News Highlights


• Military Times: Veteran unemployment rises again in June
• Military Times: VA to make public all employee firings
• WJFW: Camp American Legion holds memorial wall dedication for Medal of Honor recipient
• NYT: Iraqi Prime Minister Arrives in Mosul to Declare Victory Over ISIS
• Stripes: ‘Killed’ in Vietnam and buried with comrades, this Marine returned from the dead

Military Times: Veteran unemployment rises again in June
By: Natalie Gross, July 7, 2017

The first month of summer may have brought an extra 200,000 jobs for Americans, but veteran employment took a slight hit.

The unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 5.1 in June, up from 4.6 percent in May and the highest unemployment rate recorded for the group since January, according to the latest monthly employment figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Overall veteran unemployment also rose slightly over the previous month to 3.7 percent. It remains lower than the unemployment rate for nonveterans, which was 4.3 percent in June. Veteran unemployment figures have remained fairly steady in recent months, while data specific to veterans who served in the military after 9/11 have shown considerable fluctuation since the first of the year.

The volatility of the numbers are one reason experts say that any single month’s employment figures don’t provide an accurate picture of veterans in the job market. The veteran unemployment rate is based on a much smaller sample size in the agency’s Current Population Survey than is the overall rate.

The national unemployment rate was 4.4 percent last month, with the largest increases in jobs coming out of the health care, social assistance, finance and mining industries.

Military Times: VA to make public all employee firings
By: Leo Shane III, July 7, 2017
WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials on Friday announced plans to publicly list firings and demotions for any department employee as part of their pledge to bring more accountability to the bureaucracy.

In a statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin said the move shows that his department is focused on both improving veterans’ care and providing greater transparency into government operations.

“Veterans and taxpayers have a right to know what we’re doing to hold our employees accountable and make our personnel actions transparent,” he said. “Posting this information online for all to see, and updating it weekly, will do just that.”

All of the information will be posted on the website of the department’s new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, which was stood up this spring to monitor enforcement of VA employment rules and suggest additional changes to workplace disciplinary actions.

It comes just two weeks after President Trump signed into law sweeping new accountability rules for Veterans Affairs employees, including more dismissal authority for VA leaders and faster appeals times for pending punishments.

The measure drew broad bipartisan support, despite opposition from some union groups who said the moves eroded federal worker rights and ignored more serious underlying problems in the VA bureaucracy.
The initial list of disciplinary moves released by VA officials Friday dates back to Jan. 20, the start of Trump’s administration, and does not include any actions under the new firing authorities.

It does include nearly 750 punishments meted out over the last five months, including 526 dismissals. It does not include names of employees, for privacy reasons.

Similar lists of employee discipline have been made available to lawmakers and media in recent years, but not in a public website like the new initiative.

In addition to the new lists, Shulkin announced new rules requiring senior-level approval of any employee settlement more than $5,000. The department has come under criticism in recent years for large cash payouts to employees who challenged their firing or demotion.
“Taxpayers need to know that we will engage in good faith settlement negotiations where required by third parties, but will look to settle with employees only when they clearly have been wronged or when settlement is otherwise in veterans’ and taxpayers’ best interests, and not as a matter of ordinary business,” Shulkin said.

“We’re changing to a culture of accountability at VA, and this is an important step in that direction.”

VA officials are expected to announce new human resources policies in coming days to implement the new accountability legislation approved last month. Shulkin has said he does not expect the new authority to lead to “mass firings” at VA, but insists that disciplining problem employees is critical to department morale and public trust in the department.

WJFW: Camp American Legion holds memorial wall dedication for Medal of Honor recipient

LAKE TOMAHAWK – As dozens of hands touched a brick wall bearing his name, Gary Wetzel reached out with a prosthetic arm and thought of others.

“You reflect, yeah, you think, yeah, but it also makes you think about the people that aren’t here,” Wetzel said.

The Vietnam veteran and Medal of Honor recipient returned to Camp American Legion in Lake Tomahawk on Friday morning–about one year after a dedication ceremony for the nearby “Gary Wetzel Way” hiking trail–for a new dedication of a memorial wall at the trail’s entrance.

