Wednesday, December 02, 2009

President Obama's Letters of Condolence to Families of the Fallen

Shortly after President Obama took office earlier this year, we found out that he had taken a different tact in writing condolence letters to families of the fallen from Iraq & Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has asked staffers to gather details about troops killed in overseas operations so he can personalize condolence letters to their families, according to a report in the Washington Times this week.  If Bush personally signed the letters (my own condolence letter from Bush appears to have been signed by an auto-pen), Bush's letters included nothing personal to make families feel as if their loss had been personally acknowledged by their loved one's Commander in Chief. Obama's approach to writing letters of condolence was a nice change.

When President Obama spoke at West Point about his new Afghanistan strategy called A New Way Forward, he said as President, I have signed a letter of condolence to the family of each American who gives their life in these wars.  It's too bad that isn't true.

We learned recently that the White House has an unwritten policy of not sending letters of condolence to the families of troops who took their own lives.  This is a harsh reality to families whose loved ones lives were lost from the invisible wounds of war.  This policy is not new to the Obama administration and neither was the ban on media coverage at Dover AFB, as soldiers returned in flag covered caskets. Shortly after President Obama took office, he lifted the media ban.  Obama should change this shameful White House policy that cruelly refuses to acknowledge the families tragic loss while their loved one served their country.

Troops who kill themselves on the battlefront or after they return to the homefront are casualties of war as surely as those who die in the field of battle.  The Department of Defense is just coming around to acknowledging the terrible number of suicides as they ponder new policies to try to deal with this tragic consequence of war. While the military has yet to acknowledge the causes of these high number of suicides, it seems clear that 9 years of war and all of the physical and mental strains that exists in battle might be the first place to look.

The Las Vegas Sun wrote a fitting editorial about the family of Chancellor Keesling and their pursuit of receiving the "final honor", a letter of condolence from their son's Commander in Chief.
In November, the Army announced that 140 soliders had committed suicide this year, equaling the record number of Army suicides recorded for 2008. We are reminded of what then-Army Secretary Pete Geren said last year: “Army leaders are fully aware that repeated deployments have led to increased distress and anxiety for both soldiers and their families.” 

The Army now tells soldiers that mental illness is not a condition of which they should be ashamed, and that seeking help will not stigmatize them. But that might be hard for them to believe when the families of their fellow soldiers who committed suicide do not receive letters of condolence from the president.
The president should send condolence letters to all casualties of war, no matter what the cause.  We owe our troops this final honor.

Bad Plan for Afghanistan

I am having deja' vu all over again and I don't mean that in a good way. I don't feel good about this new surge in Afghanistan.  President Obama (or fill-in-the-president) announces 30,000 (or fill-in-the-number) troops to be sent to Afghanistan (or fill-in-the-country)  with a goal of withdrawing forces in 2011(or fill-in the date).  We've heard it before.

President Obama appeared at West Point to give his speech this evening.  It seemed different than when former president Bush spoke surrounded by members of the US military wrapping himself in the flag to portray himself as one of the troops and not as their leader.  Tonight, the Commander in Chief told the cadets "I owe you a mission that is clearly defined and worthy of your service". I wonder how many of those cadets, will return home in a flag covered casket from serving in Afghanistan.  Will Obama go to Dover AFB to witness the dignified transfer of their remains as they return to their final resting place?

Obama tells us that General McChrystal  finds condition in Afghanistan "more serious than he anticipated" and McChrystal's escalation is the path our new President has chosen.  What about Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry's and other's serious reservations about deploying more troops to Afghanistan in the face of widespread corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government?

This Afghanistan strategy is not a "New Way Forward" as the White House tells us.  This strategy is rolling back 9 years ago and starting over with the strategy we should have had in 2001- remember back in December 2001 when Bush spoke of  bin Laden's capture and said he doesn't care how the suspect is brought to justice. "I don't care, dead or alive — either way," Bush said. "It doesn't matter to me."  Apparently nothing in Afghanistan mattered to Bush.  The U.S.squandered any opportunity to be successful in the pursuit of bin Laden and in fighting al Qaeda/ the Taliban in 2003, when the Bush administration took their eye of the ball and moved their little green army men over to Iraq.  Troops in Afghanistan have carried a terrible burden of being the red-headed step child when they were abandoned, with the lack of troops to accomplish the original mission of capturing Osama bin Laden. While we have a new administration, I am not convinced that we haven't lost our opportunity for a military success in Afghanistan.

I believe that President Obama when he said I do not make this decision lightly.  I opposed the war in Iraq precisely because I believe that we must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.  We have been at war now for eight years, at enormous cost in lives and resources.  Years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.  I just believe that he made the wrong decision.

Our country has been at war for 9 years in Afghanistan or Iraq or both. My mind was not changed by Obama's speech describing his new strategy. I only have one question- How many more?  How many more flag covered caskets?  How many broken families; how many children who will endure much of their childhood without one parent or the other? How many new Gold Star families? How many more billions of dollars should be spent? How many needless deaths to support a corrupt, dysfunctional government? How many more wounded veterans and their families will go without care or without sufficient care when they return?  How many multiple deployments must our military serve while so many Americans sit on the sidelines with no skin in the game?


Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving 2009

On Thursday, my family will once again have an empty chair at our Thanksgiving table. This will be the 6th Thanksgiving since my only child, 1Lt Ken Ballard was killed in Iraq.  As the holidays loom, so many Gold Star families are in a funk.  Whether it has been 9 years or 9 months, the truth seems especially harsh at this time of year.  "They are never coming home" repeats in our heads over and over again, they will never fight for the drumstick, or play football before dinner, or bound in with the energy of a puppy dog who just wants to love and love back. There will be no hugs and there will be no hands to hold. These seats are forever empty.

The other empty seats at Thanksgiving tables are those with loved ones who are serving their country in harm's way, 168,000 in Afghanistan, 115,000 in Iraq and so many others in places that do not make the news at all.  Our wish for them is that their empty seats are only temporary and that there will be a quick and safe return for their loved ones

President Obama will spend the holiday with his family in tact, in the warmth, comfort and safety of the White House or Camp David, while thousands of military families from Fort Campbell, KY and Ft Drum, NY wait to hear the deployment plans of their loved ones.  Rampant rumors are flying that Obama has finally decided on his strategy for Afghanistan.  The plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

I am thankful that our president has spent so much time deliberating this strategy; it is refreshing that he has taken the time to analyze the options, none of which is good- he was left with a hot mess and no one can argue any differently. But what will be the determining factor in this decision?  Will it be politics? 

Obama will be addressing the nation next week to announce/defend his plan. Americans remain divided about any troop increases with half of the people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey say they'd support such a decision, with 49 percent opposed. Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan 52 percent and 45 percent are in support.  These are not pretty numbers from the President's point of view; his decision will still divide the country.  But The Hill reports that the president said “My intention is to finish the job,” Obama said in comments from the White House. “I think once the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, they will be supportive,” Obama said.  I'm not so sure.

I don't know what "finish the job" means. Our former president sent troops into Afghanistan 8 years ago hell bent on revenge and perhaps some would say misguided retribution.  Once Bush was distracted by that shiny ball that was Iraq, Afghanistan was pretty much abandoned, leaving the troops understaffed,  ill equipped and poorly trained in Middle East culture. The military in both countries has performed admirably and far exceeded everything we have asked of them with little support from the tax payers who have not had to pay a "war" tax.  Apparently it's okay for their grandchildren to pay their bill.

