mark benjamin blows the whistle

Again, this time at TIME Magazine.  I count Benjamin as one of our era’s Ernie Pyles, from his Salon series on suicides at Camp Lejeune to his unflinching coverage of torture. And he’s kept on the Arlington Cemetery scandal with persistence and grace. Ernie Pyle crossed with Seymour Hersh: because when he sniff something wrong, he doesn’t let go.

You’ll be drily amused, as I was, as he peels off the layers of how the Army has sat on issues at Arlington for decades, it seems:

A copy of that 1997 inspector general report obtained by BATTLELAND shows some shocking deficiencies at the cemetery. It doesn’t say anything about not knowing where all the bodies are buried, which turned out to be the real scandal.  But it basically says that the Army knew back in 1997 that the cemetery was out of control in myriad ways under the Superintendent there, Jack Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham. The Army finally forced them out last summer, 13 years later.

And here is the kicker — the 1997 report follows yet another report that found problems back in 1992.

“The atmosphere of turmoil, distrust, mismanagement and poor employee morale has continued to the present,” the 1997 report says. “There is no indication that the superintendent has changed and employees have lost confidence in his leadership ability.”

God bless the honest IG that at least recorded the truth, for folks like Benjamin to unearth. Like misplaced graves.

 

Advertisements

today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.

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?”