“What’s neat about it is that you’re alive for the dedication,” Wetzel said. “Normally it’s passed. So here I am.”

Here for Wetzel was in front of a wall that on the other end looks incomplete.

“It’s not all finished off yet, but at every corner, every turn, it starts to become more like this wall,” said Wisconsin American Legion Commander Daniel Seehafer.

Seehafer says the idea for the wall came from engineers with Local 139 who helped make the hiking trail in 2016.

“They were moved by it, it touched them,” Seehafer said. “They saw what they were doing as purpose. To help a veteran.”

The wall symbolizes a veterans working to rebuild their lives, healing wounds both physical and mental.

“In the healing process it’s not just one person. There’s others. There’s a family that has to be there to support,” Seehafer said. “I think that’s a powerful message.”

It’s a message that means this wall is for everyone, whether you served or not. That message is a big reason Karen Jorgenson drove four hours from Milwaukee to honor her father, uncles, and cousins.

“Say a prayer for everyone that is serving overseas, to make sure that they are safe from harm,” Jorgensen said.

Donations from American Legion posts, local businesses, and the engineer union paid for the wall, which now serves as an entryway to Wetzel’s eponymous trail. It’s yet another honor for the well-traveled veteran who hopes this wall doesn’t divide, but instead bring us all closer together.

“As long as anybody can go around and help folks out, put a smile on their face, a warmth in their heart, I guess that’s what it’s all about,” Wetzel said.

The Gary Wetzel Way Veterans Trail is a handicapped-accessible one-mile path. Wetzel hopes the wall offers hikers time to think about personal growth before they head into the woods.

