Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Amputees climb Kilimanjaro

By Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer

The three American veterans from three different wars had only one good leg among them. But that didn't stop them from summiting Africa's highest mountain.

The three soldiers — veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam — scrambled, clawed and plodded to the top of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, hiking up the domed mountain's scree-filled paths on one human leg and five prosthetics made of titanium and carbon fiber.

They skidded. They fell. They removed their legs to adjust their shoes. And after six days of climbing they stood at 19,340 feet (5,895 meters) — Africa's highest point.

"The message we're trying to send back to the USA is no matter what disability you have you can be active," said Kirk Bauer, the executive director of Disabled Sports USA and a 62-year-old Vietnam veteran who lost his leg in 1969. Bauer, of Ellicott City, Maryland, was one of the triumphant climbers.

"If three amputees from three different wars and two different generations with literally one good leg can climb Kilimanjaro, our other disabled friends can get out and go hiking or go biking or swim a mile, can get out and lead a healthy life," he said.

The youngest of the veterans, 26-year-old Neil Duncan, lost both legs to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2005. The Denver, Colorado, resident tried to summit Kilimanjaro last year, but poor planning and a fast ascent schedule doomed the trip.

This time a different guide planned a route specifically for the veterans. The group took six days to ascend, instead of three or four, and a special permit for the disabled allowed them to spend the night in tents at 19,000 feet (5791 meters). Last Saturday morning they made it to the top.

"It was evidence that with the right planning and right preparation and right execution anything can be done," Duncan said. "That was why I was so set on coming back. I knew it was attainable. It was proof that you can bounce back from a failure in anything. You can regroup, recuperate, replan and use your previous experience and be successful."

The third veteran, Dan Nevins, a 37-year-old from Jacksonville, Florida, who lost his legs in Iraq, developed a pressure boil on one of his leg's stumps, which may have lead to his developing of a high fever, coughing and congestion. After reaching the summit and descending to 15,000 feet (4,572 meters), Nevins was evacuated down on a wheeled stretcher.

That illustrated just one of the challenges the amputees faced. On Day 5, the group hiked from 15,500 feet (4,724 meters) to 19,000 feet (5,791 meters), a 12-hour day in thin air that left everyone struggling to breathe.

Kilimanjaro's lower paths are flat dirt, but higher trails turn to a rock and scree blend difficult for prosthetics. In the loose rock the artificial legs slid backward, leading Duncan to feel like he was climbing the mountain twice.

"It's an incredible amount of work as you can imagine but one of the most difficult portions of the whole deal was the assent from 15,500 to 19,000," said Duncan, a student at the University of Denver. The rocks were "real loose, real steep. With having no feet or ankles I was lacking the ability to grip into that dirt."

Going down — the part many climbers say is the hardest on the body — was no easier for the amputees. Duncan lost his footing and somersaulted. Bauer's artificial leg fell off.

"I have only one real knee, and it takes an incredible amount of stress from falling," Duncan said. "It's more of a controlled fall down the mountain. It's not a graceful process I assure you."

Duncan, who retired from the Army in 2007, ran with former President George Bush that same year. He hopes to run the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, D.C. in October.

The Kilimanjaro trip was sponsored by Disabled Sports USA and other donors. The group's mission is to provide opportunities for individuals with disabilities to develop independence, fitness and confidence through sports and recreational programs.

"The feeling was total exhaustion and total exhilaration," Bauer said of his 45 minutes on the summit. "It was absolutely spectacular."

U.S. readies to wrap up its combat role in Iraq

WASHINGTON � President Obama is satisfied that the United States can finish its combat role in Iraq safely at the end of this month and meet the deadline for removing all U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011, White House officials said Wednesday.

Obama was briefed on the status of the withdrawal from Iraq by his national security team and the top U.S. commander in Iraq. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president also was brought up to date on Iraq's so far unsuccessful efforts to form a new government five months after national elections.

Obama met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, national security adviser James Jones and, by videoconference, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno.

"The president heard directly from Gen. Odierno, who said that we were on target to complete our drawdown by the end of August. Already we have removed over 80,000 troops from Iraq since President Obama took office," Gibbs said.

