Good morning Legionnaires and veterans advocates, today is Monday, April 29, 2019 which is Day of Remembrance for all Victims of Chemical Warfare, National Shrimp Scampi Day, International Dance Day and Viral Video Day.
This Day in History:
- On April 29, 2004, the National World War II Memorial opens in Washington, D.C., to thousands of visitors, providing overdue recognition for the 16 million U.S. men and women who served in the war. The memorial is located on 7.4 acres on the former site of the Rainbow Pool at the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. The Capitol dome is seen to the east, and Arlington Cemetery is just across the Potomac River to the west.
- 1992: In Los Angeles, California, four Los Angeles police officers that had been caught beating an unarmed African-American motorist in an amateur video are acquitted of any wrongdoing in the arrest. Hours after the verdicts were announced, outrage and protest turned to violence as the L.A. riots began. Protestors in south-central Los Angeles blocked freeway traffic and beat motorists, wrecked and looted numerous downtown stores and buildings, and set more than 100 fires.
- Also on this day in 1946, Tojo Hideki, wartime premier of Japan, is indicted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East of war crimes. In September 1945, he tried to commit suicide by shooting himself but was saved by an American physician who gave him a transfusion of American blood. He was eventually hanged by the Americans in 1948 after having been found guilty of war crimes.
- On April 29, 1986, in a game against the Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park, Roger Clemens of the Boston Red Sox becomes the first pitcher in Major League Baseball to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. Ten years later, Clemens repeats the feat, the only player in baseball history to do so.
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
- US News: Afghanistan’s Hired Guns
- Stripes: For veterans’ families, health hazards of open-air burn pits hit home
- AZ Central: Unclaimed remains of 17 veterans are buried with honors in Marana
- Jacksonville: Call Box: The midnight ride of John Gibson to save the GI Bill
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US News: Afghanistan’s Hired Guns
The number of private contractors in America’s longest war jumped at an unprecedented rate in the last three months.
By Paul D. Shinkman Senior National Security WriterApril 26, 2019, at 5:00 a.m.
U.S. marines talk to contractors at a guard station at Camp Shorab in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on Sept. 11, 2017.(Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images)
The number of security contractors the military employs in Afghanistan is higher now than at any time since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in the country in 2014, Defense Department documents show.
More than 5,800 privately employed security personnel are currently operating in Afghanistan under Pentagon contracts, according to the latest report released this month that the military headquarters overseeing Middle East wars compiles for Congress. The number of security contractors jumped by more than 1,000 in the three months since the last report – a spike of more than 20 percent and the biggest increase in two years.
More than 17,000 uniformed troops from NATO and partner countries are currently operating in Afghanistan in support of local forces, up from roughly 13,000 when President Donald Trump took office. Of those, roughly 8,500 are Americans. Another 5,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan for the separate mission of hunting insurgent forces like the Islamic State group and elements of the Taliban.
The last time the number of private security contractors exceeded 5,000 was in April 2014 during the height of the Obama administration’s effort to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. When Trump entered the White House in January 2017, the number stood at just over 3,400.
The new data comes amid concerns that the administration could increasingly turn to private companies to carry out the war. Officials and analysts, meanwhile, are raising alarm that the U.S. government is concealing the situation on the ground.
"The main problem with contractors of all sorts is there’s just not enough attention to what they’re doing. That’s not been reported out in a clear way to anybody’s satisfaction for all these years," says Catherine Lutz, a professor at Brown University and a director of its Costs of War project, which documents the use of private contractors in U.S. conflicts. "The Pentagon should be telling us, the American public, who’s funding this, what that means, why this is happening."
"The main problem with contractors of all sorts is there’s just not enough attention to what they’re doing."
U.S. military headquarters in Kabul did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to provide further detail on how the military uses its security contractors and what accounts for the sudden increase.
Of the 5,883 security contractors outlined in the latest reports from U.S. Central Command, 2,567 of them are armed private security contractors. The rest provide support functions, like driving vehicles or other logistics work related to security activities.
Security contractors – both armed and unarmed – are a subset of a larger group of contractors who perform a broad range of tasks, including translation, construction and information technology services. But at nearly 20 percent of that pool, they now represent a bigger portion of all contractors than at any time since 2013. The Costs of War project has documented that as many as 2,800 contractors have died in Afghanistan – a figure that often goes unmentioned in public remembrances of the 2,400 U.S. military deaths in that war.
