Thursday, December 23, 2010

Living with Death’s Shadow

Holiday blues. Survivor guilt. Withering blasts of grief.

Like so many war veterans, I’ve been living with these and other chronic nightmares most of my adult life. It often gets worse during holiday seasons and certain anniversaries. For many of us, this is an intensely private story that’s seldom talked about in public.

News stories in recent years have revealed the alarming number of American soldiers and veterans with post-traumatic stress issues from serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This dismal news has been amplified by reports of shocking rates of suicide among young soldiers and veterans, male and female, combat and support troops. Yet, little information has been provided on ways of living with this frightening malady. How older generations of survivors of traumatic events—including loss of health, home, job, family, friends—found ways to cope with the demons of disaster has gotten little attention.

Among the things I’ve learned is that the usual things said about grief are wrong. Time does not heal all wounds. “Get on with your life” and “suck it up” do not make the pain of grief go away.

I still get zapped, often at unexpected times that can cause an eruption of cursing, by memories I’d rather not dwell on—such as the hearty laughter of a buddy in my unit in Vietnam who died 47 years ago; an animated discussion of war poetry with a Vietnam vet who worked as a peer counselor and later committed suicide with a clipping of one of my bitterest writings in his wallet, as government budget cutters threatened to end the first VA program designed to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress, nearly 30 years ago; the death at age 60 of a close friend, Dave Cline, whose body and soul and health were consumed by his efforts as a national leader of Veterans For Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War to slay the dragons of war.

A Daze of Days

For years I got through what I once described as “a daze of days” by keeping busy—as an activist on war and veterans’ issues, as an editor and publisher of poetry by Vietnam veterans, as a relentless get-that-story journalist, as a hands-on parent involved in myriad ways in our community.

And then one day, death snuffs out our life support. There are worse things than surviving a war, as many veterans have found out when a child dies or their spouse. When my wife died of cancer, fading fast during a Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, I was hit by a tsunami of grief that’s still a bone-deep wound nine years later.

I survived thanks to a lifeline of support networks. In the early 1970s, I helped organize a workshop group of Vietnam vets and war-experienced psychiatrists seeking ways of addressing a mysterious malady that later was officially defined as post-traumatic stress disorder. And then I moved on with my life. When my wife died, I knew I needed that kind of help big time. I called a hotline asking to get into a support group for people who’d lost their wife or husband, spurred by nearly crashing my car on the way to work when I burst into tears as a memory of my wife welled up.

Fellow members and organizers of the support group at St. Barnabas Hospice Center were very supportive in working through initial stages of grief. So was another support group I attended, hosted by Montclair High School’s adult education program, that included local families who lost a loved one in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was also aided by attending a gathering with a trauma specialist who led a highly unusual reflective discussion by harried, in some cases haunted reporters, editors and photographers who had covered the collapse of the twin towers and the aftermath of grief that enveloped the New York metropolitan area and the nation.

What also got me through the worst time of my life is my editors at The Record of Bergen County (NJ) put me on medical leave. I spent six weeks recuperating in the countryside where I grew up, camping and biking from my parents’ place in the Finger Lakes region of New York, rediscovering what I enjoy about life. And having long talks with my father, a World War II veteran, and my mother, whose brother was killed in a sea battle off the Philippines on Armistice Day in 1944 and whose youngest son, my brother, died in a motorcycle accident.

Still, I have flare ups and setbacks. When I returned to work, I had occasional testy moments with colleagues and bitter outbursts that weren’t always confined to “normal” road rage screams over some other idiot’s driving. One day I realized I needed to find a less stressful line of work and retired from daily journalism to teach college courses part time.

Recently, thanks to a friend’s advice, I attended a much needed and instructive set of workshops for families hosted by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, after an altercation with a relative who has his own grief-freighted problems. At age 67, I flew off the handle like a young hothead back in the Army. To add insult to injury, I lost the stupid fight. I realized I needed to learn a better way of communicating and handling my own distress. It was a wake up call that I needed to stretch beyond the don’t-mess-with-me personality that’s been my core since growing up in the military in the midst of a war.

Writing It Out

Writing about troubling events in my life has been cathartic. I wrote about my wife’s death, our tumultuous life together and what I gained from that experience and earlier events, including soldiering in Vietnam, in a poetry collection titled “Earth Songs.” Working on those poems carried me through sleepless nights with a reinvigorating sense of creative accomplishment. A new collection, that helped work through more recent nightmares, is titled “Life after War & Other Poems.”  I get through wintry holidays, which is the worst part of the year for me, by creating photo books of spectacular nature scenes I enjoyed discovering on outdoors treks.

Since my brush with the abyss, I’ve tried to aid others dealing with grief, working with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Warrior Writers and Combat Paper writing and arts workshops, and addressing survivors of all ages in poetry readings sponsored by Post-Traumatic Press and other groups. I stay in touch with a prickly, yet supportive circle of fellow vets, spouses and friends who cope in various ways—from attending AA meetings, VA support groups, private counseling sessions, peace demonstrations, pilgrimages to old battlefields, memorial services, unit reunions, to grousing among ourselves.

People who have coped with death and grief are all around us. The hard part of reaching out, especially for active duty soldiers and war veterans, is admitting there’s a crack in our armor. It takes nerve, or desperation, to call a friend or some stranger and say: “I’m having a hellacious day. Ah… got time to talk?”  But it can also lead to some amazing friendships and a booster shot of life.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Widening Gulf between Oil and Security

The massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from BP's drilling platform that exploded and killed 11 workers fouled key fishing areas, befouled wildlife and relentlessly threatened to ruin the region's beaches and tourism industry. But perhaps the biggest shock was the out-of-control oil plume's jolt to Americans' sense of national security.

Facing one of the worse environmental disasters in American history, federal officials were stumped as to how to use the armed forces to protect a vital coastal region--except as emergency clean up crews.

As oil slicks swirled toward an endangered beach and marshland, an angered veteran of the Louisiana National Guard lashed out at the folly of fighting overseas to protect a steady flow of the toxic gunk now threatening the coastal way of life in his home state. "When I signed on with the National Guard, I did it to help protect America from our enemies, like in the Persian Gulf, not to clean up an oil company mess in the Gulf of Mexico," Guardsman Evan Wolf said in a television ad squarely aimed at fellow Americans.

"America needs a new mission. Because whether it's deep-drilling oil out here or spending a billion dollars a day on oil from our enemies overseas, our dependence on oil is threatening our national security," said Wolf. The ad, sponsored by, asked viewers to contact Congress to support legislation backing energy alternatives, CBS News reported.

In a related TV ad from the same group, Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson, a former head of logistics in Iraq, pressed this startling message amid violent video clips of exploding military trucks: "Our troops are getting killed moving fuel we wouldn't need if our military was more efficient -- and our enemies know we're hooked on their oil," he said. "That's why breaking our addiction must not only be a military priority, but America's mission, and why the Senate needs to pass a clean energy climate plan."

In a statement on a veteran’s website,, Anderson added: "It's through my experiences of overseeing the fuel resupply effort in Iraq that I learned the importance of energy efficiency, reducing risks to our troops, getting us off of foreign oil, and developing new, renewable fuel technologies."

These sobering public service-style ads by Iraq war veterans were not presented by "the usual suspects" on the Left of America's raging political wars. They came from military veterans who had directly experienced fatal flaws in policies that others debated in ideological terms.

Military Commanders Speak Out

Amid the alarums of news updates on oil slicks fouling beaches from Louisiana to Florida as undersea clouds of oil poisoned pelicans and prime fishing grounds, a group of retired generals and admirals also weighed in, issuing a joint statement putting Americans' addiction to oil into a larger, hotly contested context.

"Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place. It's threatening America's security," 33 high-ranking former military leaders contended in ads placed in Military Times publications. "America's billion dollar a day dependence on oil makes us vulnerable to unstable and unfriendly regimes. A substantial amount of that oil money ends up in the hands of terrorists... Taking control of our energy future means preventing future conflicts around the world and protecting Americans here at home."

The ad, sponsored by the Truman National Security Project's Operation Free and aimed at boosting public support for a bill in Congress, concluded that: "It's time to secure America with clean energy. We can create millions of jobs in a clean energy economy while mitigating the effects of climate change across the globe."

The "now hear this!" message by high-ranking military men (and a woman, Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy) who had commanded large segments of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps was the latest salvo in a campaign waged by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans involved in Operation Free. The campaign also included bus tours and rallies in state capitals and many cities around the country and lobbying missions to Washington, DC.

Gridlock in Congress

The politically divided Senate, however, failed to muster enough votes to act on the bill the veterans' campaign supported--the American Power Act, developed in a bipartisan effort by Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman.

"July 27 was supposed to be the day that the Senate finally took real action on the issue we have all been working hard for over the past year. It didn’t happen," blogged one of the green-energy lobbyists, Chris Miller, a former Army sergeant from Illinois who served two deployments in Iraq. "As we all got on airplanes throughout the country in high spirits, something was happening on Capitol Hill: nothing.

"By the time we hit ground in Washington, D.C. we learned that everything had changed. The Senate didn’t have the sixty votes needed to proceed to an up-or-down vote on the bill. We went to the Hill again to meet with fence-sitting Senators and their staff. The opinion we encountered there was disappointing, but not surprising: we need to do something about the issues of energy security, energy independence, and climate change, but we’re not going to do anything now."

Hero or Goat?

Miller's hometown newspaper in Carbondale, Illinois reported on his appearance in a TV ad that featured exploding roadside bombs like one that had wounded him in Iraq, and then extensively quoted a local member of Congress who dismissed the veterans' campaign to cut oil use as a cover for leftist politics on climate change.

"Not everyone agrees with Operation Free. U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, said he believes the organization has a political agenda," reported The Southern, Carbondale's local newspaper. "'In no way am I disrespecting Mr. Miller's service or other soldiers involved with Operation Free, but the public should be aware of the stances the group supports,' Shimkus said. 'Their website explains the leftist positions that global warming supporters continue to use to scare us.'

"Shimkus said he supports an approach to energy that includes increasing domestic energy production through offshore oil exploration and coal-to-liquid technology. Shimkus said energy independence is vital to our nation and it is not in our best interests to rely on foreign oil.

"'Increasing our domestic exploration and drilling of oil, which climate change legislation does not do, is the only answer,' he said. 'Operation Free uses our veterans' heroic service to advance an agenda that is not in the best interests of our nation.'"

Meanwhile, the mainstream news media often muddled or entirely missed the significance of the war veterans' revolt against the energy system status quo.

"National security isn't a perfect argument for moving away from oil, at least for environmentalists—it's too easy to see how an even dirtier fuel like Canadian tar sands crude could pass muster just because it doesn't come from a hostile nation," Time Magazine argued in a feature story on war veterans joining with the Sierra Club to highlight implications of the Gulf disaster. "But the oil spill has demonstrated that America must have a reckoning with the way it develops — and uses — energy, and oil especially."

Yet the outraged vets were essentially channeling similar calls for America to get off the oil standard that have been repeatedly stated for years by national security experts in and out of government. Time gave the oil-wary veterans credit for dramatically raising an issue from an angle that seldom gets headlines, TV specials or radio talk time. "Think renewable power is a joke?" Time poked at scoffers. "Well the Department of Defense has invested billions in energy efficiency and renewable power--in part because they know from Iraq, where a gallon of gas is priced at $400 given the long and threatened supply chain, just how vulnerable our oil dependence makes us."

Previous Calls for Action

In September 2004, several national security experts and representatives of public policy organizations including the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, Center for Security Policy, National Defense Council Foundation, and the American Council on Renewable Energy, issued an open letter to fellow Americans and a proposed plan for energy security called "Set America Free." The joint letter called for immediate action to dramatically reduce and replace America's use of oil.

"We are funding terrorism with our petrodollars," said Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a former high-ranking Pentagon official. "The bulk of the funding for terrorism is money that flows from state sponsors of terrorism and from there to terrorist organizations. In other words we're paying them to kill us...As one who approaches this from a pure national security perspective I really believe we have no choice but to seize the opportunity to move the country as rapidly as possible off the vulnerability associated with this current reliance on foreign oil."

In 2006, the Council on Foreign Relations issued an extensive report titled "National Security Consequences of U.S. Oil Dependency" prepared by a blue ribbon task force of former government officials led by past heads of the Department of Defense and CIA. The bottom line message was: "The Task Force is unanimous in concluding that stronger incentives are needed to encourage investment in energy efficiency and fuel
switching by the hundreds of millions of consumers and commercial enterprises in the United States."

Specifically, the national security task force "recommends that the federal government offer greatly expanded incentives and investments aimed at both short- and long-term results to address a wide range of technologies that includes higher efficiency vehicles, substitutes for oil in transportation (such as biomass and electricity), techniques to enhance production from existing oil wells, and technologies that increase the energy efficiency of industrial processes that use oil and gas. Government spending is appropriate in this context because the market alone does not make as much effort as is warranted by national security and environmental considerations."

Alluding to a previous Council on Foreign Relations report, the national security task force added: "In particular, policies intended to reduce demand for fossil fuels—such as those advocated here—can also slow the accumulation of gases that contribute to global warming."

The thrust of this foreign policy call to action caught the attention of editors at Scientific American, who profiled one of the oil-policy dissenters in an October 2008 article titled "For National Security, Get Off Oil."

"At R. James Woolsey’s farm in southern Maryland, solar panels on the roof of his house send electricity back to the utility grid when his family is not using much power. And he drives a Toyota Prius hybrid with a conversion kit that enables him to recharge the car’s battery pack using an extension cord and household current.

"Woolsey isn’t the average citizen who has gone green. As the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995, Woolsey warns that the U.S. faces a grave national security threat from its dependence on energy derived from oil."

Oil Threat Comes Home

As BP's oil well catastrophe dominated daily news reports for weeks on end, BBC radio producers focused on the larger ramifications and conveyed this exchange:

"The damage caused by the BP oil spill in the Gulf is expected to affect the region’s environment and economy for decades. And some are suggesting it’s a greater threat to US national security than anything that’s going on in Afghanistan. The World’s Katy Clark has the story.

"KATY CLARK: Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University says that when requirements are great and resources limited, setting the right national security priorities is essential. Yet he maintains the United States has exhibited frustratingly bad judgment in recent years when it comes to addressing the greatest threats before it. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he says, are the most glaring examples.

"ANDREW BACEVICH: And if we look at what matters most, I would argue strongly that the events ongoing in the Gulf of Mexico are of far greater concern to the American people than the events that are going on in Kandahar."

Bacevich, a retired Army colonel whose son died on a military mission in Iraq, has written an outpouring of books and articles in recent years warning that America's foreign policy priorities are disastrous to American society.

In a recent radio interview on Democracy Now, Bacevich linked the national addiction to oil to a dangerously inflated sense of military power that administration after administration in Washington has projected through massive troop movements and fleets of bombers, ships, armored vehicles and humvee patrols, supplied by long, slow, easily targeted fuel truck convoys snaking through deserts, mountains and cities full of hostile people with long histories of fighting military invaders.

