Monday, October 29, 2007
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
When I Came Home
Director’s note: When I Came Home is a documentary which follows the lives and struggles of several homeless veterans, including those who have recently returned home from the war in Iraq. The film examines the factors which led over 150,000 Vietnam veterans from the battlefield to the street and asks the question: Will what happened to Vietnam veterans happen to a new generation of soldiers? The film also focuses on the veteran-led movement which is fighting to end this national disgrace.
When I Came Home is a work-in-progress. Follow the making of the film on director Dan Lohaus’ GNN blog.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
PORTLAND, Me., Oct. 19 — Carissa Porcaro, a student at King Middle School here, did not hide her feelings about the Portland school board’s decision to let the independently operated clinic at her school provide girls access to prescription contraceptives.
Wearing a sticker with the words “I’m against giving out birth control” written in black marker, Carissa, 13, said she did not think the school should make the drugs available. Her mother disagrees.
“She thinks it’s really good,” Carissa said after school on Friday. “I think it’s stupid because what people are saying is that it’s O.K. to be sexually active.”
Two days after the school committee voted 7 to 2 in favor of adding prescription contraceptives to the services offered at the health clinic, the issue continues to draw fervent support and ardent opposition in this city of 64,000, the largest in Maine.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Cathleen Allen, whose son is enrolled at King. “Someone is finally advocating for these students to take care of themselves.”
Ms. Allen added, “It’s an eye-opener for all of us, but when you look at the facts, why not?”
Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is calling on the school committee to rescind its decision, as have the state and city Republican Parties. The city party is also pushing a recall for members who voted in favor.
Nick McGee, the city’s Republican Party chairman, said of the policy, “It is an attack on the moral fabric of our community, and a black eye for our state.”
On Friday, John Coyne, chairman of the school committee and one of the two members who voted against the plan, said he wanted the panel to reconsider the program. Mr. Coyne said that parents should have the option to enroll their children in all aspects of the clinic except reproductive health treatment, and that parents should be made more aware of the state’s confidentiality laws.
“I still don’t feel comfortable with this,” Mr. Coyne said. “There’s no talk about the health issues and the possible long-term ill effects on these young ladies.”
The school’s clinic functions much like a physician’s office and has been offering condoms and testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases since 2000. It also offers dental, mental health and basic care.
The clinics at Portland high schools have offered oral contraceptives for years, said Douglas S. Gardner, the city’s director of health and human services. Health officials decided to extend the policy to middle school after learning that 17 middle school students had become pregnant in the last four years, seven of them in the 2006-7 school year.
“These kids are far too young to be sexually active,” Mr. Gardner said. “You can’t argue that any differently. But there is a small group of kids, and thankfully it’s a small group, who are reporting that they are sexually active, and we need to do all we can to protect them.”
The Portland clinic is not the first in the country to offer such services. Four middle schools in Seattle offer reproductive health care through city-administered health centers, said James Apa, communications manager for Public Health-Seattle and King County. Clinics in six Baltimore middle schools offer access to oral contraceptives, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city’s health commissioner, who said the program had helped to decrease teenage pregnancy rates.
Nationally, about a quarter of school-based clinics, most of them in high schools, provide some type of contraception, according to the National Assembly on School Based Health Care. Less than 1 percent of schools provide prescription contraception, said a spokeswoman for the organization, Divya Mohan, who said most were high schools. She declined to give the number of middle schools that provided prescription contraception.
Parents in Portland who want their children to have access to the clinic must sign a waiver each year that details the services it offers. Under state law, reproductive health, mental health and substance abuse issues are confidential between medical provider and patient, regardless of the patient’s age.
Of the 500 students at King, 135 have permission to use the clinic, said Principal Michael McCarthy. Of those, five students, all of whom were 14 or 15, reported being sexually active in the last school year. One became pregnant. King is the only one of the city’s three middle schools that has a health clinic.
