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.