"We are in that part of the world because of oil," Bacevich said. "We are in that part of the world because Washington is insistent on its—that it will demonstrate that America’s will shall not be defied, you know, that we cannot afford to back down in Afghanistan, many people in Washington believe, because that would call into question American global leadership. I think American global leadership, in many respects, is an illusion, and it’s a self-defeating illusion."

Conservative's Call for Change

Bacevich, who describes himself as a conservative, is a historian who has turned his critical eye on current issues. In a recent interview in U.S. Catholic magazine, he addressed the wider picture of national priorities that he contends loom behind the oil addiction that long preceded the momentous drilling-rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"When people talk about culture of life they're usually talking about abortion and end-of-life issues and capital punishment, but it seems to me that also raises environmental questions that are of vital interest to the United States of America," Bacevich said. "If the planet sustains terrible damage through climate change, then freedom as we know it is going to be compromised, and the well-being of future generations is going to be deeply damaged.

"All issues that relate to energy--what kind we use, how we use it, and where we get it--if informed by that larger consideration of preserving the planet, would lead us to practical, specific near-term actions that would be different than those that we've pursued with regard to the Persian Gulf and the Middle East over the past 30 years.

"Jimmy Carter's infamous 'national malaise' speech in 1979 is an illustrative moment. Carter was trying to define a new energy policy that would reduce our dependency on imported oil, but he also said: 'This crisis is not simply about oil. It's about the meaning of freedom. We are at a crossroads and the choice is a fundamental one: How do we intend to organize American society?'

"He was exactly right. It was very clear what Carter was proposing in terms of national sacrifice and a new direction on energy policy. But in the next election Reagan was offering 'morning in America.' And we, the people--don't blame Washington--we, the people, made a choice. It was not the choice that Carter recommended, and we're living with the consequences.

"We decided that freedom didn't mean freedom from dependency on Mideast oil, it meant driving a gas-guzzler at 85 miles per hour and living 50 miles from where you work. If we had made a different choice in the way we organize society and get our energy, it could have meant vast changes in what we're experiencing today."

America's Gas-Happy Culture

But American motorists didn't make these choices in a vacuum. Relentless, snazzy advertisements to buy big cars, big trucks and then big SUVs played a substantial role in selling a gas-guzzling lifestyle to a largely hard-working public. So did the continuous expansion through federal funding of the interstate highway system to nearly every corner of the country, enabling people to commute long distances and easily undertake family drives to distant vacation spots. And behind the scenes, lobbyists for oil companies virtually set the national energy agenda no matter who was president.

"The oil industry and related trade associations have been lobbying to secure their bottom lines by risking our national safety for decades," contends Rebecca Lefton, a climate change activist with the Center for American Progress. Lefton cites, among other examples, BP's oil contracts in Libya on behalf of which it allegedly pressed for the release from prison of the Libyan national held responsible for blowing up an American airliner over Scotland.

The explosion of BP's oil rig off the coast of Louisiana revealed to the public that the British oil giant's entanglement with America's security comes even closer to home, as the news media took a closer look at what was going on.

"The Defense Department has kept up its immense purchases of aviation fuel and other petroleum products from BP even as the oil giant comes under federal and state scrutiny for potential violations of clean-water and oil-spill laws related to the April 20 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, according to U.S. and company officials," the Washington Post reported in July.

"Even before the Gulf debacle, the Environmental Protection Agency had begun probing the potential debarment of BP from all federal contracts -- including those reached with the Defense Energy Support Center, which buys all fuel for the military services. The EPA plays the lead role in debarment proceedings related to the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, and its probe was sparked by BP's 2006 spillage of oil in Alaska and a 2005 explosion at its refinery in Texas," the Washington Post report added.

Oil Secrets Exposed

BP's Gulf spill lifted the lid off a number of secretive matters vital to America's security. These included lax enforcement of environmental regulations, lack of effective government oversight of deep-water drilling and failure to have a workable safety plan.

As Ramapo College environmental studies professor Michael Edelstein noted in a detailed critique of the Gulf crisis: "The BP Oil Spill disclosed to the world the full range of adverse consequences that such an event can cause. ... Perhaps most disturbing of all was the illustration that off-shore oil drilling, and perhaps other post-peak fossil fuel extraction, is dangerous in unanticipated ways and tests the ability of experts to mitigate. We cannot assume that problems that occur can be easily fixed or even that they can be fixed at all," Edelstein wrote in a forthcoming book chapter titled "Privacy and Secrecy: Public Reserve as a Frame for Examining the BP Gulf Oil Disaster."

"Yet, perhaps the most revealing of the causal issues is ... the failure of modern society to wean itself from its dependency on oil," Edelstein concluded. "Post peak, oil resources become harder and more risky to tap and the climate consequences of a combustion-based society become ever clearer. Our oil dependence is hardly a secret, and yet it is so central to our paradigm for understanding the world that it is assumed. It is invisible even if hidden in plain sight. Suggested is that the most hazardous secrets are the ones we ourselves collude in keeping."

In an examination of catastrophes that ended the Roman empire, Canadian peace and conflict studies professor Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that "our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome's in key ways." The Roman empire, he contends, expanded over a vast area to control--with armies and engineering feats, like irrigation aqueducts--the best agricultural areas in the Mediterranean region in order to fed growing urban populations and enrich a tiny elite. Eventual over-use of these croplands set in motion a shrinkage and then collapse of the once-formidable empire.

Our modern, oil-fueled global civilization is following in the same path, Homer-Dixon argues in his book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Readily available oil supplies have already passed their peak, forcing explorations of remote areas such as deep under oceans, he notes. "Oil will become far scarcer and costlier," he writes. "Could this lead to a modern version of the Roman empire's fall--caused by escalating tensions as players on the world stage struggle to control oil supplies and as skyrocketing energy costs contort our economies?"

White House Moves

While not endorsing such a gloom and doom scenario, the Obama administration has moved to nudge the nation into taking steps toward a more sustainable energy policy.

"For decades it has been clear that the way Americans produce and consume energy is not sustainable," states an "Energy and Environment" message posted on the White House website. "Our addiction to foreign oil and fossil fuels puts our economy, our national security and our environment at risk. To take this country in a new direction, the President is working with Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our reliance on foreign oil, to create jobs, and to cut down on the carbon pollution that contributes to the destabilizing effects of climate change."

While the Senate remained gridlocked in partisan battles over a clean energy bill and nearly any other proposal by the Obama administration, Obama ordered a number of executive actions, including "committing the Federal Government to lead by example and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020, increase energy efficiency, and reduce fleet petroleum consumption," the White House website noted.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has begun its own momentous turn from its oil-based traditions.

"No one is more acutely aware of this problem than the Department of Defense, and they are leading the efforts on breaking our dependency on oil," said retired Navy Lt. Robert Diamond, testifying to a Congressional committee in April on behalf of Operation Free. "This is critically important. Why? Because DoD is the largest energy consumer in the nation, and our nation is the largest energy consumer in the world."

Great Green Fleet

For example, Diamond stated, "Under the energized leadership of Secretary Roy Mabus, the Navy has set ambitious goals for shifting the Fleet to renewable energy sources. ... [including a] goal of sailing, by 2012, the 'Great Green Fleet'—a carrier battle group entirely powered by sustainable, renewable fuel sources, including nuclear power. Secretary Mabus has also set the goal of generating half of the power at the Navy’s shore installations from alternative energy sources—wind, solar or geothermal—by 2020."

In examining the causes of the collapse of Roman civilization, Homer-Dixon found some hope for our future. "We have an advantage over the Romans that gives us a head start: we understand much better how the complex systems around us behave," he argues. "We also understand that in any complex adaptive system, breakdown, if limited, can be a key part of that system's long-term resilience and renewal."

