Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The continuing saga of my bumper sticker

Its about that dang bumper sticker again. You know, the one on my car that says




For the record, my metallic gray Prius also sports an Obama 08 campaign sticker and an oval white sticker that says 01.02.09. While some might, I dont think it is offensive or disrespectful of anyone, least of all my son. I think I have mentioned that I have gotten some responses in the way of notes from people who were touched by the sentiment. Up until yesterday, they were all positive. Additionally they were all signed, at least with a name, some had an email address, if I was so inclined to get in touch.

I attended a Veteran's Community meeting yesterday at the Livermore Veteran's Hospital in California. It is in a lovely rural setting; the first sign you see instructs "Please Do Not Feed the Turkeys". Very serene, very calming. We had an instructive and positive meeting hearing from Vets, advocates for vets and others

I was feeling pretty good when we walked out after several hours of hunkering down. I was heading to dinner with my fellow Gold Star Moms, Nadia & Mary. Stuck under the windshield wiper on my car was this unsigned note
Shame on you! Your son died for what he believed in. He fought honorably for our country and what we stand for. As a fellow veteran of OIF 1 & 2 you are dragging our son's name in the dirt. You should be honored your son was willing to die for his country helping other people.
Really? Disrespecting my son? Oh man, come on! I thought we had left that "us vs them, I'm more patriotic than you" attitude behind us at the very least on January 20, 2009. I guess not. We've still got work to do!

18 deaths too many

I felt a sickening wave of deja vu when I read the press release from Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) .

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) --- Two U.S. Senators today are requesting a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the mother of a U.S. soldier who has been informed by an Army investigator that her son’s death by electrocution at his base in Baghdad has been re-classified by the Army from “accidental” to “negligent homicide” by contractor KBR and two of its supervisors.

U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) chaired a July 11, 2008, Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing that looked into the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth and 12 other U.S. soldiers electrocuted on Army bases in Iraq. Following the hearing, Dorgan and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) requested that the Pentagon conduct a theatre-wide investigation into KBR’s work on electrical installations in Iraq. In response, the Army conducted a review of the matter and, while asking KBR to improve its performance, continued to rely on KBR to inspect much of its own work and has not imposed any penalties on the company.

In response, the Army agreed to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter, but then decided to use KBR to perform much of the review.

Testimony at Dorgan’s hearing last July by former KBR employees disclosed that KBR hired unqualified third country nationals to do electrical wiring at U.S. military bases in Iraq.

Given the latest development, including possible negligent homicide charges against the contractor, Senators Dorgan and Casey have asked Defense Secretary Gates to meet with them and Maseth’s mother, Cheryl Harris, to discuss the process that the Department of Defense intends to follow to guarantee full accountability for any contractor misconduct that relates to the electrocutions of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Dorgan noted the Army originally told Harris her son was electrocuted because he carried an electrical appliance into the shower. The Army later retreated from that account, saying Staff Sgt. Maseth was electrocuted by wires hanging above the shower, an account that was also inaccurate.

“I believe DOD has been less than truthful to the families of soldiers who were electrocuted at military bases in Iraq because of shoddy contract work. It’s time or some straight talk about accountability,” Dorgan said.

“Those who receive contracts to serve our soldiers have an obligation to do so responsibly,” Dorgan said. “We want to know what Secretary Gates intends to do to ensure that contractors are acting responsibly, particularly in light of the Army’s reported finding that KBR and its supervisors may have been criminally negligent. We also want to know why the DOD has not pursued a process to debar contractors who are fleecing our taxpayers and putting soldiers at risk.”

“The news Cheryl Harris received from an Army CID that her son Ryan Maseth’s death has changed classification from 'accidental' to 'negligent homicide' and singles out not just two KBR employees, but the company itself, for potential criminal liability is a significant development,” said Senator Bob Casey. “This revelation validates the perseverance of Cheryl Harris, Ryan’s mother, in
seeking all the facts behind Ryan’s death. We must not only ensure that full accountability is served in this case, but that the Pentagon is also doing all that it can to prevent future electrocutions of American personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We must put an end to our troops continuing to get put in harms way when they are doing something so simple as taking a shower.”

As Chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, Dorgan has chaired 18 oversight hearings on contracting abuses and corruption in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hearings exposed billions of dollars in wasteful spending and numerous accounts of U.S. soldiers, already serving in harm’s way, being put at grave risk due to shoddy work by contractors, and by unsafe water supplies provided by our troops by contractors who failed to do their jobs.
It wasn't the circumstances of the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth as it was the way the Army handled it. There continue to be too many cases where the family is told one thing and the truth is not revealed until the Army has been backed into a corner. As a Gold Star mother who was not told the truth about my son's death in Iraq for 15 months, I can assure you that families only want to know the truth and we shouldn't have to wait until the lie is caught. It is insulting and disrespectful and extremely stupid for the Army to think that we will not find out in other ways. In this age of technology, we will; pure and simple, we will. When will they learn?

That there was a problem with shoddy workmanship goes back at least to July 2007. That the electrocutions of soldiers in Iraq caused by the faulty wiring performed by KBR is still a story is outrageous. That one soldier, let alone 18 soldiers, have been killed in these so-called accidents is criminal. That in 2008 the Army let KBR handle the investigations into these deaths is equally criminal. That KBR is still in business and has not been held accountable to the highest position is beyond me. Maybe, just maybe, now that the long reach of former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been removed from influencing government contracts and with a new administration, we can expect a different kind of attention to be focused on this kind of egregious and deadly behavior.

Kudos to Senators Dorgan and Casey for keeping this story in the news and for pursuing the bad guys. I hope that Cheryl Maseth gets that meeting with Secretary Robert Gates. I hope he looks into her eyes and tells her that no other soldier will be electrocuted due to the negligence of KBR or any other contractor. I hope he tells her how sorry he is that the Army didn't do better for Ryan. I hope he tells her that he has ordered a new Inspector General investigation into these deaths and that charges will be filed when the investigation is complete. I hope he tells her that KBR will be debarred, not suspended, from any federal work. Nothing will bring Ryan back but knowing that her son's death and her own perseverance will prevent another death should matter. I know Ryan is very proud of his mom.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Fitting Goodbye to Bush

The final door on this Bush administration is closing. The final goodbye last night was the final chapter in the Bush Legacy Tour, this view of the past eight years through George Bush's rose-colored glasses. It's too bad there was no view of the past eight years from our vantage point, a cold, hard view of the reality of the damage done during the Bush administration. And it is nearly over.

Never the uniter, always the divider, George Bush's tone was exclusive. His administration was a renewal of the bank accounts of his friends and corporations in general, but never a renewal of America.

Most people I know could not stand to watch Bush speak, regardless of the occasion. They couldn't stand to listen to his voice, his insensitive, threatening, fear-filled rhetoric. Maybe they never did watch or listen to him, but I did and at nearly every opportunity. From that night in 2000 watching the election results; much like watching an accident unfolding in slow motion. And so it was, Bush became the 43rd president of the United States of America. I was unhappy with the results, but my sense was that Bush's presidency would last only 4 years and how bad could it be? How much damage could he do? I wish I knew then what I know now. I didn't like or appreciate the folksiness of George W Bush. Why would you want to have a president who you would share a beer with? So, I watched and I listened, I guess because I didn't trust that he had the best interest of our country or it's citizens in mind. Maybe just maybe I watched and listened expecting that I would hear just a glimmer of hope for something positive from this administration, but that never came.

How could I or why would I miss the last opportunity to watch George Bush in his official capacity as the president? Watching him say goodbye was sweet. I never expected any particular great content or deep thought from this president, but I always watched, never disappointed that he would disappoint and so often pained with what he said.

Over the years, as I watched George Bush speak, my responses varied. I shouted, I yelled, I flipped him off and I cried. I cried so many tears of despair and sorrow as he spoke, but I couldn't stop this obsession. As Bush tried to assure us that he "always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions." As always, he didn't understand what the country wanted and so many of us do not agree. We didn't care about the tough decisions, ALL decisions made by a president may be difficult. We cared about him making the right decisions for this country and that he never did.

So, in the final minutes of his official goodbye, I became inspired for my final goodbye to George W Bush as President of the United States. I had already yelled and shouted and cried in those 13 minutes, but as he said his goodbye, I mooned him. Yep, in the privacy of my own home, I turned away from this president, dropped my drawers and I mooned him. It was a fitting show of disrespect for this man who had earned no respect from us during these past 8 years.

