Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jaguar heritage at LBJ/LASA HS

Hart, Tami, Susana and I were happy to be at LBJ/LASA today for their combined lunch period. We had possibly our busiest day yet at the school and appreciated all the engagement from Jaguars! We also appreciated the diversity among students, reading their responses to our heritage question, seeing the displays on the walls of graduating seniors from the Early College Program and talking with the forty-some students who did the t-shirt challenge at the table. Penny Poll results showed a 25% priority for funding Education, 20% for Health Care, 18% for the Environment, 13% for Humanitarian Aid, 13% for the Military and 11% for NASA. Photos attached show a variety of family traditions. Not many students knew that their mascot, the Jaguar, is native not only to the rain forests of South America, but also to the Americas as far north as our part of Texas. The Jaguar is a very important animal in the art, history and ecology of the Americas.

Yes!  21st Century Power Skills: Collaboration, Connection, Creativity, Communication, Cultural Proficiency, Critical Thinking

Early College grads

Inaugural Early College Program graduates

dates for qualifying for Early College Program

Tami, Susana and Hart at our SOY table

Susan, Susana and Hart at our SOY table

t-shirt challenge for today

student responses

student responses

student responses

student responses

student responses

Monday, November 13, 2017

Local students rally to support DACA and a Clean Dream Act

It was great to see local high school students exercising their First Amendment rights in the walk-out on November 9 to demonstrate support for DACA and a Clean Dream Act.  Photo by Ralph Barrera of the Austin American-Statesman

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Supporting Veterans Means Ending War

I appreciate this Veteran's Day message from Maggie Martin, co-director of Iraq Veterans Against the War:

I'm writing to you from Tucson, AZ, where our veterans' delegation is joining School of the Americas (SOA) Watch in their decades-long movement to end U.S. militarism in Latin America and to call attention to the growing militarization of the U.S./Mexico border. I can't imagine a more powerful way to spend my Veterans Day weekend, when most of the country will be celebrating war through parades and events that honor US veterans but pay little mind to the immeasurable damage (from massacres to forced migration) that our military has caused.

Across the country in New York City, our members are equally committed to raising their voices against militarism. This week, a brand new member, Brittany DeBarros, led our New York City Chapter in making this video for our #SupportVetsRESIST social media campaign. Over the weekend, vets from Arizona to New York will highlight just how tired we are of being used as props to justify violence and occupation -- and how we are instead standing with movements against militarism, white supremacy, and hate.

As members Brittany and Anthony Gonzalez share:
"This year, we are laying claim to Veterans Day to say supporting veterans means demanding a better America. Supporting veterans means ending war. Support us by standing with us, or kneeling with us, but don't hide behind us."

Join us as we change the narrative this Veterans Day.

There are countless more events happening this week, and our members are taking action in these ways amongst others:
  • Bringing an anti-war message to the Colorado Veterans Day Parade
  • Helping lead an action in Chicago to demand full staffing of the VA Hospital
  • Holding an NYC Drop the MIC event (you can check out the video here), where our movement partners spoke about communities resisting U.S. violence in Iraq, Korea, the Philippines, and more

As we continue our critical work this November, we're grateful to have you in our corner. We wouldn't be here without you. 

In Solidarity,
Maggie Martin
Co-Director Iraq Veterans Against the War

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Veterans affected by Military Burn Pits Grow Desperate

Joshua Casteel, speaking at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War

The following story was carried by The NPR radio program, The Texas Standard this week.  When we caution students that the US military is the biggest single institutional polluter in the world, this is among the reasons why.  And when we caution students that veterans have become ill from exposure to the toxins produced by the military and often have suffered further from inadequate medical care, this is another example.

I especially remember Joshua Casteel, an Iraq War veteran who died at the age of 32 in 2012 of cancer attributed to exposure to US military burn pits in Iraq.  Joshua became a Conscientious Objector to war after his experiences as an interrogator in Iraq.  He was one of the veterans featured in the film, "Soldiers of Conscience," and he spoke widely on the issues of moral injury and conscience, including an audience with the Pope.  Joshua was a beautiful person, and he, along with every person who died too soon because of the effects of war, should have lived.

