Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day 2008 at Section 60

I spent the Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery. All things considered, I would rather have been somewhere else, anywhere else. But sometimes you have to do the right thing, pull the covers off your head, get out of bed and face your life. On Memorial Day at Arlington, I have to literally face the headstone of my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard, who was killed in Iraq 4 years ago.

Brad Jacobsen over at at-Largely wrote a great posting putting some context into what Memorial Day 2008 should mean to this country. I encourage you to take a look.

As Brad mentioned in his post, the AP covered the events at Arlington with these words-
President Bush paid tribute Monday to America's fighting men and women who died in battle, saying national leaders must have "the courage and character to follow their lead" in preserving peace and freedom.

"On this Memorial Day, I stand before you as the commander in chief and try to tell you how proud I am," Bush told an audience of military figures, veterans and their families at Arlington National Cemetery. Of the men and women buried in the hallowed cemetery, he said, "They're an awesome bunch of people and the United States is blessed to have such citizens."

That provoked a standing ovation from the crowd in a marble amphitheater where Bush spoke. "Whoo-hoo!" shouted one woman, who couldn't contain her enthusiasm.

I agree with everything Brad writes, but I want to make it personal and add a different perspective of what happened over at Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery, the section where my only child is buried and the section where I gathered with friends and family.

President Bush will never have the "courage and character" that those fighting men and women who died in battle had when he sent them into his battle without good reason. As Commander in Chief, he should be ashamed to stand in front of our military for any reason. This Commander in Chief hides behind the military and the vets when he does not provide adequate protection, adequate medical care, adequate training, and a fair GI Bill.

President George Bush has not attended a military funeral of anyone who died in Iraq or Afghanistan and he has not visited Section 60 at Arlington to see the more than 400 graves of young men and women who have died in the wars/occupations in Iraq & Afghanistan.

Perhaps this Commander in Chief could have had the courage and character to make time on Memorial Day to see the families who gathered at Section 60, to try to understand the pain and grief his war has caused these families. Seeing 400 white headstones in one place from these wars should be a sobering sight for anyone. But wait, Bush had to rush back to the White House to meet with with five NCAA head football coaches, who recently returned from a seven-day visit to military bases in the Middle East to boost troop morale. Meeting with football coaches on Memorial Day, but not families whose lives have been so affected by his war does send the wrong message to the families of the fallen.

I'm sure his handlers considered the possibility that a trip to Section 60 might have revealed some families who would ask him to leave, as I would have done. I do not want to be anywhere near George Bush on the anniversary of the day I got the knock on the door, and believe me, he doesn't want to be near me, either.

I can assure you that there were no "whoo-hoo's" in Section 60 on Monday. There were tears, sobs, hugs, and a palpable grief that I wouldn't wish on any one. Some families and visitors met each other for the first time and exchanged condolences and some reunited, having met in Section 60 on a prior visit. The majority of visitors while we were there were to visit the newer graves, where the pain is so fresh and is almost uncomfortable to see. We all remember intimately those excruciating early days too well.

Our family and friends travel to Arlington each Memorial Day to celebrate Ken's life. We gather to remember and celebrate how Ken lived his life and not how he died. Some visitors to Section 60 might have been caught off guard when we popped the champagne cork of the first bottle, and if they didn't understand why, I'm sorry. We all need to learn how to wake up to this new normal and figure out how to get out of bed each morning. If they aren't ready to celebrate their loved one's life, or if they cannot bear to show any joy of their loved ones lives yet, or ever, I understand.

Memorial Day is the day that Ken's grave site is to be the most decorated in Section 60 and we make a great effort to do that. We leave the leftover bottles (beer and/or champagne), flowers; lots of them, and other mementos to let Ken know that we were there and that we miss him every day. He deserves that much.