So the Gulf oil spill catastrophe, in this view, could spur Americans to fully embrace energy conservation and shift to more sustainable sources of energy. That's the goal of civic groups like Operation Free and reformers in and out of government, as well as researchers, writers and innovators seeking effective models.

"The Industrial Age was not planned but innovated. The next age will be no different," contend Peter Senge and his collaborators on a recently published handbook titled The Necessary Revolution: Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. However, they add, "to shape a sustainable future, we all need to work together differently than we have in the past." This is a book that perhaps the Obama administration has been reading.

Time for Change

"The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now," President Obama said in a televised address to the nation in June. "Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash America’s innovation and seize control of our own destiny."

After describing the scope of the immediate problem of gushing oil ruining Gulf fisheries, marshes and beaches, Obama put the crisis into the larger context of national energy policies. "For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we’ve talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked -- not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.

"The consequences of our inaction are now in plain sight," he continued. "Countries like China are investing in clean energy jobs and industries that should be right here in America. Each day, we send nearly $1 billion of our wealth to foreign countries for their oil. And today, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude.

"We cannot consign our children to this future. Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us," Obama concluded. "As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of jobs -– but only if we accelerate that transition. Only if we seize the moment. And only if we rally together and act as one nation –- workers and entrepreneurs; scientists and citizens; the public and private sectors."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Another Kind of Hero

Former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the U.S. Army -- for being killed by fellow Rangers on a mission in Afghanistan. The wrenching impact on his family of his death and promotion to poster boy for the War on Terrorism is the focus of a haunting new documentary, The Tillman Story.

From field commanders to President Bush, Tillman's gruesome death in April 2004 triggered a rush to whitewash the facts to fit a Hollywood-style heroic war story line. "The real Pat Tillman, as described by his family and fellow soldiers, was not the gung-ho jock and homespun patriot the Army tried to paint him as," noted Time Magazine's review of this film. While he gave up a professional football career to enlist after 9/11, Tillman was highly critical of the invasion of Iraq, where he and his brother Kevin were deployed before getting sent on the fatal mission chasing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"I'm Pat f------ Tillman!" he shouted at a fire team from his own platoon who gunned him down on an Afghan mountainside as he tried to wave them off, according to a fellow soldier interviewed in the film. Outraged family members were equally blunt once they discovered the official story was a Pentagon p.r. campaign conducted to dramatic drumbeats from the Bush White House. Public outcry by his mother Mary and father Patrick Sr., a lawyer, triggered a series of official investigations culminating in a 2007 congressional hearing.

Documentary director Amir Bar-Lev presents a cavalcade of television news footage of the super-patriotic paeans to a fallen hero, tellingly contrasted with sobering interviews with survivors, who initially were drowned out by waves of "fact-free doggerel from clueless media," as Time Magazine movie critic Richard Corliss wrote.

"What I’ve come to learn while making this movie is what the military has that’s a stronger part of their arsenal than special ops is a team of publicists," Bar-Lev said in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine. "All that matters is CBS, NBC and the rest getting the right sound bite into their mix, and they do that very readily."

After a recent showing of the film at a New York theater, Bar-Lev told the audience that the Tillman family was wary of doing another round of interviews because they felt the news media had mindlessly echoed the Pentagon's propaganda.

Nearly lost in the flag-waving media circus was the stunned, bitter voice of Kevin Tillman, who quit a professional baseball career to join the Army with his brother and escorted his body home from a botched patrol.

Adding to the family's outcry, "in dramatic testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Kevin Tillman accused the Bush administration of twisting the facts of his brother's death to distract public attention from prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq," the Denver Post reported in April 2007. "His voice shaking, Tillman said the official account of his brother's death in 2004 was 'utter fiction ... intended to deceive the family and, more importantly, the American people.' "

In a blistering letter published on the Truthdig website in 2006, Kevin Tillman wrote of the war in Iraq that he and Pat served in: "Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes. Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground."

Another former Ranger who testified at the hearings, Bryan O'Neal, said he was ordered by a commander not to tell Kevin that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. In the documentary, O'Neal somberly describes how his life was saved by Tillman's attempts to stop their fellow soldiers from shooting at them.

"I felt that I was going to die," O'Neal said in a 2007 interview with ESPN, which dug deep into the array of official deceptions. "In fact, I knew it. I was positive while it was happening. I felt what he did, the actions he took and then sacrificing himself the way he did, are really the main factors why I walked off of the area alive."

The ESPN report continued: "In the days just after the firefight, O'Neal gave an account of Tillman's actions to Army officials preparing a document that recommended Tillman for the Silver Star, the Army's third-highest distinction for combat valor. Since that document remains classified, O'Neal is unable to comment on it. However, he confirmed to the findings of a later investigator that his account in that case was altered so that it indicated Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, a version of the story the Army let stand for a month after the gun battle."

A central thread of the film is what happened in the wake of a memo, leaked to the Associated Press, by then-Major General Stanley McChrystal to top military commanders shortly after Tillman's death. The memo, written before the Silver Star citation approved by McChrystal citing enemy fire was announced, warned that it was "highly possible" Tillman was killed by friendly fire and that this should be conveyed to President Bush before he made public statements on the incident. At the congressional hearings three years later, none of the Pentagon brass on the distribution list could remember seeing this memo.

"Somehow lying is tolerated," Kevin wrote in his letter of protest over the conduct of the War on Terrorism as well as his brother's death. "Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance. Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country. Somehow this is tolerated.

"Somehow nobody is accountable for this."

For more information:

Deceit surrounding death of Tillman spawns disgust - The Denver Post

Pat Tillman Investigation:

Kevin Tillman letter:

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Winding Down a Misbegotten War

As the last U.S. combat units rumbled out of Iraq under President Obama's August deadline, Time magazine's chief political columnist, Joe Klein, summed up the costly consequences of what he called "a war that should never have been fought." Blasting the Bush administration for blundering into "a neo-colonialist delusion" that caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and may still cost trillions of dollars for health care of a generation of war-mauled veterans, Klein then turned his ire, remarkably, on himself.

"As for myself, I deeply regret that once, on television in the days before the war, I foolishly--spontaneously--said that going ahead with the [March 2003] invasion might be the right thing to do," he wrote in a column titled "Never Again" in Time's August 16 issue. Although he subsequently wrote about the war with increasing skepticism, Klein added, "The issue then was as clear as it is now. It demanded a clarity that I failed to summon. The essential principle is immutable: we should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again."

War veterans who protested the invasion and brutal occupation of Iraq will take little pride in having predicted the disastrous impact on Iraqi society and on U.S. troops that Klein describes, seven years into what he calls "a profound misadventure" with toxic effects. A Time news piece that follows Klein's column cites a Rand Corp. study and military reports that found that "more than 500,000 troops have returned home to the U.S. in the last decade with a mental illness," created by the relentless stress of repeated war tours mixed with an epidemic of traumatic brain injuries from roadside bombs and other explosions.

Veterans For Peace activists, who warned of such dangers to soldiers and civilians for years, contend that the draw-down of troops in Iraq is a misbegotten maneuver by the Obama administration to claim peace in Iraq while waging a wider war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, under the same misguided strategy of the previous administration of trying to police unruly corners of the world with highly destruction military actions.

"The lessons of this disastrous intervention should also be an impetus for Congress and the administration to end the war in Afghanistan," Veterans For Peace leaders said in a recent statement. "It’s time to focus on creating real security here at home and rebuilding America."

