Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

12 Stones, LIVE on air at HOOAH!!!! Radio

Tune into HOOAH!!!! Radio wednesday night at 8PM ET for a live interview with 12 Stones doing thier support of the troops. HOOAH!!!!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ex-soldier walks nation for military families

PALM DESERT, Calif. — Home from Iraq in August 2009, former Army specialist Troy Yocum was inspired by a fellow veteran who needed assistance but couldn't get it from non-profit groups overwhelmed with requests, so Yocum decided to literally take steps to help.

During what has been dubbed "Hike for our Heroes," Yocum, 31, is walking a loop around the country in hopes of raising $5 million and drawing attention to military families in need.

During his 16-month journey, which included his arrival in Palm Desert last week after walking 3,527 miles of his 7,000-mile goal, the Kentucky native has faced his share of obstacles. Kidney stones sent him to a hospital for nine days in Colorado, his RV has broken down more than a dozen times and his dog was temporarily sidelined with a bladder infection.

Along the way, Yocum has gotten married, climbed 12,095 feet along Colorado mountains and received more than 30,000 e-mails from supporters.

As of Nov. 18, he said, he had raised more than $105,000 for Soldiers' Angels, a non-profit group that helps servicemembers, veterans and their families, and given money to 14 military families in need.

"This dream I had in Iraq of walking across America and raising money and helping people, I didn't know if it would work," Yocum said. "But the fans of what we're doing really push me to keep going."

Yocum embarked on his charitable trek April 17 with his then-fiancée, Mareike, and his friend Terry Carmickle.

The couple — who met early last year on social networking site MySpace when Yocum was still abroad and searching for a potential tour guide in Germany — married May 2.

They then took their journey west, averaging about 21 miles each day on what they joke is their "honeymoon."

"I kind of just left an old life behind and started a new one," Yocum said.

Yocum and his team will begin their trip back east Friday, when they leave Palm Springs on their way to Arizona.

The "Hike for our Heroes" schedule calls for them to arrive in Washington, D.C., on May 11, 2011, before walking back to Kentucky by Aug. 15. Come talk and walk with Troy!!!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Stem Cell Treatment Gives Retired Military Service Dog New Lease on Life

A retired
military service dog is getting a new lease on life in Washington, D.C., after undergoing a revolutionary stem cell treatment.

Lex, a 9-year-old German shepherd, lost his best friend, 20-year-old Cpl. Dustin Lee, and nearly lost his own life in a rocket attack in Iraq on March 21, 2007.

"He suffered a lot of shrapnel wounds, has a piece of shrapnel still in his spine, almost lost his tail," Lee's father, Jerome Lee, told

Jerome Lee and his wife, Rachel Lee, wanted to be there for Lex the way they say he had been there for their son, so with the help of North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones they persuaded the Marine Corps to retire Lex early so they could adopt him in December 2007.

But once Lex was home, the Lees noticed that the shrapnel lodged in his spine was causing him debilitating back and joint pain, preventing him from walking on his own.

"He's got young bones. His bone density is as good as a young dogs, but we knew something was wrong because he was going down," Rachel Lee told the station.

Thanks to a revolutionary stem cell treatment from Georgetown veterinarian Dr. Lee Morgan, they hope that will no longer be a problem.

The cutting-edge treatment helps dogs grow new cartilage by injecting stem cells from their own fat, normally from the abdomen, into the affected joint. The treatment takes about three days and has an 80 percent success rate, reported.

"When I saw him walking down the hall he wasn't hopping or giving in as much, and I could tell (the treatment) has already started working," Rachel said. "I feel that with physical therapy
and the love that we're giving him, as he's a part of our family, it's just gonna get better."

Doctors say the dog could make a full recovery in as little as two months.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Veteran looks forward to Hunt for Heroes

SAN ANGELO, Texas — Retired Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon said he never doubted he would become a member of the U.S. military.

“My dad is big into genealogy and has traced our family’s military service back to the Revolutionary War,” said the 47-year-old Colorado resident.

“Our family’s taken part in all of this country’s major wars.”

Dan, as he friends and family call him, will be among a group of wounded or disabled veterans from around the country who will take part in this weekend’s Hunt for Heroes near San Angelo. The event also will include a Friday morning parade along the Concho River in San Angelo.

In 1984, when it came his turn to serve, Dan entered the Army, graduating at the top of the his class in sniper school.

He was serving as senior sniper of the Ghost Recon Platoon with the 1st Battalion 503 Infantry Regiment during Operation Iraqi Freedom when his war came to a sudden, violent end on Nov. 13, 2004.

“They were in a bloody gunfight when Dan was hit by an AK-47 round to the head,” said his wife, Torrey Shannon.

“It took out the entire left side of his face, his left eye, most of his skull.”

At first, her husband didn’t realize what had happened, Torrey said.

“He didn’t know his eye was gone. He thought he had blood in it and kept wiping at it.”

As a sniper, Dan was trained to shoot with either eye, she said.

“He was mad. He shifted to his right side,” ready to continue the fight, she said.

“A buddy pulled him out of the line of fire and said, ‘Sergeant, you’re hurt!’”

Dan’s war ended that day, but another battle, a three-year recovery and fight against a flawed system, was only beginning.

“Most of his skull was reconstructed,” Torrey explained. His face also was rebuilt. The left eye was gone, but despite a lack of depth perception, Dan adapted, relearning favorite activities like bowling, golf, marksmanship and hunting.

While external scars healed, internal ones remain, including traumatic brain damage, post-traumatic stress disorder, nerve damage, hearing loss, degenerative joint disease and spinal damage.

Dan suffered yet another wound during his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

“The easiest way to say what was going on there was they had a wonderful system overwhelmed by the number of wounded coming into the system,” he explained.

“It was overloaded. And when service members are not taken care of, that’s something I won’t tolerate.”

He and other veterans testified about their shoddy treatment to a congressional committee in 2007.

“I feel like I’ve been lost in the system,” he told the congressmen.

He said he wasn’t the only one.

“I will not see young men and women who have had their lives shattered in service to their country receive anything less than dignity and respect,” he told the committee.

He also told them how he saw “so many soldiers get so frustrated with the process” they would sign away Army benefits, “sign anything presented them just so they can get on with their lives.”

“This is an obvious example of a broken system trying to survive when what it really needs is to be fixed,” he told the committee.

His story became a part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post series and helped spur an overhaul of the military health care system.

Testifying against the military “really hurt,” he said. “I was a career military guy. All I wanted to do was serve my country. I believe a life of service is very rewarding, and I loved the Army.”

But, he added, “my motto was ‘I’ll die before my men,’ and I felt the same way toward the wounded service members at the hospital.”

Dan said he’s still struggling with the aftereffects of his war wound, including the PTSD, which can cause him to violently lose control.

“If you see me go into an episode, you’d think I’m having an epileptic seizure,” he said.

Talking to other veterans helps, he added, especially soldiers who served in Vietnam.

“What I’ve come to understand is some of them are still PTSD. It’s been 40 years and they’re still not over it.

“Before I talked to them, I wanted to fix this problem overnight. I wanted me back. Now I know it will take time for me to learn to handle it.”

Hunt for Heroes is another chance to spend time with wounded or disabled veterans who have shared the same experiences, he said.