NYT: Iraqi Prime Minister Arrives in Mosul to Declare Victory Over ISIS
MOSUL, Iraq — Dressed in a military uniform, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived here in Mosul on Sunday to congratulate Iraq’s armed forces for wresting the city from the Islamic State. The victory marked the formal end of a bloody campaign that lasted nearly nine months, left much of Iraq’s second-largest city in ruins, killed thousands of people and displaced nearly a million more.
While Iraqi troops were still mopping up the last pockets of resistance and could be facing guerrilla attacks for weeks, the military began to savor its triumph in the shattered alleyways of the old city, where the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, put up a fierce last stand.
Hanging over the declaration of victory is the reality of the hard road ahead. The security forces in Mosul still face dangers, including Islamic State sleeper cells and suicide bombers. And they must clear houses rigged with explosive booby traps so civilians can return and services can be restored.
Mosul was the largest city in either Iraq or Syria held by the Islamic State, and its loss signifies the waning territorial claims of a terrorist group that had its beginnings in the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The group is also threatened with the loss of its de facto capital, the Syrian city of Raqqa, which is encircled by Arab and Kurdish fighters supported by the United States.
But the end of the Islamic State’s hold on Mosul does not mean peace is at hand. Other cities and towns in Iraq remain under the militants’ control, and Iraqis expect an increase in terrorist attacks in urban centers, especially in the capital, Baghdad, as the group reverts to its insurgent roots.
“It’s going to continue to be hard every day,” said Col. Pat Work, the commanding officer of the Second Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, which is carrying out the American advisory effort here.
“Iraqi security forces need to be on the top of their game, and we need to be over their shoulder helping them as they move through this transition to consolidate gains and really sink their hold in on the west side,” Colonel Work said as he rolled through the streets of western Mosul recently in an armored vehicle. “ISIS will challenge this.”
The victory could have been sweeter as the Iraqis were denied the symbolism of hanging the national flag from the Grand al-Nuri Mosque and its distinctive leaning minaret, which was wiped from the skyline in recent weeks as a final act of barbarity by Islamic State militants who packed it with explosives and brought it down as government troops approached.
It was at that mosque in June 2014 where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi strode to the top of a pulpit and declared himself the leader of a caliphate straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria, a vast territory where for three years Islamist extremists have governed with a strict form of Islamic law, held women as sex slaves, carried out public beheadings and plotted terrorist attacks against the West.
This past week, as fighting raged nearby, Iraqi soldiers took selfies in front of the stump of the minaret and posed at the spot where Mr. Baghdadi made his speech. Destruction surrounded them, as did the stench of decaying bodies of Islamic State fighters, left to rot in the blazing sun.
The battle for Mosul began in October, after months of planning between Iraqis and American advisers, and some Obama administration officials had hoped it would conclude before they left office, giving a boost to the departing president’s efforts to defeat the Islamic State.
Instead, it lasted until now, and it was far more brutal than many expected. With dense house-to-house fighting and a ceaseless barrage of snipers and suicide bombers, the fight for Mosul was some of the toughest urban warfare since World War II, American commanders have said. Iraqi officers, whose lives have been defined by ceaseless war, said the fighting was among the worst they had seen.
“I have been with the Iraqi Army for 40 years,” said Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aradi, a commander of Iraq’s special forces. “I have participated in all of the battles of Iraq, but I’ve never seen anything like the battle for the old city.” He continued: “We have been fighting for each meter. And when I say we have been fighting for each meter, I mean it literally.”
Even as Mr. Abadi arrived here outfitted in the black uniform of Iraq’s elite Counterterrorism Service, Iraqi forces were pressing to erase a pocket of Islamic State resistance by the Tigris River. Speaking from his base in the old city, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, a senior commander in that service, said that the militants’ enclave was about 200 yards long and 50 yards wide and that he expected it to be taken later in the day or on Monday.
After arriving here, Mr. Abadi met with the Federal Police, who have taken significant losses in the battle, and went to visit the joint command overseeing the operation. But in an acknowledgment that the victory he had come to proclaim was not completely sealed, Iraqi officials said the prime minister would not make a public statement until the last patch of Islamic State territory in Mosul was cleared.
Earlier in the day, a post on Mr. Abadi’s official Twitter account stated that he had come to Mosul “to announce its liberation and congratulate the armed forces and Iraqi people on this victory.”
Some militants had sought to escape by swimming across the river, but General Saadi said his soldiers had shot them. The general said he had planted the Iraqi flag on the banks of the Tigris on Sunday morning — an act he described as a “special moment” in which he reflected on the many soldiers he had lost in the long battle.