The extent to which the U.S. needs more security contractors because of a deteriorating situation on the ground is unclear, largely because the Trump administration, like its predecessors, has opted to withhold pertinent information. Faced with reports of a rising death toll among Afghan soldiers and national police officers, the government in Kabul – with U.S. support – stopped releasing those figures two years ago.
Even those who monitor the security situation there closely cannot discuss it publicly. When asked, for example, about the death rate among Afghan soldiers, which open source reporting indicates has reached unsustainable levels of as many as 40 per day, a top official tasked with scrutinizing reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan said he could not answer.
"A lot of the answers or information to answer that question is classified now," John Sopko, the congressionally appointed special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a small group of reporters earlier this week. "What we are finding now is almost every indicia, metrics, however you want to phrase it, for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent."
When pressed about whether the situation appears to be improving or worsening, Sopko again refused to answer, but added, "Governments don’t usually classify good news."
Contractors have provided critical support functions in U.S. conflicts going back to the Revolutionary War and regularly carry out benign tasks like meal service and maintaining infrastructure on military bases. They may also be called upon to train local troops or service military equipment like helicopters.
In other circumstances, like with the subsequently rebranded firm Blackwater in the early days of Iraq, they provide security for high-profile officials or for U.S. bases and convoys. Prohibitions on their engaging in direct combat become murky when they operate in conflict zones where enemies move freely among the local populace. Blackwater, in particular, generated heated controversy for its heavy-handed battlefield tactics with seemingly little oversight.
And American leaders have relied on private security contractors to purposefully mask distasteful aspects of war. The Obama administration reportedly replaced troops that came home with private contractors, allowing it to maintain pressure on enduring enemies while publicly claiming the war was waning.
Lutz draws particular attention to Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince, who has developed close ties with the Trump administration and who has advocated for Trump to turn over responsibility for the war in Afghanistan to private companies, akin to the British East India Company that governed colonial commerce in South Asia and whose use of private armies to maintain stability grew increasingly forceful. Prince’s suggestion wrought widespread criticism.
In response to queries about the spike in the number of security contractors, Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in an emailed statement that military leaders in Afghanistan "continue to assess and right-size contracted support to provide executable options in pursuit of established strategic goals." She added that these leaders regularly conduct reviews of existing contracts "to identify requirements for reduction, consolidation, elimination, or transition to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan."
Services provided by private contractors in this fiscal year amount to approximately $2.3 billion, Babb says.
By JEREMY REDMON | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: April 26, 2019
TYRONE, Ga. (Tribune News Service) — Tammy McCracken said her husband was fit and lean before he deployed to Iraq, a weightlifter and a runner with no history of serious illnesses.
But David returned home from Baghdad in 2009 with a persistent dry cough. Headaches came next. Then confusion, disorientation and memory loss. On the day he learned of his promotion to colonel in 2011, his doctors in Atlanta performed a biopsy and found a brain tumor. It would kill him in less than a year. He died at 46, leaving behind three children.
Tammy is certain of what caused his cancer — the vast open-air burn pits the U.S. military used to eliminate all kinds of waste in Iraq. Everything went in them: unexploded ordnance, metal cans, plastics, Styrofoam, rubber, paint, lubricants, even body parts and animal carcasses. Ignited with jet fuel, the pits belched heavy smoke into the same air the soldiers breathed around their bases.
More than 170,000 troops and veterans who spent time in Iraq and elsewhere have added their names to a national government registry that tracks exposure to burn pits, oil well fires and other airborne hazards. As of Dec. 31, 7,255 Georgians were on the list. A nonprofit advocacy group that tracks the issue, Burn Pits 360, says it has tracked 130 deaths tied to burn pit exposure.
The Veterans Affairs Department has rejected most disability compensation claims to date. It points to a 2011 Institute of Medicine report that says insufficient data makes it impossible to conclude whether burn pit emissions could cause long-term health problems. But the VA says it continues to study the issue.
Several bills focusing on the issue are pending in Congress. Among them are measures that also would allow families of deceased veterans to participate in the government’s airborne hazards registry and require the VA to create evaluation criteria for disability benefits for an illness often linked to burn pits, obliterative bronchiolitis. Meanwhile, Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, is planning to hold a hearing on exposures to burn pits and other toxic hazards next month.
Former Vice President Joe Biden brought more attention to the issue last year, when he speculated whether his 46-year-old son’s death from brain cancer was linked to burn pits. In 2009, Beau Biden deployed to Camp Victory in Iraq — the same base where David McCracken was stationed — before dying in 2015 from the same brain cancer that killed McCracken, glioblastoma multiforme.
