Since When Have You Cared, Sir?

May 6, 2010

February 23, 1778, Valley Forge, PA –  The Continental Army is suffering through a devastating winter, in which one out of five will die from exposure, starvation, or disease.  The British are comfortably enjoying some R&R in the former American capital of Philadelphia.  General Washington is searching for some way to inspire the rag-tag band that remains and, more importantly, to instill some discipline and mold them into capable professional soldiers.  On this day he meets a decorated Prussian officer with extensive battlefield experience who has offered his service to the cause.  But there is considerable evidence that Baron von Steuben is homosexual – patently unfit to lead, a threat to the troops’ morale.  Washington has no choice but to send him back to Europe.  Before the end of summer, Washington surrenders his hapless militia; the Revolution is defeated.  A few of the rebel leaders escape to France or to the Spanish colonies, but most, including Washington, are summarily hanged.

At least that’s what would have happened had our current Pentagon leaders been in charge.  Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen released an open letter to the House Armed Services Committee last week, which was nothing more than an attempt to withhold basic human rights from thousands of their petty underlings.  They requested more time to study the effects of repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” (a stalling tactic reminiscent of those used by military heads in the ’40’s and ’50’s to put off racial desegregation).  Their senseless, hateful stance – a stark reversal from both men’s previous support for repeal – was skillfully veiled behind a facade of honor, pragmatism, and passing the buck down.  “Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully,” they wrote.

So now Defense Department officials are trying to get a sense of how the rank-and-file active duty Joes and Janes feel about the issue.  Of course, members who are gay, and who share that information with the investigators, are not being guaranteed immunity or anonymity or any sort of protection.  To even hint at it or to express support for gay rights would certainly draw increased scrutiny upon a member.  So should anyone be surprised when the DoD results show a vast majority of our troops saying they won’t be able to do their jobs as well if Congress forces them to serve alongside openly gay people?

Meanwhile gay soldiers are on patrol in Kandahar defusing IED’s; gay airmen are right now flying UAV’s over Baghdad; gay marines are translating communication between Arab tribal elders and coalition commanders; gay sailors are… dancing below decks?  As if life in uniform isn’t stressful enough, these members must also live almost like spies; at any time an OSI agent may be listening in on their phone calls back home, or searching through their bags.

The obvious truth, whether we choose to admit it or not, is that gays already constitute a large portion of our armed forces.  The 428 members discharged last year are only the courageous few who sacrificed their own careers and future benefits for a just cause greater than themselves, as well as the unfortunate few who were betrayed by an “incriminating” email or caught holding hands while off-duty in civilian clothes in an off-post movie theater.  Yet instances of gay rape or assault in the military are exceedingly rare.  So what exactly are these homophobes afraid of?  Getting beat out for promotion?

The most baffling part of this whole story, to me, is the Pentagon’s stated need to survey the grunts.  SINCE WHEN have the brass cared about our “concerns, insights, and suggestions?”  No such “opportunity” was “afforded” regarding stop-loss, or multiple extended deployments.  No one at the Pentagon cared when my orders were inexplicably changed from Florida to New Mexico just four days before I was supposed to report (a change that cost me, a 20-year old E-2 at the time, over $600 in unreimbursable travel and college expenses for my wife).  Now, all of a sudden, the Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs need input from a bunch of naive, pizza-faced kids in order to make a policy decision?

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” must be repealed right f*cking now.  Any individuals who are unwilling to accept that should be charged with failure to obey a regulation.  It will protect our national security and it will save lives.  It will distinguish the US of A from our intolerant, fundamentalist enemies – Al-Qaeda jihadists and those Westboro assholes alike.  It’s simply the right thing.

Semper Fi, Marines!

Dimetrodon

January 13, 2010

The howl of wind (or wolf?) destroyed my peaceful dream’s delight

My hazy brain was soon engaged; was something here not right?

My soles complained “to bed again” when they hit the hardwood floor

But I marched them to the window for a peek into the night.

A little boy stood, shivering, on the step outside my door

And I felt sure that I had seen this kid somewhere before.

My clumsy hands unhooked the chain; I ushered him inside.

His nose was running like a tap; his shoelace was untied.