Remember the Gold Star Families; for us, everyday is Memorial Day.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dog Tags: Meaningful Metal on Memorial Day

Dog Tags: Meaningful Metal on Memorial Day

May 19, 2008
BY Ginger Cucolo

During overseas tours, dog tags hang from the neck of every servicemember. They are intended to help identify remains of the fallen and have been a uniform requirement since World War I. When a servicemember is killed, their loved ones often find sentimental value in their dog tags. Photo by C. Todd Lopez

ARLINGTON, Va. (Army News Service, May 19, 2008) - In Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, where casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest, a mother recently clutched her son's dog tags.

The chain drooped over the mother's clinched fist as rifles were fired and Taps played. Those pieces of metal gave her comfort, she said. The tags had once hung beneath her son's shirt, and over his heart, and the mother said when she holds them now, she feels close to him.

Much like that mother, Karen Meredith wrote about her son, Ken Ballard, killed in Najaf, Iraq, May 30, 2004: "When my son's body was returned to me, they gave me what was on his body when he was killed; his belt-buckle, his spurs (Cavalry), and his dog tags. I immediately put them on and have not removed them for anything; not for airport security, not for a mammogram. They stay close to my heart where my son will always be."

These small pieces of metal hanging from the neck of every servicemember are intended to help identify remains of the fallen and have been a uniform requirement since World War I. Science has come a long way since then and future identification system just might render them obsolete, but the name, image, and personal connection many feel to their tags go beyond their simple, primary purpose.

At the American Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, before Union troops made a frontal assault on Confederate trenches, they wrote their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their uniforms. They did not want to be forgotten.

During the Spanish American War, Chaplain Charles E. Pierce believed the identity of war dead should be practiced on a more scientific basis. He suggested a central collection agency where mortuary records would be gathered, and the addition of an "Identity Disk" in every Soldier's combat field kit. This "Identity Disk," in 1899, is considered the first institutionalized identification tag.

U.S. troops were issued identification tags en masse in 1908 and the tags have been a required part of the uniform ever since.

The nickname for the ID tag was first coined by William Randolph Hearst who printed unfavorable stories about the New Deal and President Roosevelt in 1936. Having heard the Social Security Administration was considering the use of a nameplate for personal identification, Hearst called it a "Dog Tag."
The tangible tags connect one personally to an otherwise large and anonymous world, and they are the center of countless stories -- like the one about Joe Beyrle, a paratrooper captured by the Nazis. A German soldier took Beyrle's dog tags and put them around his own neck. While wearing an American uniform and Beyrle's dog tags, the German soldier was killed. A telegram was sent to Beyrle's family in the states telling them he was dead.

In January 1945, Beyrle escaped and joined a Russian unit, fighting alongside them as a machine gunner for at least a month. After he was wounded by German bombers, he was taken to a hospital, and eventually made his way to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, hoping to return home. Embassy officials at first, though, did not believe the fighter was Beyrle. It was not until Beyrle's fingerprints proved his identity that he finally was able to return home in September 1946. Ironically, he was married in the same church where his memorial service had taken place a year before.

Tanna Toney-Ferris was walking her dog on a beach in Southern California, when her
eyes caught an unusual rock piece. She bent down to pick it up and realized there was a military ID tag embedded in the rock.

"It seemed to be attached to a key ring, as there were a few other items embedded in the rock also -- a key, fingernail clippers and a small screwdriver. Much to my amazement, I could make out his name, ID #, branch of service and his religion," said Tanna. "My first thought was that this Sailor had perished at sea and I held his last farewell to this world in my hand. All I could think of was how much I wanted to return this brave Sailor's Dog Tags to his family and I wasn't sure how to go about doing that. So for the next 3 years, they sat on a shelf with other treasures that I had found on our many walks along the beach.'"

Tanna finally found the now 62 year old veteran living in Wisconsin. Having served in the Navy on the USS Pledge, he had lost his first set of tags more than 30 years ago. After numerous e-mails and phone calls, they met in person and Tanna was able to hand him his tags.