Postpubescent girls will be able to gain access to prescription contraceptives only after undergoing counseling and being examined by a physician or nurse practitioner who can prescribe oral contraceptives, Mr. Gardner said. The clinic is likely to start prescribing contraceptives at the end of the year, officials said, after parents sign a new waiver.
Students will then be written a prescription for oral contraceptives or be given them at the clinic, depending on each student’s situation. For students who are written a prescription, the school will often try to find a financing source, such as the state’s Medicaid program.
Kitty Purington, whose daughter attends King, says she had mixed feelings about the decision to provide contraceptives to middle school students but thought it was the right one.
“It brings home the fact that my 13-year-old daughter has friends and people around her who are sexually active,” Ms. Purington said. “But at least it’s a good alternative in a not-so-good situation. No one is going to stand up and cheer that 12- and 13-year-olds are having sex, but it’s not anything new.”
How do the cities of Baltimore, Portland, Seattle and NYC differ in their policy in regards to matters of birth control?
Find policies of the cities, and compare to Maine's Middle School policy.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Oct. 14, 2004 --
Following inquiries by ABC News, the Pentagon has dropped plans to force a severely wounded U.S. soldier to repay his enlistment bonus after injuries had forced him out of the service.
Army Spc. Tyson Johnson III of Mobile, Ala., who lost a kidney in a mortar attack last year in Iraq, was still recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center when he received notice from the Pentagon's own collection agency that he owed more than $2,700 because he could not fulfill his full 36-month tour of duty.
Johnson said the Pentagon listed the bonus on his credit report as an unpaid government loan, making it impossible for him to rent an apartment or obtain credit cards.
"Oh man, I felt betrayed," Johnson said. "I felt, like, oh, my heart dropped."
Pentagon officials said they were unaware of the case until it was brought to their attention by ABC News. "Some faceless bureaucrat" was responsible for Johnson's predicament, said Gen. Franklin "Buster" Hagenbeck, a three-star general and the Army's deputy chief of staff for personnel.
"It's absolutely unacceptable. It's intolerable," said Hagenbeck. "I mean, I'm incredulous when I hear those kinds of things. I just can't believe that we allow that to happen. And we're not going to let it happen."
The Department of Defense and the Army intervened to have the collection action against Johnson stopped, said Hagenbeck.
"I was told today he's not going to have a nickel taken from him," he said. "And I will tell you that we'll keep a microscope on this one to see the outcome."
'Not So Good'
Hagenbeck also pledged to look into the cases of the other soldiers ABC News brought to the military's attention, including men who lost limbs and their former livelihoods after serving in Iraq.
"When you're in the military, they take good care of you," said the 23-year-old Johnson. "But now that I'm a vet, and, you know, I'm out of the military -- not so good. Not so good."
Johnson had been flying high last September, after being promoted from Army private first class to specialist in a field ceremony in Iraq. Inspired by his father's naval background to join the military after high school, Tyson planned a career in the military and the promotion was just the first step. But only a week after the ceremony took place, a mortar round exploding outside his tent brought him quickly back to Earth.
"It was like warm water running down my arms," he said. "But it was warm blood."
In addition to the lost kidney, shrapnel damaged Johnson's lung and heart, and entered the back of his head. Field medical reports said he was not expected to live more than 72 hours.
With the help of exceptional Army surgeons, Johnson survived. As he recuperated, however, Johnson faced perhaps an even greater obstacle than physical pain or injuries -- the military bureaucracy.
Part of the warrior ethos, the soldier's creed of the U.S. Army, is to "never leave a fallen comrade."
"And it doesn't just pertain to the battlefield," Hagenbeck said. "It means, when we get them home they're a part of the Army family forever."
But Johnson now lives in his car. It is where he spends most of his days, all of his nights, in constant pain from his injuries and unwilling to burden his family.
Better Off Dead?
Stories like Tyson Johnson's are not unique.
