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Author: TriSec    Date: 06/23/2015 10:18:34

Good Morning.

We've been back in Iraq a year - today is our 369th day.

There have been no new casualties to report.

And we find this morning's Cost of War passing through:

$ 1, 622, 480, 190, 000 .00

I've got some stories that have been gathering dust, so we'll do a bit of a dump today. Not sure any of them can be tied together, so here goes. We'll start back in time a bit; over a decade ago we invaded Iraq for the second time now. There were intermittent reports of chemical weapons, and in the ensuing decade much debate has taken place. It now seems that maybe Iraq did indeed have these things, although never used in combat.

The toxic vapors acted quickly against the Second Platoon of the 811th Ordnance Company, whose soldiers were moving abandoned barrels out of an Iraqi Republican Guard warehouse in 2003. The building, one soldier said, was littered with dead birds.

As the soldiers pushed the barrels over and began rolling them, some of the contents leaked, they said, filling the air with a bitter, penetrating smell. Soon, many were dizzy and suffering from running noses and tearing eyes. A few were vomiting, disoriented, tingling or numb.

After the soldiers staggered outside for air, multiple detection tests indicated the presence of nerve agent. Others suggested blister agent, too. The results seemed to confirm the victims’ fear that they had stumbled upon unused stocks of Iraq’s chemical weapons.

From Camp Taji, where the barrels had been found, more than 20 exposed soldiers were evacuated in helicopters to a military hospital in Balad, where they were met by soldiers wearing gas masks and ordered to undress before being allowed inside for medical care.

“They drew a box in the sand and had armed guards and were like: ‘Do not get out of that box. Do not get out of that box,’ ” said Nathan Willie, a private first class at the time. “I was kind of freaked out.”

Since last fall, the United States military has acknowledged that American soldiers found thousands of abandoned chemical weapons in Iraq, and that hundreds of troops notified the military medical system that they believed they had been exposed to them. The military acknowledged the exposures after years of secrecy — and of denying medical tracking and official recognition to victims — only after an investigation by The New York Times.

Even then, the affliction of the 811th Ordnance Company had quietly remained one of the unsolved mysteries of the Iraq war, and a parable of what several of the victims describe as the corrosive effects of the government’s secrecy on troop welfare and public trust.

Since the episode, several of the sickened soldiers have complained of health effects that they say may be linked to handling leaking barrels. But instead of finding the Army concerned or committed to their well-being, they faced years of shifting stories about what exactly had made them ill.

The Army, they said, at first suggested that they might have been exposed to the nerve agent sarin. Then it said that chemical warfare field detection tests were unreliable and that the liquid was most likely a pesticide or something else. Then it dropped the subject entirely.

Still, several of the victims suffered. But because the military’s records relating to the episode were classified, the victims said, they lacked the information to settle their gnawing worries or to give them the standing necessary to pursue medical care or disability claims.

Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, which advocates open government, said the government’s refusal to share its information was a case of the habits of secrecy trumping common sense.

“Soldiers exposed to something really dangerous cannot find out what it was because ‘Sorry it’s classified’?” he said. “It’s creepy and it’s crazy.”

“The outrage here,” he added, “is extraordinary.”

Staying at war, let's take a brief look at what could be one of the toughest jobs in all the military. When a soldier is killed in combat, somebody has to do the difficult business of tending to the remains, identifying the soldier, and notifying the next of kin. I've read anectodal stories over the years that knocking on a family's door with the news requires a certain kind of courage....perhaps even more so than those who face enemy bullets.

Even before Army Master Sgt. Anthony Link could deliver the dreaded knock on the door, he heard a woman inside shout out in despair.

"No," cried Talisa Williams, who pulled up a window curtain and saw the men in their dress uniforms. "My baby. Not my baby."

It was shortly after 5 a.m., July 8, 2012. Standing outside the Brooksville home of Talisa and Clarence Williams Jr., Link, who was with an Army chaplain, steeled himself for the difficult assignment. He was there to tell the couple that their son, Clarence Williams III, a young man of deep faith, love of country and a burning desire to be a soldier like his dad, had been killed in Afghanistan.

Link had served as an Army Casualty Notification Officer many times before, informing several families that a loved one had been killed in action. But each experience brings new challenges, Links says. New sorrows.

Confident that he knew what he'd say, Link says he thought about his oldest child to make sure he'd know how to say it.