But Time magazine and its chief political writer are not ready to tackle that issue. Like most of the mainstream news media, they take their cues from the White House on how to stay within accepted parameters in discussing foreign policy. "Obama's announcement [of the end of combat operations in Iraq, in a speech to the Disabled American Veterans] was no celebration. It was a somber acknowledgement that amends will be made to those whose lives were shattered and that their courageous service in an unnecessary cause will be honored," Klein wrote.

"A national discussion about America's place in the world, and the military's excessive place in our foreign policy, would also be appropriate in the wake of this disaster," he added, "but I'm not holding my breath." So that means a debate on the implications of the war in Iraq and lessons to be drawn for the war policy in Afghanistan isn't about to happen, unless the public overrules the press and politicians and demands it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Post Traumatic Poetry

Imagine if the US government promoted poetry by war veterans as ardently as it churns out lavishly designed, taxpayer-funded military recruitment campaigns. Imagine the Pentagon switching from selling patriotic hoopla to conveying the real deal of war's horrific legacies.

Here's what such an astounding change in perspective might look like: "FM 22-51 Post Traumatic Stress Field Manual -- Basic Load -- Department of War Poems - May 2009." That sly, yet sobering parody of military training manuals is the work of poet Dayl Wise, a New Yorker who runs a bootstrap publishing house dedicated to lancing lingering wounds of the war, such as the one he fought in Vietnam and Cambodia 40 years ago.

A retired engineer and draftsman who has forged a late-blooming literary career, Wise has created a new line of timely poetry collections by himself and fellow vets through a desktop publishing operation called Post Traumatic Press, based in his Woodstock, NY home. Wise's poems range from wry odes to can openers and other basic military equipment to hard-eyed elegies for dead comrades and other memories that still haunt his thoughts decades later.

"How far did we travel/ before they cut you off?" he wrote abruptly in "Ode to Boots."

Others came home,
not you, discarded
like a pair of unwanted slippers
piled in a bloody heap
of clothing and bone.

This theme of being discarded, unwanted, fundamentally disconnected from the nation he left at age 19 to fight in distant war zones that tore apart other nations, threads through his poems. Some are stunning commentaries on American life, conveyed in a tight-jawed economy of words, such as memories of trying out for a local American Legion baseball team as a kid and later coming home as a wounded Army sergeant.

In ten years, entering a bar, their bar,
he would be asked to leave... lost your war!

They may not read his poems at American Legion bars, but Dayl Wise has found a widening circle of compatible veterans who aim to shake people up with raw-edged passages of GI poetry and prose. Funded largely by small-scale book sales and sweat equity, including editing work by his wife, poet Alison Koffler, Wise has quietly marshalled a creative movement through publishing anthologies and chapbooks and organizing poetry readings focused on illuminating long-lasting consequences of war.

I first encountered Wise's work a couple of years ago when I stumbled across online references to a poetry collection titled "Post Traumatic Press 2007." In the midst of the seemingly endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Wise presented what one reviewer called a "searing raw-whisky anthology by military veterans from World War II to Iraq."

A core poem in that collection is "America" by Larry Winters, a marine in Vietnam who is now a mental health counselor and widely published poet. "I killed for you," is Winters' refrain throughout this poem addressed to Americans who didn't go to war. "When I came home./ You expected me to heal for you./ To get on with my life for you," he concludes, ending with this damning line: "And most of all to forget for you."

In time for July 4th and other summer reading, Wise's small press recently issued a flurry of new and revised work by veterans intent on reminding their neighbors that soldiers are still killing and being killed or injured "for you" or for the American way of life or for military missions that may haunt the latest generation of wounded warriors the rest of their lives.

The new books include a revised edition of Wise's "Poems of War and Other Stuff," first published in 2004; a new edition of "Love & War" by Thomas Brinson, first published in 2009; "Wild Geese Returning: Haiku and Photographs" by Michael Gillen, a contributor--with Brinson and others--to the 2007 Post Traumatic Press anothology; and "The Summer Joe Joined the Army & Other Poems" by Walt Nygard.

Over the past year or so, I've gotten to know all these poets through Veterans For Peace poetry readings we've done together, reading and rereading their work, and jointly participating in a writing workshop for military veterans and families that has enriched my writing and my life.

An example of Wise's eye for telling details is the red plastic flower he highlighted in an old black and white photo of Lt. Thomas Brinson sitting beneath a machine gun in a jeep in Vietnam. That's the cover art for "Love & War." Sometimes, Brinson wrote in his introduction to this collection, he "stuck a live lotus blossom in the barrel of the M-60 Machine Gun, emulating the famous picture" of an antiwar protester putting a flower in a soldier's rifle barrel.

Perhaps the most chilling piece in this collection is Brinson's memory of coming home from war and looking out of the airliner descending to land at National Airport on April 4, 1968. "I rubbed my eyes, peered out the window again, thought I was hallucinating or dreaming, was much drunker than I thought I was, became very frightened, couldn't believe what I was seeing... I had just left that scene two days almost and 12,000 miles ago! Why was Washington burning?" Stumbling into a bar to order a stiff drink, he saw in a daze "TV news showing scenes of the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination in Memphis three hours before I landed in D.C. Washington, like so many other ghetto areas in cities across our red, white & blue land, was a fire from the rage of blacks. 'Welcome Home, Son.' The bartender murmured."

Walt Nygard's poetry, as I wrote in a preview on the back cover of his new chapbook about wars then and now, mines popular culture and literary traditions, seeking ways for a modern-day bard to convey the nature of things today. Poems in this collection burst like midnight flares beyond the stark bounds of war poetry to illuminate the unsettling terrain on the homefront for a disillusioned Vietnam veteran whose son marched off to a new war; "my oldest son," laments this gray-haired vet, deployed to distant battles over oil and gas supplies from a suburban state whose prime patriotic symbol consists of humongous "American flags flappin'/ over car dealerships an'/mini-malls...wind-bent, storm-lashed/ almost to the point/ a 'snappin'..."

The cover art for this book is a color-enhanced night photo of an artillery barrage in Afghanistan by a 10th Mountain Division unit that included Nygard's son Joe. As this poetry collection was being edited and proofread, Joe Nygard was called back to active duty and shipped to Iraq. Walt Nygard's response was to add to these pages his own pen and ink drawings of peace signs entwined with flowers and American flags, a US soldier waving at a bright night star shining over a desert, and a hand with a pen writing "Dear Joe."

Like the adventuresome arc of his life, Michael Gillen's haikus range through time, seasons and places--sometimes sketching delightful miniature portraits of mother nature, sometimes unveiling startling encounters with human nature. That's a summary of "Wild Geese Returning" that I wrote for the back cover of this homage to migratory birds, arts and cultures Gillen embraces, starting with Merchant Marine voyages to Vietnam that set the course of a life that challenges human boundaries in war and peace.

In a poem titled "Brothers," he wrote:

Where are my brothers
As I take up oar and row--
Above and below.

And for a departed buddy, Bob Hennel, he wrote in a poem titled "Chu Lai":

After missions
He could wash choppers out
But not memory.

For further information:
Post Traumatic Press
104 Orchard Lane North, Woodstock, NY 12498
or email

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Clocking the Cost of War

The cost of waging war overseas on the fumes of a sputtering national economy is stirring some unusual, creative protests. Mayor Matt Ryan of Binghamton, NY, is vowing to install a digital “cost of war” clock on the front of the municipal building to show local residents how much they pay in taxes for military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ryan’s challenge of federal fiscal priorities quickly made national news.

“Every mayor in this country is struggling with one of the worst recessions we've ever seen, and we know better than anybody the negative impacts of diverting billions of tax dollars away from essential community needs to reckless wars and excessive U.S. militarism,” Ryan said at a news conference on Wednesday. Ryan was joined by members of the Broom County Cost of War Project, who donated the sign and offered to cover the installation costs, reported a local TV station, WBNG.