“It gives different service members a chance to get together and talk about things, about what we’ve been through,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to talk to anybody about our experiences if they haven’t been there, but with these guys, we can open up to each other. The time we spend together becomes very healing.”

Being around other war-injured vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars “reminds me that I’m still normal — a normal guy who’s gone through an abnormal experience,” he said. “And I will learn to handle it — never completely get over it, but learn to handle it better.”

“I’m not a monster. I’m still me in here, somewhere. My life isn’t over yet.”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Study: Kids of deployed military have more behavioral problems

A new study suggests nine years of war is taking a toll on U.S. children.

Children of active-duty military personnel make 18% more trips to the doctor for behavioral problems and 19% more visits for stress disorders when a military parent is deployed compared with when the parent is home, according to a study of children ages 3 to 8 in today's Pediatrics.

Those increases are even more striking given that the overall number of doctors' visits declined 11% during deployment, perhaps because the lone parent at home was so busy, says study author Gregory Gorman, who analyzed the medical records of nearly 643,000 children and 443,000 parents from 2006 to 2007.

Gorman, a pediatrician with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., says military doctors are usually aware of the burden on such children, but he hopes more civilian doctors, who care for two-thirds of kids in military families, will find out if a parent is deployed and ask how families are coping.

Research shows that kids of enlisted Army soldiers are more likely to suffer maltreatment when a parent is in combat and that Army wives are more likely to be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, sleep disorders or other mental health conditions when their husbands are deployed.

The new study may actually underestimate the psychological stress on military families because it included all branches of the service, instead of concentrating on the Army and Marines, who have done most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, says Deborah Gibbs of RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., author of the maltreatment study. The new study also excludes the Reserves and National Guard, some of whose members have completed multiple tours of duty.

"Most military families cope astonishingly well," Gibbs says. But "the National Guard and Reserve families have all the same stresses but none of the support that active-duty families have."

  • You might also be interested in:

How Dogs Help Veterans Cope with PTSD

Saturday, November 13, 2010

ARLINGTON CEMETERY Nov. 11,2010 – Westboro "Baptist" Church Overwhelmed by Patriots

People ask why we counter Westboro “Baptist” Church, why not just let them be the proverbial “If a tree falls in a forest and no hears it, did it fall”? BELOW is why we counter them.

FReepers, students, patriots and Veteran Harley riders (about 50) defended our Fallen Heroes this Veterans Day at Arlington Cemetery. We came by the dozens and overwhelmed Fred Phelps’ one-branch family tree called Westboro “Baptist” Church. They started the morning with about a dozen miscreants. Two hours later when they left, only 3 had stayed around.

A special thanks to those who took their shift to help hold the MOAB when the wind pick up. They were GunsAreOK, iMacMan, new FReeper Tammy Cat, Tolerance Sucks Rocks, Lurker Richard, and an active duty Air Force member stationed in Washington.

And another special thanks to iMacMan and [Mrs] Trooprally (aka [Mrs] T) for taking pictures. Link to their combined photos are HERE

Other FReepers who were there: SouthernBoyupNorth (one of the Harley riders), Cindy_True-Supporter, rlmorel (came down from Massachusetts just for our FReep), RongKirby, stratman1969, Lurker Bill, and me, [Mr] Trooprally (aka [Mr] T).

And Patriots Toothless Dawg (GoE), 4 American University students, 2 Georgetown University students, Ann, Cory, and Toni. They were twitted or heard about our FReep on facebook.

Stratman1969's Marooned in Marin web site also has some excellent pictures and videos. Check out the bag piper video that “cleansed” the WBC protest area after their departure. It took just a few seconds for us all to realize he was playing. You could have heard a pin drop.

Nonpoint - "Frontlines"


Thursday, November 11, 2010


The soldier stood and faced God, Which must always come to pass. He hoped his shoes were shining, Just as brightly as his brass.

'Step forward now, you soldier, How shall I deal with you ? Have you always turned the other cheek ? To My Church have you been true?'

The soldier squared his shoulders and said, 'No, Lord, I guess I ain't. Because those of us who carry guns, Can't always be a saint.

I've had to work most Sundays, And at times my talk was tough. And sometimes I've been violent, Because the world is awfully rough.

But, I never took a penny, That wasn't mine to keep... Though I worked a lot of overtime, When the bills got just too steep.

And I never passed a cry for help, Though at times I shook with fear. And sometimes, God, forgive me, I've wept unmanly tears.

I know I don't deserve a place, Among the people here. They never wanted me around, Except to calm their fears.

If you've a place for me here, Lord, It needn't be so grand. I never expected or had too much, But if you don't, I'll understand.

There was a silence all around the throne, Where the saints had often trod. As the soldier waited quietly, For the judgment of his God.

'Step forward now, you soldier, You've borne your burdens well. Walk peacefully on Heaven's streets, You've done your time in Hell.'

Author Unknown~


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Queensryche Salutes Troops w/ American Soldier

Concept Album Inspired By Veterans’ Stories Examines The Consequences Of War From The Soldiers’ Perspective

Album Available March 31 From Atco/Rhino; U.S. Tour To Begin April 16 In Seattle

( pre-order now, w/ free autographed poster )

LOS ANGELES – Queensrÿche envisions war through the eyes of a soldier with the band’s twelfth studio release, the epic concept album AMERICAN SOLDIER. The ambitious album encompasses a dozen songs inspired by numerous interviews with veterans conducted by Geoff Tate, the group’s singer and chief songwriter, who was intent on telling their story using their words. After speaking with soldiers who served in various conflicts-from World War II to Iraq-Tate turned their firsthand experiences from the frontlines into an unflinching musical examination of the life of a solider and the consequences of war. AMERICAN SOLDIER will be available from Atco/Rhino on March 31 for a suggested list price of $18.98 (CD) and $9.99 (digital).

Tate, Michael Wilton (guitar), Ed Jackson (bass) and Scott Rockenfield (drums) recorded the album in 2008 over the course of nine months. The idea for AMERICAN SOLDIER, Tate says, came from hearing stories from fans that are veterans, as well as his own father, who served in both Korea and Vietnam. “My father was a career military man, but until very recently he never spoke about what he went through. I think that reticence is true of a lot of veterans, which means most people never truly understand what it means to be a soldier at war. Hearing what he and some of our fans have endured made me want to share their stories with the world. This is an album about the soldiers, for the soldiers, as told by the soldiers themselves.”

Those stories resonate at the heart of AMERICAN SOLDIER, imbuing each song with vivid details about both the emotional and physical impacts of war, evoking war zone battles (“Middle Of Hell”), sacrifice (“The Killer”), loss (“If I Were King”), the longing for home (“Remember Me”), and adjusting to society after returning from war (“Man Down!”).

Tate recorded many of his interviews with the soldiers, and some dialogue from these discussions is mixed into several of tracks, allowing the soldiers’ own words to help tell their compelling stories. The band also brought a few of the soldiers into the studio with them to record vocals. The verses of the track “Unafraid” feature the voices of Chris Devine, a Vietnam veteran, and Sean Lenahan, a veteran of Somalia, recalling their war experiences while Tate provides the anthemic chorus. Also making a guest vocal appearance is Tate’s 10-year-old daughter Emily on the gripping duet “Home Again,” which examines the emotional toll of war from two perspectives, with Geoff singing from the soldier’s point of view and his daughter singing from the viewpoint of the child left behind.