Here is the story that aired this week:

Closed Doors and Toxic Fumes: Veterans Affected by Military Burn Pits Grow Desperate

by Carson Frame 

   For years, veterans say they’ve been getting sick. They believe the culprit is open burn pits used in Iraq and Afghanistan. A class-action lawsuit against Houston-based military contractor Kellogg Brown and Root was thrown out this summer, and many of those affected don’t know where to turn.

Army Reserve Captain LeRoy Torres will never forget the 10-acre plot of land, full of burning garbage, located about a mile from his sleeping quarters at Balad Air Base in Iraq. The year was 2008.
All the military’s waste was thrown into the pit, doused with a jet fuel known as JP-8, and set on fire.
“You’d see tires, plastics, batteries. Large bottles and containers of fluid, no telling what it was,” Torres said. “Solvents. Medical waste. You’d see those red medical bags from the hospital just being tossed in the fire.”
Staff Sergeant Jeremy Daniels arrived at Balad in 2005. He remembers seeing items destined for the flames.
“It doesn’t matter if it comes out your room, if it comes off your body, if it comes out your body. Go down there and light it ablaze.”
At the height of its activity, the Balad pit burned about 200 tons of trash each day.
The smoke it gave off was overwhelming, especially when the wind blew a certain way. It stuck to people’s clothes, filled their lungs, and got in their eyes.
“It was a cloud. You wore it,” he said. “If you walked around on that post, you smelled like it. It is the most horrid sulfuric smell you have ever frickin' smelled.”
LeRoy Torres agrees. “There were times—I remember one time clearly—I couldn’t even see the road 6 feet in front of me,” he said.
Soon after they arrived at Balad, both Torres and Daniels got sick. Torres started coughing up a black mucus that military doctors called ‘Iraqi Crud.’ It was the result, they said, of his body getting used to the environment in-country.
Daniels developed a weeping rash on his lower extremities that didn’t resolve for months. The skin sloughed off and bled. Doctors suggested that he was allergic to his laundry soap. Then he developed fourth nerve palsy, a neurological disorder that affects vision.
“While I’m walking to work, my left eye goes up and to the right while I'm still trying to look forward. I end up with the worst drunken double vision I've ever seen.”
After they returned home, the issues got worse. Torres’ respiratory problems were given a name: constrictive bronchiolitis, an untreatable and often fatal lung injury. Daniels' neurological problems were labeled ‘relapsing multiple sclerosis’ with an ‘extremely aggressive onset.' He now uses a wheelchair.
Both men were medically retired from their jobs. They both blame the burn pits for their health problems.
The use of open burn pits continued until 2009*. Hundreds of them were scattered across Iraq, Afghanistan, and Djibouti.
By the end of the decade, VA was grappling with an influx of disability claims related to toxic exposures from the burn pits. Kerry Baker was the Chief of Legislative and Policy Staff for V.A’s Compensation Service at the time. He now works as a VA appellate practitioner.
“Because the claims being filed by veterans for disability related to those burn pits and other exposures were increasing, V.A. had to come to terms that they didn’t have any real policy instruction for thousands of adjudicators out in the field for how to process those claims.”
To fix that, Baker helped publish a 2010 V.A. training letter on potential  environmental hazard incidents, including burn pits.
The letter lists DoD air sampling results taken at Balad Air Base in 2007. A swathe of carcinogenic chemicals and dioxins were released as byproducts of burning trash. One of them is similar to Agent Orange, the defoliant that made soldiers sick in Vietnam.