“For the last five years, I've been advocating for a dramatic shift in spending priorities in Washington, toward what Dr. Martin Luther King called programs of social uplift,” Ryan added. “I've also always encouraged community dialogue around important issues that affect our daily lives. So I am pleased to support this awareness campaign, and delighted to see residents take a more active role in one of the most important issues of our times.”

According to fiscal data provided by the National Priorities Project, the Broom County Cost of War Project stated that, “Binghamton taxpayers have contributed $138.6 million to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars since 2001, which is more than enough to cover ALL local property tax bills for the next FOUR years (revenue generated by local property taxes in 2010 City budget is $32.1 million).”

City Councilman Robert Weslar told WBNG that he likes the mayor’s idea. "If you were to give us the money that's spent on the war or a tenth of the money that's spent on the war," said Weslar, "we could cut taxes by all of it. We could fix every road."

The local FOX News station, WICZ, tagged the mayor’s move controversial. “Some veterans are protesting the sign, saying it neglects to show the importance of their decision to serve,” WICZ reported, then added: “But the mayor says that's not the point of the project. ‘We're not trivializing anybody's sacrifice. In fact, I think by having this debate and trying to find better ways to resolve our problems as human beings, we are actually honoring our soldiers,’” Ryan said.

“The numbers on the clock will change to show how much the country, state, county, and city is spending on the war,” WICZ noted. “Ryan says the sign will remain at city hall until the war has ended.”

George McAnanama of the Binghamton chapter of Veterans For Peace told WBNG that the war toll is far higher than the dollar signs that will flash on the cost-of-war clock. It also includes, he said, "The people that are coming home damaged from the war. The hidden cost of war. Who's lost a limb? Who's psychologically damaged? Who may never recover?"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Agent Orange Update

For years, many Vietnam veterans in poor health were convinced that the disease that destroyed their life after the war had something to do with Agent Orange. I spent years as a journalist trying to help find answers to these haunting health questions.

Now, three decades after trying to bury concerns about exposure to herbicides used in Vietnam, the Veterans Affairs Department is gearing up for a tidal wave of health claims that are expected to cost the federal government billions of dollars.

"VA estimates that 185,839 claims will be filed when new rules take effect later this year that presume service connection for certain illnesses related to Agent Orange exposure," Marine Corps Times reported this week. The illnesses being added to a substantial list of diseases that VA covers regarding Agent Orange are B cell leukemias, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, a fairly common illness that is expected to account for the majority of new claims.

More than 80,000 of the anticipated claims are expected to be filed by veterans who were previously denied VA health coverage, the agency announced. Nearly 90,000 claims are expected by veterans with illnesses that will now be covered, but who never filed a claim. And more than 10,000 claims for financial compensation are expected from survivors of veterans who died of these diseases.The tab for handling all these medical cases is estimated at more than $13 billion this year and more than $42 billion over the next decade.

“This is an important step forward for Vietnam veterans suffering from these three illnesses,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement. “These warriors deserve medical care and compensation for health problems they have incurred.”

Three things have changed since the 1970s, when the VA bowed to Pentagon pronouncements that Agent Orange didn't cause health problems. A big change is the leadership on this issue provided by Shinseki, a retired general who served in Vietnam. Another major change is widespread public acknowledgement that veterans' concerns about the hazards of these herbicides have been proven valid by health investigators, despite repeated attempts by officials under Democratic and Republican administrations to derail these investigations.

The third big change is that veterans no longer have to prove that they were in a certain location in Vietnam on a certain day between 1961 and 1971, when Agent Orange was sprayed on jungle areas by US military airplanes, helicopters, trucks or soldiers with backpack sprayers.

"In practical terms, Veterans who served in Vietnam during the war and who have a 'presumed' illness don’t have to prove an association between their illnesses and their military service," the VA stated in its latest announcement. It also noted that it now covers 14 diseases associated with Agent Orange as a result of studies by health agencies that include the national Institute of Medicine.

But getting to this point took decades of persistent efforts by veterans whose concerns were brushed aside by previous heads of the VA and Department of Defense. When I did a newspaper investigation into this issue in 1980 that was carried by The Associated Press, for instance, the government's official stance--widely aired on national television by a Pentagon official--was that no unusual health problems were found by the VA in examinations of some 84,000 Vietnam veterans in 1978-79. Veterans groups then demanded independent health studies, which found a much different pattern.

" The growing list of Agent Orange diseases stems [from] a court case, Nehmer v. Department of Veterans Affairs, filed in 1986. The class action lawsuit won by veterans, and reinforced by legislation, requires VA to direct the National Academy of Sciences to report every two years on any positive association between new diseases and exposure to herbicides in Vietnam," syndicated columnist Tom Philpott noted in a analysis of the latest news in this long-running bureaucratic battle.

"In 2007, the Bush administration went to court to challenge the legal need for NAS studies on presumptive AO diseases to continue. It lost," Philpott added. "The NAS reports are to continue through Oct. 1, 2014, with the [possibility] that more diseases will be found to have an assocition with herbicide exposure."

A San Francisco-based veterans advocacy group, Swords to Plowshares, hailed the latest VA action. ''Our country neglected Vietnam War veterans and denied the harmful effects of Agent Orange for too long,'' the group's executive director, Michael Blecker, said in a news release. ''Our hope at Swords to Plowshares is that every Vietnam War veteran affected by the harmful chemicals will act now to file for what they are owed with the assistance of a veterans group.''

The VA bureaucracy can be so daunting that Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., the House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, urged the VA to give automatic approval to health claims related to Agent Orange, subject to double-checking that the veteran served in Vietnam. Shinseki ordered the VA to hire an additional 1,800 people to process the expected deluge of new claims, Marine Corps Times reported.

According to the VA's latest statement on this issue, other illnesses previously recognized as caused by exposure to herbicides during the Vietnam War are:

  • AL Amyloidosis,
  • Acute and Subacute Transient Peripheral Neuropathy,
  • Chloracne or other Acneform Disease consistent with Chloracne,
  • Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, (now being expanded)
  • Diabetes Mellitus (Type 2),
  • Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,
  • Porphyria Cutanea Tarda,
  • Prostate Cancer,
  • Respiratory Cancers (Cancer of the lung, bronchus, larynx, or trachea), 
  • Soft Tissue Sarcoma (other than Osteosarcoma, Chondrosarcoma, Kaposi’s sarcoma, or Mesothelioma).
For more information about the VA's new rules on Agent Orange:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Peace Action at Work

In cold rain and summer heat, snowdrifts and bitter winds, a Veterans For Peace Chapter 21 contingent anchors a weekly peace vigil on a busy street corner by the NJ National Guard Armory in Teaneck. Chapter members are also active in numerous vigils, public meetings and marches around the state, as well as in New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

"This is what the troops put up with, so we're out here in the same kind of weather conditions," one of the vets explained to a visitor to the Teaneck vigil one blustery day. The solidarity with today's soldiers extends from memories of guard duty and patrols in military units in Vietnam, Korea, even as far back as World War II. The solidarity also extends across American society: A retired cop stands next to a retired firefighter, a Jewish mother next to a Catholic priest, holding signs commemorating the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan of more than 5,000 US troops from across the nation, signs crafted by a house painter and carried by a plumber from his repair truck to every weekly vigil.

Drivers honk their horns, sometimes two and three in a row, and wave to the peace vigil regulars from family cars, delivery trucks, school busses. Some passerbys stop on cold days, roll down a window and with a big smile hold out a big container of coffee or hot chocolate. College students stop by between classes, parents drop by with young children, frazzled parents of soldiers and, sometimes, raw-edged young veterans come by for comfort for their unrelenting concerns.