Making the album, Tate says, was an enlightening process. “I was surprised to learn how little has changed through the generations. I spoke with a Vietnam vet whose experience wasn’t all that different from a soldier who fought in Somalia almost 30 years later. But what surprised me the most was how antiwar most soldiers are. To me, that makes their sacrifices even more moving.”

Soon after the release of AMERICAN SOLDIER, Queensrÿche will launch an extensive spring tour of the U.S., with international dates to follow later in 2009. The shows will be presented in three suites, with the band performing sets from AMERICAN SOLDIER, Rage For Order, and Empire. The first date of the tour will be April 16 at Snoqualmie Casino in the band’s hometown of Seattle.

Track Listing

1. “Sliver”
2. “Unafraid”
3. “Hundred Mile Stare”
4. “At 30,000 ft.”
5. “A Dead Man’s Words”
6. “The Killer”
7. “Middle Of Hell”
8. “If I Were King”
9. “Man Down!”
10. “Remember Me”
11. “Home Again”
12. “The Voice”

Saturday, October 30, 2010

VA’s ‘Medical Team’ Approach Reduces Operating Room Mortality Rates

WASHINGTON--(BUSINESS WIRE)--A Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) study published October 20 in the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that a concept called Medical Team Training (MTT) improves communication, teamwork, and efficiency in VA operating rooms, resulting in significantly lower mortality rates.

“Patients can suffer inadvertent harm at times, despite care from well-trained, experienced, and conscientious health care providers,” noted Dr. Douglas Paull, a VA surgeon and co-director of the Medical Team Training program at VA’s National Center for Patient Safety in Ann Arbor, Mich. “The cause in many such instances is faulty teamwork and communication.

“Fortunately, teamwork and communication skills ––often referred to as non-technical skills–– can be measured, learned, practiced, and enhanced,” Paull continued. “The MTT Program improves these non-technical skills among providers, delivering on the promise of a safer health care system.”

VA’s nationwide study involved the analysis of more than 100,000 surgical procedures conducted at 108 of its hospitals from 2006 to 2008. MTT had been introduced at 74 of these hospitals. The study found that the decline in the risk-adjusted mortality rate was 50 percent greater in the MTT group than in the non-MTT group.

“MTT is all about communication,” said Dr. Lisa Mazzia, who runs VA’s Medical Team Training Program along with Dr. Douglas Paull. “MTT empowers every member of the surgical team to immediately speak up if they see something that’s not right.”

“When people talk and listen to each other, fewer errors occur in the operating room. That’s the bottom line,” Mazzia added.

Julia Neily, associate director of VA’s National Center for Patient Safety Field Office in Vermont and one of the study’s nine authors, said conducting briefings prior to starting surgery, much like pilot and crew work through a pre-flight checklist, proved to be a key component in reducing mortalities because it gave the surgical team “a final chance” to correct potential problems.

Post-operative debriefings also proved valuable, the study found, because they led directly to the prompt resolution of glitches that occurred during surgery. Examples included fixing broken equipment or instruments, ordering extra back-up sets of instruments, and improving collaboration between the Operation Room and the Radiology Department ––all of which led directly to less delays while future surgeries were in progress.

Pre-operative briefings and post-operative debriefings are a fundamental component of VA’s MTT program, which VA’s National Center for Patient Safety began developing in 2003-2004. VA began implementing a nationwide MTT program in 2006.

To find out more about Medical Team Training, contact VA’s National Center for Patient Safety at 734-930-5884 or go to

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

We Surround Them

A music video featuring Rich Owen performing his original song "We Surround Them" at the Denver, Colorado TEA Party rally.

Whatever you believe, please remember to research so you can vote with confidence and encourage those around you to do the same! That's the power you have as an American. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

$41.9 Million Grant Provides Help for Homeless Veterans


It is disheartening to realize that there are veterans who, after faithfully and courageously serving their country, end up homeless and living in the streets of the country that they served. Such a fate is certainly not what a veteran deserves.

Early this month, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced grants worth more than $41.9 million, to be shared by 40 States. The said grants will go to community groups towards providing more than 2,500 beds for homeless veterans this year. Secretary Shinseki said: “These grants wouldn’t have happened without the extraordinary partnerships forged with community organizers. These investments will provide transitional beds to Veterans who have served honorably, but for various reasons now find themselves in a downward spiral toward despair and homelessness.”

Public and non-profit organizations can receive assistance in the establishment and operation of new supportive housing and service centers for homeless veterans, through the Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program.

The total value of the grant is divided into two categories, according to the press release on the Veterans Affairs website. An estimated $26.9 million will be spent towards the renovation, rehabilitation, or acquisition of space for 1,352 transitional housing beds. A total grant of $15 million, on the other hand, will provide funding for 1,216 beds at existing transitional housing for homeless veterans.

The ultimate goal of the Department of Veterans Affairs is to eliminate homelessness among Veterans within five years. Towards this end, the VA will implement a “no wrong door approach”; this means that veterans who ask for help should be able to find what they need in VA programs, from community partners, or through contract services.

This may be a tall order, but our veterans deserve nothing less.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chinook Pilot takes a headshot, then flies the thing home.....

ASHOQEH, Afghanistan -- When a bomb exploded under Dan Luckett's Army Humvee in Iraq two years ago -- blowing off one of his legs and part of his foot -- the first thing he thought was: "That's it. You're done. No more Army for you."

But two years later, the 27-year-old Norcross, Ga., native is back on duty -- a double-amputee fighting on the front lines of America's Afghan surge in one of the most dangerous parts of this volatile country.

Luckett's remarkable recovery can be attributed in part to dogged self-determination. But technological advances have been crucial: Artificial limbs today are so effective, some war-wounded like Luckett are not only able to do intensive sports like snow skiing, they can return to active duty as fully operational Soldiers. The Pentagon says 41 American amputee veterans are now serving in combat zones worldwide.

Luckett was a young platoon leader on his first tour in Iraq when an explosively formed penetrator -- a bomb that hurls an armor-piercing lump of molten copper -- ripped through his vehicle on a Baghdad street on Mother's Day 2008.

His Humvee cabin instantly filled with heavy gray smoke and the smell of burning diesel and molten metal. Luckett felt an excruciating pain and a "liquid" -- his blood -- pouring out of his legs. He looked down and saw a shocking sight: his own left foot sheared off above the ankle and his right boot a bloody mangle of flesh and dust.

Still conscious, he took deep breaths and made a deliberate effort to calm down.

A voice rang out over the radio -- his squad leader checking in.

"1-6, is everybody all right?" the Soldier asked, referring to Luckett's call-sign.

"Negative," Luckett responded. "My feet are gone."

He was evacuated by helicopter to a Baghdad emergency room, flown to Germany, and six days after the blast, he was back in the U.S.

As his plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, he made a determined decision. He was going to rejoin the 101st Airborne Division any way he could.

For the first month at Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Luckett was bound to a wheelchair. He hated the dependence that came with it. He hated the way people changed their voice when they spoke to him -- soft and sympathetic.

He wondered: How long is THIS going to last? Will I be dependent on others for the rest of my life?

At night, he dreamed of walking on two legs.