The retaking of the city, by all accounts, came at a great cost. Sensitive to the mounting casualties, the Iraqi government does not disclose how many of its troops have been killed. But deaths among Iraqi security forces in the Mosul battle had reached 774 by the end of March, according to American officers, which suggests the toll is more than a thousand now.
Even more civilians are estimated to have been killed, many at the hands of the Islamic State and some inadvertently by American airstrikes. At least seven journalists were killed, including two French correspondents and their fixer, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist, in a mine explosion in recent weeks.
The Iraqis and their international partners will now be confronted by the immense challenge of restoring essential services like electricity and rebuilding destroyed hospitals, schools, homes and bridges, which were wrecked in the ground combat or by the airstrikes, artillery fire and Himars rocket attacks carried out by the American-led coalition to help Iraqi troops advance.
“When the fighting stops, the humanitarian crisis continues,” said Lise Grande, the deputy special representative for Iraq for the United Nations secretary general.
Western Mosul, especially its old city, where the Islamic State made its last stand, was hit particularly hard, becoming a gray and decimated landscape. As the combat has drawn to a close, thousands of civilians have begun to return. But 676,000 of those who left the western half of the city have yet to come back, according to United Nations data.
It is not hard to see why. Of the 54 neighborhoods in western Mosul, 15 neighborhoods that include 32,000 houses were heavily damaged, according to data provided by Ms. Grande. An additional 23 neighborhoods are considered to be moderately damaged. The cost of the near-term repairs and the more substantial reconstruction that is needed in Mosul has been estimated by United Nations experts at more than $700 million, she said.
In the heart of the old city, craters littered intersections and roadways, marking the places where bombs pummeled the ground, dropped from coalition warplanes. Street after street was covered in soaring piles of rubble, with rebar poking out of shattered masonry.
In a church used as a weapons-making factory by the Islamic State, mortars were lying on the ground next to a pink backpack decorated with a picture of a kitten. When troops unzipped the backpack, they found plastic sachets of a white explosive powder, which they identified as C4 used in militants’ bombs.
The military victory in Mosul has come without a political agreement between Iraq’s two largest communities, Sunni and Shiite Arabs, whose stark sectarian divisions led to the rise of the Islamic State. For many members of Iraq’s minority Sunnis, the Islamic State was seen as a protector against abuses they had suffered under Iraq’s Shiite-led government, especially under the former prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
After the Islamic State seized Mosul in 2014, many Sunnis welcomed them. Mr. Maliki was then removed from office, replaced by Mr. Abadi, a more moderate and less sectarian leader, but one widely viewed as weak. Under Mr. Abadi, there has been no meaningful reconciliation.
“I will leave Mosul because it has become a destroyed city,” said Aisha Abdullah, a teacher who endured life under the Islamic State. “In every corner of it there is memory and blood.”
And while the Islamic State, with its harsh rule, alienated many of the Sunni residents it sought to represent, residents said its ideology caught on among some of the population, particularly young men.
“There is no use in reconstructing the city if the people of Mosul don’t change,” Ms. Abdullah said. “There are still many people who assist ISIS, and the acts of violence will never end.”
Marwan Saeed, another Mosul resident, who lives in the city’s east side, which was liberated in January and where life has largely been restored to normal, with schools and shops reopening and most civilians returning home, said he feared for the future, now more than ever.
“Frankly, I’m desperate over the future,” he said. “ISIS destroyed the people’s mentality, and the wars destroyed the infrastructure, and we paid the price. There is no such thing as the phase ‘after ISIS.’ ISIS is a mentality, and this mentality will not end with guns alone.”
Iraqi forces still have to retake several Islamic State strongholds: Hawija and Tal Afar in northern Iraq and a series of towns in Iraq’s Euphrates River valley, stretching from Anah to Qaim.
While this is happening, Syrian fighters backed by American firepower are to complete the taking of Raqqa before moving to surround and kill the militants in Euphrates River towns on the Syrian side of the border.
“Mosul and Raqqa is not the end of it by any stretch of the imagination,” said Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Croft, a senior Air Force officer with the American-led task force that is fighting the Islamic State.
And there is the fear that many Islamic State fighters who were not captured or killed had simply put down their guns and blended in with the civilian population, to live to fight another day.
The wives of Islamic State fighters also pose a risk. In the last week, a woman holding a baby and wearing a long-sleeved robe that disguised a hand-held detonator tried to blow herself up as she approached an Iraqi soldier, said Second Lt. Muntather Laft, a media officer with the Counterterrorism Service.
“Do you know that most of the ISIS fighters have shaved their beards and took off their clothes, and now they are free?” said Zuhair Hazim al-Jibouri, a member of Mosul’s local council.