Many of the severely wounded soldiers returning from Iraq face the prospect of poverty and what they describe as official indifference and incompetence.
"Guys I've met, talking to people, they'd be better off financially for their families if they had died as opposed to coming back maimed," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, who served as a civil affairs specialist for the Army while in Iraq.
On July 14, 2003, the Abilene, Texas, native had been on his way to a meeting about rebuilding schools in Iraq when his unarmored Humvee was blown up. A piece of shrapnel the size of a TV remote took his right leg off, below the knee, almost completely, Kelly said.
Kelly attests to receiving excellent medical care at Ward 57, the amputee section of Walter Reed, but said he quickly realized that the military had no real plan for the injured soldiers. Many had to borrow money or depend on charities just to have relatives visit at Walter Reed, Kelly said.
"It's not what I expected to see when I got here," he said. "These guys having to, you know, basically panhandle for money to afford things."
Perhaps as a sign of the grim outlook facing many of these wounded soldiers, Staff Sgt. Peter Damon, a National Guardsman from Brockton, Mass., said he is grateful for being a double amputee.
"Well, in a way, I'm kind of lucky losing both arms because I've been told I'll probably get 100 percent disability," he said.
Damon, a mechanic and electrician, lost both arms in an explosion as he was repairing a helicopter in Iraq. He initially woke up in the hospital worried and anxious to learn that both forms of livelihood were taken away from him.
"Now what am I doing to do?" Damon said, faced with the prospect of supporting his wife, Jennifer, and two children. "I can't do either, none of those, with no hands."
The military fails to provide a lump sum payment for such catastrophic injuries. And Damon still has not heard from the military about what they plan to give in terms of monthly disability payments.
The last time Damon asked about the payments, he was told by the military that his paperwork had been lost.
"And then when I went to go back to inquire about it again, just to ask a question, I just wanted to see if they had found my paperwork, I was told I had to make an appointment and to come back five days later," he said.
A thick book of federal regulations specifies the disability rate based on how many limbs were amputated and precisely where.
The percentage rates were set during World War II.
Jennifer Damon said the shock of her husband returning with no arms has been replaced by the fear of destitution, as well as a frustration over her husband's final discharge. Like his disability benefits, Peter's release is being held up by the lost paperwork and unanswered phone calls.
"It's hard to understand," she said. "I mean, I need him more than they need him right now. It's been a long time. You've had him for a long time. I want him back."
A Failing System?
Staff Sgt. Larry Gill, a National Guardsman from Semmes, Ala., wonders whether his 20 dutiful years of military service have been adequately rewarded.
Last October, Gill injured his left leg when on patrol during a protest outside a mosque in Baghdad. A protester threw a hand grenade which left Gill, a former policeman, with leg intact, though useless. He received a Purple Heart from the military, but no program, plan or proposal of how to make a living in civilian life.
"It's not fair, and I'm not complaining," Gill said. "I'm not whining about it. You know, I just, I just don't think people really understand what we're being faced with.
Gill expects he will have to sell his home, the dream house he and his wife, Leah, designed and built, where they raised their children.
"I've never questioned my orders," he said. "I've slept with rats and stood in the rain and wondered why I was standing in the rain, and, you know, for my children to have to do without based on a lack of income from me, it's frustrating."
Leah Gill agreed. "I just don't feel we should have to uproot because of an injury that he received while he was serving the country," she said. "It shouldn't come down to that."
Gill and the others in Ward 57 have had their pictures taken frequently with visiting politicians.
"Where are the politicians? Where are the generals?" he asked. "Where are the people that are supposed to take care of me?"
Help and care will be forthcoming, promised Hagenbeck.
"There in fact was a plan," he said. "But again, it was not integrated in a seamless fashion that it needed to be. And that was not even, really, to be honest with you, recognized probably until sometime about a year ago. And these soldiers actually brought it to our attention about the transition problems."
The military would do a better job of taking care of their own, Hagenbeck said, though the system in place was often unwieldy, outdated and inadequate.