When he woke, only the stump of his left leg was there, painfully tender and swollen.

His family wanted to know, is this going to be the same Dan?

He assured them he was.

Luckett was fortunate in one sense. His wounds had been caused not by shrapnel, but the projectile itself, which made a relatively clean cut. That meant no complications -- no joint or nerve damage or bone fractures.

His right foot was sheered across his metatarsals, the five long bones before the toes. Doctors fitted it with a removable carbon fiber plate that runs under the foot and fills the space where toes should be with hardened foam.

His left leg was a far bigger challenge.

In early July, Luckett strapped into a harness, leaned on a set of parallel bars, and tried out his first prosthetic leg.

It felt awkward, but he was able to balance and walk.

The next day, Luckett tried the leg on crutches -- and tried to walk out the door.

"They were like, 'You gotta' give the leg back,' " Luckett said of his therapists. After a brief argument, they grudgingly gave in. "They said, 'If you're gonna be that hard-headed about it, do it smart, don't wear it all the time.' "

By February 2009, he had progressed so far, he could run a mile in eight minutes.

He rejoined his unit at Fort Campbell, Ky., and told his battalion commander he wanted to return to duty "only if I could be an asset, not a liability," he recalled.

Months later, he passed a physical fitness test to attain the Expert Infantryman's Badge. It required running 12 miles (19 kilometers) in under three hours with a 35-pound (16-kilogram) backpack. It was a crucial moment, Luckett said, "because I knew if I can get this badge, then there's nothing they can say that I'm not capable of doing."

The Army agreed, and promoted him to captain.

In May, he deployed to Afghanistan.

On his first patrol, wearing 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of gear and body armor, Luckett slipped and fell down. But when he looked around, everybody else was falling, too.

Stolen Valor Fight May Go to Supreme Court

Associated Press

DENVER -- The Justice Department is battling to save a federal law that makes it illegal to lie about being a war hero, appealing two court rulings that the statute is an unconstitutional muzzle on free speech.

The fight could be carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it would face an uncertain fate, legal analysts said.

"This is a Supreme Court that is friendly to parties asserting speech rights and skeptical about restrictions on those rights," said Kannon Shanmugam, a former Justice Department official.

Supporters of the law take the opposite view.

"It could wind up being the kind of landmark decision that the Supreme Court is going to have to give very serious and very broad consideration to, and I think they'll come down on our side," said Doug Sterner, a military historian.

The Stolen Valor Act makes it a crime punishable by up to a year in jail to falsely claim to have won a military medal, whether or not an impostor seeks financial gain.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and a federal district court in Denver have both ruled the law is unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds.

Last week, government lawyers in California asked the full 9th Circuit to reconsider the ruling, calling it a decision of "exceptional importance." Prosecutors noted that the three-judge panel was split 2-1 with sharply differing views, and that the law is also under challenge in Colorado.

The 9th Circuit hasn't said whether it will take a second look.

In Colorado, prosecutors announced last week they would ask the 10th Circuit to overturn the district court decision. That appeal is expected to be filed in early November.

The Stolen Valor Act, which breezed through Congress in 2006, revised and toughened an existing statute that forbade anyone to wear a military medal that was not earned.

The California and Colorado cases were among the early prosecutions under the newly strengthened law.

Xavier Alvarez, a local water board official from Pomona, Calif., was indicted in 2007 after saying at a public forum that he was a retired Marine who received the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military decoration. Alvarez apparently never served in the military.

Alvarez pleaded guilty on condition that he be allowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds. The 9th Circuit ruled in his favor in August.

His attorney, Jonathan Libby, said Friday he believes both the full 9th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court would also find the law unconstitutional

Rick Glen Strandlof, who founded a veterans group in Colorado Springs, was arrested in 2009 after claiming he was a former Marine who was wounded in Iraq and had received the Purple Heart and Silver Star. The Marine Corps said it had no record that Strandlof ever served.

A Denver federal judge threw out the case against Strandlof in July.

Strandlof's attorney, Robert Pepin, said he is optimistic about winning at the appeals court or at the Supreme Court.

"It really ends up being a very interesting argument, with solid arguments on our side and strongly articulated arguments on their side," he said.

If government lawyers can't persuade the appeals courts to revive the law, they will likely ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, said Shanmugam, who served as the Justice Department's assistant solicitor general under President George W. Bush. The solicitor general is the government's top lawyer in arguments before the Supreme Court.

"When a federal court declares a federal statute unconstitutional, the solicitor general feels a strong obligation to defend the statute, where a reasonable argument can be made," Shanmugam said.

Shanmugam and others cited two 2010 Supreme Court rulings as indicators that the justices might overturn the Stolen Valor Act.

Overseas absentee ballots mailed out late

About 992,000 overseas and military ballots were requested in the 2006 midterm election but only a third of those were counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

WASHINGTON — With less than three weeks to go before the midterm election, a growing number of states are coming under pressure from the Justice Department for missing a new deadline to mail ballots to troops and overseas voters.

Election officials in New York, New Mexico and Nevada have been sued by the federal government in the past week or reached agreements to give military personnel and other Americans living abroad more time to return ballots for this year's election.

At issue is a 2009 law that requires county election officials to send overseas ballots no later than 45 days before Election Day so voters can fill them out and mail them back in time to be counted. Most counties met the Sept. 18 deadline, but an unknown number did not.

They're right to be taking action," said Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat with the non-partisan Overseas Vote Foundation. "The message is that this is serious."

About 992,000 overseas and military ballots were requested in the 2006 midterm election, but only a third of those were counted, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Seventy percent of those not cast were returned to local election offices as undeliverable.

The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act was intended to improve the rate of return rate by giving overseas voters more time. States with late primaries — in which election officials might not know which candidates would be on the general election ballot in time — were given extensions.

"The department is working with all states ... to investigate and remedy any problems that will prevent our men and women serving overseas from having the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted," Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.

David Norcross of the Republican National Lawyers Association said the Obama administration should have done more, sooner. "My hunch has always been that there are many, many more problems," he said.

Among the states under scrutiny:

•The department sued New York after nine counties, including those in New York City, missed the deadline. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who wrote the overseas voter law, called on officials to extend the deadline to receive ballots by at least 10 days.

•The department sued New Mexico after six counties missed the deadline. The lawsuit was settled after state officials agreed to count absentee and overseas ballots received by Nov. 6.

•Hinojosa confirmed the department is investigating whether Illinois counties met the deadline after a county clerk said a pending court decision delayed the printing of ballots.

Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives for the Pew Center on the States, said local officials were hit with a double whammy of dealing with a new law for the first time and also an Election Day that falls early in November this year.

"Every day that goes by there's more danger that a voter won't be able to cast a ballot," he said.

Why is America Exceptional?

In 1776, when America announced its independence as a nation, it was composed of thirteen colonies surrounded by hostile powers.

Today, the United States is a country of fifty states covering a vast continent. Its military forces are the most powerful in the world. Its economy produces almost a quarter of the world's wealth. The American people are among the most hard-working, church-going, affluent, and generous in the world.

Is America exceptional?

Every nation derives meaning and purpose from some unifying quality—an ethnic character, a common religion, a shared history. The United States is different. America was founded at a particular time, by a particular people, on the basis of particular principles about man, liberty, and constitutional government.

