Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Clearwater Legacy

When folk singer Pete Seeger and some friends launched the Clearwater project in 1969, the Hudson River was an open sewer for industries, cities and towns along its majestic sweep from the Adirondack Mountains to New York Bay. In the years since, the full-sail sight of the Clearwater sloop tacking up and down the river with a pickup crew of excited kids and adults has been paced by outbursts of activism on shore that has prodded cleanups and publicly targeted the major sources of pollution.

The inspiration for this hearty brand of environmental activism is a 90-year-old guy who still tramps around with a banjo singing old-fashioned folk songs. In recent weeks, Seeger has energized hand-clapping, standing audiences of all ages in singing grassroots movement songs at a jam-packed high school auditorium in White Plains, NY; the annual Clearwater Festival/Great Hudson River Revival in Croton Point Park; a 90th birthday bash and star-studded Clearwater fundraiser at Madison Square Garden in New York —not to mention, leading the television-watching nation in singing “This Land Is Your Land” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the inauguration celebration for President Obama.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been before,” Seeger said at an Earth Day fair at Columbia University’s Teachers College in April, where he was the keynote speaker/entertainer. He said his optimism is fueled by the computer-generated “information revolution,” which has sped up the process of exchanging good ideas. “I now speak with people I never used to speak with—some on the left, some on the right. I think, I believe, we will see more miraculous things happen,” Seeger said. And then he launched into his trademark patter of story-telling songs with an activism hook.

One of these chestnuts is Seeger’s infectious channeling of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hymn-based anthems of the civil rights movement. The refrain goes:

Don’t say it can’t be done
The battle’s just begun
Take it from Dr. King
You too can learn to sing
So drop the gun.

Seeger, a World War II army veteran, is an ardent peace activist as well as an environmentalist. In his view, the two issues are not unrelated. When the Clearwater campaign began, a major polluter was the US Military Academy at West Point, which flushed raw sewage into the river at its picturesque site in the Hudson Highlands. In his war protest songs, Seeger prodded the Pentagon to clean up its act in Vietnam, as well. The Clearwater campaign provided potent ammunition for Congress to pass the 1972 Clean Water Act, which forced West Point and Hudson River cities to build modern sewage treatment facilities.

Pete Seeger has long been more than a singer with a protest message. He relentlessly organizes people to change things from the way they are: Build a replica of a 19th-century river sloop. Take people out on the river and show them the pollution and where it’s coming from. Raise money to hire scientific experts to testify at public hearings. Mobilize crowds of people to attend public meetings. Organize festivals where musicians and activists can energize each others’ work.

At the recent Clearwater Festival at Croton Point, happy concertgoers tramped through mud and rain puddles to hear a baker’s dozen of musical acts—including Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal, and the Hudson River Ramblers—and to also check out the wares at scores of tents set up by activist organizations, handicrafts merchants and food vendors. A Veterans for Peace contingent was setting up its display early Saturday morning when Seeger wandered by, sipping a cup of coffee. Throughout the weekend, he dropped by various events with his banjo and joined in for a song or two.

Behind the scenes, Seeger was also overseeing the next step in the Clearwater campaign. Earlier this year, his Hudson River Sloop Clearwater organization announced its “Next Generation Legacy Project.” The first stage is the Clearwater Center for Environmental Leadership, a youth education camping program opening this summer in Beacon, NY.

“Clearwater youth education programs presently reach over 15,000 people each year. At Camp Clearwater, it is planned that several hundred students will be in the ‘leadership pipeline’ at any time, experiencing life-changing programs at camps, seminars, retreats, demonstrations and green jobs programs,” Communications Director Tom Staudter said in a news release. A longer range goal, he said is “the establishment of eight Green Cities / Green Jobs Satellite Centers in Environmental Leadership along the Hudson River in partnership with local environmental and community groups. This is to ensure that eight targeted cities / communities—New York City (Harlem), Yonkers, Peekskill, Newburgh, Beacon, Poughkeepsie, Kingston and Albany—have powerful connections to their waterfronts through environmental education programs that will, in turn, support green job development and training programs for young people from the region’s inner cities.”

There’s still a state advisory warning about eating fish from the Hudson River. But a major source of contamination is finally being reduced. In May, General Electric began dredging PCBs from a heavily polluted stretch of the Hudson River after a decades-long battle with environmentalists. “This has always been a classic grassroots effort, achieved in large part due to the tireless and scientifically-based work of past and present Clearwater staff members and volunteers, our collaborative partners in the Friends of the Clean Hudson Coalition, and the hundreds of thousands of people who wrote letters, signed petitions and cared enough to take action,” said Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s environmental director.

Meanwhile, the Clearwater campaign fired warning shots in another battle. In March, it filed a contention with the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board “focusing on United Water New York’s application to build a desalination plant to extract water from the Hudson River for use as municipal drinking water for Rockland County.” The Clearwater’s stance is that if river water just downstream of the Indian Point nuclear power plant is to be used as a source of drinking water, the plant owners and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission must re-assess the environmental impacts of the power plant’s license renewal application. That stance sparked an investigative project into the potential for radioactive contamination of the river and area ground water, conducted by environmental students at Ramapo College of New Jersey. The student report concluded that an effective energy conservation program combined with wind and solar power could replace the aging nuclear power plant and negate its potential dangers.