"Oh, there absolutely has been problems in the past," Hagenbeck said. "And they're in -- even with some of our soldiers today. Some missteps have been made. And they have not been taken care of the way they should have been taken care of."
help these neglected soldiers, Hagenbeck said, the military created an advocacy program this past April called Disabled Soldier Support System, or DS3. The network is set up to fight for a soldier's benefits and entitlements, ease transition to civilian life, and deal with any other problems facing a disabled soldier, according to Hagenbeck.
But still there are soldiers like Johnson who fall through the cracks.
His mother, Willie Jean Johnson, worries her son may hurt himself.
"He's not going to say anything bad about the Army," she said. "I have never heard him say anything bad about it. But you can see the hurt in his eyes. You can see the hurt from his heart in his eyes."
Johnson said he usually keeps to himself, preferring to protect his son from seeing him in his current state. "I'd rather be to myself than to flare at somebody else and, you know, and hurt someone that I know I really love," he said.
One year after nearly being killed in combat, the Pentagon has yet to send Johnson his Purple Heart medal.
The Pentagon collection notices, however, arrive without fail.
As to Kelly's discovery that he and his wounded comrades had to beg and borrow to pay for their loved ones to visit while they recuperate, Hagenbeck said a new policy went into effect this weekend to alleviate part of the problem.
"There was no system in place to support them in their needs. And I'll be honest with you, until it came to our attention, to people that were paying attention, and then those that wanted to help, that obstacle was there," Hagenbeck said.
Incredibly, these soldiers remain dedicated to the military despite all they have endured.
"Even though the way I'm being treated, you know, as a vet, I'd still go back in," Johnson said. "I would."
"I love being a soldier," Kelly said. "I don't regret what happened. If I had to go back to Iraq knowing that there was that chance of losing my leg, I'd do it. Because that's what the nation asked me to do."
Jessica Wang contributed to this report.
Following the airing of this report on PrimeTime Live, Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), a former infantryman, wrote a letter to the Pentagon demanding a progress report on the recently implemented Disabled Soldier Support System and further assurance that all wounded and disabled vets would be financially and otherwise assisted in making the transition to civilian life. "I am astonished by this story and disappointed," Dingell wrote, "that we are failing to fulfill our nation's duty to care for our injured veterans."
How might the Justice Oriented citizen react to such an article? How might a participatory citizen react? What are you going to do with this information?
Saturday, October 06, 2007
CALDWELL, N.J. (CBS) ―
Two local middle school teachers are in hot water after assigning students a controversial project on slavery that's angered parents.
Over 100 sixth graders at Grover Cleveland Middle School in Caldwell spent several days last week taking part in an assignment where they used terms like "build a plantation" while completing their "Lap of Luxury" social studies project.
The project instructed students to create an advertisement defending the use of slave labor to run a newly built plantation in South Carolina. Students are told to come up with a '"catchy" name for the plantation and give three reasons why slave labor is the "best idea" and to add illustrations.
One student, who is not being identified because of his age, read to CBS 2 what he wrote for the assignment: "Slave labor is the way to go because slaves aren't paid, so all money is profit."
Parents are astonished by the assignment's nature.
"It's really offending," said Tyiesha Hameed, whose child is one of the only eight black students who attends the school. "There's so many other ways and tools to show our kids how to learn and teach them in reference to slavery."
One question parents and officials are asking is whether the 11- and 12-year-olds even understand the lesson which was given to them.
"The students have to use their creative spirits to create justification. That gets the mind pretty worked up, and it embeds some things in their process that will be there for forever," said James Harris, president of the New Jersey NAACP chapter.
Casey Shorter, the school's principal, said he didn't find out about the project until after he spoke with a concerned parent. "Our intent was not to be insensitive. After reviewing the assignment and listening to feedback, from an administrative and teaching perspective, we determined it was insensitive and inappropriate. And we will eliminate it from the curriculum," he said.