The American Revolution drew on old ideas. The United States is the product of Western civilization, shaped by Judeo-Christian culture and the political liberties inherited from Great Britain.

Yet the founding of the United States was also revolutionary. Not in the sense of replacing one set of rulers with another, or overthrowing the institutions of society, but in placing political authority in the hands of the people.

As the English writer G. K. Chesterton famously observed, "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed." That creed is set forth most clearly in the Declaration of Independence, by which the American colonies announced their separation from Great Britain. The Declaration is a timeless statement of inherent rights, the proper purposes of government, and the limits on political authority.

The American Founders appealed to self-evident truths, stemming from "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," to justify their liberty. This is a universal and permanent standard. These truths are not unique to America but apply to all men and women everywhere. They are as true today as they were in 1776.

Working from the principle of equality, the American Founders asserted that men could govern themselves according to common beliefs and the rule of law. Throughout history, political power was—and still is—often held by the strongest. But if all are equal and have the same rights, then no one is fit by nature to rule or to be ruled.

As Thomas Jefferson put it, "[T]he mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." The only source of the legitimate powers of government is the consent of the governed. This is the cornerstone principle of American government, society, and independence.

America's principles establish religious liberty as a fundamental right. It is in our nature to pursue our convictions of faith. Government must not establish an official religion, just as it must guarantee the free exercise of religion. Indeed, popular government requires a flourishing of religious faith. If a free people are to govern themselves politically, they must first govern themselves morally.

These principles also mean that everyone has the right to the fruits of their own labor. This fundamental right to acquire, possess, and sell property is the backbone of opportunity and the most practical means to pursue human happiness. This right, along with the free enterprise system that stems from it, is the source of prosperity and the foundation of economic liberty.

Because people have rights, government has only the powers that the sovereign people have delegated to it. These powers are specified by a fundamental law called a constitution. Under the rule of law, all are protected by generally agreed-upon laws that apply, equally, to everyone.

The United States Constitution defines the institutions of American government: three distinct branches of government that make the law, enforce the law, and judge the law in particular cases. This framework gives the American government the powers it needs to secure our fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The ultimate purpose of securing these rights and of limiting government is to protect human freedom. That freedom allows the institutions of civil society—family, school, church, and private associations—to thrive, forming the habits and virtues required for liberty.

The same principles that define America also shape its understanding of the world. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that the thirteen colonies were a separate and sovereign nation, like any other nation. But America is not simply another nation.

The United States is a nation founded on universal principles. It appeals to a higher standard that all governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. All nations are answerable to this principle, and it is this principle that makes the United States a truly legitimate nation.

Liberty does not belong only to the United States. The Declaration of Independence holds that all men everywhere are endowed with a right to liberty. That liberty is a permanent aspect of human nature everywhere is central to understanding America's first principles.

Nevertheless, the primary responsibility of the United States is to defend the freedom and well-being of the American people. To do this, the United States must apply America's universal principles to the challenges this nation faces in the world.

This is not easy. America has not always been successful. But because of the principles to which it is dedicated, the United States always strives to uphold its highest ideals. More than any other nation, it has a special responsibility to defend the cause of liberty at home and abroad.

As George Washington put it in his First Inaugural Address: "The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people." America's role in the world is to preserve and to spread, by example and by action, the "sacred fire of liberty."

America is an exceptional nation, but not because of what it has achieved or accomplished. America is exceptional because, unlike any other nation, it is dedicated to the principles of human liberty, grounded on the truths that all men are created equal and endowed with equal rights. These permanent truths are "applicable to all men and all times," as Abraham Lincoln once said.

America's principles have created a prosperous and just nation unlike any other nation in history. They explain why Americans strongly defend their country, look fondly to their nation's origins, vigilantly assert their political rights and civic responsibilities, and remain convinced of the special meaning of their country and its role of the world. It is because of its principles, not despite them, that America has achieved greatness.

To this day, so many years after the American Revolution, these principles—proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and promulgated by the United States Constitution—still define America as a nation and a people. Which is why friends of freedom the world over look to the United States not only as an ally against tyrants and despots but also as a powerful beacon to all those who strive to be free.

Army finds simple blood test to identify mild brain trauma

Navy Capt. Michael Wagner, the Traumatic Brain Injury director at a military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, wraps up his examination of a soldier who was exposed to a bomb blast during combat operations. Although medical personnel currently lack a foolproof method of diagnosing concussions, the Army has been working on developing a blood test that can accurately detect them.

FREDERICK, Md. — The Army says it has discovered a simple blood test that can diagnose mild traumatic brain damage or concussion, a hard-to-detect injury that can affect young athletes, infants with "shaken baby syndrome" and combat troops.

"This is huge," said Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army vice chief of staff.

Army Col. Dallas Hack, who has oversight of the research, says recent data show the blood test, which looks for unique proteins that spill into the blood stream from damaged brain cells, accurately diagnosing mild traumatic brain injury in 34 patients.

Doctors can miss these injuries because the damage does not show up on imaging scans, and symptoms such as headaches or dizziness are ignored or downplayed by the victims.

If the brain is not allowed time to recover and a second concussion occurs, permanent damage may result. Brain injuries afflict 1.4 million Americans each year, says the National Brain Injury Association. Seventy percent are mild cases.

About 300,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered concussions, mostly from roadside bombs, according to a RAND Corp. study.

Hack says the new findings could rival the discovery of unique proteins in the 1970s that now help doctors identify heart disease.

"This will in fact do for brain injury what that test did for chest pain. It's going to change medicine entirely," Hack says.

If the Army wins FDA approval for the test, the discovery could be a milestone in brain-injury care, says Gregory O'Shanick, national medical director for the Brain Injury Association of America.

"We will find people who are under the radar and then treat them appropriately," he says.

The Army collaborated on the biomarker program with Florida-based Banyan Biomarkers, company created by former faculty member of the University of Florida.

The company recently received $26 million to conduct a final, large set of clinical trials through 2013 on 1,200 patients suffering mild to moderate to severe brain injuries. The patients will be drawn from 30 trauma centers across the country. The success of this phase will determine FDA approval for public use of the biomarker test, Hack says.

"We're trying to see if we can make that (clinical trial) earlier and make it faster," Hack says.

Physician Jeffrey Bazarian said the results may be flawed if researchers are studying only people admitted into hospitals. Their brain injuries, even if characterized as mild, may be more severe than common forms of concussion.

"The key is whatever patients they study need to look like concussed patients, walking, talking and not necessarily in need of hospitalization," said Bazarian, a trauma specialist who has served on task forces involving brain injury and panels for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "If you just look at the milds that are admitted ... that's potentially a flaw."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Americans seek ways to contribute to war efforts

Dave Cummings gets help from Lee Cohen, near left, Mike Oristano, front left, and Cummings' son, Noah, 10. Cummings is trying to reach his fundraising goal by Veterans Day 2011.

EPSOM, N.H. — An hour before dawn, in a drizzle, with five hours sleep, Dave Cummings steps out onto his driveway. He turns on his video camera, picks up a basketball, steps to the foul line in front of the family hoop and shoots. Swish.

It's the first of 1,500 free throws he will make this morning, his 43rd birthday. It's the 443,008th he has made over the past 11 months, heading toward his goal of 1 million.