Gibbs and other U.S. officials said an uptick in violence as Aug. 31 draws nearer was expected. They blamed it on the start of the month-long Islamic observance of Ramadan, and efforts by factions to further complicate efforts to form a coalition government and by some militants to create the appearance that they were running the United States out of the country.

Continuing attacks against Iraq's security forces come as the United States is moving to reduce its troop levels to 50,000.

"There continues to be terrorists in Iraq. There continues to be acts of violence," Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told a group of reporters. "They have not affected the positive trends" happening in Iraq and the overall level of violence is lower than it has been in the past, he said.

Gibbs said Odierno told Obama the security situation has continued to improve, and Iraqi forces are fully prepared to take over.

Obama has vowed both to end the official U.S. combat mission on schedule and to move all remaining U.S. troops off Iraqi soil by the end of 2011, a timetable set in an agreement with the Iraqi government.

The president also received an update from Vice President Biden and Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on Iraq's troubled efforts to form a new government.

Biden's national security adviser, Tony Blinken, said frustration is building among Iraqis over failure to form a governing coalition. "We really believe there is forward movement," he said. "But it's not up to us."

In a National Public Radio interview from Baghdad, Hill said the pace of political progress has quickened in recent weeks, and "things may be heading in the right direction" even though "more needs to be done."

White House officials sought to blunt suggestions that the 2011 deadline for removing all remaining troops might be impossible to meet. "All systems in the U.S. government are getting down to … 'there will be no troops (in Iraq) after 2011,' " Rhodes said. He said an exception would be security forces to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Troops get survival training for civilian life

A federal program is easing the transition of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans into civilian life, providing employment classes, job-search assistance and other services.

The Transition Assistance Program (TAP) aids troops as they prepare to retire or separate from the military. Workshops and services range from résumé writing to financial management.

The program is important: The unemployment rate for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was 11.5% in July, markedly above the national rate of 9.5%, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Starting as early as two years before retirement and one year before separation, soldiers are required to attend a TAP employment workshop and other briefings. Each branch of the military is also required by law to provide servicemembers with counseling at least 90 days before they complete their service.

Department of Labor employees usually run the Army's job-search workshops, which feature the online Job Assistance Training Application. The program takes the soldiers through a series of workshops, each detailing a phase of job hunting.

The website TurboTAP.org is an online resource that can help troops understand and take advantage of TAP.

Forced military extension to end

WASHINGTON � The number of Army soldiers forced to serve beyond their commitment has been cut in half in the past year and is on track to be eliminated by March 2011, Pentagon records and interviews show.

The practice known as "stop loss" affected more than 15,000 troops at its peak in 2005 and has been cut to about 4,000. Experts on military morale say the steady decline in forcing troops to serve has dampened the controversy, though they say the Pentagon delayed action.

The use of stop loss during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has "dragged on for years," said James Martin, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a retired Army colonel and Pentagon official. "In terms of policy, clearly somebody had to think out of the box."

That somebody turned out to be Defense Secretary Robert Gates. He declared in March 2009 that the practice had to end, saying it was "breaking faith" with those who volunteered to serve. He had ordered the services to reduce stop loss in 2007. However, the numbers of troops affected climbed more than 40% in the months that followed, largely because of the additional troops sent to Iraq.

More than 140,000 troops � all but about 20,000 of them Army soldiers � had assignments extended under the policy since 2001. It was referred to as a "back-door draft" by Rep. John Murtha, the combat veteran and Pennsylvania Democrat who died early this year. Troops affected are eligible for additional payments of $500 for each month they were compelled to serve.

Stop loss can keep a servicemember in the military if his or her unit deploys within 90 days of the end of the commitment they make when they join. The Army relies on stop loss to keep units intact through training and combat tours.

"The Army was careful when determining whether or not to employ stop loss because we knew it placed an unfair burden on soldiers and families," Army Secretary John McHugh told USA TODAY. The policy affected about 1% of all soldiers, said Maj. Tim Beninato, a spokesman for the Army's personnel office.

The Pentagon has added tens of thousands of troops to the Army and Marine Corps since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. That has reduced the need to use stop loss.

McHugh encouraged those affected by stop loss since 2001 to apply for compensation.

The Pentagon operates a website for all services at www.defense.gov/stoploss.

