On April 14, 2004, the Department of Defense announced that 20,000 US troops were being operationally extended for 120 days. We didn't know when the 120 days began; we didn't know when they would be home. I was devastated at this news. Ken told me their mission was not complete and they had to stay for this 120 days. He sound exhausted. I could not, did not tell him how heartbroken the families were. They made it through the year until Mike was killed; there had been a few injuries, but not life threatening. I thought that we had been fortunate how we made it this far. How would the families feel if their soldier didn't come home when they had waited so long, when their loved ones had done what the president had asked of them? The parties were on hold for 120 days. Ken would spend his 2nd birthday in Iraq, another summer in hell. How many families would miss Father's day together, how many birthdays and anniversaries would be spent apart?

Every day Ken was in Iraq, was hell for me. Every single minute of each of the 384 days was a hell that no one should know. After the extension, I felt we were tempting fate. Every phone call from Ken, every instant message was a miracle. I may have cried more in those 6 weeks of the extension than I had the prior year. The unit was in battle for every single day in May. Ken's tank had been hit by RPG's (rocket propelled grenades) 9 times.

On May 30, 2004 near midnight, Ken was killed under enemy fire in Najaf, Iraq. The same night, Spc Nick Zimmer of Columbus, OH was killed in nearby Kufa. They should have been home.

Fate was not kind to us after the extension. I didn't know what hell was.

I Cannot Imagine the Pain

A lot of people have said that to me, more than you could think. It's true, you can't. Losing a child, your only child is beyond unimaginable and losing him in a war turned occupation that you didn't support....don't go there.

Last week another family in Texas got that knock on the door. The Velez family was notified by military official that their 22 year old son, Army Spc. Andrew Velez was killed in Afghanistan.

The soldier stepped out, and I looked at him until I got up to the door step, and he said we need to talk to your wife also, and I said it's about Andrew and he says lets go inside, and I said no, I don't want to go inside. I said, is my son dead, and he said yes,"Sadly it is not the first knock on the door this family has answered.

In November of 2004, military official notified the family that their 23 year old son, Army Cpl. Jose A. Velez was killed in Fallujah. 2 sons lost in service to their country.
"I can't be angry. I feel like my heart's been pulled out," Roy Velez said Tuesday. "We've done what the Lord allowed us to do for our country."

He's kinder than I would be. Not only was I angry that Ken was killed, I was angry at God. Some days I still am. Ken was on every prayer wheel known to man, Methodists, Jewish, Catholics, you name it, he was on every list. I was touched when people told me they would add his name. I never prayed that Ken would return home; I always asked that he "return home safely". I know some will say that he is home, he is with God, but that's not what I wanted.

Young Andrew was given the option of not returning to combat after his brother was killed, but he told his father "You always do it for your buddy next to you." That is what soldiers will say about being in Iraq. Regardless of what their commander, or commander in chief tells them, their mission is to bring their buddies home.

The Velez family has more than paid the ultimate price. They lost both sons; their only sons. Andrew's wife, Veronica will raise their 5 year old daughter, Jasmine Jade, and her brothers Jordan & Jacob alone. Jose left behind his high school sweetheart, his wife of 2 years.

This is more than one family should have to live with. Roy Velez, the boys father said:
"I think the only thing that really helps me, that really gets me through this is that somebody out there, somebody in the city of Lubbock, somewhere through our great county is praying me through."

We are praying, Roy, we are praying for you and your family and for all the families.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Happy Birthday, Buddy!

Kenneth Michael Ballard weighed 7 pounds, 7 ounces when he entered the world, my world on 7.21.77.

He was the best gift God could ever give a mom. I was the lucky one. I was so proud to be his ma. Ken embraced life and didn’t let anything stand in his way. From the day he was born, this world was his! From the first moment in the morning when his eyes popped open, to the time his head hit the pillow at night, he had 2 speeds- Fast & Off. How I tried to keep up with him!

Today he would have been 29. This is the 3rd year I have not heard from him on his birthday, the 3rd year of getting used to living a life without him. 3 years seems a lifetime! They say a child who has a long delivery will have a long life. It didn't work out that way. He was killed in Iraq on 5.30.04.

Of course I am devastated about Ken's death. I do not wish this journey of bereavement on anyone. My days seem to be filled with death; every death in Iraq, this illegal occupation.

We will celebrate Ken's life this weekend because he lived and we will not forget that.

I miss you, buddy!

