Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentines Peeps for Ken

Ken & I had a weird affinity for Peeps®. Whenever Just Born, Inc made them available, we were there. Ken got original chick Peeps® at Easter, of course, hearts on Valentines Day, Christmas trees at Christmas. We even laughed about research on Peeps®.

Since Ken was killed in Iraq in 2004, Peeps® have made me smile and make me think about Ken. When I am able to visit Arlington National Cemetery, I always leave behind seasonal Peeps® as our little inside joke. More often than not though, the Peeps I buy just in case I have the opportunity to fly back to DC, sit on my kitchen counter.

Ken got his Peeps® this Valentines Day! Many thanks to my friends, Neil Sr & Diane Santoreillo, parents of 1Lt Neil Santoriello, Jr, who made the trip to Section 60 at Arlington to visit their son's grave on Valentines day. Thanks, guys, for leaving the Peeps® and the flowers. I'm sure Ken knows his Moms was thinking of him.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Taking Chance

HBO has done a pretty good job of producing important films about the Iraq war like Baghdad ER and Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery, which I have written about here. HBO will show a new film called “Taking Chance” starting February 21, 2009, which I also recommend. Chance is Lance Corporal Chance Phelps who was killed in Iraq in April 2004. "Taking Chance" is the story of the Escort Officer who escorts the body of Lance Corporal Phelps home from Dover AFB in Delaware to Chance's final resting place in Wyoming. HBO provides this synopsis:

In April 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, USMC, came across the name of 19-year-old Lance Corporal Chance Phelps, a young Marine who had been killed by hostile fire in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. Strobl, a Desert Storm veteran with 17 years of military service, requested that he be assigned for military escort duty to accompany Chance's remains to his family in Dubois, Wyo.

Witnessing the spontaneous outpouring of support and respect for the fallen Marine - from the groundskeepers he passed along the road to the cargo handlers at the airport - Strobl was moved to capture the experience in his personal journal. His first-person account, which began as an official trip report, gives an insight into the military's policy of providing a uniformed escort for all casualties. The story became an Internet phenomenon when it was widely circulated throughout the military community and eventually reached the mainstream media.

'Taking Chance' chronicles one of the silent, virtually unseen journeys that takes place every day across the country, bearing witness to the fallen and all those who, literally and figuratively, carry them home. A uniquely non-political film about the war in Iraq, the film pays tribute to all of the men and women who have given their lives in military service as well as their families.

My older sister, a retired Army nurse sent me LTC Strobl's article in August 2004, about 2 months after my son 1Lt Ken Ballard was killed. She had seen the story in April 2004 when it was first posted on the internet but she saved it to show me after Ken returned from Iraq and was out of harms way. It didn’t turn out that way. I had seen the article when Ken was still alive and was extremely moved by Lt Col Strobl’s story. Military families are told that the journey home from Iraq or Afghanistan was one filled with dignity and respect. Unfortunately, the Bush administration had done a good job of keeping the honors afforded our casualties a secret with the ban on photographs of flag covered caskets. This film shows us the journey and we are able to see of the dignity and respect. We will see a glimpse of the outpouring of respect and sympathy along the journey as well as the military traditions that are performed as a flag covered casket makes it's final journey home.

When Ken's body was returned to San Francisco airport on that awful day in June 2004, the civilian airline employees & TSA employees stood in silence with their hats respectfully removed as they watched his flag covered casket being offloaded from the plane and loaded into the hearse, just as the trailer shows. Ken's personal effects, his dog tags, his Cavalry spurs and his unit belt buckle were given to me when we arrived at our hometown, just as the journal describes. I imagine the rest of the journey of Ken's escort officer paralleled that of LTC Strobl. When you watch this film, remember that this isn't Hollywood; this honorable and difficult journey has taken place in the United States nearly 5000 times since October 2001.

Thanks to HBO, Kevin Bacon, Brad Krevoy, Cathy Wischer-Sola, William Teitler, Lori Keith Douglas, Ross Katz, and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl for their part in making this film and for understanding that this is a story that needs to be told. Special thanks to Chance’s family for allowing the story to be told and for letting the country share in your grief.

Special thoughts to the nearly 5000 families and the brave men and women who perform the duties of an Escort officer. Thank you for taking care of our loved ones.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ban on photographs of flag covered coffins

The story about the ban on photographs of flag covered caskets of fallen soldiers has been gaining some traction since Monday night when a CNN reporter asked President Obama whether the policy was being reviewed. Obama responded that "we are in the process of reviewing those policies in conversations with the Department of Defense.". That's good news.

It is also good news to read that Secretary Gates said "I think that looking at it again makes all kinds of sense," and that he was "pretty open to whatever the results of this review may be." He had even raised the possibility of changing it as recently as a year ago when the Bush administration renewed it's enforcement of the ban. There was never a chance to lift the ban during the Bush administration, although when I met with former Secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, he seemed interested in at least reviewing the policy.

I take this ban on photographs of the flag covered caskets a little personally. On Memorial Day morning 2004, when I was notified of the death of my only child, 1Lt Ken Ballard in Iraq I requested a photograph of his flag-covered casket being returned to Dover AFB. I wanted to see that his body was treated with dignity and respect. I was denied that request with the response that it was "against Army regulations" and "for the privacy of the family". There are no words to describe how devastating this response was to me and caused further pain to my already aching heart. A photograph was never provided to me. Although we have been assured of the dignity and respect afforded our returning casualties, I will never see how the military welcomed him home.