Citing privacy issues, Shorter would not say what he's done with Dana Howarth and Beth Rutzler, the two language arts teachers who created the controversial "Lap of Luxury" project. He adds this is actually the second year that the teachers have given the assignment.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 — Employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in a vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded, according to a new report from Congress.
In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims’ family members who complained, and sought to cover up other episodes, the Congressional report said. It said State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet. In one case last year, the department helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.
The report by the Democratic majority staff of a House committee adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, American military officers and Blackwater’s competitors that company guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life.
But the report is also harshly critical of the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the private security company’s 861 employees in Iraq. “There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting episodes involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” the report states.
On Sept. 16, Blackwater employees were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square that left at least eight Iraqis dead, an episode that remains clouded. The shooting set off outrage among Iraqi officials, who branded them “cold-blooded murder” and demanded that the company be removed from the country.
The State Department is conducting three separate investigations of the shooting, and on Monday the F.B.I. said it was sending a team to Baghdad to compile evidence for possible criminal prosecution.
Neither the State Department nor Blackwater would comment on Monday about the 15-page report, but both said their representatives would address it on Tuesday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose Democratic staff produced the document. Based on 437 internal Blackwater incident reports as well as internal State Department correspondence, the report said Blackwater’s use of force was “frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage.”
Among those scheduled to testify Tuesday are Erik Prince, a press-shy former Navy Seal who founded Blackwater a decade ago, and several top State Department officials.
The committee report places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater’s record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere, under a diplomatic security contract it shares with two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy.
Blackwater has reported more shootings than the other two companies combined, but it also currently has twice as many employees in Iraq as the other two companies combined.
In the case of the Christmas Eve killing, the report says that an official of the United States Embassy in Iraq suggested paying the slain bodyguard’s family $250,000, but a lower-ranking official said that such a high payment “could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.” Blackwater ultimately paid the dead man’s family $15,000.
In another fatal shooting cited by the committee, an unidentified State Department official in Baghdad urged Blackwater to pay the victim’s family $5,000. The official wrote, “I hope we can put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly.”
The committee report also cited three other shootings in which Blackwater officials filed misleading reports or otherwise tried to cover up the shootings.
Since mid-2006, Blackwater has been responsible for guarding American diplomats in and around Baghdad, while DynCorp has been responsible for the northern part of the country and Triple Canopy for the south.
State Department officials said last week that Blackwater had run more than 1,800 escort convoys for American diplomats and other senior civilians this year and its employees had discharged their weapons 57 times. Blackwater was involved in 195 instances of gunfire from 2005 until early September, a rate of 1.4 shootings a week, the report says. In 163 of those cases, Blackwater gunmen fired first.
The report also says Blackwater gunmen engaged in offensive operations alongside uniformed American military personnel in violation of their State Department contract, which states that Blackwater guards are to use their weapons only for defensive purposes.
It notes that Blackwater’s contract authorizes its employees to use lethal force only to prevent “imminent and grave danger” to themselves or to the people they are paid to protect. “In practice, however,” the report says, “the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are pre-emptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire.”
The report cites two instances in which Blackwater gunmen engaged in tactical military operations. One was a firefight in Najaf in 2004 during which Blackwater employees set up a machine gun alongside American and Spanish forces. Later that year, a Blackwater helicopter helped an American military squad secure a mosque from which sniper fire had been detected.
Blackwater has dismissed 122 of its employees over the past three years for misuse of weapons, drug or alcohol abuse, lewd conduct or violent behavior, according to the report. It has also terminated workers for insubordination, failure to report incidents or lying about them, and publicly embarrassing the company. One employee was dismissed for showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Senate on Monday gave final approval, 92 to 3, to a defense policy bill that included the establishment of an independent commission to investigate private contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill, which must be reconciled with a House version, faces a veto threat because it includes an expansion of federal hate-crimes laws.