In our 9th year of combat operations in Afghanistan, 928 US troops have lost their lives and in 7 years of combat operations in Iraq, we have lost 4365 US members of the military.  This doesn't count the number of suicides, the broken marriages and broken lives because those really aren't substantiated and besides, it doesn't affect most people, at least that's what they think.

I had hoped that Obama's trip to Dover AFB to see the dignified transfer of bodies as they come home from Iraq &Afghanistan would be meaningful as he saw the deeply grieving families as they welcome their loved ones home on that cold and windy tarmac.  I had hoped that the trip to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery would be meaningful as the President and Mrs Obama walked through those white stones at our national cemetery.  As they spoke to the families and read the names on those headstones, I had hoped that the sacrifice would be palpable and would weigh heavily on this new President's shoulders because by now, he surely knows the human cost of war.  But, what drives him?  Is he another "war president"?  As much as it pains me to think this, it seems so. If you haven't called or written to your member of Congress, you must let them know that continuing military operations is not what we want and the current foreign policy also must be be changed.

Early on this Thanksgiving 2009, I am thankful that I am with my my parents and 2 of my sisters. We have a roof over our heads and we will have a good meal. I am thankful that I have a job that I like and where I am respected. I am thankful for old friends and new ones. I am thankful for my Gold Star family friends and I wish for them a better day and a day full of memories that will warm their hearts. I'm not sure we will ever figure out how to live with this hole in our hearts, but we will get up tomorrow and the next day, and the next and we will speak our minds, because we have earned that right and becasue we know if we can't speak, another Gold Star family member  will step forward..  I am thankful that we have a President who has actually attended the dignified transfer at Dover AFB and one who has walked through Section 60- neither of those were easy, but he did it anyway.  I am thankful that President Obama lifted the media ban at Dover and now families can have the photograph of their loved one, the one I never got. Later today, we will remember who filled our empty chair and we will lift our glasses and toast to those who are not with us.  We miss them today, especially today.

I hope each of you is exactly where you are supposed to be in mind, body and spirit.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Liz Cheney's version of President Obama's trip to Dover

When I heard that Liz Cheney had a problem with President Obama's recent trip to Dover AFB to honor the 18 fallen soldiers and DEA employees as they made their final return home, I was insulted and disgusted that she felt she had an opinion to offer on the subject. Her opinion doesn't matter now and unless and until a loved one of Liz Cheney's is killed or wounded while serving their country, it never will and she should just keep her mouth shut.

Liz Cheney, daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, he of 5 deferrments to the draft during Viet Nam because he had other "priorities", doesn't get a vote on this one.  As a Gold Star mother who lost my only child in Iraq in 2004,  I don't need to be patronized by her platitudes of how a president should pay tribute to our fallen soldiers. 

The Huffington Post posted an article about Liz Cheney's Fox interview with John Gibson: I think that clearly it is very important for our Commander in Chief whenever he can in whatever way possible to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, our military folks but I think that what President Bush used to do is do it without the cameras. And I don't understand sort of showing up with the White House Press Pool with photographers and asking family members if you can take pictures. That's really hard for me to get my head around...It was a surprising way for the president to choose to do this."

See Liz, when you start thinking, that's when things start going south for you. Never one to let facts get in the way, she covers herself by saying "I think that what President Bush used to do is do it without the cameras".  The fact is President Bush never went to Dover, and he never went to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery to walk among the white stones that mark the graves of the nearly 800 members of the military who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, his and Dick Cheney's wars of choice.    Bush said the appropriate way to show his respect for war's cost was to meet with grieving military families in private.  Unfortunately or fortunately, very few families met with former President Bush if they did not share his politics and support his war policy. Bush chose to meet with families who were pre-screened to meet the administration's criteria.  When insulated that way, Bush could say that families told  him to 'stay the course" and to not let their loved one's death be in vain.  I would have told him to bring the troops home and to take care of them when they got home; he did neither.

Bush or Cheney would never have been photographed honoring the US dead because they continued the longstanding policy of banning media coverage at Dover AFB, the mortuary for the Department of Defense.  Just because we never saw photographs, doesn't mean it happened.  The media ban policy was a political move by the Bush administration to shield the country from the images of war.  The Pentagon did not feel that US population could pass the Dover Test.   Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton, asked whether "the American public (is) prepared for the sight of our most precious resource coming home in flag-draped caskets.".  In 1997 combat veteran and former Senator John Glenn describedthe Dover Test this way "It's easy to see the flags flying and the people go off to war, and the bands play and the flags fly.  And it's not quite so easy when the flag is draped over a coffin coming home back through Dover, Delaware".   President Obama, the Commander in Chief, took the Dover test on October 28; something neither Bush or Cheney ever did.

Kudos to Lawrence O'Donnell who, on Countdown on MSNBC,  took exception to Liz Cheney's response with this message directly to her:
"Liz, don't let your dad do this to you. Don't let him parade you on to the stage to defend the indefensible. Let him suffer the full weight of the shame that we know he must feel when he watches Barack Obama do what he never had the decency to do."

Mark Shields at wrote a wonderful opinion piece called "Obama earns nation's thanks through 'Dover test'"  
The scene at Dover is no ordinary picture. No, Dover is truly the portrait of sacrifice and of human loss. Statistics do not bleed. Real sons and real fathers -- and, yes, real sisters -- bleed. And they die. However any of us might feel about the wisdom of the decision to go to war or of how that war has been waged, all of us need to appreciate -- and to share -- the grief and pain of the human cost of war. 

However Liz Cheney might feel about the wisdom of the decision to go to war, she has not earned the right to call out Obama on how he chooses to honor the fallen. Her words are irrelevant and we should treat them so.

President Obama's trip to Dover AFB

The photos and videos from the solemn dignified transfer at Dover AFB with President Obama took my breath away.

Unlike many people who think it was a photo op staged by the White House for whatever reason they came up with, I appreciated that our President made that midnight trip to Dover, the mortuary for the US military, and paid his respects to these young men, returning from Afghanistan and their families.

Although only one soldier's family agreed to have his transfer photographed by the media, I'm pretty sure that the families could have cared less if the President or Osama bin Laden was on the tarmac as they saw their loved ones return in a flag covered casket. That moment when you see your loved one covered with the American flag being removed from the belly of a plane is one of the most gut wrenching sites you will ever experience. When my son's body was removed from the plane at San Francisco airport from that US Airways jet that carried him home to California from Dover, I could have crawled inside with Ken's body and never come out. The reality that my son was in that casket and would not live the rest of his life that we had dreamed for him was the most physical and emotional pain I have ever experienced. It was the worst day of my life.

I was not given the opportunity to witness Ken's "dignified transfer" at Dover AFB in Deleware; in fact, we were discouraged from and not allowed to attend his homecoming. That was the policy of the former Bush administration, presumably reinforced by Vice President Dick Cheney. In 1989 Dick Cheney, the Assistant Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration implemented the "no media" at Dover policy that stayed in effect for 18 years.

Not only was I not invited or welcome at Dover back in 2004, I was not allowed a photograph of Ken's body returning to Dover. When I asked for that photograph on the day I was told of Ken's death, the Army told me I could not have that photograph because it was against Department of  Defense policy and it was for the privacy of the families.

Lifting the media ban was something that I had been vocal about for nearly 5 years and I will always be grateful that during the first few months of his presidency, Obama changed the media policy at Dover.  I know that some Gold Star families (we, who have lost a loved one who was serving in the military) did not agree with the lifting of the ban, but for those of us who would have wanted to witness this return home and share that images with our country, President Obama gave those families who came after us an opportunity that we did not have.  