I think Ken would have approved.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Counting the days

Count me among those people counting the days, hours and minutes to the end of our national nightmare called the Bush administration. When I was first given my "Bush Countdown Clock", there were more than 300 days, so now with fewer than 7 days, I am close to ecstatic. It seems almost inconceivable that we are in the single digits, but here we are.

The press conference held at the White House today, Bush's "exit interview" was a stunning example of his disconnect from the real world where the rest of us live. We shouldn't be surprised that until the bitter, and I do mean bitter, end George W Bush, the Fratboy-in-Chief, is in denial for his failed policies and remains a man who never compromised his misguided and damaging principles and a man with few regrets. He smirked, he sighed, he rolled his eyes, he was defiant and defensive, angry and accusing. His Beevis & Butthead "heh-heh" grated on my nerves for the millionth time. If you missed it, you can hear it here. This press conference was his 8 years in office wrapped up in 47 painful minutes. If you had been living under a rock for the past 8 years, you would only need watch this performance to get the Cliff Notes. Thank god there is no quiz; we would pass just because we showed up and endured.

But don't count me among those who want to say good-bye to Bush. I'd prefer "see ya later". Goodbye, in this context means we never want to see him again, as in get thyself back to Crawford or Dallas, stay behind the secure walls of your new gated community and never darken our TV screens again. If we never hear from the 43rd president, some think it would be too soon. Not me. I do not want to hear another babbling, bumbling Bush speech. If the word malapropism didn't exist, we would call them bushisms for all his mangling of the language.

George Bush can go away for awhile, but I look forward to seeing him as he boards the plane to the Hague. I am counting the days. If the United States will not hold him and others in his administration accountable for crimes committed, then I invite another prosecutor from another country to do the job America will not. The subject of accountability is of interest to much of our population and is currently the leading question in the Foreign Policy section on Barack Obama's "change" website.
"Will you appoint a Special Prosecutor (ideally Patrick Fitzgerald) to independently investigate the gravest crimes of the Bush Administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping?"
The answer must be an unequivocal YES. That would be a loud and clear message that no one is above the law and that the signatures on our own Constitution and the treaties that we put our names to represent America.

One more thing. Bush has long insisted that history will judge his presidency in good light and that he doesn't worry about it; he who isn't into self-pity. At the final press conference, when asked about his legacy, he responded
...I think historians will look back and they'll be able to have a better look at mistakes after some time has passed. Along Jake's question, there is no such thing as short-term history. I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed: Where does a President's -- did a President's decisions have the impact that he thought they would, or he thought they would, over time? Or how did this President compare to future Presidents, given a set of circumstances that may be similar or not similar? I mean, there's -- it's just impossible to do. And I'm comfortable with that.
I beg to differ. I am comfortable that historians will judge George W Bush as the worst US president ever. I don't think he cares or even has the capacity to really care what others think, but I swear until my dying breath that no one will not allow anyone to forget the harm that this man did during his presidency. I will not allow the fading of history to lose sight of the human cost of his administration. George Bush will go to his grave believing that he did well for the country and I will go to my grave making sure that people remember these well-documented, hellish 8 years. I owe it to my country, but mostly, I owe it to my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard who was the 818th US soldier killed in Iraq.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Somone stole my bumper sticker - part II

A few months ago, right before the presidential election, I reported here that someone stole my bumper sticker.

My bumper sticker said

Although I live in the bluest of blue California, much to my surprise, this first bit of thievery occurred in Palo Alto. Undeterred, I replaced the bumper sticker. And yet in the heart of blue Silicon Valley, the bumper sticker was stolen again, this time in Sunnyvale. Again, I have replaced the bumper sticker and we'll see how long it lasts until it gets stolen again.

I'm not sure that the theft is because the perpetrators agree or disagree with my message. I still would like to know " Why would someone take my bumper sticker?"

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Dear John Doe

I guess my bar is set very low for the Army. They just haven't handled the casualty process for my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard very well since he was killed in Iraq in May 2004. From the poor choice of Casualty Assistance Officer, the pathetic chaplain, the 3 month delay of delivery of the death certificate, 5 months for the return of Ken's personal effects, the 15 month delay in telling me the truth about Ken's death and all the other failures along the way, it's been a rocky road.