Tanna is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders. This group rides their motorcycles to show respect for fallen heroes, their Families, and their communities by shielding the mourning family. This is the type of emotional response and connection people have for many who serve.

General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, wrote General Order #11 on May 5, 1868, for the observance of Memorial Day. He wanted us to sustain the fraternal feelings of those having died for their country, and for us to guard their gravesites, "a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders."

As much as Memorial Day is a day of remembrance, the dog tag is a daily reminder that in the professions of arms, to be forgotten is the cruelest fate. The dog tag is more than 100 years old, and this little piece of metal connects us to those slain defenders. To each it might mean something different, but to the millions of service members, past and present who were required to wear one, the Dog Tag is a symbol of service and personal sacrifice. Most importantly, it is a reminder of the possibility of the ultimate sacrifice. We shall not forget.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

McCain's Free Ride in the Corporate Media

I don't like when people accusingly use the term "flip-flop" in a political setting. It is a way to say "gotcha" and intimate that that person might be lying in that moment (Were you lying then or are you lying now?). When someone finds new information that wasn't available initially, and they change their mind, I call that wisdom or intelligent analysis. If, however, you change your mind for political expediency rather than stand by your principles, that's where I draw the line.

As the current presidential election cycle heads into the final stretch, we can expect the "flip-flop" term to be flung back and forth over the fence. Let's look at a few examples of John McCain's Straight Talk Express leaving the track.

Thanks to the good people of Brave New Films for their continued fine work. As they say, We're Putting the Brakes on McCain's Free Ride in the Press, and I'm all for that!

pssst, do something

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Keith Olbermann to Bush- Shut the Hell Up!

This video is a post script or an exclamation point to an earlier posting here. Some days Keith Olbermann provides the only words that give me any sense of normal. When I listen to his Special Comments, I leap from my couch with wild applause.

Keith Olbermann is the real deal. He gets what is happening to military families more than some military families do. He has a powerful soapbox and for that, I am grateful. If you know his boss, will you please tell him to give Keith a big raise?

Do note in this Special Comment that he shows that Bush did not give up golf back in August 2003 as he said he did. Other evidence has been shown that the Columbus Day golf outing was not his only failure in his so-called solidarity; he also golfed at Andrews AFB on September 28, 2003 with Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla) and Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio),

That's some sacrifice, Mr Bush. Imagine the sacrifices of the families that you so want to show solidarity to. Oh that's right, you can't, because sacrifice for your war all about you!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Great Sacrifice, giving up Golf

President Bush and those in his family and administration can't seem to grasp the meaning of sacrifice or understand the impact war has on military families in this country. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Barbara Bush said 'Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? It's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?' (yes, she did!)

In January 2006, when the Commander-in-Chief visited wounded troops at Brooke Medical Center and said As you can possibly see, I have an injury myself -- not here at the hospital, but in combat with a Cedar. I eventually won. The Cedar gave me a little scratch. Their Commander-in-Chief said this to soldiers wounded in a war of his choice. I'm pretty sure those wounded warriors didn't find the humor in his comments.

In April 2007 First Lady Laura Bush revealed how far removed she was from the American public when she said believe me, no suffers more than their president and I do when we watch this (news of Iraq on TV)” The First Family will never suffer enough until they lose a child in a war that should never have begun. They will never suffer enough until they accept a folded flag that recently covered the cold coffin of their dead child as the mournful tones of Taps plays in the background.

When I first heard that George Bush gave up golf to show solidarity to the families of troops who have died in Iraq, I thought that was a little bit like a kid giving up green beans for Lent, a bit disingenuous. As it turns out, giving up golf might be a huge sacrifice in the mind of our 43rd president, who has a handicap of 15, which I am told is pretty good. Comparing giving up golf to the sacrifices of a Gold Star family, one who has lost a loved one in war, however, may well be the worst attempt at empathy, solidarity or sympathy that this president has ever shown. Bush was interviewed by Politico and was asked questions submitted by online listeners. Let's listen in:

Q Mr. President, you haven't been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, it really is. I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the Commander-in-Chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as -- to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.