Many in the chapter have protested the war in Iraq since the US invasion and violent occupation began seven years ago. Some joined to focus their protest on the war in Afghanistan, now expanding into it's ninth year. To address the deaths and destruction of soldiers and civilian societies by both wars, Chapter 21 cosponsors a wide range of public outreach activities, often in partnership with Military Families Speak Out, which has family members serving on active duty.

This month's actions range from a "Speak Out - Sing Out" at a church in Teaneck to a contingent from New Jersey joining a national peace march in the nation's capital; from conducting a writing workshop for veterans and family members in conjunction with vets in a neighboring area of New York state to planning workshops for the Veterans For Peace national convention in Portland, Maine in August.

"We're a movement," Chapter 21 President Ken Dalton said during discussions this week on plans to widen war protests to the doorsteps of national elected officials, incuding members of Congress and President Obama. "We can make changes. It may not be happening as fast as we'd like, but it's happening."

Adding to the pressures to wind down these costly wars is the disastrous financial squeeze on Americans, from state governments slashing staff and social programs to rising unemployment levels for young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Jobless rate at 21.1%" for veterans in their early 20s, The Washington Post reported last week. "It was significantly higher than the 2008 unemployment rate among veterans in that age group: 14.1 percent. Many of the unemployed are members of the National Guard and reserves who have deployed multiple times, said Joseph Sharpe, director of the economic division at the American Legion. Sharpe said some come home to find their jobs have been eliminated because the company has downsized. Other companies might not want to hire someone who could deploy again or will have medical appointments because of war-related health problems, he said."

These are issues that Veterans For Peace in New Jersey and across the nation have been repeatedly raising at public events with other groups and in talks with members of Congress and their staffs. Spending an estimated $1 million per year to keep a soldier in Afghanistan is unsustainable, especially as tens of thousands of Americans lose their jobs--and millions can't find jobs--at home. It's an urgent discussion that hopefully all Americans will join.

Monday, March 8, 2010

War Writing Retreat

Far from the televised spectacle of Olympic athletes whooping or weeping in joy or anguish in pursuit of split-second victories, some other highly dedicated young people quietly gathered to share strategies for coping with relentless physical and emotional turmoil—in this case, from participating in deliberately deadly international contests.

The gathering of edgy veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan featured some whoops and weeping, amid an exchange of poetry and art works that was the centerpiece of a recent Warrior Writers’ retreat in Philadelphia, PA.

“The hard part is finding alternative methods for dealing with this,” Jon Turner, a former Marine machine-gunner, said to a standing-room-only audience during a Saturday night poetry reading at Robin’s Books, an out-of-the-way, second-floor bookstore in a downtown district booming with bars and night club-hopping.

“BOOM SMASH! That’s the sound of your Kevlar hitting the bullet proof glass… THUMP CRASH! That’s the sound of the mortar impacting in the dirt… CRASH AHHH!” Turner abruptly screamed into the microphone. “That’s the sound of your friend that now has a hole in his back…”

Release of still-unsettling emotions in poetry, short stories and memoirs was the focus of the three-day retreat, which also included many quieter discussions on the craft of balancing living and writing. Several of the vets noted how vital to their lives has been their participation in Warrior Writers and Combat Paper workshops, which offer hands-on making of artworks from military artifacts and memories.

“Warrior Writers, Combat Paper and love have saved my life,” said Turner, who drove with his partner, Kathy, and their dog, Sadie-Mae, from Vermont to share a new, self-published collection of his war and peace poetry, titled “Eat the Apple.”

Others were still exploring the idea of sharing private thoughts jotted down in a notebook or on a scrap of paper.

“I’m kind of a writer in progress,” said Maggie Martin, a former Army sergeant who traveled from a small town in Georgia with a sister veteran to see if this approach to dealing with the emotional freight of war would fly in the military bastion of the Old South. Pulling out a poem she wrote in a workshop that afternoon, Martin noted it was for an Iraqi friend, one of many people she met whose lives were upended by the US military invasion and occupation of their country. The concluding lines of her three-line haiku said: “forgive me friend/I never knew.”

Many of the roughly two dozen vets who participated in the reading or in workshops are active in Iraq Veterans Against the War and other veterans’ organizations on various issues, but the main aim of their writing is to sort out their own experiences and improve their life skills.

“I did two deployments, including a stop-loss,” said David Mann, an Army vet from Colorado, referring to a relatively new military policy that orders a soldier back into a war zone beyond the end of their enlistment period. “I found writing is such a help to me.”

Summing up the aim of the weekend gathering, Warrior Writers founder and director Lovella Calica said “I can’t tell you how many veterans I’ve seen who made art and their whole life changed.”

In stark contrast to the billion-dollar Winter Olympics games in Vancouver, Canada, Calica and a group of friends put together what she called a writing and wellness retreat on a shoe-string budget. This meant putting vets up in supporters’ homes, soliciting food donations from neighborhood stores, and offering writing workshops and Reiki, Yoga and Pilates relaxation sessions at Studio 34, a funky community arts center in a student-centric neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania.

A Sunday meeting on how to expand the three-year-old Warrior Writers program beyond its Philadelphia base was well attended by many of the vets and civilian supporters.

“I want to take this workshop [program] back to Chicago,” said Pete Sullivan, a former GI who during the bookstore reading the night before dedicated a poem to “my dad, who is a veteran.” Sullivan’s poem included this line: “I know about the battle you’re engaged in in your head.” Martin, who led the planning discussion, said she’d like to create a writing workshop in Savannah, Georgia. Others proposed helping to organize Warrior Writers workshops in a variety of locales, from Boston to San Francisco, in the coming year.

“We didn’t have enough time,” said Jon Turner, who has attended previous Warrior Writers workshops. “It was really good,” he added. “In June, come to Vermont, when it’s warm and we could go hiking in the woods.” During a 2007 retreat in Burlington, Vermont, participants celebrated publishing a collection of their early work and inspired creation of the Combat Paper project to add hand-made artworks to the array of healing offerings.

For further information about Warrior Writers programs:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Why Not a Peace Surge?

Greg Mortenson is a one-man peace wave. While heavily armed soldiers and insurgents clashed and bombs burst across Afghanistan and Pakistan throughout most of the past decade, Mortenson repeatedly trekked into the disputed region—without a rifle or artillery barrages and bombing runs to clear a path—and helped villagers in dozens of communities build schools. Imagine providing many more such peacemakers, instead of another surge of military action churning up fiercely proud people who have been fighting foreign armies for generations.

“We've started schools this year in five new provinces … which have a lot of Taliban. And the reason we're able to work with them is because we work so closely with the elders,” Mortenson said recently on Bill Moyers Journal. “Many of the elders I know are really angry at the Americans,” Mortenson told the Christian Science Monitor last fall. “It has less to do with our presence and more to do with the huge outcries caused by drones and bombers attacking suspected Taliban hangouts but killing a lot of innocent people.”

A peace-making U.S. Army veteran, Mortenson is the author of Three Cups of Tea, his inspiring account of a people-to-people project that builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan funded by Pennies for Peace fund-raisers by American students and community groups. His latest book is Stones into Schools: Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has attracted substantial news media coverage.

Mortenson’s advice for President Obama is to listen to the concerns of Afghan villagers, which center on surviving the violence of seemingly endless war and educating their children. “It would do more good than spending another $1 billion on combat operations or foreign aid,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

Asked by Bill Moyers how many schools could be built with $1 million—the cost of keeping one American soldier in Afghanistan for a year—Mortenson said his grassroots campaign, which involves local villagers doing much of the work, could build 30 to 40 schools with that amount of money. Imagine how many schools could be built with the billions budgeted for Obama’s 30,000-troop surge, Moyers implied.