Stripes: ‘Killed’ in Vietnam and buried with comrades, this Marine returned from the dead

By MICHAEL E. RUANE | The Washington Post | Published: July 8, 2017

HALLETTSVILLE, Texas — Ronald Ridgeway was “killed” in Vietnam on Feb. 25, 1968.
The 18-year-old Marine Corps private first class fell with a bullet to the shoulder during a savage firefight with the enemy outside Khe Sanh.
Dozens of Marines, from what came to be called “the ghost patrol,” perished there.

At first, Ridgeway was listed as missing in action. Back home in Texas, his old school, Sam Houston High, made an announcement over the intercom.

But his mother, Mildred, had a letter from his commanding officer saying there was little hope. And that August, she received a “deeply regret” telegram from the Marines saying he was dead.

On Sept. 10, he was buried in a national cemetery in St. Louis. A tombstone bearing his name and the names of eight others missing from the battle was erected over the grave. His mother went home with a folded American flag.

But as his comrades and family mourned, Ron Ridgeway sat in harsh North Vietnamese prisons for five years, often in solitary confinement, mentally at war with his captors and fighting for a life that was technically over.

Last month, almost 50 years after his supposed demise, Ridgeway, 68, a retired supervisor with Veterans Affairs, sat in his home here and recounted for the first time in detail one of the most remarkable stories of the Vietnam War.

As the United States marks a half-century since the height of the war in 1967 and ’68, his “back-from-the-dead” saga is that of a young man’s perseverance through combat, imprisonment and abuse.
He was 17 when he signed up with the Marines in 1967. He was 18 when he was captured, 19 when his funeral was held and 23 when he was released from prison in 1973.

“You have to be willing to take it a day at a time,” he said. “You have to set in your mind that you’re going to survive. You have to believe that they are not going to defeat you, that you’re going to win.”

– – –

About 9:30 on the morning of Feb. 25, Pfc. Ridgeway’s four-man fireteam charged an enemy trench line.

The curving trench seemed empty when they got there. But as Ridgeway and the others made their way along it, suddenly an enemy grenade dropped in.

“We back around the curve,” he recalled. “It blows up.”

“We throw a couple grenades,” he said. “We backed off. . . . Then we realized the firing [from Marines] behind us had almost died down to nothing.”

When they stood up to look around, they saw North Vietnamese soldiers walking through the underbrush toward them. “I guess they thought we were all dead,” he said.
“We cut loose on them,” he recalled. “They were easy targets.”

Ridgeway had been part of a platoon of about 45 men sent out from the besieged Khe Sanh combat base, in what was then northern South Vietnam, to find enemy positions, and perhaps capture a prisoner.

The enemy’s noose around the Marine base had been tightening, with heavy mortar and artillery fire, and the patrol was hazardous. Six thousand Americans were surrounded by 20,000 to 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.

On that foggy morning, the patrol’s leader, 2nd Lt. Donald Jacques, 20, strayed off course and was drawn into a deadly ambush, Jacques’s company commander, Capt. Kenneth Pipes, said.

More than two dozen Marines, including Jacques, were killed.

One of the Marines in the trench with Ridgeway, James Bruder, 18, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, was cut down as the enemy returned fire, according to author Ray Stubbe’s book about Khe Sanh, “Battalion of Kings.”

“Stitched him across the chest and killed him,” Ridgeway remembered.

The fire team leader, Charles Geller, 20, of East St. Louis, Illinois, took a peek, and a bullet creased his forehead, knocking him down.

“Everybody’s dead,” Geller said, according to Stubbe’s book. “Everybody behind us is dead. . . . What are we going to do?”

They had to retreat. Geller left first, running back across the field where they had charged, followed by Ridgeway.

The son of a Southern Pacific railroad worker, Ridgeway came from a working-class neighborhood of Houston. He had a younger brother.

His parents were divorced. He had left high school and joined the Marines because “I wanted to get away,” he recalled.

As he and Geller ran to the rear, they came upon Willie Ruff, 20, of Columbia, South Carolina, who was lying on his back with a broken arm.

“We were in a hurry,” Ridgeway said. “But we stopped. He was wounded.”

As Geller knelt beside Ruff, a bullet hit Geller in the face, leaving a terrible wound. Then Ridgeway was struck by a round that went through his shoulder. All three men were now down.

“All we could do was lay there and play dead,” he said. “We were in the wide open.”
Ridgeway said he drifted in and out of consciousness. When Geller, who was delirious, got to his knees, the enemy threw a grenade, killing him.

Ridgeway said the North Vietnamese then began shooting at Marines who had fallen in front of their trenches. “They’re popping the bodies to make sure they’re dead,” he said.
One bullet hit the dirt near him. A second glanced off his helmet and struck him the buttock, he said.

“When that hit, it jarred the body,” he said. “They figured they got me. Left me for dead and kept working their way down past me.”

Ridgeway passed out again. When he woke up, it was dark and American artillery was pounding the area.

Ruff said he had been hit again and begged Ridgeway not to leave him. Ridgeway said he wouldn’t. At some point that night, Ruff died.

Ridgeway was awakened the following morning by someone pulling on his arm. He thought at first it was fellow Marines.

But when he looked up, he realized it was a young North Vietnamese soldier trying to pull off his wristwatch.