Happy Birthday greetings also to Bonnie, Mary & Ken E. Paul Wellstone's birthday is today, too, another good guy who left this world too soon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Not Spare Parts

George Bush, damn him again and again and again.

At the White House he read his opening statement this morning "I am returning herewith without my approval H.R. 810, the "Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005." Standing in front of several families with their babies who had been born of in vitro fertilization, Bush said the children
began his or her life as a frozen embryo that was created for in-vitro fertilization but remained unused after the fertility treatments were complete. ... These boys and girls are not spare parts

The first time he uses his presidential veto power is on a bill to expand funding of research through the use of embryonic stem cells, instead encouraging research using adult stem cells and cord blood.

Note this resolution was passed in the House last year by a vote of 238-94. This week the companion bill was passed in the Senate by a vote of 63-37 and this afternoon, the House voted 235-193 to override the veto, falling short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the decision.

"President Bush defied the will of the American people and crushed the hopes of millions who suffer from serious and debilitating diseases like cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, Lou Gehrig's and Parkinson's. The need or a new direction in America has never been clearer," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in a statement.

This bill would support the taking of innocent human life of the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our society needs to respect, so I vetoed it," Bush said. (can't you just see him sticking his tongue out, taunting us?)

Bush doesn't know a moral boundary. If he does, he seems to save that for the unborn and for brain dead like Teri Schaivo. These snowflake blastocysts languish in a test tube, and living, breathing viable human beings will continue to suffer with chronic illnesses that we know can be cured or advanced with further stem cell research. While our legislators and this president were worried about Teri Schaivo's quality of life back in 2005, how many members of our military were killed in Iraq? His moral boundary doesn't include Iraq.

We know there is a brain drain in some countries with restrictions on stem cell research. An Iranian born German scientist is now pursuing research in England said "It is a double standard to allow fertility clinics to destroy embryos in the process of their work, but not to permit the doomed blastocysts to be used for research purposes. What kind of a moral standard is that"? A biology professor at The University of California at San Francisco is lost its top stem cell researcher to Britain because of political uncertainties threatening the future of his work in the United States.

Bush has made it clear where he stands with regards to the will of the people of this country. He cares only to support his fundamental religious right supporters. Let's be real clear who joins him and let's remember those names when November rolls around. At least I know where my Senators and Congresswoman stand- Thanks Anna Eshoo, Barbara Boxer & Diane Feinstein- you got it right this time!


YEAs ---63
Akaka (D-HI)

Alexander (R-TN)
Baucus (D-MT)
Bayh (D-IN)
Bennett (R-UT)
Biden (D-DE)
Bingaman (D-NM)
Boxer (D-CA)
Burr (R-NC)
Byrd (D-WV)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Carper (D-DE)
Chafee (R-RI)
Clinton (D-NY)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Conrad (D-ND)
Dayton (D-MN)
Dodd (D-CT)
Dorgan (D-ND)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feingold (D-WI)

Feinstein (D-CA)
Frist (R-TN)
Gregg (R-NH)
Harkin (D-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)
Hutchison (R-TX)
Inouye (D-HI)
Jeffords (I-VT)
Johnson (D-SD)
Kennedy (D-MA)
Kerry (D-MA)
Kohl (D-WI)
Landrieu (D-LA)
Lautenberg (D-NJ)
Leahy (D-VT)
Levin (D-MI)
Lieberman (D-CT)
Lincoln (D-AR)
Lott (R-MS)
Lugar (R-IN)
McCain (R-AZ)

Menendez (D-NJ)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Obama (D-IL)
Pryor (D-AR)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Rockefeller (D-WV)
Salazar (D-CO)
Sarbanes (D-MD)
Schumer (D-NY)
Smith (R-OR)
Snowe (R-ME)
Specter (R-PA)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Stevens (R-AK)
Warner (R-VA)
Wyden (D-OR)

NAYs ---37
Allard (R-CO)

Allen (R-VA)
Bond (R-MO)
Brownback (R-KS)
Bunning (R-KY)
Burns (R-MT)
Chambliss (R-GA)
Coburn (R-OK)
Coleman (R-MN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Craig (R-ID)
Crapo (R-ID)
DeMint (R-SC)
DeWine (R-OH)

Dole (R-NC)
Domenici (R-NM)
Ensign (R-NV)
Enzi (R-WY)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hagel (R-NE)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Kyl (R-AZ)
Martinez (R-FL)
McConnell (R-KY)
Nelson (D-NE)

Roberts (R-KS)
Santorum (R-PA)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Sununu (R-NH)
Talent (R-MO)
Thomas (R-WY)
Thune (R-SD)
Vitter (R-LA)
Voinovich (R-OH

House (The House doesn't set their list up as nicely, so check it out for yourself)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Friday, July 14, 2006

Who is this man?

