My letter to Reality

IMG_20180309_092047.jpgIt appears that I won’t get that phone interview with the main character in my upcoming story. In my effort to do so, I sent the following letter, with a SASE, to the place where she’s being detained. Posting it below, and hoping she still appreciated hearing from me.

Reality Winner, 3342,

Lincoln County Jail

P.O. Box 970, Lincolnton, GA  3081

Dear Ms. Winner,

I’m sending this on International Women’s Day, which feels appropriate: you’re a woman of great courage, as well as strength and energy.

You don’t know me yet, but I was one of those wearing carnations at your hearing last week. I’m grateful that your family welcomed me to “Stand With Reality,” and encouraged me to write to you. They know that I’ve spent the past 10 years writing a book about veterans, some as young as you. A few have had experiences similar to yours, too — and cheered me on as I headed to Georgia for last week’s hearing. I’m hoping that you’ll write back to me, and eventually consider calling me collect so you don’t have to write responses to my questions,

Getting ready to write this, I reread your Twitter feed, to get a sense of your voice. Much of what you RTed felt like it could have been mine, especially the stuff about Standing Rock. And your election night post was pure poetry.

And your mom knows I really felt it when I learned your bio-dad died six months before The Troubles. My wife’s dad died last spring, and she’s only now having times when she doesn’t grieve him every day. (The sweetest guy in the world, a Coast Guard vet and retired firefighter, he also died of COPD, so I even know a little of how those final weeks felt.)

I’d love to hear more about  Mr. Winner. Some of the questions that popped in my mind  How did he react when you joined the Air Force? Did you share thoughts about the 2016 election, while it was going on?  Was it his COPD that trapped him in a wheelchair? Were you able to be there when he died?

I’m curious about a lot more, of course — from how it felt to go from Texas to Monterey to Fort Meade– Did you miss the South, is that why you chose Augusta when you were discharged?– to how a brilliant desk-jockey like you stayed a jock, from playing soccer school to Crossfit and yoga. Did you take up Crossfit at DLI or at Fort Meade? And why CF AND yoga? To me they seem like opposite approaches to fitness. Why do both?

If I were a potential student (and a lot younger ;-), how would you explain the combination? Did you need both to manage the stress of your AF missions? I’ve read and thought a lot about movement, especially dance,  as a way to know who we are. Is that why you like to teach it?

I’m sorry if that’s too many questions; I know answering them on paper likely feels like work.  I’d be deeply honored to hear from you. I hope the weather down in Augusta has gotten less swampy, though even that sounds awesome right now from my snowy Philadelphia street.

 

Sincerely,

Chris Lombardi

Chris L

One last #Justice4Reality post: Word is out

If I thought I was breaking a story by going to Georgia last week, I was mistaken. More and more are learning about this young veteran, and supporting Stand with Reality. You should check out that page and bookmark it, especially during this lag time between last week and Winner’s trial. There’s also an active Facebook page and multiple Twitter hashtags, including #Justice4Reality and a #Tweetstorm that last week garnered 22 million views. Winner’s mom, Billie, then broke multiple hearts by going on “Democracy Now”:

That segment also contained the invaluable perspective of Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof, whose revelations I mentioned in the previous post.

I’ll end this one with some notes from the page on which I had started to write about last week’s hearing, before I was informed I couldn’t bring it into the courtroom: Augusta, GA is in some ways a typical military town, wide highways surrounding a downtown of red brick buildings. The hotel I’m staying in is mostly inhabited by weekly and monthly residents; behind me, a common terminal, a quiet young woman is paying bills. We’re close to Fort Gordon, but the feel is less military than melancholy Middle America. At the reception desk, a lovely woman of South Asian descent speaks quick Hindi (?) into the phone.

I hope to return to that town (if not to that particular hotel). It did, and does, feel an oddly appropriate gateway into that world where “Cyber Excellence” means not cute cat pics and FaceTime but information warfare.

reality winner and the politics of grief

What comes to your mind when you hear the name Reality Leigh Winner?

i asked on social media, and got a range of responses: including “Exploited mistaken fool” and “traitor.” No one mentioned anything on my list, but  that’s OK: The words that cram my mind are both predictable and self-contradictory. Power lifter?Millennial? Russia? Trump? “That’s really a name?” Veteran? Drone analyst? Prisoner?Defendant? Security clearance?