Tammy McCracken’s experience inspired her to volunteer with Burn Pits 360 and to enroll in a graduate analytics program at Georgia Tech. She hopes to use what she has learned and publish the locations of the military’s burn pits. She also wants to help other families get the same VA indemnity compensation and education benefits her family received after nearly four years of appealing to the agency to link her husband’s death to his military service.
To incinerate the many tons of waste created each day on bases in Afghanistan, Iraq and on the Horn of Africa, the U.S. military set up scores of open-air burn pits.
Approved by the Pentagon, they were supposed to be temporary until trash incinerators could be installed, but some remained in operation up until as recently as 2015, according to Joseph Hickman’s exposé, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers.” Many soldiers were “housed as close as a few hundred yards away from the burn pits, and in some cases recreational halls and other base facilities were built nearly adjacent to the toxic pyres,” wrote Hickman, a former Marine and Army sergeant.
The pit that drew the most attention burned north of Baghdad at Joint Base Balad, home at one point to about 25,000 troops and civilians. The pit stretched across 10 acres, incinerated several hundred tons of waste each day and sent smoke over the base’s living areas, VA records show. Military air tests there revealed dioxin, a compound linked to some cancers. Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. military sprayed during the Vietnam War, also contained a form of dioxin.
The Defense Department said it is “concerned that toxins from burn pit emissions may pose health risks” and that the pits are generally meant to be short-term.
“For the longer term,” Defense Department spokeswoman Heather Babb said, “we use incinerators, engineered landfills or other accepted solid waste management practices. When used, open-air burn pits must be operated in a manner that prevents or minimizes risks to human health and safety of DOD personnel.”
Michael Keister mapped the locations of more than a dozen burn pits in Iraq while working with Tammy McCracken for a Georgia-based military contractor about nine years ago. He remembers wearing a bandana over his mouth and nose and goggles to protect himself from the acrid smoke.
“No one would ever get away with this in any county in the United States,” said Keister, a Vietnam War veteran who has suffered from diabetes connected to Agent Orange exposure. “It appeared they didn’t give a hoot about anybody over there, including our own soldiers and Marines.”
Kris Marbutt of McDonough said her 34-year-old husband, Sgt. John Marbutt, died from brain cancer — glioblastoma multiforme — in 2016 after being exposed to burn pits during his deployment to Mosul, Iraq, in 2009 and 2010. She remembers him telling her how thick the air was in Iraq and how he later suffered from two brain tumors, headaches, dizziness and numbness.
Dozens of veterans, civilian contractors and their families sued the military contractors who were responsible for managing the burn pits, including KBR, alleging they were harmed by the smoke coming from them. But in December, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their appeal, leaving in place a lower court decision that blocked the lawsuits from moving forward.
The VA says it is pursuing a new review focusing on respiratory health.
Still, the agency has approved some disability compensation claims that had at least one condition related to burn pit exposure. From June of 2007 through March of this year, the VA processed 12,378 of them. Of those, 2,425 — or a fifth — had at least one burn pit condition granted, according to the VA.
His final words
David McCracken grew up in New Castle, Penn., the son of a Korean War veteran and a homemaker. An industrial hygienist, he was sharp, he thrived in school and he loved the military, according to his widow, Tammy. She got one of his favorite expressions, Embrace every moment, tattooed on her right wrist after he died.
In her tidy home in Tyrone, she is surrounded by things that remind her of him: The silver sword she presented him the day he was promoted to colonel, his plentiful challenge coin collection, his mint green camouflage Army caps, and the American flag that draped his casket.
The day he died, she said, he shared some vanilla ice cream — his favorite flavor — with her and their three children in the hospice wing of the Atlanta hospital that cared for him. He asked Tammy if he did a good job as a husband and father. Absolutely, she told him, you did a fantastic job. Those were the final words they shared.
AZ Central: Unclaimed remains of 17 veterans are buried with honors in Marana
Ellie Nakamoto-White, Arizona Republic Published 6:20 p.m. MT April 27, 2019 | Updated 8:00 p.m. MT April 27, 2019
More than 100 people gathered Saturday morning in Marana to honor 17 deceased U.S. military veterans whose remains were never claimed, some for decades.
Missing in America Project arranged for the burials at Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery as a final tribute to veterans who, while they died without being claimed by next of kin, were worthy of recognition for their service.