He looks like Bush, he talks like Bush, he must be our president, but I am horrified. The Middle east is exploding, North Korea is heating up, Sudan is spinning out of control, Iran & Syria seem to be involved somehow; the world is in more danger than we've seen in a long time. George wants to talk about a pig!

The President of the United States, who is heading to the G8
conference in Russia stopped in Germany to visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Laura and George were feted at a barbecue of roast wild boar. George told the guests that since he and his wife, Laura, come from Texas, throwing a barbecue for them is "one of the greatest compliments you could have." Isn't that nice? (photo courtesy of PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP)

I'll give him that, the time to be social, we all need some down time. And even though George Bush gets plenty of time off away from the White House; last year, in 2004, he broke the all time vacation record held by Ronald Reagan, he deserves it, he's the President afterall. It's a tough job.

No one can deny that the job of president of the United states is a 24/7, 365 days of the year full time job. You don't get to forget your responsibilities; you are always on. So, let's get back to the pig.

Prior to this barbecue in a Baltic coastal town, a press conference was held. There were questions about the violence in the Middle east and Iran. I'm thinking this would be a good time for the President of the United States, arguably one of the most powerful men in the world (sorry, Dick, for this rant, it goes to George), to assure the world that these current events were being watched very carefully and that communications remained open- I don't know if that's true, but that's what I want to know or not.

Mark Silva from the Chicago Tribune reports that although the president did respond to the serious questions, it seems that George really just wants to talk about the PIG! "I understand I may have the honor of slicing the pig

"Apart from the pig, Mr. President, what sort of insights have you been able to gain as regards East Germany?" a German reporter asked.
"I haven't seen the pig yet," Bush said, sidestepping the question about insights gained from his two-day visit to this rural seaside region that once rested behind the Iron Curtain.

We should be able to expect better from our leaders; it just doesn't seem very presidential. What did we do to deserve this?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Rumsfeld needs to go

Gunmen kill 22 while Rumsfeld visits Baghdad. Rumsfeld visits Iraq on day with deadliest incident.

"There certainly has been an upsurge in sectarian violence," Rumsfeld told reporters en route to Iraq from Kandahar, Afghanistan. "There's no question but that they're trying to incite a civil war, and they have been for a long time, and they've failed so far."
At least he didn't say we were on the last throes of the insurgency. He did however, have another smartass response to a soldier who was brave enough to stand up to Rumsfeld and ask him about the aged state of equipment that his NAtional Guard unit is working with. The good people at have the video, so let's take a look

Improvized Explosive Devices (IEDs) are responsible for nearly half the casualties of our troops in Iraq. Among the best defenses against IEDs is a massive heavily-armored vehicle called the Buffalo, which has become the favorite of U.S. Army combat engineer teams. Yesterday, during a surprise trip to Iraq, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was confronted by a U.S. Army corporal who said the Buffalo he was using was one of oldest pieces of equipment in the country, and that just two weeks before, he'd seen a brand new Buffalo in New York City. Rumsfeld defended the Pentagon's anti-IED efforts and deflected the specific question with a joke.
Watch the video:

Full transcript below:
CORPORAL ARTHUR KING: Right now we have one of the oldest pieces of equipment in the country. It's called a Buffalo and ours is the oldest. And the other day, two weeks ago, we saw a brand-new one in downtown New York City and we've been waiting for three months for ours. We are just wondering why that was.
RUMSFELD: Well, I don't know about New York City. They obviously have a separate budget and they buy what they buy. We've got $3.6 billion that dwarfs anything that New York City does just for I.E.D. work and General Monty Miggs has been brought back and he is in the process he has been in the Army for two and a half, three years, he has been working their heads off as the nature of the I.E.D. problem has migrated and evolved they have put enormous effort on it. I can't answer why your particular unit ends up with one of the oldest pieces of equipment, but I'll bet you General Casey can.
OLBERMANN: To his credit, General Casey skipped the jokes and said he didn't know either but would find out and get back to him with an answer.

$3.6 Billion dollars is being spent on IED work and how many people in Iraq, both coalition and Iraqi lives have been devastated by this popular weapon? $3.6 billion and we can't get our soldiers the latest and greatest technology? Something is so wrong with this picture! But remember, the person who is responsible for our military just doesn't care because he's the one who said "As you know, you have to go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want," back in December 2004 in response to another soldier asking about his units lack of armor.