At the Clearwater Festival in June, a group of New York City high school students proudly showed their newly learned skills in boat building and offered tours on the river in hand-made, wood reproductions of classic sailboat tenders. Nearby, Pete Seeger slipped into a rain-drenched tent and joined in a round of sea shanties with a crew of bearded old salts. Embracing a 60ish singer wearing a Vietnam Veterans Against the War cap, Seeger coached the audience to chime in on an old Irish ballad. Then he was off to the next gathering, joining a stage full of folk song luminaries and belting out one of his favorite tunes:

Don’t say it can’t be done
The battle’s just begun…

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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tackling War Trauma

How to handle traumatic war events has famously ranged from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address—exhorting survivors of fratricidal, in some cases suicidal Civil War battles to “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain”—to General Patton slapping a soldier hospitalized for psychoneurosis, a term used in World War II for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now we have a general screaming at soldiers back from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan that they better not dare commit suicide. "It's bad for soldiers, it's bad for families, bad for your units, bad for this division and our army and our country and it's got to stop now. Suicides on Fort Campbell have to stop now," Brigadier General Stephen Townsend recently told 101st Airborne Division paratroops, according to news reports. Townsend is the commander at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, which “has recorded the highest rate of suicide in the army, with at least 11 confirmed or suspected suicides,” Agency France-Presse reported in May.

“Last year 128 soldiers took their lives, up from 115 in 2007, as tours of duty since 2001 have come ever more frequently and last longer. With 64 confirmed or suspected suicides so far this year, the army looks likely to surpass last year's record numbers,” the AFP report added. Why so many soldiers are killing themselves should be no mystery to military leaders. “Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he believes the suicides are tied to the repeated deployments that have put a strain on soldiers and their families.” Mullen has ordered the military to “look at ways to relieve that stress.”

But the macho posture of military culture hasn’t changed much since Patton slapped a soldier and called him a coward. “In a 2008 poll by the American Psychological Association (APA), 61 percent of servicemen and women said that asking for help to treat psychological problems would have a negative impact on their career, and 53 percent said it would decrease their status among their peers,” AFP noted.

“When we all come back from Iraq and we seek help from our command, they call us ‘weak’ and ‘cowards,’” a Marine veteran of Iraq recently told a Congressional committee. “The lines for a psychologist is almost a year long, and the only thing that can help us is the alcohol and the prescription pills they’re giving out to us like candy … The last thing I want to tell you is about a roommate … a Marine who was on the suicide watch for about few months on and off. The last three weeks before we were deployed, he was constantly on watch. A week before family day, when the family comes in and says goodbye to their Marines before we deploy, he was released from the watch, so that he would not say anything to his parents, and he did not say anything to them. About a month into deployment, he blew his brains out in the shower stall. Actions like that show the poor judgment of our command … The Marine should have never gone to Iraq in the first place, and nobody was held responsible for his death. If there is no care for your own Marines, what care do they have for the people of Iraq when they give the orders?”

The best way of handling this crisis would be to change the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan from aggressive military actions to more modest peacekeeping operations that greatly reduce the role of the military in countering small groups of militants disturbing the peace in distant nations.

“There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon contractor on national defense research, concluded last year in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world. US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are not working, the study concluded. “In looking at how other terrorist groups have ended, the RAND study found that most terrorist groups end either because they join the political process, or because local police and intelligence efforts arrest or kill key members. Police and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, should be the tip of the spear against al Qaida in most of the world, and the United States should abandon the use of the phrase ‘war on terrorism,’ researchers concluded.”

Speaking from a soldier’s perspective, Vincent Emanuele, a Marine veteran, told the Congressional committee that “the overwhelming majority of those I served with who did not think dying in Iraq was honorable or acceptable, nor did they enjoy or want to go back to Iraq a second or third time. Unfortunately, because of personal circumstances, whether they be financial or family issues, many indeed were deployed up to three times during their four-year enlistment. In fact, many, including myself, at times did not have intention of helping the Iraqis. Because of the hostile intent, as well as the loss of lives close to us, our best friends, our unit had a general disdain and distaste for Iraqis and their country. Further, our unit, for the most part, did not trust our command and had a general mistrust and distaste of this occupation from its inception onward.

“I could also speak to the personal attacks veterans, including myself and many others, had to encounter once we were willing to be treated for PTSD within our unit,” Emanuele continued. “The idea of being a real Marine that does not complain when coming back home and who sucks it up and just does the job that we were tasked to do, this mentality resulted in many of the Marines I served with, including myself, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the horrors of this bloody occupation.”

What can be done for those who have already been through the meat-grinder of the wars on terrorism? If the Pentagon can’t handle the problem, release soldiers with PTSD from active duty on medical discharges and expand Veterans Administration services. Provide assistance to veterans’ self-help groups. Goeffrey Millard, an Army veteran of Iraq, replied this way to a question by a member of Congress.

“Well, in Iraq Veterans Against the War, we didn’t wait for the VA. We started a counseling group called Homefront Battle Buddies. In the Washington, D.C. chapter, which I’m the president of, we meet every Sunday at the Washington, D.C. office, our home, to meet for our Homefront Battle Buddies. That program is expanding nationally. We in Iraq Veterans Against the War have a saying, that we’re not going to wait for politicians to end the war. We ended the war every day in what we do. We also do the same when it comes to our other goals, including taking care of veterans: we’ve started counseling groups.

“The GI Bill is the start” of better government assistance, Millard continued, ”but also making sure that the Veterans Administration is fully funded, making sure that there is no waiting list for PTSD care. We have seen multiple suicides this year alone on veterans who have been waiting on a waiting list to get mental healthcare at a VA. This is inexcusable. There should never be a waiting list for any veteran, especially not one so young coming home from Iraq, when they ask for mental healthcare.”

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