For now, I’m settling on two: Veteran and Whistleblower.   That’s Winner in the spring of 2017, when she came across evidence (since publicly confirmed) that the Russian government had successfully hacked into some U.S. voter registration lists. She was spending her days, as an intelligence contractor, facilitating drone strikes in the Middle East, which under Trump have escalated the number of civilian casualties. She was doing that job while she sought opportunities to do humanitarian work overseas, where she might make amends for that damage. Her interest in doing so is now seen by prosecutors as “anti-American,” of which another veteran said to me last night: “Hey, I’ve gone abroad, I’ve done humanitarian work. Am I anti-American too?”

Kerry Howley’s  amazing New York Magazine Winner profile  quotes her boyfriend, about her work on drones: “It was definitely traumatizing…You’re watching people die. You have U.S. troops on the ground getting shot at, you miss something, a bomb goes off, and you get three people killed.” I thought of Brandon Bryant, Heather Linebaugh, and Lisa Ling when I read that. (Those names should be familiar to readers of this blog, as well as from the films National Bird and the underrated DRONE.)

The 2017 leak attributed to Winner, published by The Intercept, had nothing to do with drone strikes,  but the connection is clear to me. If there’s reason to mistrust the president who’d have been her commander-in-chief had she not left the military in 2016, she found reasons for that mistrust in her job as a contractor . She likely knew enough about the whistleblowers I’ve covered here to sense that official channels didn’t exist for what she wanted: an open discussion of these facts.

Another keyword that occurred to me, largely from the Howley profile: grieving daughter. My father-in-law died last spring, giving me a front-row seat to my wife’s journey through the year after. Winner’s father died on December 21, 2016. She wrote in a letter to Howley, “I lost my confidant, “someone who believed in me, my anger, my heartbreak, my life-force. It was always us against the world … It was Christmastime and I had to go running to cry to hide it from the family.” If her FBI investigators had any emotional intelligence, they could have evaluated her rage-filled anti-Trump social media posts with that searing fact in mind, especially since December 2016 was also when the Trump campaign became our political reality.

Instead, they’ve approached her from day one as an enemy combatant, not entitled to Miranda rights or other Constitutional protections. Most recently, they responded to a motion from her attorneys by holding a private session with the judge and the Classified Security Officer, whose proceedings are too secret for you and me.

I wonder how that session will affect this month’s hearing in Augusta, Georgia, on that same motion. I plan on being there to find out.

The sins we carry: Eric Fair’s CONSEQUENCE

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/472964974/473004679

consequencecoverI pre-ordered this book after seeing an op-ed by its author, and spent the past day and a half tearing through it. The name of his former employer, CACI,had long since been for me code for “detainee abuse,” and I had tried to write an article based on the company’s misdeeds when applying for a business-reporting fellowship for J-school (won by the far more deserving and-kick-ass Moira Herbst).  By then, the Center for Constitutional Rights’ 2004 lawsuit against CACI on behalf of detainees was in the news, and going through the now-familiar paces of wars over classified information and webs of culpability.

The New York Times calls CONSEQUENCE “profoundly unsettling.” I think I can safely say that or those of us for whom the words “Abu Ghraib,”CACI” and even “torture” have become drearily familiar, it’s also quietly mindblowing.

In prose that simultaneously recalls Michael Herr,  Charles Bukowski (the latter for the use of profanity) and Pilgrim’s Progress, Fair’s narrative makes you feel for this young Presbyterian who joins the Army to prepare for a career in law enforcement and ends up an employee of CACI, described by Fair as a mixture of Kafka and the Keystone Kops. But just as the reader is trying to absorb this new picture of CACI, Fair takes you to Abu Ghraib — first the muddy tents that shocked Aidan Delgado, then a moment in the “hard site” we all think we’ve seen.

There’s an aha! moment after CID tries to talk to everyone working in that site and Fair’Bs team realizes by elimination which soldier is about to blow the whistle: Joe Darby, who several months later “the Army will then place in protective custody” after SecDef Rumsfeld publicly thanks him for leaking those damaging Abu Ghraib photos.
I’ve been trying to embed Fair’s interview with Terry Gross above; if that doesn’t work you might want to click on the link and just listen. She gets him talking about the heart condition that almost killed him (for real), his faith journey and so much more.

I, of course, want to ask him different questions. I want to know if he’s ever spoken to a New York attorney named Aidan Delgado, who completed an entire conscientious-objector claim while working at another part of AG, and whether his pastor-wannabe self has touched base with the Brite Divinity School’s Soul Repair Center. He never uses the term “moral injury,” and I’d like to know why. I’d also encourage him to accept the help my friend Joshua Phillips has offered him, since we both see common agonies as described in Joshua’s book about soldiers who’ve tortured, None of Us Were Like This Before.  After reading the latter book, I did wonder about the inner lives of contractors like Fair, and am both glad and deeply sorry to have been so richly answered.