In a telling example reported by the Christian Science Monitor, Mortenson’s actions of providing school books instead of bombs resulted in a ceasefire in hostilities between Afghan villagers and U.S. military patrols near the Pakistan border. Lt. Col. Christopher Kolenda lauded Mortenson’s campaign. “Elders understand, better than anyone, what has happened to their society as too many young men and women have grown up without schools over the last 30 years,” said Kolenda, who sought out Mortenson to build a school in a village where residents retaliated against any incursions by foreign troops, except when the Americans trucked in school supplies. “I truly believe that education is the long-term solution to terrorism and violent extremism,” the colonel said.

Top American military officers say they are studying Mortenson’s approach and changing their tactics as a result. But U.S. peace activists contend that the military forces scouring Afghanistan and bombing suspected terrorists in Pakistan stir up the anger that fuels support for the Taliban insurgency that hides the elusive leaders of al Qaida.

“The Obama administration needs to replace its military campaigns with diplomacy in and around Afghanistan,” argue the authors of a new book, Ending the US War in Afghanistan. The book is written by David Wildman, of the General Board of Global Ministries, United Methodist Church, and Phyllis Bennis, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC.

Bennis and Wildman call for ending combat operations in Afghanistan and drone attacks in Pakistan, withdrawing U.S. troops and shifting funding from the Pentagon to the State Department for aiding education, police training, health services and other aspects of civilian society in Afghanistan. Convincing our government to make such a shift will require a sustained public education campaign. Bennis and Wildman cite the work of the Cities for Peace campaign to end the war in Iraq as a model for Afghanistan.

“Campaigns that organize around the costs of war at the local, congressional district, or state level have two major strengths,” they contend. “First, engaging with citizens at the local level encourages more people to engage directly in civic activism … Second, they provide an immediate link to the costs of war at a scale and in language that everyone can understand.”

Calls for winding down the war in Afghanistan have been made by military experts. “There is no battlefield solution to terrorism," The RAND Corporation, a top Pentagon research contractor, concluded in 2008 in a study of military campaigns against insurgency groups around the world since 1968. “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,’” the report to the Pentagon stated.

A big problem with the military surge is that years of combat operations in Afghanistan have soured local villagers on America’s promises to help their society. “You're saying that people in Afghanistan find it confusing to have Americans coming off the same fortified base and some of them bring guns and are killing people and others bring money and are trying to fix things,” Steve Inskeep on NPR’s Morning Edition said recently to the head of the Kabul office of the U.S. Institute of Peace, John Dempsey. “Well, exactly,” said Dempsey, who had noted that American provincial reconstruction teams work out of military bases. “And some Afghans, I think, are questioning whether or not the whole PRT concept is actually worthwhile. And some look at them with skepticism, saying having the military involved in development work is blurring the line between fighting a war and trying to reconstruct a country,” Dempsey said.

It’s high time for a peace surge in Afghanistan, argues Sherwood Ross, a veteran journalist and blogger. “The U.S. would be far better off if instead of pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan it sent in a like number of unarmed Peace Corps volunteers with a comparable budget,” Ross wrote in a recent post on LA Progressive.

For further information:

Friday, January 15, 2010

Writing It Out

Riding out the storms of life can be rough. Sometimes it helps to write it out, when the world around you seems as unsettling as a ship in a hurricane—or a small boat chugging up a jungle river full of startling surprises.

I began jotting random thoughts on scraps of paper during an Army tour in Vietnam and graduated to pocket notebooks that I’ve filled with scribbling ever since. They are logbooks of discoveries, including titles of books to read, web sites to check out, snippets of conversation (real and imaginary), fragments of what might become poetry, ideas for an essay or a book.

“My poetry is mostly dealing with emotional turmoil,” I noted one day amid the latest upheaval in my life. “I’ll be working Xmas. So here’s a toast to the working stiffs who keep things humming on holidays,” I jotted on another occasion, setting the tone for a Happy Holidays letter folded into Christmas cards to family and friends.

As my life has migrated to constant use of computers, I also peck out and rewrite detailed drafts for blogs, journalism pieces, book projects. And I look for clues or encouragement in handling life by reading other folks’ writings.

Looking to share what I’ve found helpful, I’ve teamed up with other scribblers to offer writing workshops. Two upcoming events I’m participating in are open to the public. They are a Warrior Writers Retreat in Philadelphia, PA and a writing workshop for veterans and family members being held at the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, NY. Here’re the details:

Northeast Warrior Writers Retreat

Who: Veterans, supporters, artists, healers
What: Gather for a healing and learning weekend of arts and wellness
Where: Studio 34, 4522 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, PA
When: February 26-28, 2010
Why: Because our society needs to heal and we can be a part of that
How: Writing, art, yoga, massage therapy, acupuncture, training, etc.

The Retreat will feature writing and art-making workshops, trainings in running workshops, meetings to discuss local support for veterans, an art show and performance and sessions in massage, yoga, reiki and acupuncture.

Financial assistance, such as “sponsor a vet” to attend, is welcome. The Warrior Writers Project is sponsored by IVAW, 630 9th Ave, Suite 807, New York, NY 10036. For more information:

Write It Out Workshop

A free Writing Workshop for Military Veterans and Family Members

First workshop Feb. 2nd, 2010 @ 8 pm
Ongoing schedule, Tuesdays at 8 pm (frequency per month to be determined by participants)
Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR)
521 N. Broadway, Upper Nyack, NY

Workshop leaders: Gerald McCarthy, Jan Barry, Michael Gillen.
Poets and writers whose perspectives were shaped by military service in Vietnam, McCarthy is a professor of English at St. Thomas Aquinas College; Barry teaches journalism at St. Thomas Aquinas College and at Ramapo College of New Jersey; Gillen teaches Asian history at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY and a course on the Vietnam War at Purchase College, State University of New York..
For further information, contact: Gerry at or 845-570-1410, cell. Office: 845-398-4134.

Jan Barry served in Vietnam with the US Army. A poet, author and retired newspaper reporter, he teaches environmental writing at Ramapo College of NJ and journalism at St. Thomas Aquinas College. His poems on the war appeared in diverse publications, from the Chicago Tribune and New York Times to A People and A Nation: A History of the United States. He coedited Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, published by 1st Casualty Press, founded by Jan Barry and fellow veterans Larry Rottmann and Basil T. Paquet. With W.D. Ehrhart, he compiled a sequel, Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam. He also edited Peace Is Our Profession: Poems and Passages of War Protest. He lives in South Bound Brook, NJ.

Michael Gillen served in Vietnam with the Merchant Marine. He teaches Asian History at Pace University in Pleasantville, NY, and a course on the Vietnam War at Purchase College, State University of New York. His poetry and prose have appeared in The Veteran, Post Traumatic Press 2007, and elsewhere. He is formerly editor of the Master, Mate and Pilot and an assistant editor of the Seafarers Log. He lives in White Plains, NY.

Gerald McCarthy is a USMC veteran with service in Vietnam. He is a member of Veterans For Peace Chapter 60, Tappan Zee Brigade and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. His poems have been selected for inclusion in Hawaii Pacific Review’s Best of the Decade issue and in Twenty Years of Writing from Italian Americana. New poems also appear in The North American Review, War Literature & the Arts, etc. Trouble Light, a new full–length collection of his poetry, was published by West End Press/ University of New Mexico Press (2008). He lives in Nyack, NY and teaches writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College.