So much went wrong that it seemed to me that we were the poster family for whatever could go wrong in the casualty process, would go wrong. To be fair, there have been some shining stars in the military, who have done their best to make the journey just a bit smoother; they alone restore my faith in the feeling that the Army can do better and is a better bureaucracy than my experience has shown. As an Army brat, my Lt Colonel father always made sure that we knew we were part of the Army family, regardless of what happened, the Army would take care of it's own.

When I recently received the letter from the Army providing an update on the charitable organizations that have supported Gold Star Families, the salutation was to "Dear John Doe". It was obviously an "unfortunate mistake", as the Army spokesperson described it, but then they described the 15 month delay of hearing the truth of Ken's death as unfortunate series of events. The Army also called that delay an oversight. It's all just a little too euphemistic and easy. If the Army is so good at using euphemisms, then maybe they have a long history of bureaucratic experience finding those descriptions. I'm not sure it's something you want to get good at.

Most people probably won't remember a similar incident that occurred back in December 2004, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that he would personally sign all condolence letters to families of the fallen, because despite previous denials, he admitted that in the past he has not personally signed more than 1000 letters. There is a special place in hell for someone who uses an autopen to sign condolence letters. PERIOD. NO EXCEPTION. Rumsfeld never apologized, however, a Pentagon spokesman said, “In the interest of ensuring timely contact with grieving family members, he has not individually signed each letter.” You can imagine that that insensitive statement did not relieve my pain in any way. I did not go to the mailbox everyday in anticipation of receiving a condolence card from the Secretary of Defense. It isn't right, but we came to expect that kind of arrogance from Donald Rumsfeld.

This "Dear John Doe" error is not the worst thing the Army has done and sadly if won't be the last "unfortunate mistake" they make. These kinds of errors, however unintentional, are so painful to a family member who lost a loved one. I wish the Army could get it right the first time. We deserve better.

Our local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, CBS 5, did a nice story on the "The Dear John Doe letters".

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Bush Birds of a Feather

Birds of a feather stick together. Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Mullen & Gates are all cut from the same dishonest cloth. They keep telling the same lies, and presenting the last 8 years through the rosy lenses that they view life, and therefore so should we. These birds do stick together. If we ever had faith in this presidency, that died long ago.

Bush is still singing the praises of his
disastrous former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.
At a military appreciation parade in Fort Myer, Va., began his remarks by saying he was proud to serve with Vice President Dick Cheney and other members of his administration. Bush also thanked the Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of the military. "The decisions I made as your commander-in-chief have not always been popular”, Really? Really? At least Bush got the message from those of us who did not support the war or his administration. But, isn't “have not been popular” a bit of an understatement? 29% favorable ratings is not "have not been popular", it is pretty much as low as you can go.. It might have been more honest to have said they have been disastrous and a failure from day 1.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen couldn't praise Bush long enough. I wouldn't have been able to identify who he was talking about except for the context on the White House website and the accompanying photo. Speaking to those assembled at the grounds of Ft Myer, not far from Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60, where the US military who have been killed in Iraq & Afghanistan lay, Mullen said,

Those voices are an answering volley to you for your high regard and great respect for every single man and woman who serves this nation.

After this nation was attacked by a rising evil, the same evil which later murdered many others in places like London, Madrid, Islamabad and Mumbai, you quickly led us from the grip of fear to a serenity of purpose and unity of action -- serenity well beyond our dreams on September 12th, when all thought further attack was not only likely, but gravely imminent. And through your vision, a new national security was rendered to reach our enemies where they hid and trained and celebrated deadly crimes.

We sent our forces to hills and caves, alongside tribesman on horseback to root them out and hunt them down. We liberated Iraq from tyranny, now on the road to renewal. And we are shifting our focus to Afghanistan. We applauded as you, Mrs. Bush, worked for the freedom and education of young women, and gave hope to children scarred by hate. And always, sir, we felt your unmatched confidence in us, which only made us better.

Yes, we know these images well and we treasure them. But what wasn't always often an image was how you, as our First Family, fully embraced our military family with words of love and prayers of hope. For you have proven that how well we care for our wounded and the families of the fallen defines who and what we really are as a nation. You made it personal, and that has made all the difference.

With quiet dignity, you stretched out hands to those touched by loss, unimaginable loss that can never be made whole so they might be touched yet again.