Q Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man's life. And I was playing golf -- I think I was in central Texas -- and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it's just not worth it anymore to do.

This interview, of all the malignant narcissist interviews this President has given, rendered me speechless. That those thoughtless words could come out of any public figure is appalling. That this public figure could ever imagine that those words would provide solace to any grieving family is unimaginable, yet this president continues to disgrace his office and offend. Golf, indeed! This president gave up golf in some pathetic attempt at solidarity with me, while I wonder what it would be like to hear my son's voice one more time and while I wonder what it would be like to feel his arms hug me, just one more time. I go to bed clutching my son's baby blanket in hopes that long ago memories will bring me precious sleep to escape from the reality of my new normal and this president gave up a game!

People may wonder why we Gold Star Families just don't get on with our lives, perhaps they think this grieving thing is going on a little too long. I explain that until the last soldier comes home, until this dying ends and until January 19, 2009, when this pathetic, poor excuse of a president leaves office and shuts his mouth will I even be able to consider getting on with my life.

This President has never demonstrated one bit of empathy, one bit of sympathy nor has he ever shown a glimmer of recognition that anything has gone wrong in his presidency, nor a hint of recognition of individual responsibility for anything that has occurred in the past 7 years. Whenever George Bush opens his mouth I know what comes out is likely to be full of malapropisms and other mispronunciations, but I steel myself that he will not say anything painful or hurtful to or about anyone. In this interview, he stepped way over any line of decency or respect. When Ken was killed 4 years ago, I did not expect to be continually abused by the uncaring words of the president.

Playing golf doesn't send the wrong signal to Gold Star Families. The fact that this president is still in office sends the wrong signal. If giving up golf is the best he can do to show solidarity, then George Bush needs to leave the White House today, not in 252 days, but now.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Happy Mother's Day, Nancy Pelosi

Dear Speaker Pelosi,

I write to you this Mother's Day as the mother of Lt. Ken Ballard, who was killed in Najaf, Iraq four years ago, fighting in a war that you have criticized but continue to fund.

I hope that this Mother's Day you are lucky enough to be surrounded by your children and grandchildren, to share thanks and hugs. But I also hope that you will think about the thousands of mothers of U.S. troops who will never see their children again -- and the tens of thousands of mothers of troops now serving in Iraq who live in fear every day of the phone call or the knock on the door telling them their child has been injured or killed.

I raised a great man who was proud to serve his country. Ken cared about his friends and family and he was blessed to have plenty of both. We were lucky to have had him in our lives for 26 years. But it was only 26 years. Ken had spent 384 days in Iraq and he was killed during a fierce battle on May 30, 2004. To think that this Sunday will be the fourth Mother's Day that I won't be hearing from him is heartbreaking. He won't come bounding into my bedroom with the greatest greeting card that he always took such pride in picking out for me. This year, instead of going to the beach as we always did, I will be spending this special day remembering him. When the first stars twinkle in the sky that night, I will look to those stars and hope that he is happy where he is. I will ask those same stars, "Will I ever know happiness again?" I wish I knew.

I miss Ken every minute of every day. When Ken was killed, people told me it would get better. They were wrong; it is different, but life without Ken will never be better. As a friend described Ken at his memorial, There was "no secret icing on the cake, just a plain, honest man . . . who would get crazy every so often.'' As a single mom, Ken was my north star, my grounding. But when Ken died, so did my future. We Gold Star families are the human cost of this war. We are left behind to pick up the pieces of our broken lives. We will go on with our lives, but there will always be a part of our heart that is a desperately empty black hole.

When you became Speaker of the House I had great hopes that you would take the lead in bringing an end to the war that killed my son and so many others -- that you would spare other mothers that devastating pain. But since you were sworn in, 1,069 more U.S. troops have died in Iraq.