“What are you doing out so late and why have you come here?”

I shouted at his little face “Where’s your house? You need a ride?”

That little boy just stared in disbelief, and shed a tear

And clutched his little dinosaur, a museum souvenir.

“Dimetrodon,” I softly said, to try to calm him down

“I had one too when I was growing up in Allentown.”

I made him some hot chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream

But he just took it silently, maintained his stubborn frown.

He raised it to his lips, his face distorted by the steam

And in that shocking instant I was powerless to scream.

“Impossible!” I thought, though as he drank I, too, felt warm

But what unearthly action had he come here to perform?

At last I heard him whisper “Bye and thank you for the drink,”

set down the mug and turn to go back out into the storm.

“No, wait!” I cried, and held him back behind that spectral brink

Obligingly he paused and gave me time enough to think.

Would it be wise to chart for him the next leg of the race?

To warn the boy about the many perils he will face?

Avoid that girl – she’ll break your heart, I wanted to exclaim

and many more reminders I’d been longing to erase.

Don’t take that first enticing smoke, put down the loathsome flame!

Don’t stake your Christmas bonus on the 49ers game!

Do well in school and care enough to study for the tests!

Ignore that sharp recruiter with the ribbons on his chest!

Be friends with Shawn so maybe he decides to stay alive!

A thousand other things that I could helpfully suggest.

But what would come from such advice?  Not what I may contrive.

Besides, this boy could not absorb it – he was no more than five!

My life, I thought, is not too bad; I carry no regrets.

The scars I’ve gotten on this trip have now become vignettes.

I gave my self a hug and shook my little hand goodbye.

The world lay still and dark, it was as black as darkness gets

So I could hardly see the boy fade out into the skies.

I turned around and saw his toy, and left it where it lies.

Shooting the Easter Bunny

January 5, 2010

After a holly-jolly 17-day break, Congress will reconvene next week and begin to merge the two houses’ versions of healthcare reform into a single bill – the most important one to cross their desks in my lifetime.  Certainly no legislator or private citizen should thoughtlessly toe the party line on every issue.  But I am deeply troubled, and admittedly somewhat puzzled, by the number of left-wingers who actually oppose this legislation.  Arianna Huffington called it “reform in name only.”  Keith Olbermann kicked it up a notch, calling the plan “immoral” and “a betrayal of the people who elected you.”  Moveon.org called for “progressives” to “block this bill.”  Howard Dean believes it would “do more harm than good.”  What unholy Bizarro-Rove entity is behind the curtains directing this show?  Have they all forgotten the historical context, the dark depths from which we so recently emerged?

Whatever the final version of the bill looks like, it will be far from perfect.  Almost all of its supporters, including Obama, have acknowledged that.  The public option will not make the cut, which truly is a shame.  But that’s merely a kick to the nuts; the reform has not been castrated.  It will guarantee healthcare for the 14% of working Americans whose employers do not offer plans, yet who do not qualify for any government programs like Medicare or Medicaid.  Alone, this could be considered a gift to the insurance companies.  But along with enabling those 30,000,000 new customers to purchase policies, the bill will impose strong regulations on the industry.  Insurers will be forced to accept millions of customers who they previously turned away because a pre-existing condition, or some other red flag identifying them as “high-risk,” made them unprofitable to cover.  These are the people most in need of coverage – fifty of them die every day for lack of it.

A provision in the House bill would require insurance companies to spend at least 85% (80% in the Senate bill) of the revenue from premiums on actual healthcare (as opposed to overhead and executive bonuses).  In the language of the industry, that expense is called “medical loss ratio,” as if the cost of providing the goods and services that customers pay for, that the industry exists to provide, were equivalent to flushing money down the toilet.  No one really knows what these ratios currently are, but the testimony of a former consigliere turned conscionable rat is revealing:

“To win the favor of powerful [Wall Street] analysts, for-profit insurers must prove … that the portion of the premium going to medical costs is falling.  I have seen one insurer’s stock price fall 20 percent or more in a single day after executives disclosed that the company had to spend a slightly higher percentage of premiums on medical claims during the quarter than it did during a previous period. The smoking gun was the company’s first-quarter medical loss ratio, which had increased from 77.9 percent to 79.4 percent a year later.”