Nearly two thirds of families have agreed to have their loved one's return by photographed by the media, and even more have agreed to have photographs taken by the Pentagon.  The change in policy did not result in any dire change of behavior by the media or political parties as some had suggested would happen.  The photographs have shown the dignity and respect afforded to these members of the military on their final journey home.

MSNBC reported the President's comments after his trip to Dover : "It was a sobering reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that our young men and women in uniform are engaging in every single day, not only our troops but their families as well," Obama said from the White House, reflecting briefly on his surprise middle-of-the-night trip to Dover Air Force Base to observe the return of the fallen Americans to the United States.Speaking softly and somewhat haltingly, Obama said losses such as these are "something that I think about each and every day."

I believe that President Obama does think about the war losses every day.  On Memorial Day earlier this year, as a member of American Gold Star Mothers, I was among sevveral groups of veteran's service organizations who attended a breakfast with the President at the White House. President Obama sat with 6 Gold Star Mothers and 2 Gold Star fathers.  I was told it was the first time that an administration invited veteran's service organizations to the White House on Memorial Day.  In 2008, after former president Bush participated in the wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown at Arlington National Cemetery, he returned to the White House to honor the NCAA basketball champions.  I still wonder if that ceremony might have waited a day to allow the president to continue to honor the military, but we were never a priority in his day or his administration.

In February 2009, Washington Times reporter, Christina Bellatoni wrote about President Obama's approach to the solemn task of writing offical letters of condolence to families of the fallen from Iraq & Afghanistan.
In his first few weeks in office, sometime between celebratory bill signings and phone calls from foreign leaders, President Obama sat in the Oval Office for the most somber task of his presidency - penning letters to families of troops killed in combat.
"This was real, it was personal, it was so important to us," said Thya Merz, whose son Marine Lance Cpl. Julian Brennan was killed Jan. 24 in Afghanistan.
The letter was signed "Barack," Ms. Merz told The Washington Times.
"Not 'president,' just his first name, and it just felt like, OK, my son has been acknowledged," she said.
Mr. Obama personalizes each letter, asking staffers to gather details about the service member, such as their hometown and where they were stationed, a White House aide said. The letters are sent to parents and spouses, and sometimes children of the fallen troops.
The president writes the notes by hand, then the letters are typed before he adds his signature.
Mr. Obama wrote the first few letters for troops who died in Iraq and Afghanistan while George W. Bush was president, and has written at least a dozen more since taking office.
The president told NBC News that the duty falls to him, though he did not initiate the wars and opposed the invasion of Iraq. In those moments of signing the letters, he said, "you realize every decision you make counts."

I  believe President Obama thinks about the fighting men and women of the military in a way that George Bush never did.  I hope that he keeps these sacrifices in mind when he makes his decision on whether the number of troops in Afghanistan will be increased or decreased.  My vote is to bring them home NOW!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ron Christie and his rose colored glasses

Ron Christie, former Deputy Assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney was on Hardball on MSNBC this evening doing the bidding for his former boss. Do you have to be a d**k to work for one?

I am long over hearing Dick Cheney and other members of the Bush admnstration trying to rewrite the last 8 years.  It seems like we've seen and heard him more of Dick Cheney since he left, or should have left DC, back in January when the 44th Presidency was over, than when he was actually in office.

But let's get back to Ron Christie on Hardball tonite. Chris Matthews, Willie Brown and Ron Christie were talking about the pushback that is being given to Dick Cheney's recent criticism of President Obama's current discussions & deliberations regarding troop levels and policy & strategy in Afghanistan. Cheney accuses Obama of "dithering" when it comes to makng a decison.

Matthews mentioned that Geroge Will, a conservative columnist suggested that "A bit of ditherng might have been in order before we went into Iraq n pursut of non-existent weapons of mass desetructon." and other members of the GOP seem to agree.

Christie accuses Obama of sitting on a report from his general (McChrystal) requesting a surge of up to 40,000 troops to "define victory in Afghanstan".  Of course, there has been no redefintion of the mssion n Afghanstan, let alone a defniton of victory.

Christe goes on to accuse Obama of having "time to fly to Copenhagen and appear on Davd Letterman; and says that he and others wonders if this President is giving ths Afghanistan conflct resolution the time and attenton it deserves"  How quickly he forgets the many fiddling vacations that Bush took while our country burned.

You don't go to war for a perceived threat as Christie described Iraq and went on to say that the UN Security Council along with the coalition of the willing "acted to preseve the integrity of the US and we acted to reserve the peace". I missed that peace in the Bush adminstration.

When Christie says this (decision about Afghanistan) shouldn't be political, he seems to forget that his former boss and the entire administration perfected making any subject politcal during the last 8 years.  Christie goes on to suggest that the President should be "deliberate, methodical and thoughtful". That statement seems a bit ironic since the Bush adminstration was anything but deliberate, methodical and thoughtful about anything they did in their 8 years in office.

Unlike former President Bush, who treated the miltary as his own little green army men, Obama expressed his concern to members of the military today when speaking at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.  "While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this -- and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way," Obama said. "Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals and the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That's the promise I make to you."

There is no weakness in a leader who will not rush a solemn decsion of sending troops into harm's way. Had there been any deliberate, methodical and thoughtful dscussions or even any dithering, prior to invading Iraq, 4351 US solders, including my son, and countless innocent Iraqis very well could still be alive.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Name Them and Shame Them- Joe Wilson (R-SC)

It's been a long time since I've named anyone to shame them, but Rep Addison Graves Wilson, Sr aka Joe Wilson (R-SC) deserves to be taken behind the woodshed for a good whipping tonight. His disrespectful behavior at the televised Presidential speech to the joint session of Congress was embarrassing. When Obama said that his proposed health plan would not include coverage for illegal immigrants, Rep Wilson rudely shouted out "Lie!" Seriously? Take it to a teabag party, Joe; it doesn't work in DC.

Full disclosure, for reader's of this blog, it is no surprise that shouting at President GW Bush during his speeches kept me amused and also controlled my blood pressure during the 8 years of the Bush administration. I was equal opportunity in
my vocal response to varied members of the administration and "LIE" was a favorite for me. However, I am n0t an elected official who represents the good people of South Carolina (or any other state, for that matter). And while I'm at it, readers of this blog may find it hard to read that I am publicly stating my support for John McCain who said that Rep Wilson owes an apology for his behavior.

Addison Graves Wilson, Sr is no gentleman and he owes President Obama an apology. Apparently you can dress up this man, but you should never ever take him out.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Five Years Gone- R.I.P. 1Lt Ken Ballard

I thought 5 years would be easier, but it's not. My friends marked 5 years without their son's, so I should have known, maybe I didn't really want to know. This hole in my heart will never heal; I know that for certain. I think of what I miss about Ken and what he missed and what we missed for his dying so soon and it all seems so hopeless on these milestone days.

These anniversary days are killers, and in 2009, I get 2 of them this week. Memorial Day is the day we found out that Ken was killed in Iraq, but the date he was killed was May 30 in 2004. When you get the knock on the door on Memorial Day, of all days, it's like a neon sign flashing, reminding people why we celebrate Memorial Day and what it is really about and I'm not talking a sale at the mall. When you get news like this on Memorial Day, there is nowhere to hide. Ken loved being a soldier, but for us to find out about his death on Memorial Day was a a bit of cruel irony.