Capt. Torres,’ wife, Rosie, has a copy. She brings it along to all of her husband’s doctors’ appointments.
“You can go to the VA and they’re like, ‘What are you talking about? Burn pits?’ So when you take this letter to a doctor at the VA, they don’t know what you’re talking about. Not even the environmental coordinators know what you’re talking about.”
Kerry Baker thinks that’s disappointing, since the letter was incorporated into the VA’s claims operating manual.
“That tells me that beyond that letter, the VA has not done anything since to really educate its people on the subject," he said.
The VA’s official stance on burn pit exposures is blunt: “At this time,” it says, “research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits.”
But research in this area is challenging. Given that so many different items were burned in so many different places, creating a framework for studying the burn pits has been all but impossible. A study by the Government Accountability Office last year found that the Department of Defense “needs to fully assess health effects” of open burn pits.
The VA currently administers a national burn pit registry where veterans can fill out a questionnaire to report exposures to airborne hazards. However, veterans often do not complete the survey. It also does not permit death entries.
Add to that the problem of other exposures that soldiers face: sand and dust naturally present in the air, pollution, IED explosions, fires.
That cone of uncertainty has a cost. Many veterans struggle to document their exposures in a way that’s sufficient to get VA compensation. Some vets are told that their symptoms are psychosomatic, or the result of milder conditions.
Jeremy Daniels believes that this amounts to systemic denial.
“I'm not a doctor, but I'm going to say that the Army and the VA want to create their own narrative as to what's wrong with people,” he said.
2017 has been a year of setbacks for those who suffered as a result of the burn pits. The Texas legislature failed to pass a bill that would have created a burn pit registry to collect health data and provide affected veterans with a way to connect with one another. The bill was opposed by a group called Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which expressed concern that a public registry would be used as a tool for class action lawyers to recruit new clients.

In July, a federal judge dismissed a class action lawsuit against Kellogg Brown and Root, the Houston-based contractor in charge of the burn pit at Balad. He said that the company acted on behalf of the U.S. military, and couldn’t be held liable for soldiers’ illnesses.
Capt. LeRoy Torres was part of that lawsuit. His wife Rosie said that he’s barely talked about the defeat.
“Just because he's gone through such a tough time losing his career already, I didn't want to spend time asking. Because I know that for a lot of veterans like LeRoy, it's just another step in the wrong direction. Another reason for them to become hopeless.”
Veterans and their families are growing desperate for accountability. Rosie Torres says that if Kellogg Brown and Root isn’t held responsible, the government needs to pick up the slack.
“If they're not gonna hold them [KBR] accountable, then the federal government should step up and take care of these soldiers that are dying. Take care of them, take care of the gold star families, their widows, their children that are being denied benefits time after time after time,” she said.
The Torres family have funneled their frustrations into a nonprofit called Burn Pits 360, which acts as a source of information and support for vets. Burn Pits 360 went before Congress earlier this year to spread awareness about the issue.  
Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro has helped in their cause, co-sponsoring the Helping Veterans Exposed to Burn Pits Act, which would create a VA Center of Excellence in the prevention, diagnosis, mitigation, treatment, and rehabilitation of health conditions related to burn pit exposure. On Oct. 26, Rep. Castro requested a Congressional hearing on the issue.
“I really believe, after looking at everything that this could be the equivalent of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Where, for a while, people were ignored or not believed even though they were exhibiting symptoms,” Rep. Castro said in an interview.
Despite these glimmers of progress, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Daniels said he feels discouraged. He has traveled widely over the last year, seeking out different VA hospitals and trying to get the support of political advocates.
“Nobody wants to listen,” he explained. “I've called the White House. I called our Governor. I called two different Congressmen here in Texas. Because with all these people coming home and getting sick… They have to own up to what the hell they've done to us.”
*Although open burn pits were officially discontinued in 2009, there have been allegations of their use since. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Waging Peace at Lanier HS

Tami, Hart and I really enjoyed our visit today to Lanier HS. Students were great, and we also had several school staff stop by the table and express support, including teachers, an Assistant Principal and the Principal, Mr. Hopkins, who did the t-shirt challenge, too.

Penny Poll results showed the top priority was the Environment, with 28% of the vote, followed by Education at 24%, Health Care at 18%, the Military at 13%, Humanitarian Aid at 9% and NASA at 8%.
Thanks, Vikings!

Several of the student responses

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Peace Cougars at Crockett HS

Tami, Hart and I appreciated our SOY visit today to Crockett HS, home of the Cougars! Our new t-shirt was geared to them, and we had a steady stream of students doing the t-shirt challenge.