– – –

After the firefight, the shattered survivors of the patrol made it back to the combat base, and the dead were left on the battlefield.

A rescue mission was deemed unwise by higher-ups, who feared losing even more men and depleting the base’s defenses, according to Pipes, who is now retired and lives in California.

In a telephone interview, he said that with binoculars, he could see Marines’ bodies strewn on the battlefield. “It was worse than agony,” he said. No further patrols outside the combat base were immediately permitted.

“We couldn’t go get them,” he said. “They laid out there for six weeks.”
On March 17, he wrote to Ridgeway’s mother: “I am sorry that I can offer no tangible basis for hope concerning Ronald’s welfare.”

Finally, on April 6, the Marines were able to return to the battlefield, Pipes said.
What was left of the dead was brought back to Khe Sanh’s temporary morgue, where Pipes and others went about the grisly task of identifying the dead. “There wasn’t much there but bones and shoes and boots . . . [and] dog tags,” he said.

In the end, of the 26 missing and presumed killed in action on Feb. 25, remains of all but nine were positively identified, according to Pipes and Stubbe.

The unassociated body parts were sent home and placed in two caskets that would be buried beneath a large tombstone bearing the nine names of those unaccounted for, Stubbe said.

The day of the funeral at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery was sunny and cool. Ridgeway’s mother attended, and there were flags and solemn honors. A newspaper photographer took pictures.

Far away, in North Vietnam, the rainy season was on, and Ridgeway was in his seventh month as a POW.

– – –

As he sat alone in his windowless cell beside a wooden bed and the bucket he used for waste, Ridgeway went about creating a “make-believe” life.
There was no one to talk to, and he was only allowed out once a day to empty the bucket.

So he imagined that he was somewhere else, that he owned a pickup truck, that he had a wife and children, that he would go fishing.

It was a mental exercise, he said, and he found that spending three days in his make-believe world would take up a whole day in solitary.

Ridgeway said that by then, his captors considered him a “die-hard reactionary” and all Marines “animals.”

He hadn’t cooperated with his guards. He had lied to interrogators, pretended he was green kid who had never fired his rifle and gave them bogus military information.

The startled North Vietnamese soldier had locked and loaded his rifle when he realized Ridgeway was alive that morning.

Ridgeway expected to be killed. “You didn’t hear about prisoners being taken,” he said. But he was bandaged, fed and marched away, through Laos and into North Vietnam.

He spent time in several jungle camps, held in wooden leg stocks, and he eventually wound up in enemy prisons.

He got lice, malaria and dysentery and lost 50 pounds. He wore pink-and-gray-striped POW pajamas and rubber sandals, all of which he brought home with him when he was freed.

He was beaten with bamboo canes and tied up during interrogations.
One interrogator the Americans named “Cheese” – because he seemed to be the big cheese – was especially cruel.

He spoke English and sat up on a high chair as he questioned POWs tied on the floor. When he nodded his head, a guard would strike the prisoner with the bamboo cane.
He had a face like a rat, Ridgeway recalled, and was a “mean . . . sadistical son of a b—-.”

Ridgeway said he didn’t dwell on the notion that people back home might think he was dead. They would be fine. His job was to survive.

In January 1973, he was in North Vietnam’s notorious Hanoi Hilton prison when his captors abruptly announced that the POWs were to be freed as part of a peace agreement before the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

When the list of POWs being released became public, Ridgeway’s name was on it.
Back in Houston, his mother banged on a neighbor’s door and said, “Ronnie’s alive!”

– – –

Ron Ridgeway was released on March 16, 1973. He came home, got married and went to college.

“I came back in basically one piece,” he said. “I came back able to live my life. . . . We went over with a job to do. We did it to the best of our ability. We were lucky enough to come back.”

Several months after his return, he and his wife, Marie, went to Jefferson Barracks to see his tombstone, which was later replaced.

“It brought back memories,” he said. “The loss of life of those that I knew. It was a solemn experience.”

Carved in the surface were the words “Ambushed Patrol Died in Vietnam Feb. 25, 1968.”

Eight names from the top: Ronald L. Ridgeway.