By making a million free throws, Cummings hopes to raise $1 million in donations to help military servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries. And he hopes for something else: to connect with, and contribute to, a war so remote from this home front it seems like a rumor.

"I could go along and not feel a thing about the war, I have so little exposure to it," he says. "The sacrifice of military families blows me away, but I've been shielded. Around here, I don't see it."

As the nation begins a 10th year of fighting in Afghanistan, Cummings and other Americans are trying to express their patriotism in offbeat and idiosyncratic ways.

"These people want to do something, and short of any national strategy, they find their own niche," says Morten Ender, a sociologist who teaches at the U.S. Military Academy. "It bubbles up locally."

Many Americans have personal or inherited memories of wartime sacrifice — victory gardens and scrap drives, rationing and conscription. Yet the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have asked little of them. Since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, they've been told to carry on as usual, to keep spending, or the terrorists will have won.

But Ender says some people want to be involved in the war effort, either because they support the wars' goals or — far more often — because they support those who fight them.

So they have school auctions, motorcycle rides and golf outings to raise money for military medical care or homeless veterans or families of deployed troops. They send e-mails to the troops and knit them wool helmet liners. They send them boxes of everything from Bibles to cookies to nasal wash.

•For years, H. George Jackson Jr. has traveled the Delmarva Peninsula, soliciting greetings for the troops on scrolls of paper that, unrolled, stretch several hundred feet. He has visited Little League games, county fairs, shopping malls and wherever people gather. At Christmas time he puts on a Santa suit and delivers the scrolls to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

•Robbie and Brittany Bergquist, siblings from Norwell, Mass., didn't even own cellphones six years ago when they started Cell Phones for Soldiers. Over the past six years, their program has collected more than 7.5 million old cellphones and raised money for more than 90 million minutes of free phone talk for servicemembers around the world.

•Angel Geronimo, a crafts artist in Modesto, Calif., makes laminated military-style dog tags with Bible verses ("Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear ...") that a local church group sends to troops.

•Carmen Busby, a 79-year-old widow who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, collects recyclable items each week from neighbors in her seniors' mobile home park in San Marcos, Calif. She donates the proceeds to a National Military Family Association-sponsored summer camp for children of deployed servicemembers.

"It's a lot of work, but it's something to get behind, besides potluck suppers," she says. Since September 2007 she has collected $2,497.56.

Then there is Cummings, founder of Hoops for Heroes, who has made as many as 8,000 foul shots in a day, and 151 straight without a miss. Including online communications — blog, Twitter, Facebook — he devotes more than two hours a day to his campaign.

Why? "Because I feel incredibly grateful and I need to say thank you to the people who are serving our country."

Why foul shots? "I don't have a lot of skills. I make a mean chocolate chip cookie, but I didn't think a bake sale was going to raise a million dollars. But I figured a million free throws could draw some attention."

Why a million? "It sounded cool."

'To do something meaningful'

Cummings is an unlikely candidate to shoot a million free throws for the troops.

He has never been in the military and has no close friends or relatives who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, much less been wounded or killed.

He shot only about 50 free throws in his high school varsity career. His father, a former high school coach, says young Dave didn't practice free throws more than anyone else. He certainly didn't shoot as much as Ted St. Martin, a Florida basketball instructor who in 1996 made 5,221 consecutive free throws, according to Guinness World Records. He has plenty else to do, including a job as communications director for the state Realtors' association; a wife, three young kids and a dog; and a seat on the local school board.

But he has been restless. Five years ago, he says, he told his wife, Heather, " 'I need to do something meaningful, something that I'm passionate about.' It was just a feeling that I wanted to wake up and feel a broader purpose in life. Some way I could add something to the world."

About the same time, he heard about the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which raises money for treatment of and research in traumatic brain injury, which the Pentagon says may afflict as many as 360,000 Americans who've fought in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He got an idea for a stunt. He had made about 80% of his free throws in high school and had good genes. His father, a 1,000-point scorer at Bates College in Maine, shot 84% from the line and once made 107 straight free throws in practice.

Cummings registered the Internet domain name but did nothing more until January 2009, when he was struck by a line in President Obama's inauguration speech: "As much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies."

Three nights later, Cummings addressed his video camera: "Tonight, I'm gonna start making some foul shots. I hope I can make a million of them and raise some money for the people overseas fighting for us. ... I'm sorry I haven't been able to do more in my life, but I think it's time to do something. So I'm going to start."

He went out to the driveway, toed a free throw line he had shoveled in the snow and put up a shot that caromed off the right side of the rim and plopped flat in the snow. Over the next 20 minutes he missed every other shot and spent most of his time retrieving the ball and getting back to the line. After 200 attempts, his hands were frozen.

He persisted for several weeks before concluding that, at that rate, he would make 1 million free throws by 2040, when he would be 73.

There things stood until later in the year, when Cummings was elected to the school board and given a key to the Epsom Central School — and its gym. "I thought, hey, maybe this is the sign I need, because I can't do it all outside" — not on a windy hillside in winter in New Hampshire. Now, he could shoot at night year round and enlist volunteers to rebound.

His original goal was 1,000 shots a day, but he soon realized he could do more, especially after draping his home hoop with a SKLZ Rapid Fire net, which snares the ball after a make or a miss and steers it back to the foul line.

By averaging 1,370 a day, he could finish on a symbolically fitting occasion: Veterans Day 2011.

Even on Christmas Day

On Sept. 23, the night before his birthday, Cummings walked into the Epsom Central gym with four volunteer rebounders — three family friends and his 10-year-old son, Noah. His T-shirt said, "One million shots/Endless gratitude."

On the baseline directly behind the basket he placed a pair of red, white and blue high-top Converse All-Stars and a pair of Army boots. They were reminders, he says, of those overseas who might otherwise be on the court.

Cummings started the video camera and walked, without warming up or stretching, to the line. He missed the first, then made 18 straight, counting each aloud. He made the first 100 in five minutes, including 10 misses. On average Cummings shoots about 90% indoors, a little less outdoors.

He used two balls to quicken the pace. Rebounders on either side of the basket passed to a third volunteer who stood on the line next to Cummings, handing him the ball and allowing him to flick shot after shot with the same form: elbow in, rotation on the release, follow through high. He said little, seemingly focused on the rim and the count.

He stopped only to take a drink, rotate the volunteers and make sure the camera was working. He posts video of every shot on line and has had to repeat thousands of shots because the camera battery failed.

As always, he paused after making his 911th shot to lower his head and pray for the victims of the 2001 terror attacks.

He ended with 13 straight baskets, having made 2,000 shots in 92 minutes.

Cummings shoots daily, usually before work or after dinner. He even shoots while traveling; he has used Google Earth satellite maps to find a public court near his hotel.

On Christmas morning, Heather looked out to see her husband in the driveway shooting. "She wasn't too excited about that," Cummings recalls, even though "we'd already opened the presents."

Although he has been able to raise only about $15,000 for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund — he solicits donations on his website and Facebook and through word of mouth Cummings says he's not discouraged. He's scheduled to make his 500,000th shot in New York on Veterans Day aboard the USS Intrepid, the World War II aircraft carrier that's now a floating museum on the Hudson River in Manhattan. After that, he figures, more people — especially corporate donors — will take him seriously.