Would also LOVE to curate a discussion among Fair, Delgado and Phillips, in which my words would be the least important.

 

Just read. Leon Panetta, there’s an epidemic on and your job to deal with it.

At Common Dreams, Annette Bonsignore asks the questionI hadn’t got around to: ” Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?” She lays out the challenge very well:

The media now has an opportunity to confront and question the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  Will the media give him a pass too?  Will the media continue to ignore those in Congress that have been addressing the issue?  On June 9th Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) questioned Panetta about the rape and sexual assault crisis – but where was the media coverage?  Oh, that’s right the media frenzy over Representative Weiner’s “crisis” was blanketing the airwaves.  Panetta’s boiler plate “zero tolerance” policy response to Senator McCaskill needs to be questioned as well as the ongoing narrative that women are the only victims of sexual violence in the military.

I’m starting by sending you to her. Read it, then forward it to your Congresscritter and ‘cc our new SecDef.

PTSD in contractors? Who’s surprised?

Yeah, those guys in the fancy non-uniforms and big paychecks and company names that sound like something out of “Caprica.” I’d guessed this was coming; now, see ProPublica’s new investigation of the issue here.

I also commented on their study at my new Alternet blog. From now on, the current-affairs stuff here will often originate there, and vice versa. But only here can you see bits and pieces of the book in process, and tell me what I’m doing wrong.

Two medical whistleblower stories today

Newest first: Mark Benjamin’s story about a Camp Lejeune psychiatrist who was booted after going public with concerns about PTSD treatment practices.

In one instance last April, for example, Manion warned Cmdr. Robert O’Byrne, head of mental health at the Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital, of “immediate concerns of physical safety” due to mistreated Marines teetering on the edge of violence. “There was — and continues to be — no means of discussion of high-intensity/dangerous cases,” he wrote. Later that month, Manion quoted to O’Byrne some Marine superiors who were calling troubled Marines “worthless pieces of shit” if they sought help.

Manion’s reward for raising important issues? He’s a contractor with Spectrum Healthcare, a company that touts a “gold star from the Joint Chiefs” on its website, which is itself a subsidiary of a corporation with over a million in DOD contracts and the Sesame Street-tinged name NiteLines Kuhana. Manion was pulled from Lejeune after a simple note from the DOD:

The contractor told Salon that the Navy ordered Manion fired on Sept. 3, four days after Manion wrote the inspectors general. “The treatment facility at Camp Lejeune notified [NiteLines] that Dr. Manion did not meet the Government’s requirements in accordance with the contract, and they directed he be removed from the schedule,” it reads. His termination dated that day notice provides no explanation.

Afterward, as the intrepid Benjamin (who must have more than one therapist for all his secondary PTSD, having exposed so much soldiers’ pain) learned, Manion’s positive evaluations appear to have been altered to make them negative, and the originals ordered destroyed. The uniformed dissenter here is the lieutenant commander who refused to play along, telling the base attorney that “Kernan Manion was considered clinically competent to practice general psychiatry…I had no specific concerns about his judgment or ethical conduct” and adding that he’d been ordered to sign the eval after “drastic” changes.

And from NPR yesterday comes another about physical illness, via  the invaluable Kelly Kennedy at Military Times.  She was talking about how in the first few years of our Iraq occupation, trash — including medical equipment and ordnance –was all going into burn pits, of the kind long banned in the U.S. because of health hazards. Kennedy said that when Military Times began to run articles about one such burn pit, in Balad, they received hundreds of letters from recent vets saying they were having breathing problems. (The headline in Army Times adds, somewhat unsurprisingly: “Officials deny risk.”)

When I think of Balad, of course, I think of all those “third-country nationals” I mentioned last month here, who are feeding and cleaning soldiers on those bases, many  under duress. But Congress finally got  involved, and Kennedy said optimistically to NPR:

I think in this case, you’ve got President Obama saying we’re not going to let this become another Agent Orange. You’ve got Congress calling for measures to be taken. You’ve got General Shinseki at the VA saying we’re going to take care of these guys. I think there’s enough people paying attention …and demanding help that it’s going to be taken care of.

Do you agree? And what would constitute “taking care” of it?

In an odd way I don’t envy the guys trying to shush these whistleblowers. The task of simultaneously caring well for a community of two million-plus scattered all around the world while running two wars — even if you outsource the taking-care part — is not just a “challenge,”  especially when a substantial portion of that caring is about cleaning up after your own mess.

But the true compassion, as ever, is reserved for the guys who took a pledge just as sacred as the military oaths in question. Remember “do no harm?”