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.