"Whether someone served two years and got out because of an injury, or they served 30 or 40 years and made it their whole career, they all deserve at least to be recognized for what they did," said Peter Redwine, an MIAP supporter.
The ceremony began with honor details folding U.S. flags in perfect unison. As pairs of servicemen and women marched up to a table holding the boxes of cremated remains, the rhythmic tapping of their boots on the concrete was the only sound.
The crowd raised their arms in salute as each box was carried away for placement in a vault. A lone bugle blared.
"It’s just such a moving experience and such an honor to be a part of this," said Mary Cartter, an MIAP member. "Every chance I get, I come to one of these. I love the dedication. I think it renews our pride in America. These guys in the MIAP, they search the world to find these soldiers. Thank God for them."
MIAP states their mission as:
The purpose of the MIA Project is to locate, identify and inter the unclaimed cremated remains of American veterans through the joint efforts of private, state and federal organizations. To provide honor and respect to those who have served this country by securing a final resting place for these forgotten heroes.
Elizabeth Bartel, the MIAP National Chaplain for the Western Region, said that MIAP works because of loyal people like Cartter.
"People faithfully come out every time we call for it, so you can tell it’s near and dear to our hearts and just the community in general," Bartel said.
Bartel said she was proud to work for an organization like MIAP’s because "it gives honor to these people that served our country and died a lonely death."
Redwine said he thought it was "fantastic that we have an organization that renders the honors to the men and women that they deserve."
“I just hope these poor soldiers are looking down. They signed a blank check and gave their all.”
Mary Cartter, Missing in Arizona Project member
He noted that this was the smallest mission he’d been on, with the largest in Cave Creek that laid 42 veterans to rest.
"I think it’s a critical thing for our veterans to know they’re not forgotten. Think about how many veterans who live alone or are homeless, who hear about MIAP and don’t have to worry as much about what’s going to happen when they’re gone," Redwine said.
Cartter agreed, saying, "I just hope these poor soldiers are looking down.They signed a blank check and gave their all."
The next event is sometime in October, Bartel said.
For more information, visit https://www.miap.us/.
Jacksonville: Call Box: The midnight ride of John Gibson to save the GI Bill
By Sandy Strickland
Posted Apr 21, 2019 at 4:04 PM Updated Apr 21, 2019 at 7:21 PM
Dear Call Box: I know the 75th anniversary of the passage of the GI Bill is coming up, and I heard a South Georgia congressman and the old Jacksonville airport had a role in helping get it passed. What can you tell me about it?
Dear N.P.: The congressman was missing. So a desperate manhunt was launched. State troopers even stopped South Georgia drivers to ask if they were U.S. Rep. John Gibson. A plane was waiting at Jacksonville’s Imeson Airport, and they had only hours to get him to Washington for a critical vote on a bill that would affect millions of veterans. And yes, it was the proverbial dark and stormy night.
In short, it had all the ingredients of a suspense thriller.
Some historians refer to it as the Midnight Ride. Once Gibson was tracked down, it was a wild journey in a speeding car as a thunderstorm raged. The native of Folkston, Ga., just across the Florida line, has become known as the man who saved the GI Bill.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted Congress to pass the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill or government-issue. In 1943 disabled World War II veterans were returning home to few resources at an alarming rate.
The American Legion’s solution was a comprehensive bill that would provide housing, education and job benefits to veterans. It included minorities and women while other versions of the bill did not.
The problem was that a House and Senate conference committee was deadlocked 3-3 on the bill, and Gibson’s vote was needed to move it to the floor. A couple of weeks earlier, Gibson had returned home to Douglas in South Georgia to recuperate from an illness. After he recovered, Gibson spent the day fox hunting, unaware that the bill he supported was in danger.
The committee had adjourned at 6 p.m. June 9, 1944, and was going to meet at 10 a.m. the next day for one last vote. John Stelle, an Amerian Legion lobbyist, asked, “What can we do?” according to an article in the February 1969 edition of the American Legion magazine.
“Get John Gibson up here from Georgia,” Rep. Pat Kearney of New York told Stelle. “He’ll vote the right way. He’s the only one who can save the bill.”
They had only a few hours to locate Gibson, and with wartime restrictions on telephone service, it wasn’t going to be easy.