National Guard to arrive at Arizona-Mexico border

About 30 Army National Guard soldiers were scheduled to arrive at the Arizona-Mexico border this week in the first wave of reinforcements sent by the Obama administration to bolster security.

More soldiers will be sent each Monday until 532 have joined the mission, said 1st Lt. Valentine Castillo, a National Guard spokesman in Phoenix.

"Everything is right on track to be fully operational by the beginning of October," Castillo said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said Guard members will begin providing border security in his state Wednesday. No date has been given for deployments in Texas and New Mexico.

The soldiers got two to three weeks of training in surveillance techniques and first aid. They will be armed for self-defense, Castillo said, but will not have law enforcement authority. Instead, they will serve as "extra eyes and ears" for the U.S. Border Patrol.

Some will be assigned to teams in concealed locations to watch for smugglers and illegal immigrants entering the U.S. When the soldiers spot them, they'll call in agents to grab the suspects, Castillo said. Others will monitor computers and work with electronic detection systems.

"We're here to support Customs and Border Protection," he said.

Mario Escalante, of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, said many will be doing mobile or remote surveillance. "It's going to help a lot," he said. "There will be certain areas where they play a major role as a deterrence factor," forcing illegal migrants to use routes patrolled by agents.

President Obama announced in May plans to deploy the National Guard amid controversy over Arizona's immigration enforcement law and under pressure from GOP Gov. Jan Brewer and members of Congress.

In March 2009, Brewer wrote to the Defense Department requesting 250 additional soldiers for Arizona's Joint Counter Narco-Terrorism Task Force, which already uses National Guard personnel.

Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor is "grateful for the additional assistance" but believes 6,000 reinforcements are now needed, with half of them in Arizona.

Senseman said Brewer is calling for the larger force to ensure that extreme cartel violence in northern Sonora does not leapfrog into Arizona.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Army could relinquish control of Arlington National Cemetery

A representative from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs announced this weekend at the American Legion national convention being held in Milwaukee that the department would be willing to take control of the neglected Arlington National Cemetery.

David Schettler

Veterans groups and Congress have asked the department to take over management of the massive military cemetery in Virginia, which is currently being run by the Army. Earlier this year, an internal Army investigation found more than 100 unmarked graves at the cemetery, numerous burials not marked on official maps and even several cremation urns that had been dumped in a dirt pile.

Investigators concluded the problems were caused by sloppy management at the cemetery. The Army announced a new director to lead the cemetery and other reforms, but that wasn’t enough for most veterans groups, according to The Washington Post. They say the Army ignored warnings for years that the cemetery was being neglected.

On Saturday, David Schettler, chief spokesman’s for the Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration, told Legion members at the Milwaukee convention he’s “not aware of any detailed talks” on taking over the cemetery “but we would be prepared to take on (management of Arlington) if given to us and funded properly.”

The convention runs until Thursday. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) is expected to speak at the convention today on the war in Iraq and other national security issues. The Legion also reported on Monday that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would also be addressing veterans but didn’t say when. A convention schedule posted online doesn’t provide times, either.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Black Hearts" 101st Airbourne Division

The region around Kandahar city in Afghanistan is the Taliban's birthplace and breeding ground. That makes it a key location in the U.S. military's security efforts. But "securing" a region in which you can hardly distinguish friend from foe is far easier said than done. NPR staff photographer David Gilkey just returned from the region, where he spent time with the 101st Airborne Division. Their mission is two-fold: chase out the Taliban and win the trust of locals — if they can.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Smoke up, Johnny: USPS OKs mailing tobacco to troops

Know a GI in Iraq or Afghanistan who’s hurting for a smoke? Beginning Aug. 27, the U.S. Postal Service will once again allow customers to mail cigarettes and other tobacco products abroad to soldiers, Marines and other service members.

The Associated Press reports that after a law kicked in June 29 that sought to keep minors from ordering cigarettes, the Postal Service originally only allowed care packages with tobacco to be mailed via Express Mail. The problem was, Express Mail can’t be sent to some overseas locations like Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving soldiers out of luck. But in two weeks, the Postal Service will allow tobacco care packages through Priority Mail, which can be sent to military bases in other countries.

And while we’re at it, here’s a tune to brighten your Friday. Enjoy Tex Williams’ “Smoke Smoke Smoke (That Cigarette).”

Friday, August 6, 2010