"My daughter is about a year younger than this soldier who was killed in Afghanistan," he remembers. "All I could think of was what if that was my daughter? What kind of help would I need?"
Back in 2008, one of Link's Army mentors made a suggestion that would change his life. And, as it turned out, the lives of many others like the parents of Clarence Williams III and Zachary Shannon.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Charles Winston was looking for a few good soldiers to become Casualty Notification Officers and Casualty Assistance Officers.

The notification officers are the ones who, along with a chaplain, knock on the door when an active duty soldier is killed due to combat, training, injury or illness. The assistance officers are the ones who walk the families through the initial grief, the piles of paperwork, seeing the flag-drapped casket and thousands of details that come up in a bureaucratic maze no one wants to enter.

Link, 42, is a human resources official and has been with the Army for more than two decades. He says Winston asked if he wanted to step up and help the loved ones.

"He just said, 'you are organized, good with people and just seem to be caring about soldiers,' " says Link. "He did this duty and he said, ' "I need to get some good soldiers in here and take care of these families.' "

Army rules say that all enlisted soldiers above the rank of Sgt. 1st Class, Chief Warrant Officer 2 and any officer is eligible to be trained to notify and assist the families of the fallen.

"We are looking for a level of maturity," says Linda Johnson, benefits coordinator at Fort Stewart in Georgia, which oversees the assistance and notification officers in the Tampa area.

Those selected by their brigade commanders undergo three days of intensive training, which includes everything from knowing how to fill out the required paperwork for compensation and benefits, how to navigate the Department of Veterans Affairs, hearing from survivors about their experiences and role playing the door knock, Johnson says. After training, there is a test that must be passed each year.

Most of the time, there are separate notification and assistance officers for each case, says Johnson. Aside from helping families of active-duty soldiers who have died, they assist families of those who separated from the Army within four months and families of retired soldiers.

Each branch of the service has a slightly different approach, though the Army, Navy and Marines have the same rank requirements.

The Navy and Marines combine the notification and assistance roles into a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer, or CACO. The Air Force uses airmen to make the notifications, and civilians, called Casualty Assistance Representatives, to handle the assistance portion. U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, has its own cohort, drawn from the services, to help the families of commandos.

And I do have one current story today - despite all the "attention" focused on the VA system over the last couple of years (mostly feigned outrage, and complaining through the media), it seems like there has been little improvement in care or wait times for our veterans. Maybe if Congress actually did something, instead of blaming Obama for liking puppies, or whatever it is that's his fault this week?

WASHINGTON — The number of veterans seeking health care but ending up on waiting lists of one month or more is 50 percent higher now than it was a year ago when a scandal over false records and long wait times wracked the Department of Veterans Affairs, The New York Times reported.

The VA also faces a budget shortfall of nearly $3 billion, the Times reported in a story posted online ahead of its Sunday editions. The agency is considering furloughs, hiring freezes and other significant moves to reduce the gap, the newspaper reported.

In the last year, the VA has increased capacity by more than 7 million patient visits per year, double what officials originally thought they needed to fix shortcomings, the Times reported. However, the newspaper added, department officials did not anticipate just how much physician workloads and demand from veterans would continue to soar. At some major veterans hospitals, demand was up by one-fifth, the paper reported.

Citing interviews with department officials and internal department budget documents it had obtained, the Times reported that doctors and nurses have handled 2.7 million more appointments than in any previous year, while authorizing 900,000 additional patients to see outside physicians.

The Times also reported intense internal debate at the VA over a proposal to address a shortage of funds for a new, more effective but more costly hepatitis C treatment by possibly rationing new treatments among veterans. Certain patients who have advanced terminal diseases or suffer from a "persistent vegetative state or advanced dementia" would be excluded under that plan, the paper reported.

Agency officials expect to petition Congress this week to allow them to shift money into programs running short of cash, according to the newspaper. However, lawmakers may object to removing funds from a new program intended to allow certain veterans on waiting lists and in rural areas to choose taxpayer-paid care from private doctors outside the department's health system, the Times reported.

"Something has to give," the department's deputy secretary, Sloan D. Gibson, said in an interview with the newspaper. "We can't leave this as the status quo. We are not meeting the needs of veterans, and veterans are signaling that to us by coming in for additional care, and we can't deliver it as timely as we want to."

So..I hope to have something a little more topical next time around.

24 comments (Latest Comment: 06/23/2015 23:25:30 by Will in Chicago)
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