David Camelon, who covered the passage of the bill and wrote the magazine’s story, reported that the legion’s effort to bring Gibson to Washington involved dozens of people across the country. Atlanta Constitution editors, for example, used their newspaper clearance to call him at home. There was no answer. The Douglas telephone operator said, “I’ll find him for you, some way or other,” the story said.
She telephoned his friends and learned he was supposed to be on the highway between Valdosta and Douglas, 70 miles apart. She promised to ring every five minutes until she got him. Time raced by — 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 11 p.m.
Radio stations in Atlanta and Valdosta broadcast repeated appeals to anyone knowing Gibson’s whereabouts to ask him to immediately call Operator 2 in Washington.
City, county and state police stopped cars on highways he might be traveling. Sirens roaring, they flagged down nervous motorists and waved them along when they discovered they weren’t Gibson.
The clock ticked on. Gibson, whose family was out of town, finally arrived home sometime after 11 p.m., long past the operator’s quitting time. But she hadn’t quit. Gibson stepped out of his car, heard the phone ring and ran to answer it.
He was told that in a few minutes, Clark Luke, the legion commander for Georgia, would be picking him up. Luke would take him to Waycross where an Army car was waiting.
Priority travel plans already had been authorized. Officials ranging from the chief of Air Force public relations to the national traffic manager for Eastern Airlines had been roused from bed to make it happen. Eastern had a 2:30 a.m. flight out of Jacksonville, and the traffic manager called the airport with the message to “Bring Gibson to Washington on that plane if you have to wait all night.”
Meanwhile, Gibson told Luke: “I just remembered, I haven’t got any cash on me.”
Then he said, “Never mind. There’s always a poker game at the Elks Club on Friday night. I’ll get some money from the boys.”
After a stop at the club, Luke drove him to the Waycross Army Air Base in what had become a slashing thunderstorm. Police provided a motorcycle escort. In Waycross, Gibson jumped into another Army vehicle driven by Cpl. Jack Hunter, a former Notre Dame track star, in what probably was his most important race, albeit by car.
Hunter gunned the vehicle over gravel roads at up to 90 mph on the mad dash to Jacksonville, roughly 78 miles away.
Florida police waited at the state line to escort the car to Imeson on North Main Street. Once there, Gibson ran up the boarding ramp of the plane, whose twin propellers roared as soon as he was seated.
At 6:37 a.m. the plane landed at Washington National Airport, and the legion’s special committee greeted Gibson. He was fighting mad, according to all accounts.
Before leaving Washington, he had given Rep. John Rankin of Mississippi authority to cast his vote in favor of the bill. As one of those opposed, Rankin had refused to cast Gibson’s absentee vote.
At 10 a.m., Gibson strode into the committee room and thundered, “Americans are dying today in Normandy in the greatest invasion in all history. I’m going to hold a press conference after this meeting and castigate anyone who dares to vote against the bill.”
No one did, and the bill went back to the House and Senate in the form the legion wanted. After it was passed by Congress, Roosevelt signed it into law on June 22.
In a recent interview from national legion headquarters in Indianapolis, spokesman John Raughter paid tribute to the pivotal role Gibson and his midnight ride played.
“Without that vote, there would be no GI Bill as we know it today,” Raughter said, adding that some people were opposed because of the cost and the fact the bill was color-blind at a time when society was not necessarily so.
Though it has changed form in subsequent years, billions of dollars in benefits have helped millions of veterans reenter civilian life.
Marvin Gibson, the congressman’s son and an orthopedic surgeon in Washington for many years, said in interviews that his father was a man who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. Gibson, who won the first of his three terms in 1940, was a leading proponent of the bill due to his own educational experiences and how much going to college helped him, he told relatives in Jacksonville and South Georgia. His father also was always for the underdog.
John Gibson, who was born in Charlton County in January 1893, was the youngest of 13 children. He moved to Douglas in 1920 where he graduated from Georgia State Normal College. He studied law through LaSalle Extension University and passed the bar exam on his first try because he had a photographic memory, said Marvin Gibson, who operated on thousands of veterans and died in 2014.
After becoming one of Georgia’s “most feared and respected attorneys,” Gibson was elected as solicitor general (equivalent to a district attorney today) of the Waycross Judicial Circuit in 1934, and his trials attracted large numbers of people who came to be entertained, relatives and others said.
In 2006 the legion’s headquarters in Indianapolis acknowledged Gibson’s contribution with a special tribute. There’s now a traveling exhibit that traces the story of the bill.
Gibson died in 1960 at age 67.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call sstrickland or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128