Could this be part of the reason for our ever-rising healthcare costs?  Requiring all insurance companies to a) reveal their medical loss ratio, and b) issue partial refunds to their policyholders if it’s not above a set floor level, sounds to me like real reform.

Passage of the bill would also cause a huge ($196 billion the first year) redistribution of income from the excessively wealthy to the working U.S. citizens too poor to afford a policy without assistance.  In essence, it finally recognizes (even in the absence of a public option) that access to medical care is a basic right of people in a civilized society – not a luxury for those who can afford it at whatever price the invisible hand comes to rest on.  What could be more consistent with the liberal ideology?

The final bill will almost certainly exhibit the inevitable influence of lobbyists and special interests.  It will yield to the vehement minority on abortion.  But what this group of Democrats and Independents are doing, fighting something good because it’s not good enough, is so anti-rational it makes my head hurt.  It’s like shooting the Easter Bunny for not being Santa Claus.

Georgia man imprisoned for a song

December 20, 2009

Army Specialist Marc Hall has served honorably for over three years, including a 14-month tour of duty in Iraq.  He’s a loving father and an amateur rapper.  His battalion commander ordered Specialist Hall confined in the Liberty County Jail on December 11.  As of today he is still incarcerated there.  The charge against him?  Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

The UCMJ contains many “crimes” of which a military member can technically be convicted (including oral sex – even with one’s own spouse, and having an abortion).  The 134th, and final, article encompasses any type of misconduct that is not specifically prohibited in the (seemingly comprehensive) 133 preceding articles.

The heinous act committed by Specialist Hall was the recording of an angry, explicit song.  His term of enlistment will end in February of 2010, but Uncle Sam has chosen not to honor his contract.  Under the Stop-Loss program, Specialist Hall has been forced to stay in the Army for an additional year after he was supposed to get out, because his unit is deploying to Iraq again just a few days before Christmas.

He did not (as many other soldiers more courageous than me have done) refuse to deploy and fight in what he (presumably) believes to be an illegal war.  Had he refused, the Army could have charged him with disobeying an order or missing movement, instead of the vague Article 134.  He simply channeled his feelings of bitterness and betrayal into his art.

True, his song includes a line in which he expresses his desire to lock and load a 30-round magazine and shoot all the E-7’s (Sergeant First Class) and above in his unit.  Obviously this was the line that his commanding officers interpreted as a direct threat.  The entire Army is doubtless still reeling from the events of November 5,  when a Major killed thirteen soldiers and wounded 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas.  If that incident has any bearing on the case of Marc Hall, it is a valuable lesson.  Stressed-out, disillusioned soldiers should not have their service time involuntarily extended.  These brave men and women endure real-life nightmares that most of us can not even imagine.  The Fort Hood shooter, himself a decorated veteran of over 20 years, tried several times to get out of the Army due to religious and ideological differences, but his requests were routinely denied.  If the officers reviewing his claims had recognized that discharging one frustrated psychiatrist would not really hamper the mission, thirteen soldiers now dead would still be alive.

The larger over-riding problem with the way the Army handled Marc Hall is that no one can be held responsible for a statement (or, sometimes, even an action) uttered in a moment of passion.  Whether or not you believe that Spc. Hall actually intended to shoot his superiors (I do not; I think the majority of soldiers have similar desires at some point) is irrelevant.  No one can be preemptively tried for a crime he may or may not commit in the future.

Every time some attention-hungry high school student is sent home for shaving a swastika into his hair, it makes national news as a purported violation of the First Amendment.  But where is the outrage over the illegal pre-trial imprisonment of Marc Hall?  Why has there been no action from our Commander in Chief, who could repair this injustice with a two-minute phone call?  As long as Marc Hall is behind bars, this fellow Iraq veteran will join him in saying “F*** THE ARMY!”

UPDATE:  On February 5, 2010, the Army announced that Specialist Hall will be extradited to Iraq to face a court-martial there, out of the public eye.  His civilian attorney will not be permitted to accompany him.  The term “military justice” grows more Orwellian every day.