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!