You said this week that "Democrats in Congress stand with Americans who want to bring our troops home responsibly, safely and soon" -- and yet you are asking the House to pass legislation funding the continuation of the war in Iraq well into 2009. It is likely that we will lose about 500 more members of the US military and thousands of wounded by the time Mother's Day 2009 rolls around. That may be acceptable to you, but it isn't acceptable to me.

While our country is entering the sixth year of the war in Iraq and hostilities continue in other parts of the world, and hundreds of thousands of mother's are separated from their loved ones, it is fitting that we know one of the origins of the Mother's Day in the United States.

Julia Ward Howe was a well known abolitionist during the Civil War. After the war, her efforts turned to peace.. In 1870 she was the first to proclaim Mother's Day, with her Mother's Day Proclamation. It was to be a day dedicated to peace. She pondered the question

"Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?"

"Arise then...women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

As a mother whose only child, was killed in Iraq, I wonder about the soul of this country as the death toll rises every day and yet there is silence from the mother's of this nation. And I can't comprehend how you as a mother can continue to approve the funding that will send other mother's sons and daughters off to fight in a war that you have known was illegal, immoral, and unjust from the start.

Speaker Pelosi, there are already too many Gold Star Mothers. Please show some of the same courage my son and his fellow troops displayed. Admit that you were wrong, and commit yourself to opposing any bill that will continue to fund this war that is killing our brave young men and women. Promise to do everything in your power to bring every mother's child home from Iraq quickly and safely, and to give all our troops the care they need when they get here. That's the best way to honor the mothers of our fallen soldiers this Mother's Day.


Karen Meredith

Friday, May 09, 2008

Cremating our Fallen Soldiers with Respect

It seems that the military still hasn't figured out the proper & respectful treatment of fallen soldiers and their families.

We know that the administration has ruled that there will be no photographs of flag covered caskets as they make their last journey home. We don't see those images as the bodies are flown into Dover AFB, the mortuary for the military. We have been told that there is a reception for every fallen soldier arriving at Dover with a general officer and an honor team from the Old Guard. We are told that every step of the way, everyone involved exhibits great reverence and respect for each fallen soldier. But we don't have evidence of this because there are no photographs and families are not welcome at Dover. Even if a family requests a photograph of their loved one's caskest, as I did 4 years ago, they are denied becase it is 'against Army regulations" and "it is for the privacy of the families". Despite my persistence, I never received a photograph. I was and remain heartbroken because the Army refused my simple request for a photograph from Dover that would have documented the final journey home for my son, Lt Ken Ballard.

Still today, it seems that the military has figured out one more way to show their disrespect for fallen soldiers. At a 3:30 press conference this afternoon (nice timing, release sucky news on Friday afternoon when no one is likely to notice), the Pentagon is recommending changes in the handling of troops' remains, after it was revealed that crematoriums contracted by the military handle both human and animal cremations. A military official said there have been no instances or charges that human and pet remains were mixed. But officials are now recommending that troops' remains be incinerated at a facility that is dedicated entirely to humans, in order to avoid any appearance of a problem. Defense Secretary Robert Gates believed the earlier situation was "insensitive and entirely inappropriate for the dignified treatment of our fallen," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

"Our heroes deserve to be better treated than that," Morrell said, he said Gates offered an apology to military families for the insensitivity.

Late this afternoon, I got a call from my friend, Diane in Pennsylvania, Neil's Gold Star Mom, who had received a call from a local media outlet in Pittsburgh, PA informing her of this development. Diane called me immediately to alert me to this new Friday factoid, knowing that Ken was cremated. I didn't think much about it until I remembered that Ken had been classified by the Army as "unviewable" because of the devastating head injury he had suffered, so I never was able to view his body back in June 2004. I knew if I asked the Army today to confirm that Ken's body was returned to California, that I would never know the truth, regardless of their response, as the Army had so mishandled so much about Ken's casualty process.