Who invited him anyway? Rumsfeld usually ends up offshore when he is looking for high ground when something has gone wrong. He went to the Greenzone after the story of the abuse at Abu Graib prison broke back in 2004. I asked Ken about it and he told me he didn't care that Rumsfeld was in Iraq; he couldn't be bothered because he had a job to do and couldn't be distracted with that photo op..

Please Rummy, put us out of our misery and resign, quit, go sit on a ranch somewhere, but leave the job of Sectretary of Defense to someone who actually cares about the welfare of our military. This is not time to joke about equipment for our troops.

I'll ask again, who's supporting our troops?

Monday, July 10, 2006

Fighting for Peace

Sometimes when I am interviewed for a story, I feel like there is a nice connection with the writer, especially when they write from the understanding of a subtle point. I just missed an opportunity to meet Mike Ferner, a member of Veterans For Peace, by a few days last September, but I still think about the compelling words he wrote last summer about Crawford, TX.

I just saw another article that Mike wrote at the end of June. I looked forward to seeing what he was up to; how could you not, when the title of the article is Has This Country Gone Completely Insane?. From the beginning, this article did not bode well. I'll let Mike take it from here.

This afternoon, drinking a cup of coffee while sitting in the Jesse Brown V.A. Medical Center on Chicago’s south side, a Veterans Administration cop walked up to me and said, "OK, you’ve had your 15 minutes, it’s time to go."

"Huh?", I asked intelligently, not quite sure what he was talking about. "You can’t be in here protesting," officer Adkins said, pointing to my Veterans For Peace shirt.

"Well, I’m not protesting, I’m having a cup of coffee," I returned, thinking that logic would convince Adkins to go back to his earlier duties of guarding against serious terrorists.

Flipping his badge open, he said, "No, not with that shirt. You’re protesting and you have to go."

Beginning to get his drift, I said firmly, "Not before I finish my coffee."

He insisted that I leave, but still not quite believing my ears, I tried one more approach to reason. "Hey, listen. I’m a veteran. This is a V.A. facility. I’m sitting here not talking to anybody, having a cup of coffee. I’m not protesting and you can’t kick me out."

"You’ll either go or we’ll arrest you," Adkins threatened.

"Well, you’ll just have to arrest me," I said, wondering what strange land I was now living in.

You know the rest. Handcuffed, led away to the facility’s security office past people with surprised looks on their faces, read my rights, searched, and written up.

The officer who did the formalities, Eric Ousley, was professional in his duties. When I asked him if he was a vet, it turned out he had been a hospital corpsman in the Navy. We exchanged a couple sea stories. He uncuffed me early. And he allowed as to how he would only charge me with disorderly conduct, letting me go on charges of criminal trespass and weapons possession — a pocket knife — which he said would have to be destroyed (something I rather doubt since it was a nifty Swiss Army knife with not only a bottle opener, but a tweezers AND a toothpick).

After informing me I could either pay the $275 fine on the citation or appear in court, Ousley escorted me off the premises, warning me if I returned with "that shirt" on, I’d be arrested and booked into jail.

I’m sure I could go back to officers Adkins’ and Ousleys’ fiefdom
with a shirt that said, "Nuke all the hajis," or "Show us your tits," or any number of truly obscene things and no one would care. Just so it’s not "that shirt" again.

And just for the record? I’m not paying the fine. I’ll see Adkins and Ousley and Dubya’s Director of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, if he wants to show up, in United States District Court on the appointed date. And if there’s a Chicago area attorney who’d like to take the case, I’d really like to sue them — from Dubya on down. I have to believe that this whole country has not yet gone insane, just the government. This kind of behavior can’t be tolerated. It must be challenged.

The members of Veterans for Peace that I have met on my journey since my son, Lt Ken Ballard was killed have all been lovely people. Our local chapter 101 in the SF Bay area have been supportive beyond words. I love the VFP men and women in Santa Barbara who spend every Sunday on the beach at Stearns Wharf, Arlington West, setting up crosses to represent the US casualties in Iraq. Yes, every single Sunday, for nearly 3 years now. If I have any sense of difficulty at a peace event, I know that I will be safe if one of the VFP guys stands by my side. I know that many of these veterans who served their country well have told us Gold Star Mothers that we could have been their mom's and they hoped if they hadn't come home that their moms would have spoken out. I cannot imagine speaking without my friends at Veterans for Peace.