Not everyone is an admirer. After the New HampshireUnion Leader of Manchester published a story about Cummings, one reader wrote online: "The empty gesture of shooting free throws messes well with the hollow war that we are in that needlessly robs Americans of their lives. Support our troops by demanding that they are brought home."

Another wrote: "I will be starting my 'beers for troops' campaign as soon as (Cummings) hits his million. I will be drinking beers every weekend until each and every one of our boys is back home safe."

Cummings says he was surprised. He didn't think anyone could object to his project. He has received mostly encouragement, some neighbors mowed a "Hoops for Heroes" pattern on their lawn.

Like many home front do-it-yourselfers, he's ambivalent about the war's merits or justice, issues he says "will be sorted out by the history books. There are many people far smarter and more knowledgeable than me on both sides of the debate."

For the past year he hasn't had time to work out, sleep late or take Heather out to dinner. She says it's an adjustment for the whole family, "like having a new baby at home. But that's nothing compared to what families with moms and dads fighting for us face. How can we complain?"

What's more, she says, "It's important for the kids to see Dave's working for something bigger than ourselves. He's a role model right here in our own house."

You have to wonder: If and when he makes it to a million, will Dave Cummings ever attempt another free throw? "Part of me will really appreciate that extra two hours a day," he says. "Part of me will miss it."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Uncertainty over US plans as war enters 10th year


KABUL, Afghanistan — It's make-or-break time in Afghanistan.

The war enters its 10th year Thursday, and this is no ordinary anniversary.

With extra American troops now in place, this is the critical juncture to determine if President Barack Obama's revised war stategy will work and reverse Taliban momentum.

Key players are hedging their bets, uncertain whether the Obama administration is prepared to stay for the long haul, move quickly to exit an increasingly unpopular conflict, or something in between.

Fearing that his Western allies may in the end abandon him, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has started to prepare his nation for a withdrawal of international forces by shoring up relations with neighboring Pakistan and reaching out to insurgents interested in reconciliation.

Pakistan, America's nominal ally, says it's fighting insurgents. But it still tolerates al-Qaida and Afghan Taliban militants hiding out on its soil — out of reach of U.S.-led NATO ground forces.

Public support for the war is slipping in the United States and Western Europe. Already, the Netherlands has pulled out its troops, the first NATO country to do so. The Canadians leave next.

Patience is running out here as well. Afghans are tired of the violence, increasingly resentful of foreign forces. Many wonder why their quality of life has not markedly improved when their nation has been awash in billions of dollars of foreign aid.

"NATO is here and they say they are fighting terrorism, and this is the 10th year and there is no result yet," Karzai said in an emotional speech last week. "Our sons cannot go to school because of bombs and suicide attacks."

All this is very different from the near universal international support the Bush administration enjoyed when it launched attacks on Oct. 7, 2001. The war was aimed at toppling the Taliban from power because they harbored Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders responsible for the stunning strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon less than a month earlier.

The hardline Islamic regime, which repressed women, banned music and held public executions for disloyal actions, collapsed within two months.

But looking back at the first years of the war, the effort was underfunded from the start. When the Bush administration's attention shifted to Iraq in 2003, the Taliban began to regroup. After several years of relative calm and safety, the situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate around 2006. The Taliban have steadily gained strength since then. And bin Laden remains alive.

Obama ramped up the war this year, sending tens of thousands more troops. Casualties are running at their highest levels since 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown without a single American combat death. The U.S. death toll in July was 66, setting a monthly record; to date, about 2,000 NATO troops have died in the conflict, including more than 1,220 American service men and women.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June that the U.S. and its NATO partners have to show progress before the end of this year or face a decline in public support for the war.

There's plenty of frustration at the White House and in the U.S. Congress too. In August, when Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Kabul, he bluntly stated that if the Karzai government didn't clean up corruption, it was going to be hard "to look American families in the eye and say, `Hey that's something worth dying for.'"

On the battlefield, NATO's top commander, Gen. David Petraeus, is banking on his plan to protect heavily populated areas, rout the Taliban from their strongholds and rush in better governance and development aid to win the Afghans' loyalty away from the Taliban.

In February, NATO launched an offensive in Helmand province, the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Nearly eight months after U.S. forces mounted a high-profile assault that ended Taliban control of the rural town of Marjah, U.S. Marines there are still clearing it. There are signs that governance is improving, though troops still face daily gunbattles and an entrenched insurgency that shows no signs of easing soon.

Afghan and international forces now are ramping up security in neighboring Kandahar province where the Taliban insurgency was born. Fighting in and around the nation's largest city in the south has been intense as coalition forces push into areas long held by insurgents. Failure in Kandahar would be a major setback for the NATO force.

"We're still fighting the fight," U.S. Army Capt. Nick Stout, a company commander with the 101st Airborne Division's 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, said in Senjeray, capital of Zhari district northeast of Kandahar city.

"It kind of begs the question: What is it? What's the answer?" he said at a joint U.S.-Afghan outpost near Kandahar.

"America alone is not the answer to stopping" the insurgency, said the 27-year-old Stout, who wasn't old enough to order a drink in his home of Lake Orion, Mich., when the war began.

Commanders like Stout believe the war will be won only if Afghan civilians start supporting the troops. And, they say, the only way that will happen is if the forces can provide enough security to allow people to break free of the fear and intimidation of Taliban threats. In some places, residents don't even want to be seen talking to U.S. forces for fear of Taliban reprisals.

Ready to refute pundits who say the war is lost, U.S. Adm. James Stavridis, the supreme NATO commander in Europe, has compiled a list of nearly 50 examples that the coalition is making progress. He shared them in a five-page letter Oct. 1 to defense chiefs in NATO nations.

In a 90-day period ending in early September, he wrote, Special Operations Forces conducted 3,302 operations, resulting in 251 enemy leaders killed or captured; ammonium nitrate, a key ingredient in homemade bombs, is being seized in record amounts around the country; schools and the district police station have reopened in Marjah and insurgents there are suffering from low morale and shortages in food and weapons; and the Afghan security forces will expand to 260,000 by the end of the year — 5,000 higher than the target.

"Afghanistan remains a tough fight, but at least three-quarters of the country — starting with bustling Kabul, extending into most of the north and west and including parts of the east — is either in reasonably promising shape or improving," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. "We should remain hopeful for now. The current strategy could well produce significant and convincing progress within a few months."

Karzai still backs coalition efforts but has also used back channels to reach out to Taliban leaders who seem amenable to finding a political resolution to the war. Karzai appointed nearly 70 people last week to a High Peace Council, which will guide efforts to reach out to insurgents.

Pakistan also wants to maintain relations with some factions of the Taliban, which it believes will be a powerful player in Afghanistan when the Americans go home.

And there's strong suspicion in the region that U.S. troops will go home sooner rather than later — largely because of Obama's decision to set July 2011 as his goal for starting a drawdown of U.S. forces.

Obama and Petraeus have repeatedly claimed that the U.S. is not planning a mass exodus in July 2011. Petraeus says all the extra U.S. troops and civilians needed to reverse the Taliban's momentum have just arrived — and only now can Obama's revised war strategy begin to work.