I returned from DC this past Tuesday and barely hung on at work through Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, telling myself I just have to get through Saturday, through May and then, I tell myself, June will be better. I am seriously lucky to have friends and family who care for me and about me and that they remember Ken on this day. I am grateful for their kind words and their support and flowers, hugs, cards, phone calls, Facebook comments and their company. Their presence is what gets me through the day without totally wallowing in a pity party. Sharing their thoughts and memories tell me that Ken will not be forgotten and that is the best I can ask for on a milestone day like today.

Ken was killed about 6 weeks after 1st Armored Division had been extended. They had already turned in their weapons, shipped their personal items and were ready to come home when the news of the extension was announced. While Ken was deployed to Iraq, we had a pretty good CARE package system going, and with the extension, we were ramping back up to send more packages. I had sent Ken 2 packages the week before he was killed. On the customs document, I had marked the boxes to be "Abandoned" in case they could not be delivered; that was always the hardest part about completing the shipping paperwork. I never imagined that checking that the box would be meaningful, but for these 2 packages, it was. Despite my request to the Lt Colonel's wife after Ken was killed, that any CARE packages sent to Ken be distributed to his guys, who were the intended recipients of some of the items anyway, almost 6 weeks to the day after Ken was killed many of us arrived home to see that the CARE packages that we so lovingly had mailed to Ken, were sitting on our front porches. RTS- RETURN TO SENDER.

I couldn't bear to open the packages that I had sent but were then back in my possession; I didn't remember what they contained and I didn't care; they sat on a shelf in my office until today. How poignant to remember what was important to him, what I thought would provide comfort and remind him of home 5 years ago.

Ken's unit had planned "beach party", I don't remember why, but I knew at the time. I had sent some inflatable beach balls, some balloons for a water balloon fight, some silly string and some frisbees. I also had sent a DVD, "Stripes", Ken's favorite movie thinking he might have some down time for distraction and a few laughs. I had also sent him a new Hawaiian shirt, a la Hawkeye Pearce from M*A*S*H. As I opened the boxes today, the food that I sent was nasty and out of date, and the 4 bottles of Mountain Dew made it safely to Iraq and back again (no ma'am, there are no liquids in these boxes I am sending to Iraq, I always swore at the Post Office when sending Ken's packages)

Ken and his guys would have appreciated the goodies and the love that accompanied them, but today, 5 years later, it was time to move on and get rid of that reminder of such a painful time. Life isn't getting better as some promised me. Life is getting different for the most part, but the heavy aching in my heart is definitely not showing any signs of going away. I wouldn't wish this life on anyone.

General George Casey, Chief of Staff of the Army said on Tuesday, his planning envisions combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade as part of a sustained U.S. commitment to fighting extremism and terrorism in the Middle East. 10 more years of combat, 10 more years of more flag covered caskets returning to their grieving families.

Back in October 2002, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama told a crowd That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics. Although we have been offered many reasons for invading Iraq, many of them proven to be lies; we have not yet been provided a reason that is acceptable to the American public. If this was a dumb war in 2002, I want to know what changed so much to make it a smart war and one that needs to continue for another 10 years?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Map the Fallen

Earlier this week as the nation marked Memorial Day and remembered the military who have died in service to their country, Map the Fallen was launched to honor post 9/11, US and Coalition forces fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sean Askay, a Google engineer, who has the coolest job in the world, has been working on a project for 4 years to map the casualties from Iraq & Afghanistan. He explains it this way:
For the past two years I've been working on the Google Earth Outreach team, aimed at helping non-profits and public benefit groups use Google Earth and Google Maps to further their cause. In that time I've worked on so many cool projects, from training indigenous communities in Brazil on the use of internet and mapping technologies, to helping with Google's disaster response mapping efforts for the San Diego fires and Cyclone Nargis, to even working with NASA to get a copy of Google Earth on the International Space Station (more on that later!). I'm also in charge of the Global Awareness layers in Google Earth and helped develop and polish many of those projects, including Crisis in Darfur and Appalachian Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.

This Memorial Day I would like to share with you a personal project of mine that uses Google Earth to honor the more than 5,700 American and Coalition servicemen and women that have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have created a map for Google Earth that will connect you with each of their stories—you can see photos, learn about how they died, visit memorial websites with comments from friends and families, and explore the
places they called home and where they died.
Sean contacted me a few weeks back asking for feedback on his soon to be released project. He was interested in hearing from Gold Star families. My first reaction when I got his sensitive email was to burst into tears. I was overwhelmed at the amount of work that went into the project and amazed that Sean had taken the time to gather so much information to honor the fallen in this way. As a self-described nerd, I was thrilled to see the melding of technology with these names, ages, hometowns, place of death to tell a remarkable story about each one of the casualties. Since I live in Google-town, it was easy to meet with Sean the same day that I received his email. I couldn't wait to express my thanks to him and to hear and see more about the project.

Please take the time to visit Map the Fallen and learn about the people behind the names and numbers on those stark lists of casualties. Go to my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard's hometown of Mountain View, CA and fly to Najaf, Iraq, where he died on May 30, 2004. Read his obituary from the San Jose Mercury News and read the Department of Defense announcement of his death. I would expect that you won't be able to stop at Ken's story. With 5679 stories, there is plenty to learn about these young men and women who stood up to serve their country. These stories will tell you that they lived and not just how they died.

I can never adequately express my thanks to Sean for all of the work he put into making this project come to life. And thanks to Google who allow their employees to work 20% of their time on personal projects; I hope they all have the impact that this one does.

Watch John King of CNN demonstrate Map The Fallen

CNN reports on Map the Fallen

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

McChrystal's assignment in Afghanistan is a nice reward for bad behavior.

The news about the firing of Lieutenant General David McKiernan from the top spot in Afghanistan is troubling in that it demonstrates an escalation in the war. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the decision in terse comments at the Pentagon, saying that "fresh eyes were needed" and that "a new approach was probably in our best interest." The new assignment for McCrystal is fine if you want more torture and cover-ups in a leader.

Matthew Rothchild from The Progressive states it clearly

By choosing Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama shows how indifferent he is to the serious allegations that have swirled around McChrystal, a darling of the Bush-Cheney regime.

It was McChrystal, after all, who approved a medal for Pat Tillman, the former NFL star, saying he fell under “devastating enemy fire.” But just a day later, McChrystal warned the White House that it might have been friendly fire, not enemy fire.

And, according to Seymour Hersh, McChrystal was the guy who was running Cheney’s assassination squads. From 2003-2008, McChrystal headed the Joint Special Operations Command, which Hersh called “an executive assassination wing” that reported directly to Cheney’s office.

What’s more, Esquire has reported that McChrystal authorized torture at a secret camp, where two detainees died under interrogation, and expressly prohibited the Red Cross from entering the camp, which would be a double violation of the Geneva Conventions.

McChrystal’s promotion mocks Obama’s rhetoric about making a clean break with the torture regime of Bush and Cheney.

The New York Times is effusive in their reporting of General McChrystal's career. “He’s lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier,” said Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer. “He’s got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.”

But where are his ethics? Ethics define a leader and he gets a zero for that.

The San Jose Mercury News explains, in April 2004, McChrystal approved paperwork awarding Tillman a Silver Star after he was killed by enemy fire — even though he suspected the Ranger had died by fratricide, according to Pentagon testimony later obtained by the AP.

The testimony showed that McChrystal sent a memo to top generals imploring "our nation's leaders," specifically the president, to avoid cribbing the "devastating enemy fire" explanation from the award citation for their speeches.

It's no surprise Pat Tillman's family would have an immdeiate reaction to the news.

"I do believe that guy participated in a falsified homicide investigation," Pat Tillman Sr. said.

Separately, Mary Tillman called it "imperative" that McChrystal's record be carefully considered before he is confirmed.

Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell said, "We feel terrible for what the Tillman family went through, but this matter has been investigated thoroughly by the Pentagon, by the Congress, by outside experts, and all of them have come to the same conclusion: that there was no wrongdoing by Gen. McChrystal,"

Mr Morrell seems to have conveniently forgotten that the Army overruled a Pentagon recommendation that McChrystal be held accountable for his "misleading" actions in 2007. Whoever "we" is, who feel terrible for what the Tillman family went through don't know the meaning of "feeling terrible" "Feeling terrible" does not come close to what the Tillman family continues to go through. If this has been so thoroughly investigated, why do we still not know the truth? Why was no one held accountable? Pat Tillman is dead and this assignment is another insult to his service.

McChrystal's assignment as the new top dog in Afghanistan? Nice reward for bad behavior.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Open letter to Richard Haass

Richard Haass, former director of policy planning for the Bush administration published an essay in Newsweek this week called "The Dilemma of Dissent" It is the story of a former Bush aide looking back at his reasoning of why he stayed so long with the administration even when he felt he had little in common with his colleagues.

Mr Haass states that he "was 60–40 against initiating a war. My opposition was not stronger because of my assumption (derived from the available intelligence) that Iraq possessed both biological and chemical weapons." Naively, he also believed that if we went to war we would go about it in a way reminiscent of how we had waged the previous war with Iraq—that is, only with considerable international and domestic backing and only with enough troops and sensible plans.

I'm not sure if his essay was a way to explain his personal situation of sticking with an administration that diverged from his own opinion or to whether it was more of an essay about the dilemma of dissent.

My message to Mr Haass is this:

Mr. Haass- While it’s all well and good that you feel the need to spill your guts; it’s too many years too late and too many dead bodies gone for me to feel any sympathy for your purported tortured soul.

Dissent is not difficult if it is for the right reasons. You knew that blood would be shed; you knew that lives would be forever altered in the worst way and you stayed quiet. You were an enabler to possibly the worst administration this country has ever seen and you stayed quiet. Your misplaced loyalty was to a man and not the Constitution and that may have been your worst mistake.

Spare me your pity party. Go read your little essay at Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 60, where nearly 700 soldiers are buried as a result of their deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan-I wonder what those soldiers, Marines and airmen and their families would think of your confession. I don't have to wonder, I know.

There is no doubt at all that you participated in history and you definitely contributed to making history, although not in the way you had planned. The blood on your hands should leave a stain that will forever remind you that you did not do the right thing when it was time to make a stand for what may have been the most important decision you made in your life. Leaving the government partly for an attractive job removes any significance of your decision to leave at all. Your guilt for not leaving your position in the Bush administration sooner is obvious. Perhaps you should have kept your mouth shut and be thought a fool by association than to have opened it and removed all doubt.

In July 2002, while you were meeting with Condoleeza Rice, my son was still alive, but according to your essay, his death sentence was being written. On Memorial Day I will stand at his grave in Section 60 to mark the 5th anniversary of his death in Iraq. You owe us an apology not a confession.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Counting Lives Lost

The campus was quiet on Saturday when I visited DeAnza College in Cupertino, CA. I purposefully went looking for this exhibit, "Counting Lives Lost", unlike the few passersby who were curiously and accidentally drawn into this breathtaking display of "an abstract measurement of Grief".

Kathleen Crocetti of Watsonville, a Blue Star mother, whose son serves the country in the Air Force is the artist behind the exhibit. The traveling sculpture installation, depicts the almost 4,274 American casualties and almost 99,000 Iraqi dead since the beginning of the war in Iraq, each represented by a five-inch clay figure placed in a base of tons of sand.

Ms Crocetti's artist statement at the first display of her exhibit on Memorial Day 2006
I find that when numbers get past a certain size they are just big numbers, and the abstractness of numbers numb us to the reality of the situation. I have made one small 4 inch figure for every person who has died in Iraq since we invaded.

At this point in time for every US troop member we have lost there have been 16 Iraqi. It is important to me that we as a nation recognize not just our loses, but the losses we have caused. At the same time, honoring our own and being respectful of them is paramount to my piece/peace.

I want people on both sides of the war debate to come see my work, it is a memorial. Each American figure has an American Flag across his/her chest and then 16 anonymous shadow figures standing behind. The shadow figures represent the 1:16 ratio of Iraqi dead to American dead. The 1:16 ratio is very conservative; we do not know exactly how many Iraqis have died. Of the 39,400 known Iraqi dead only 3,500 of them have been named, the other 90% are anonymous to us. They are certainly not anonymous to their families.

During the last two months I have gotten our community involved in catching up with the Iraqi body count. During these work parties while we were cutting out clay bodies we talked.

In the making and the talking we feel as if we are doing something. Grieving is an active process, not a passive one, and recovery is a choice. It is my belief that as a nation we are in denial and have not yet begun to mourn. We need to start the grieving process now, because it is painful and uncomfortable and the sooner we start acknowledging our culpability and responsibility the sooner we will stop inflicting grief upon others.

Memorials are usually held after someone has died. Honoring those who have died on both sides of the battle field while the battle continues to rage makes my work political. It is my aim to honor those who have died as respectfully as possible while making the growing abstract number visible and tangible. War is war; I am not interested in conversations about how and why we got into this situation.

I am in mourning; eventually as a nation we will need to mourn the dead, maybe the sooner we get started the sooner we will stop.

I am in mourning, too. 5 years ago on Memorial Day, I received that knock on the door that so many military families fear. I was told that my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard was coming home from Iraq in a flag covered casket.

To see the human cost of war displayed in such a bold way as is on display at DeAnza College, should draw visitors in, to at least, have an internal conversation with themselves to ask if this loss of life is okay with them. The war has been sanitized and the costs kept under cover so that the general population has not been affected. We, Gold Star Families, who have lost a loved one in war, mourn the dead every day, but when will the rest of our country share in this grief? Ms Crocetti is right, "eventually as a nation we will need to mourn the dead, maybe the sooner we get started the sooner we will stop".

This installation will be on exhibit until June; I encourage you to visit and for you to view this abstract measurement of grief. If only for a few minutes, you will be able to share in the grief of the 4297 families, including my own.

Yesterday marked the 5 year anniversary of the death of Sgt Sherwood Baker and today is the 5 year anniversary of the death of Sgt Adam Estep- my thoughts are with their families and friends.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Having a pity party

Some days it sucks to be me and today is one of those days. Yesterday was the 5 year anniversary of the death of the son of one of my Gold Star Mom friends. None of us want that Gold Star pin that the military presents us at the funeral of our sons, but we sure as hell earned it the hard way. I wear my pin every day.

I left a message for my friend because that is what we do on these “death day” anniversaries. We remember because the general public does not. She called me back and told me she wasn’t really answering the phone on her anniversary; she was sure I understood and of course, I did. I don’t answer the phone much on May 30 either and all my Gold Star friends understand.

When my friend called me this morning she told me it was a hard day yesterday, and that today- the anniversary day of the day she got the news seemed even harder. She said that 5 years was weird. 5 long years. Thanks for the warning since I'm about 5 weeks away from my 5 year! I thought after the one year anniversary that things would get better, that all of the firsts without Ken would be behind me. Indeed they were, but then it became the 2nd birthday without, the 3rd Mother’s Day without, 4th Easter without, Christmas, death day anniversary and every day without Ken- forever.