"fully embraced our military family with words of love and prayers of hope"? Oh please! For you have proven that how well we care for our wounded and the families of the fallen defines who and what we really are as a nation? If the documented pathetic and uncaring care for our wounded and families of the fallen defines who we are as a nation, we should be horribly and tragically embarrassed. If we cannot provide proper and life-long care for our military and our veterans, we have no business going to war! ever! Thde sad thing is, George W Bush is not capable of taking or making anything personal except himself and that made all the difference.

Bush closed with this statement to the military: We will always remember that you answered the call to serve when your nation needed you most. We will always remember that you did your duty with honor and dignity. It's too bad that he, as their Commander-in-Chief did not do the same- do his duty with honor & dignity instead of dishonor and lies.

I have had enough of this administration and all that is wrong with it. With less than 2 weeks to go, they should just shut up and sit down. If they all want to get kissy and smoochy about each other as the sun sets on their time in Washington, they can do it in private. After all, privacy and secrecy was their badge that they wore with pride, screw the rest of us. These birds of a feather just need to get the flock out of here!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Mysterious Bush Adminstration

Much like the 18 erased minutes of tape from the Nixon administration, the Bush administration has done a good job of removing any empirical evidence of their wrongdoing or even evildoing during the last 8 years. In their eyes, it never happened. In their eyes, "prove it". Proving it may become a cottage industry as this country tries to find and put together the missing pieces of historical facts and provide some historical context to these last 8 years.

Of particular note, of course are the millions of emails that have gone missing from the office of President Bush & Vice President Cheney. According to Cheney, he “alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records. Another "so?" to the people of this country, 29% of whom have a favorable view of the job Cheney is doing. Cheney doesn't care what people think and he thinks he has done a fantastic job as Vice President and for the country. I disagree.

Although it might seem insignificant to some, one secret that we must not forget are the missing photographs of the homecoming of the flag covered caskets from Iraq & Afghanistan. This misguided policy was put in place in 1991 by then Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney. From the National Security Archive at George Washington University, they provide the historical background to the ban on photographs.
The ban on media coverage of returning casualties was imposed by Defense Secretary Cheney after an embarrassing incident in which three television networks broadcast live, split-screen images in December, 1989, as the first U.S. casualties were returning from an American assault on Panama. In that incident, President Bush was seen on television joking at a White House news conference while somber images of flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base moved across viewers' screens. The ban on war casualty images was continued during the Clinton administration, which made several exceptions to allow publication and broadcast upon the return of victims of attacks against U.S. personnel abroad, including the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. President George W. Bush continued the ban following the start of the Afghanistan war in October, 2001 and the Iraq invasion in March, 2003.
The censorship of these photographs will deny historians and our country photographic evidence of the casualties of the controversial War on Terror. What stark documentation will be available to see how the United States honored the military casualties during these difficult years? Nothing demonstrates the human cost of war than these photographs and nothing demonstrates the honor afforded to these young men & women. The Bush administration refuses to provide this evidence.

Full disclosure- the day I was told my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard was killed in Iraq in 2004, I requested the photographs of my son's casket being returned to Dover. The Army refused my request stating that "it was against Army policy and it was for the privacy of the families". I never got those photographs despite repeated requests during the week before Ken's body was returned to me in California.

So much damage has been caused by this administration that it is likely we will never know how much. Because of the administration's affinity towards a cloak of secrecy and all the mysteries that lie beneath it and behind it, there is no intention of historians knowing what was done in the name of our Country and it's citizens. What better clue to a verdict of guilty, guilty, guilty?

A New York Times editorial says History is truly the poorer for the Bush administration. President-elect Barack Obama must quickly undo the damage by ordering that records be shielded from political interference, by repairing the freedom-of-information process, and by ending the abuse of the classification process to cloak the truths of the presidency.

We owe it to future generations to provide as much of the truth as we can get. We owe it to ourselves to know the truth as truth defines us as a country and a people. I am not okay with the secrets of this administration and I know I am in good company with people who feel the same.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy said The very word 'secrecy' is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths, and to secret proceedings. Only we can answer if Bush & Cheney's secrecy is repugnant or acceptable and indeed whether we are a free and open society. The Obama administration can answer those questions loud and clear.