But as the war drags on, the U.S. has lowered its sites and goals. Fewer people these days are talking about establishing Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. Instead, the focus is on finding some way to force out al-Qaida — even if that involves a deal with Taliban members.

Stephen Biddle at the Council on Foreign Relations says the Obama administration must clarify what the end game will look like.

"Without clear limits on acceptable outcomes, the U.S. and NATO military campaign will be rudderless, as will any negotiation strategy for a settlement with the Taliban," Biddle said.

He predicts success in Afghanistan will mean "arriving at an intermediate end state — somewhere between ideal and intolerable."

Hovering like a shadow over the discussion is Afghanistan's bloody history.

The Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979 but was forced to withdraw nine years later by anti-communist mujahedeen forces, who were supplied and trained by the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others. These U.S.-backed rebels took power in 1992 when the pro-Moscow government collapsed.

They quickly turned their guns on each other and a violent civil war ensued. The Taliban took advantage of the power vacuum and within two years had seized Kabul.

IEDs show troop surge working, U.S. officers say

MUSA QALA DISTRICT, Afghanistan — From Marine headquarters here, Maj. Robert "Barney" Barnhart ticks off names of comrades killed by roadside bombs, pausing at the mention of a sergeant Barnhart had persuaded to re-enlist for the fight.

His face darkens. This Taliban tactic of lacing the countryside with explosives, he says, is "a more cowardly way to fight."

He and other Marine commanders say they understand why the Taliban uses the devices: Killing and maiming U.S. troops as they surge into Taliban strongholds let retreating insurgents live to fight another day.

"It creates survivability" for the Taliban, says Barnhart, operations officer for the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, fighting in this hilly northern district of Helmand province.

The surge of 30,000 servicemembers ordered by President Obama — bringing the total U.S. presence here to 100,000 — is in place and moving into areas where the Taliban has operated freely for years, the Pentagon says.

On Sunday, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which oversees military operations in Afghanistan, said an "important phase" of the surge began this weekend in areas where the Taliban is strong in numbers.

Dubbed Operation Dragon Strike, it is an aggressive push in the southern part of the country where the Taliban awaits.

"We expect hard fighting," said Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, ISAF's spokesman.

Coalition commanders fighting here for months say they have been pushing Islamist fighters out of village safe havens, but the toll on troops is high.

U.S. soldiers and Marines fighting in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar — traditional strongholds of the Taliban — encounter numerous IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.

Troops injured seriously by the mines arrive daily at a NATO hospital at Kandahar Air Base.

In Helmand province, the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment led by Marine Lt. Col. Michael Manning had been hit by 240 bombs (an average of more than one a day) and disarmed an additional 331 during a six-month tour that ended this month.

Manning and Brig. Gen. Joseph Osterman, who commands all Marine ground combat forces in Helmand province, say the increase in IEDs is proof the military's surge is working.

"The more you disrupt, the more he tries to find ways to disrupt what you're doing," Manning said.

Taliban fighters have suffered significant casualties when they battled coalition troops, Manning and Osterman say.

When that happens, the Taliban tends to fall back and seed fields, roads and orchards with IEDs during the night.

Such minefields are a last-ditch effort to hold off defeat, they say.

"The enemy would be glad to box us off and put an IED belt, essentially an area minefield, all the way around us," says Osterman, adding that Marines will not let that happen.

"We're constantly pressing the envelope, we're always pushing the (Taliban) farther out," he says.

Obama campaigned on a promise to ratchet up the war in Afghanistan, which he called the center of the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic extremists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. As a U.S. senator, Obama opposed the troop surge in Iraq backed by President Bush. Now he is turning to a similar strategy to win in Afghanistan.

Additional troops have been deploying in stages for months and are in place, according to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates said last week that the U.S.-led coalition has the resources "to partner with the Afghans and have some prospect of dealing with a resurgent Taliban."

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it's too soon to tell how things will go.

"I do not in any way underestimate the degree of difficulty or the challenge," he said.

Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan has long been a haven for the Taliban, the clerical movement that imposed harsh Islamic rule until its ouster by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

In February, Marines pushed the Taliban out of the Helmand city of Marjah and are advancing farther into jihadist sanctuaries. As the Marines move from village to village, a pattern of combat has emerged.

Insurgents initially engage in hours of firefights with Marines over a period of days or weeks, Manning says. After suffering losses, they turn to a "cat and mouse" tactic of firing on patrols from concealed spots for several seconds, then fleeing.

"They got to get fairly close to do direct fire. When they do that, we kill them," Manning says.

Manning says radio intercepts of Taliban communication show the enemy force takes too many "significant casualties" from the engagements.

Unable to prevail in man-to-man combat, the insurgents turn to the mines, commanders say. Pentagon and military experts say such tactics can threaten to alter the course of the war and the effectiveness of the surge.

Mackenzie Eaglen, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation, says insurgents hope mounting casualties during the coalition offensive will demoralize troops and erode public and political support for the war at home.

"They're after headlines," Eaglen says. They hope "to influence the international narrative of what's happening in Afghanistan."

A recently released report by the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) identified IEDs as "the most serious threat" to coalition forces. Roadside bombs wounded or killed 6,200 allied troops and Afghan forces in fiscal year 2009 compared with 3,800 in 2008. Casualties are even higher this year.

In Helmand province alone, 272 IEDs exploded and 231 were found and cleared in the month of August. Nine troops were killed and 148 wounded. The surge "has led to the highest rate of IED attacks on (coalition troops) since the conflict began in 2001," according to the Pentagon report.

Because the bombs cause such carnage on a daily basis, they must be neutralized, JIEDDO says.

Manning's battalion has suffered more IED attacks than any other Marine battalion in the province. He lost a dozen Marines in six months, nine killed by bombs, including two explosives experts and an engineer who died trying to disarm the devices. Fifteen of his Marines lost limbs. The threat is on the minds of U.S. servicemembers.

"That's what gives me the biggest headache is wondering if I should walk around. Staring at the ground. Going cross-eyed over it," Marine Sgt. Jason Westenkow says.

At an outpost outside the village of Kunjak, Marine Sgt. John Ellis, 26, squad leader, holds up a yellow, 5-gallon jug, the type used routinely for chores in any Afghan home or merchant shop. "This is what they use for IEDs," he says.

The jugs are filled with 15 to 40 pounds of explosives and can be stuffed with ball bearings, nuts, bolts and screws for shrapnel. They are fitted with a simple pressure-plate detonator constructed of two pieces of plastic-wrapped wood sandwiching electric wire, Ellis says.

Bombs are set off remotely by radio or triggered from the end of a wire. The fine dust that powders roads and dry riverbed crossings conceals pressure plates. Lush irrigated fields are ripe for tripwires. Many armored trucks have been damaged or disabled by the bombs.

The first line of defense for a foot patrol is the metal detector. Lance Cpl. Matthew Dickens, 20, slowly swings the device back and forth searching for a signal.

He has found half a dozen bombs listening for the beep that becomes more rapid when the detector is over an explosive. Dickens then lies on his stomach, his heart pounding, and slowly uncovers enough earth to reveal whether a bomb is there.

He tries not to think about what might happen. "It if goes off, you're probably not going to feel a lot of anything. You'll just be done," he says. "Afterward, it's relief knowing that I'm away from it. It's not going to blow me up."