This life as a Gold Star mom gets different but it doesn’t get better at all. Learning to live without Ken will always be the hardest thing that I do every day. Knowing I will never hear his voice, feel his hug and see that twinkle in his eye, that is the hard part. Truth be told, I find it very hard to think about living a long life without Ken. I look at Gold Star moms from the Viet Nam era and do not know how they have lived so long with a big hole in their hearts. I just don't know.

In the bloodiest day in more than a year, 75 Iraqi’s were killed today and at least 120 wounded in 2 explosions in Baghdad today. Everybody (in Iraq) knows somebody killed by the war Conversely, for the most part the people of the United States do not know anyone who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they don’t have to. They can live their life with and never think about the war and we Gold Star families live our lives forever changed because of that one knock on the door.

The cherry on top of this day is hearing all the details about the enhanced interrogations or torture approved and directed by senior members of the Bush administration. And no, these techniques weren't to prevent the scary mushroom cloud of another attack that was dangled in front of the country as the drums beat louder and louder on the way to the invasion of Iraq. According to a former senior U.S. intelligence officer, the Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime.

Not only did the Bush administration lie about the reasons to go to war, they tortured in our name to get the evidence to prove ties between al Qaida and Iraq; ties that were never there. While I generally don't like to play "what if", that is a key component in a pity party. What if Bush was never president? How all of our lives would be different.

Special hugs to Mary for her anniversary this week and for Carrie & Ken for their 5 year anniversary next week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Shaken Baby game disturbing

Just as the upcoming video game "Six Days in Fallujah" is disturbing and offensive to Gold Star families, the application for the iPhone called "Baby Shaker" is offensive to enough people that Apple has pulled the application. MSNBC reports:

A controversial program for the iPhone called "Baby Shaker" was added to, then pulled from, Apple's App Store this week after protests about the program's offensive nature dealing with a deadly serious subject.

Child protection groups were outraged by the 99-cent app for the iPhone and iPhone touch, which encourages those frustrated with babies' crying to shake them, or in this case, shake their devices to change drawings of a crying baby to a calm one.

Apple, "which notoriously and routinely rejects new apps from developers with a 'rigorous' vetting process, nonetheless apparently allowed this horrible application to be sold through its store," said the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, whose aim is assist in the research of new developments for children with pediatric acquired brain injuries such as Shaken Baby Syndrome.

"Not only are they making fun of Shaken Baby Syndrome but they are actually encouraging it. This is absolutely terrible," said Marilyn Barr, founder of the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome and a board member of the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation.

Apple, asked about why the Baby Shaker app was approved and how long it was available before being pulled, did not answer those questions.

"It was removed today," was the only statement Wednesday from Natalie Kerris of Apple.

Sikalosoft, listed as the developer of Baby Shaker, could not be reached for comment.

Baby Shaker was made available Monday in the App Store, according to, which first reported on the program.

The site, which says it covers the "lighter and krazy side of apps," said it wasn't on "some vigilante justice hunt," and believes there was no "malicious intent" on the part of the program's creator.

But, the site said, "Come on … combining the title Baby Shake with the objective of stopping an annoying crying baby is simply irresponsible and utterly idiotic. You would think Apple would stay totally clear of any iPhone app remotely resembling child abuse."

On its site, Sikalosoft describes Baby Shaker:

"On a plane, on the bus, in a theater. Babies are everywhere you don't want them to be! They're always distracting you from preparing for that big presentation at work with their incessant crying. Before Baby Shaker there was nothing you could do about it.

"Now, Baby Shaker gives you a charming drawing of a baby sure to make those with a less than iron will fawn. True to life, it begins to annoy you immediately. See how long you can endure his or her adorable cries before you just have to find a way to quiet the baby down!"

And almost as an afterthought there is this sentence: "Never, never shake a baby."

Apple, which should see its 1 billionth App Store program downloaded this week, has more than 25,000 programs in the App Store. The store, launched last summer, lets iPhone and iPod touch users directly download programs onto their devices. Early on, CEO Steve Jobs said the kinds of programs that would be rejected were those that deal with pornography, or with inadequate security.

The company has been criticized by software developers for not allowing other kinds of programs, such as those that pass digital gas, into the App Store.

Such apps ultimately were approved, although the developer of one, "Whoopie Cushion," was first told by Apple that his program did not "comply with Community Standards,” programs that have “any obscene, pornographic, offensive or defamatory content or materials of any kind (text, graphics, images, photographs, etc.) or other content or materials that in Apple’s reasonable judgment may be found objectionable by iPhone or iPod touch users.”

"Baby Shaker" may have been one that slipped through Apple's approval process. No matter.

Patrick Donohue, founder of the Sarah Jane Brain Foundation, said Wednesday he sent an e-mail to Apple executives that said, in part, "As the father of a 3-year-old who was shaken by her baby nurse when she was only five days old, breaking three ribs, both collarbones and causing a severe brain injury, words cannot describe my reaction."

What is wrong with people who design and release an application about shaking a baby? What is wrong with Apple's process that allowed this to be posted in their app store? How did this application pass their test of community standards? Are people that insensitive? I know the answer, I just don't want to say it out loud.

The War is not a Game- Part II

Full disclosure, I am not a gamer, I have not seen any previews of "Six Days in Fallujah" and I do not plan on seeing it if it is released. It isn't necessary. As the controversy over this video game continues, it is clear to me that Atomic Games doesn't want to understand the concerns of Gold Star families, those who lost a loved one in this Iraq war.

Several members of the military approached Atomic Games with the proposal to re-enact a horrific battle that they participated in and I'm pretty sure that they have the best interest of anyone who was in Fallujah during those awful days in November 2004 including their brothers who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but I still think this game is wrong. I wonder if they thought about the families who have been left behind, we Gold Star families who are still learning to live without our loved ones, who were killed in this war that continues to kill and maim to this day. We, whose hearts break a little more with the news of every new death in Iraq or Afghanistan; American or Iraqi, British, Dutch, Canadian or Afghani.

The gamer's message boards are wild discussing the negative reaction to this game and their preferred form of entertainment. I'm not sure how people can compare a book or a movie about war to a video game about war, especially to a specific battle, as "Six Days in Fallujah" might be. Films and books are entertaining in a different way, and have a fixed story. There are no "do overs" in a book or a film. When someone dies in a film or book, they are dead for the remainder, you don't start over and get another ending.

I also don't buy the argument that realistic war games have been made by the Army for recruiting and training purposes, so what's wrong with this one?

Less than 1% of the population of this country is affected by the war in any way and it is that disconnect that is bothersome. Those 1% are the members of the military and their families, the people who love them. I wish people could walk in my Gold Star Mom shoes for a minute. They might understand for that moment my experience of what it feels like to have lived in fear for 384 days while my son was deployed to Iraq or the agony of the last 5 years since he was killed in a deadly battle in Najaf. But really, it is not a minute or a life I would wish on anyone, ever.

Atomic Games President, Peter Tamte said "Ultimately, all of us are curious about what it would really be like to be in a war" But Mr Tamte found his reality in the safety of gaming and speaking to Marines who were involved in this battle that they seek to recreate. Hardly a realistic comparison to the real thing. Mr Tamte continues, "For us, the challenge was how to present the horrors of war in a game that is entertaining, but also gives people insight into a historical situation in a way that only a video game can provide". His comments provide no assurance to me and lead me to a nightmare image of people playing this game and laughing when they die, or laughing when they kill someone else, accidentally or intentionally. I imagine these gamers will laugh and exchange high fives at their success in this so-called game. When they are tired or bored, they go get a beer or a soda from the fridge, maybe go out and shoot some hoops, and then go back to the game to see how it ends this time. But for those who fight these battles in real life will live with the smell of the smoke and the blood, the sounds of war, the images of dead and wounded friends forever, and forever is a long time.