After Diane's call, I thought I remembered seeing the name & a local location on the receipt for the cremation, but who knows what I remembered from those awful first days? I immediately called the local funeral home that handled Ken's funeral and cremation to confirm that Ken's body and not remains were shipped to California for the services. I was assured that the military escort officer knew Ken personally and was able to identify that it was his body to the Mortuary. The fact that Ken was cremated in accordance with proper mortuary protocol is good news to me; that I had to ask the question is problematic. The families whose loved ones were cremated out of Dover will always wonder.

There have been some improvements to the casualty process. In the early days of the war, some bodies were returned home to their families in the belly of a commercial aircraft and offloaded to the cargo area of the airport to await the arrival of the hearse. There is no ceremony or reverence to that; those loved ones underneath the red, white and blue were not treated as precious cargo, they were left to sit among the bags and boxes awaiting processing. Families soon demanded that our sons & daughters deserved better and the policy was changed to allow a family to request that the their loved ones be delivered home in a private jet to the nearest airport.

Even in the 6th year of this war/occupation, the Department of Defense seems to be unable to avoid appearances of problems, even if there are none. There are some people who work within the casualty process who just don't get it and probably never will. These "bodies" are some one's loved one. They are a precious part of some one's life and they should be treated with dignity and respect as military families are promised. A family should never doubt that their loved one is treated with the utmost respect as befitting someone who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service for their country.

Our heroes do deserve to be better treated than that and so do those left behind.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Misson Accomplished- Year 6

It feels like Groundhog's Day, the day that keeps replaying over and over, once a year to remind of us of one of the big lies of this war. "Mission Accomplished" wasn't the first lie about Iraq and it was not the last one. Today is the 5th anniversary of the day President George Bush playing his own personal version of Top Gun flying beside the pilot in the cockpit of an S-3B Viking Navy jet and landing on the deck of a carrier. The President of the United States in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier? Hollywood couldn't have written a better script.

Iraq fatigue has settled in around the country and maybe people are getting tired of being reminded of continued occupation and this day, this national embarrassment when the President strolled off the jet onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and swaggered up to the microphone and announced that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed" He also told us that "Iraq is free".

In the ensuing years, the White House told us, they didn't erect the banner, it was the Navy's idea, the White House actually made it, but the Navy put it up. One year later, President Bush explained that we had "achieved an important objective", sidestepping the real question of what mission, in fact, had been accomplished. Then spokesmodel, Dana Perino told the White House press corps that "we had toppled the Iraqi government and the Iraq Army", blaming the misunderstanding on the left. She said, "the left has decided to believe what they want to believe". The ever changing story of what was really meant with the "Mission Accomplished" banner on that day in May 2003, took one more twist today when Dana Perino said that the banner meant "mission accomplished for these sailors on this ship on their mission" adding that "we have paid a price for not being specific" about what the banner really meant.

What price exactly has the White House paid because of the misleading banner? Nothing, zero, zip and zilch. It is disingenuous and patronizing to even suggest that a price has been paid by anyone unless they have been handed a folded flag at the funeral of their loved one or sat by a bedside of their loved one trying to figure out what his or her normal will be after one, two, three or more deployments to Iraq. The occupants of this White House, and members of this administration have not and will never pay a personal price for the endless occupation. The troops and their families are carrying the burden of this continued occupation in blood & stress. The readiness of the military has been damaged, perhaps beyond the point of reasonable and simple repair, and this White House has the

Ken was alive 5 years ago today; he had not yet landed in Iraq, but in little more than a year I would be handed a folded flag, the same flag that honorably covered his casket that carried him home to California from the sands of Iraq.

On May 1, 2009, this country will have a new president. I am not hopeful that the mission in Iraq will have changed much by then. I am hopeful plans will have been put in place to bring the troops home once and for all. 3908 US troops have died since "Mission Accomplished" was announced. It is likely that we will lose about 800 more members of the US military and thousands of wounded before May 1, 2009 rolls around. That may be okay with you, but it isn't okay with me.