Back to Mike....The Veterans for Peace shirt is not provocative, it has a dove on the front with the words "VETERANS FOR PEACE" and is available in different colors; I'm partial to the tie dye version myself. I'm sure the VFP logo on Mike's shirt looked something like this.

Since when did wearing an innocuous shirt like that result in an arrest for protesting? If you aren't fighting for peace, what ARE you fighting for but most of all, when did Peace become a bad word?

And Mike, the answer is yes, the country has gone completely insane; totally barking mad!

Bad Day

It's been a bad day for me today. Yesterday in Iraq, 3 members of 1st Armored Division were killed in Ramadi. (1st Armored Division was Ken's division). You should not be surprised to know that many Gold Star families still feel an affinity to our loved one's units. When Ken's unit was deployed back to Iraq in January 06, I felt that same familiar sick, stressed and worried feeling in my stomach that I had for the 384 days that Ken was there. Until now, there had been one casualty from 2/37, a 19 year young soldier from Florida, Pvt Jody Missildine, who was killed in April.

While Ken was in Iraq, when I turned on my computer first thing in the morning, I would check the Department of Defense website to read of the latest casualties. Some people thought that macabre, but I didn't. I knew that if something happened to Ken, that I would find out via a personal notification, so that is not the information I was looking for. I was looking to see if there were any casualties from the general area or specifically from Ken's unit. Then I would know why he was not in communication with me.

In the case of a casualty, communications are shut down so that the family is notified via official means and not from a fellow soldier or any other method. That means that no soldier can contact their family to tell them they are okay or to discuss any details or to find some emotional support. There were a few communications blackouts when Ken was deployed; the worst and longest was a period of 5 days when 2/37 lost our first soldier, Sgt Mike Mitchell from Atascadero, CA on 4.4.04. I don't know how long the blackout was when Ken and Pfc Nick Zimmer were killed on 5.30.04; I was in the middle of that maelstrom.

Today, we are in the waiting period for the families to be notified and the official notification to be released by the Department of Defense. They don't typically release any information until 24 hours after the family is notified. In some cases, the families notify the local media sooner, which is why you may hear something before it becomes official.

I recently had a conversation with someone from Ken's unit. I told the soldier I thought about the guys every day. He was surprised. I really wanted to tell him that I worry about them every day while I'm thinking of them. Each one of these soldiers is my son or daughter; they are America's sons and daughters. Isn't it time to bring them home now?

My heart breaks with every single casualty, but most of all, I cannot bear the thought of attending another military funeral for someone I know.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Happy Birthday George

The census department reports that 7918 of the oldest baby boomers will turn 60 each day in 2006. We know that George Bush has been thinking about this round birthday, the BIG 6-O, a lot. He keeps talking about it in that self deprecating good old boyish way he has.

I've got a few good years under my belt until I look 60 in the face, so I can't exactly relate and no birthday, no number has bothered me yet. I don't think George is really bothered by it, although he does appear wistful at times for those 60 years gone by.

The actual birthday celebration was low key with his daughters Jenna & Barbara preparing what one attendee called a very cute and light- hearted video of some highlights and low lights of their daddy's career.

Physically, he doesn't show the outward appearances of decline that many of his predecessors have. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and former aide to Lyndon B. Johnson.
"You don't see a drawn look. It's as if somehow he has psychologically not allowed the burdens to fully get to him. Maybe it's the exercise, maybe it's his sureness about his own decisions."

Maybe he doesn't understand the magnitude of damage he has wrought with his Presidency. I'll say that he thinks he cares, but I don't think he has the capacity to care. While he will likely enjoy the long lifespan that he inherited from his family, there are 2539 soldiers who were killed in Iraq and who will not celebrate a birthday this year. There are 2539 families who will not bake a birthday cake and will instead mark that birthday with a visit to a cemetery or in quiet reflection for what might have been.

There are also nearly 19,000 soldiers who have been wounded in Iraq. What do their birthdays mean to them? Happy to be alive? Possibly. Wondering how to adjust to this new normal as their old life exploded one day in Iraq? Definitely.

While George Bush contemplates the rest of his presidency and his life on this round birthday; my birthday wish for him is that he would have an epiphany and wonder how he can spend the rest of his life atoning for his sins and those of his administration. He'd make a list of all the people he wronged in his life, kind of like Earl on "My Name is Earl", except George's list would be much longer and he has many more people to make nice to. It's a good thing the Bush genetics will give him a long enough life for this atonement. (a girl can dream, can't she?)