 Since yesterday was Indigenous Peoples' Day, we asked students to write down something they found important in their cultural tradition. Hart said that one student, who was Cambodian, talked about setting out food for the spirits of ancestors. I had not heard of this tradition among Cambodians, but I read up on it later, and perhaps it is the Pchum Ben Festival, a 15-day period when families return to the places of their birth and offer prayers and food to the spirits of their ancestors. It's interesting that this is similar to Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and Texas.

The Penny Poll results showed 37% for Health Care, 22% for Education, 16% for NASA, 13% for the Environment, 9% for the Military and 3% for Humanitarian Aid.
Thanks, Cougars!

We are always impressed with the student art displayed on campus.  This piece we saw today seemed especially appropriate for the Indigenous Peoples theme.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

What else could the US do with the military's $700B?

I was happy to read the following opinion editorial published in the Austin American-Statesman this week.  The two authors state that they are Mennonites, a religious tradition that includes a strong witness for peace.  Their views on military spending are shared by many people in the US who may or may not have a particular religious faith.  In our "Penny Polls" in the high schools, students overwhelmingly vote for the majority of our national treasure to be spent on education, health care and environmental protection rather than on war and preparation for war.  We know that our Penny Polls are not scientific polls, but they do provide a look at what ordinary persons in the US, and young persons in particular, see as most important. 

Here's the op-ed that echoes what we hear from students during our school visits:

What else could the US do with the military's $700B?

by Michael Shirk and Miguel Ferguson  

 As practicing Mennonites, we believe that the resources we have been given and the goods that we produce should be used to foster peace and social justice. This view, far from putting us on the political margin, resonates with the unmistakable warning that was part of President Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961.
He said: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of undue influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex.” Unfortunately, for the last half century, Democrats and Republicans alike have insisted on funding the military and foreign wars of occupation with enormous expenditures of taxpayer money. This year, both the House and the Senate have passed versions of a $700 billion military budget. Adjusted for inflation, this is approximately twice the amount that we spent the year Eisenhower issued his warning.
The $700 billion budget that both houses of Congress seem intent on passing is $80 billion more than the previous year’s budget and $37 billion more than President Trump requested. It represents over $2,000 for every man, woman and child in the US., and is more than the combined spending of the 10 largest national military budgets.
Eisenhower, the only general to serve as president in this or the last century, believed that the comparatively modest military budget of his day was “a distorted use of the nation’s resources” that threatened the very structure of American life. We weaken — not strengthen — our nation, and further militarize the world economy by accepting such a swollen military budget.
We believe the huge sums spent on military expenditures here and abroad could be better spent on pressing domestic needs. The U.S. maintains almost 800 military bases in over 70 countries around the world, but our rates of child poverty are among the highest in the industrialized world. Our infrastructure recently received a grade of D+ from The American Society of Civil Engineers — and that was before the devastating floods and uncontrolled forest fires that we have recently experienced.
To provide some scale as to the sheer size of the increase that has been requested, last year’s Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders outlined a plan to provide free college tuition to every student attending a public university. The plan was lampooned as a socialist giveaway, but its price tag of $47 billion is just a little more than half of the increase that Congress has penned into next year’s military budget.
There are many other alternatives to our permanent war economy which would generate real wealth and security for all Americans. As Eisenhower foresaw, in lieu of bloated military expenditures, we could have health insurance, high-performing and properly funded schools, family-friendly policies, a world-class infrastructure that provides safe drinking water and efficient transportation, and energy independence through a commitment to research and development of renewable power sources.
We are not alone in our desire to see America reject the hoary ideology that peace and security can only come from catastrophically large military expenditures. Liberals should reject the out-of-control military spending because of the opportunity costs it represents in funding social welfare policies and programs that promote the common good. Conservatives should reject the outsized military budget because it supports the embodiment of federal power over states and individuals.
America and its elected leaders need to heed Eisenhower’s admonition and reject the disastrous values and costs of the military-industrial system. Our peace and democracy depend on it.
Shirk is an attorney and Ferguson is a small business owner.

Published on October 3, 2017 in the Austin American-Statesman