Tamte also said "Our goal is to give people that insight, of what it's like to be a Marine during that event, what it's like to be a civilian in the city and what it's like to be an insurgent." Regardless of realistic graphics and story lines, how can a game provide insight into being a Marine? A Marine's experience in battle is made up of his basic fiber from time in basic training, and every moment since they stepped onto the sands of Kuwait as they prepared to head into Iraq. For someone to expect insight by cranking on the Xbox and playing a war game for an hour is disrespectful to any member of the military and their training.

Konami and Atomic Games minimize the reality of an ongoing war and at the same time will profit off the deaths of our loved ones by making it 'entertaining' is despicable. Until Mr Tamte and others associated with Atomic Games and Konami have lost their only child in war, their opinion about the value of this game doesn't count. When they have walked in my shoes, then, and only then might I be willing to listen to them extoll the values of this kind of reality game.

Part of me believes that Atomic Games released details of the game to provoke. Any news is good news in business, eh? At least you get the public talking about your product and you'll sell more. That's how it works. I get that. But I also get that if I don't speak up about this game, then they will think it's okay with me and it's not.

Fallujah war game takes fire
Documentary or distasteful? New Fallujah video game stirs debate

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The War is not a Game

Gold Star Families Speak Out Expresses Outrage
at Video Game Based on Deadly Battle in Iraq

Nationwide -- Members of Gold Star Families Speaks Out (GSFSO), family members of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, are expressing outrage at two companies that plan to release a video game that graphically recreates one of the Iraq war's bloodiest battles.

Atomic Games and Konami plan to release "Six Days in Fallujah" next year. The game is based on videos, photographs, and diary entries from veterans of a battle that claimed the lives of 38 U.S. troops and an estimated 1,500 Iraqis between November 7 and December 23, 2004. Discussing the game, Atomic Games President, Peter Tamte recently told a reporter that “For us, the challenge was how to present the horrors of war in a game that is entertaining, but also gives people insight into a historical situation in a way that only a video game can provide”

In a statement released Wednesday, Gold Star Families Speak Out said:

"Gold Star families continue to live with the horrors of war every day as we mourn the loss of our loved ones. We question how anyone can trivialize a war that continues to kill and maim members of the military and Iraqi civilians to this day.

"The war is not a game and neither was the Battle of Fallujah. For Konami and Atomic Games to minimize the reality of an ongoing war and at the same time profit off the deaths of people close to us by making it 'entertaining' is despicable."

"Just as Sony abandoned plans to launch a video game called Shock & Awe in 2003, Konami Atomic games should cancel their plans to release 'Six Days in Fallujah' before they instill more thoughtless pain on anyone"

GSFSO member Joanna Polisena, sister of Army Staff Sergeant Edward Carman, Killed in Action in Iraq on April 17, 2004 added “When our loved one's 'health meter' dropped to '0', they didn't get to 'retry' the mission. When they took a bullet, they didn't just get to pick up a health pack and keep 'playing'...they suffered, they cried, they died. We - their parents, siblings, spouses, children and friends - absolutely find it disgusting and repulsive that those so far detached (and clinging to denial of reality) find it so easy to poke fun at such a thing.”

Joan Maymi, whose nephew, Captain Ernesto Manuel Blanco-Caldas, was Killed in Action in Iraq on December 28, 2003 said, “Unless you have suffered the death of loved one like we have, or are caring for the ones who have returned wounded, either physically or psychologically, our country has removed the immediacy of this war from their daily lives. To trivialize it in a video game and continue to desensitize our society from the scope of violence war entails goes beyond words."

Members of Gold Star Families Speak Out are available for interview.

Gold Star Families Speak Out, a national chapter of Military Families Speak Out, includes families whose loved ones have died as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military Families Speak Out is an organization of people opposed to the war in Iraq who have relatives or loved ones who are currently in the military or who have served in the military since the buildup to the Iraq war in the fall of 2002. Formed by two families in November of 2002, MFSO now has over 4,000 member families.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Lifting the Media Ban at Dover AFB

Monday, April 06, 2009

Welcome Home SSgt Phillip Myers

The world did not fall off it's axis; neither the sun nor the moon exploded as the 747 touched down at Dover AFB Sunday night.

30-year-old Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers of Hopewell, Va. came home on Sunday night. His body was returned to Dover AFB from Afghanistan in a flag covered casket. His honor ceremony was a repeat of the same ceremony that has welcomed home nearly 5000 members of the US military, who were casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing was different about this ceremony, except SSgt Philips ceremony was photographed and the images of his casket being removed from the plane were shared with our country.

Since the early 90's the media has been banned from taking photographs of this solemn and honorable ceremony. SSgt Myer's family gave permission for the ceremony to be photographed and so it was. We have now seen the dignity and respect which are afforded to our casualties of war, our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and the world has not changed, if only to become a little more sad at this profound loss. By all accounts the media was professional, as I expected they would be.

Air Force SSgt Myers was killed April 4 after being hit with an improvised explosive device(IED. He was 30 years old and leaves behind a widow.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

For those of us who fought for the media ban to be lifted, it was a long fought battle, but it is no victory; we never got the photograph of our loved one's ceremony.

We send our troops off to war with fanfare and much pride; it is time the return home in the same fashion, regardless if they are alive or dead. We have now seen the dignity and high respect which are afforded our casualties of war, our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters as their bodies return to the US. As a country, tonight we are allowed to share in the grief of SSgtMyers family and friends and we are allowed to mourn his death. My thoughts are with his family and friends during this very difficult time.

Welcome Home SSgt Myers, welcome home.

CNN did a followup story to the interview I did in February when the lifting of the media ban was announced.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fox jokester Greg Gutfeld and friends smear the Canadian military

There are some things that make my blood boil. I can usually understand how people might think something is funny, even if it isn't my brand of humor, but Fox has gone over the line again.

Today, my vote for my "Worst Person in the World" is Greg Gutfeld with his juvenile, insensitive, and offensive show Red Eye, not surprisingly on Fox . This "Daily Show" wannabe was not funny, is not funny and will never be funny, and this episode goes over the top. Gutfeld and his Red Eye sidekicks Doug Benson, Jonathan Hoenig, Monica Crowley and Bill Schulz need a real long time out for their comments about the Canadian Army. Newshounds describes the controversial segment like this:
FOX News' Greg Gutfeld has never put his own fanny on the line for his country but that didn't stop him and a similarly non-serving Red Eye panel from mocking the Canadian military as a bunch of slackers while overlooking the extremely heavy casualties it has received assisting the United States in the war in Afghanistan. As part of the “joke,” Gutfeld also suggested the Canadian military is making us more vulnerable to attack.

The recent YouTube video below, called “How to lose friends and alienate countries,” posted by “taffyincanada,” shows an episode of Red Eye, FOX News' answer to The Daily Show, in which Gutfeld repeatedly smeared and jeered the Canadian military. Gutfeld either was ignorant of or deliberately withheld from the audience the fact that the Canadian military is fighting in one of the most dangerous pockets in Afghanistan and has suffered a disproportionately high number of casualties (In 2007, it was 2.6 - 4 times higher than British or American soldiers in Afghanistan and 2.6 times higher than the death toll of U.S. Soldiers in Iraq). Not long ago, Canada's Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie announced that, the Afghanistan mission is taking a dramatic toll on the military and, due to personnel and equipment shortages, it may need a “year-long break from operations when its current mission in Afghanistan ends in 2011."