The military has said the policy is meant to protect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers and maintain dignity. With no identification on these caskets, I do not understand how this policy is "for the privacy of the family". We should rather consider a concept called the Dover Test. Bryan Bender of the Boston Globe describes it"people speak of 'the Dover test,' Pentagon parlance for how many casualties Americans can stomach before they begin in large numbers to question whether the cause is worth so many American lives." But, he noted, "The Defense Department continues to ban any photographs or observation of the bodies returning from overseas."

I am also perplexed when people say it should be the soldier who decides if a photograph is taken of their flag covered casket. Really? An Army who can't even insure that a soldier has a will, much less a properly executed one, is going to make that same soldier decide if a photo should be taken of their casket in the unfortunate circumstances of their death? Please!

The New York Times also reported that Gates said he was told -- he did not say by whom -- that allowing photographers would put undue pressure on families to go to Dover themselves and that in some cases that would be a hardship. During those first awful days after a family is told that their loved one is not coming home alive and while they are waiting about a week for the body to be returned, I seriously doubt that many, if any families consider a trip to Dover AFB, the mortuary for the Department of Defense. Making plans to go to Dover never got on my to-do list that week and the trip never occurred to me; I was lucky to get out of bed. I have never heard from a Gold Star family that would have liked to go to Dover unless it was the nearest airport to their home. Finally, a service member's return to their home airport is generally met with some kind of honor guard or welcome ceremony from the military (although early in the war many families picked up their loved ones caskets at the cargo area of the airport, but that is another story-they tried that on me, but I refused). Dover is how the military honors our loved ones; the local airport is for the local community. This argument about families feeling the need to go to Dover should be put to rest.

When Ken came home to San Francisco on June 8, 2004, he arrived in the belly of a US Airways jet, his casket covered with the red, white & blue of a United States flag. I was on the tarmac when the plane pulled up and the first glimpse of his casket was heart wrenching and possibly as difficult a moment as when I was first notified of his death 8 days before. The airline, TSA and public service employees treated his casket with dignity and respect as should have been afforded him. This ceremony also included an Army Honor Guard and an Army Color Guard. A television station filmed the ceremony and there were photographers present. I was not aware of their presence and not one of them interfered with my privacy. Maybe I was lucky; maybe I was fortunate to have professional journalists assigned to cover Ken's return. The reason you see these photographs is because the ban only applies to military facilities.

When you hear that 1 soldier has been killed in war, you might pause. When you hear that the US casualty count from Iraq and Afghanistan is 4886, you might pause a little longer. But when you see an image of a flag covered casket, it should make the viewer pause for a moment and grieve for the family during this most difficult time. It's the least we can do for the Gold Star families. After 8 years of war, it is time for this nation to participate in these homecomings, even as a viewer of a photograph.

See the difference of how Canada honors their war dead as they return home along the Highway of Heroes. And in Wooten Bassett, a small town right outside of British Royal Air Force Base in Lyneham, England, the community gathers each time as British war dead make their final journey home. It's time the US learns something from other members of the world community of how they honor, not hide their returning warriors. We should do better. We can do better. Yes, we can.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dear President Obama- Lift the ban on photographs of flag covered coffins

Dear President Obama-

I am writing with a request that I hope you will consider. I know that you are working on many priorities that may seem to be more important than this, but I hope you will understand the importance of this request and find a way to consider and change a longstanding and ill-advised policy. Since lifting the ban on photographs of flag covered caskets was discussed during your press conference on February 9, I think it is time for you to make a decision.

Please review the current Department of Defense policy regarding the ban for taking photographs of the flag covered caskets of US casualties as they process through Dover AFB and other military installations. Please allow these photographs to be taken and shared with the families and our country. That this policy was allowed to survive and even thrive since 1991 since it was instituted by then Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, is an insult to our loved ones and their families.

You wear a KIA bracelet honoring the service of Sergeant Ryan David Jopeck, and I wear a bracelet, too. My bracelet honors my son, 1Lt Ken Ballard. On Memorial Day morning 2004, when I was notified of the death of my only child, 1Lt Ken Ballard in Iraq I requested a photograph of his flag-covered casket being returned to Dover. I wanted to see that his body was treated with dignity and respect. I was denied that request with the response that it was "against Army regulations" and "for the privacy of the family". There are no words to describe how devastating this response was to me and caused further pain to my already aching heart. A photograph was never provided to me. I will never see how the military welcomed him home. With no identification on these caskets, I do not understand how this policy is "for the privacy of the families".

My son was a 4th generation Army officer. Ken loved his tanks and he especially loved his soldiers and serving his country in the Army. How insulting to hide his return to his beloved United States. How insulting to Americans who are not allowed to grieve as a nation when these young men and women come home.

My son's return to US soil was one part of his journey home and to his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery. Although Ken did not return alive as we prayed he would, his return was still part of the story of his life and yet I have no photographic documentation of that journey into the United States.

We are told these caskets arrive and are processed with great honor as should be accorded to one of our brave service members who have given his or her final measure of devotion for our country. We are told the ceremony is respectful, dignified and moving. But we families do not know as we are not encouraged to be at Dover and photographs are not shared with us.

For too long the Bush administration forced the sacrifice of the human cost of war only on military families in an attempt to minimize the wars affect on our country. How can our nation mourn with the Gold Star families if we do not see these images? How can we grieve for the loss? How will future generations know what the cost of these wars were without photographic images?

The First Lady has said that she will focus her time in the White House on military families. Please remember that we, Gold Star families will always be military families.

President Obama, please consider this request from a Gold Star Mom to allow our nation to share our grief by allowing photographic coverage as these flag covered caskets make their final journey home.