If you want to watch and hear the whole 4 minutes of this stupid conversation, here ya go.

It's too bad people like this have a platform for their so-called humor. It's too bad people like this don't understand what service to your country means. It's too bad that people like this don't understand that when you disrespect the brothers in arms of our soldiers, you are disrespecting our soldiers, too.

Gutfeld did offer his version of an apology, that wasn't an apology at all. The Canadian Press reports that Gutfeld said he never intended to make light of Canadian military efforts in Afghanistan. "However, I realize that my words may have been misunderstood," Gutfeld said in a statement released by Fox News. "It was not my intent to disrespect the brave men, women and families of the Canadian military, and for that I apologize. Misunderstood, indeed! Gutfeld's words just showed how ignorant and insensitive he is. He doesn't know the meaning of service and he will never be the man that my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard and all of the 4931 US members of the military killed in Iraq & Afghanistan or the 116 Canadian soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan were. He owes an apology to every military member who has served and to every family of the fallen. That would take awhile, but if he is any kind of a man, he will start with those individual apologies today. Unlike the Canadian Defence Minister who accepted Gutfeld's apology, I'm not so sure I would. We Gold Star families don't have much of a sense of humor about these kinds of things.

I believe in the Freedom of Speech and I believe that there are consequences to that, too. I don't really like giving people like this the attention they so obviously and desperately crave, but they deserve to be called out on this ignorant and despicable behavior. The internet makes sure that they will not be able to deny their ugly and sophomoric words, because here it is, in their own words. Greg, Jonathan, Monica, Doug and Bill? Bet you're feeling pretty proud of yourselves now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

6 years in Iraq

As we mark the 6 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, few people notice that the war continues. The lack of coverage in the media demonstrates that our citizens are weary of the war and suffer from Iraq fatigue.

Today our country is obsessed and outraged with bailouts and bonuses in the financial sector, but where is the outrage about the $10 billion per month that we spend every month for operations in Iraq? Where is the anger at the $3 trillion dollars that this war will cost, a debt that we will hand to our children and their children for many generations? Where is the outrage for 4259 dead and at least 30,000 wounded US members of the military? Why is there no interest in the dead, wounded and displaced Iraqis?

President Obama's campaign plan for a 16 month withdrawal has turned into 19 months and even then there will be 50,000 US troops occupying Iraq. How many families will suffer along with their loved one's as they recover from the sometimes forever mental or physical wounds of war? How many more young men and women will leave this earth from the sands of Iraq in these next 16 or 19 months? How many families will answer that knock on the door only to be greeted by a messenger who will change their life forever?

We mourn the losses that this war has brought to our country and we are disappointed in President Obama who called this a “dumb war”, but continues the failed policies of the Bush administration. After 6 years of death and devastation in Iraq, it is time to bring the troops home and take care of them when they get here.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Beyond Tribute

This morning I heard about an organization called Beyond Tribute, They explain their organization this way:

Memorial Day is the solemn time when we honor those who gave their lives for our freedom, the families they left behind, and those who still serve.

And, over the years, it has also become an American business tradition to pay tribute on Memorial Day with holiday sales; "Memorial Day Sale - Save 25%!"

But today, hundreds of thousands of wounded veterans and military families suffer from a lack of essential support. So now we must go Beyond Tribute and actually help our wounded veterans.

The Beyond Tribute campaign is changing how we celebrate Memorial Day by making it possible for businesses to donate a portion of their holiday period sales to actually help our heroes in need. It is that simple

Most people who have stopped by this blog know that my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard was killed in Iraq on 5.30.2004. We got the knock on the door on Memorial Day. While most people were on a shopping spree, Ken's friends and family were struggling to figure out what life without Ken would mean to us. As a 4th generation Army officer, Ken and we knew the importance of Memorial Day and Veteran's Day, but Ken's death made it personal. I have frequently bemoaned the fact that people and businesses look to those days as a day for sales with no regard to the sacrifices our military and their families are making every single day.

Most Americans have not been affected by these wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. After 7 years in Afghanistan and 6 in Iraq, it always surprises me when I am the first Gold Star Mom that people have met. I know that most people do not know the struggles of military families and veterans as they attempt to get their old lives back when they return from the battlefront. I also know that most people would support the troops and veterans if they knew how. It's time for businesses to step up and show their support for our wounded veterans and their families. This is one way they can do that.

The mission statement from Beyond Tribute seems well thought out:

Our mission is to redefine our Memorial Day and Veterans Day holidays by engaging the American business community and its customers in a national campaign that will raise charitable dollars to benefit those who are struggling with the wounds of war, including the invisible wounds: PTSD, traumatic brain injury and combat-induced anxiety and depression. Funds raised go directly to top rated charities that help veterans in need throughout the USA.

I really like the part about funds raised go directly to "top rated charities". I'm not sure which charities are on their radar, but please check Charity Navigator before you make any donations. While there are many good charities that support veterans, there are also many more whose funding is deplorable. Charity Navigator does a good job of breaking down the information.

The Beyond Tribute website has been recently updated but it still has a long way to go to get businesses signed up and to get the word out. I'm doing what I can do, I hope you'll do the same.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Soldiers still waiting for tour bonuses

Dammit, dammit, dammit!

I don't care who is holding up payments to soldiers who were promised monthly bonuses of up to $500 and were forced to remain on active duty beyond their enlistment period and have not been paid - that can wait for a minute. "Senior officials are disappointed that the recent trend has been going in the wrong direction with respect to the numbers (of soldiers currently stop-lossed)," If Senior Pentagon officials are "disappointed", what do you think the military members who are on stop loss and their families are? I don't think disappointed is how they would or should describe it. Outraged? Angry? Perhaps, they are just beaten down from the neglect. They sign a contract and expect the military to honor their side of it, but it just doesn't happen that way without a fight.

Congress approves funding for a program, civilians think it's done and they go on their merry way. A commission on the state of military hospitals is called, civilians think the hospitals are fixed and they go on their merry way. And when it comes to the followup, I assure you that burden falls in the laps of those members of the military and their families.

According to Gregg Zaroya at USA Today in an article on February 22, 2009,

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged the five-month delay in paying the bonuses and said the Defense Department is working on a plan to start paying the almost 13,000 soldiers currently under the Army's stop-loss orders. Although Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants to end the policy, the number of soldiers affected has risen since the middle of 2007.

Congress added $72 million to pay for the bonuses in its plan for the budget year that started Oct. 1. The money was to be paid after the Pentagon submitted a plan outlining how the payments would be made.

But no plan has been submitted.

Many people familiar with the term "stop loss", to keep a troop beyond their enlistment contract or retirement date think "stop-loss" is a back door draft. Remember, these troops have fulfilled their military contract and now the Department of Defense just institutes a "stop-loss", voila! no contract end date, no going home soldier, until the DOD tells you to!

Since 2002, the military has relied on stop loss to keep its most skilled and experienced troops in the service. The Army is the only service that has used it in the past five years, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last month. The number of soldiers affected by stop loss peaked in 2005 at 15,758.

Gates first directed the Army to minimize the use of stop loss in January 2007. However, after falling to 8,540 in May 2007, the number of soldiers on stop loss has risen to almost 13,000 in December 2008, Army records show.

If Senior Pentagon officials are disappointed, they need to get un-disappointed. These troops were made a promise by Congress and the DOD and they expected that to be honored. The money is in the budget and it needs to be distributed as promised. I know the DOD can do better for our troops- it's time they show us how. If they can't figure it out, perhaps Congress needs to help them.