Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ross Katz Talks With About the HBO Film TAKING CHANCE

Ross Katz, the director and co-writer of the HBO film TAKING CHANCE, was the guest on a very special edition of the BlogTalkRadio show that Nancy Brown and I co-host. I don't usually share the recordings of our shows on this blog, but this show was so compelling that I want to share the interview.

Katz has been interviewed by many people about this film, and both Nancy and I have read several reviews as well as seen this amazing film. Yet there was one question that I didn't find the answer to anywhere: How did the producer of LOST IN TRANSLATION and IN THE BEDROOM come to have the opportunity to direct and co-write TAKING CHANCE?

I'm pleased to announce that Katz shared the answer with our listeners. And you'll want to hear his answer, which sheds light on just how committed he became to this true story.

Listen to the half-hour show now of Ross Katz talking about the HBO film TAKING CHANCE.

Warning: You may want to have some tissues nearby.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mea Culpa: I Trust a Newspaper Article to Be Accurate

On Tuesday I got a Facebook message from Colonel Martin Newman DL, vice chairman - Jewish Committee for Her Majesty’s Forces, letting me know about the major inaccuracies in the Jewish Chronicle newspaper article on which I had based my February 18th post about the U.K. just now getting its first full-time Jewish chaplain for Her Majesty's Forces.

I've now set the record straight with a guest post from Colonel Newman. Read the true story of Jewish chaplains in Her Majesty's Forces.

P.S. The photo above is of U.K. Jewish military personnel attending a weekend conference this winter

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Senior Airman Natalie Lopez: Growing Up a Daddy’s Girl

The previous guest post was by Emma Lopez, who is the mother of Natalie Lopez, a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force’s security forces. The photo above is of Natalie atop a Humvee in Afghanistan. Now here’s Natalie’s story:

Growing up a daddy’s girl, I was intrigued with my dad’s stories as a Marine in Vietnam. I wanted to be like him, but I respected his wishes and did not join the Marine Corps. Then in 2006 I joined the Air Force.

Graduating from high school with three years of Air Force ROTC under my belt, I knew a little about the military. I have always felt that God placed me here to help him change the world, and I felt that by joining the military I could do just that.

I, like many other women in the military, have faced challenges in my career, and one of these was that of others doubting my work. I’ve had a chain of command that trusted in me and as a result I was very successful.

On the other side, I’ve had a chain of command that seemed to doubt me, and it is very frustrating trying to stay consistently motivated. These are the times I have to stop and remind myself that I must focus and prove that I am capable of being the best at what I do.

Although the hardest part of my job is being away from my loved ones, having to make split-second decisions is crucial. The level of responsibility that the Air Force places on me as a young military member in this career field is important, whether it be in a deployed environment, where it’s life or death, or in stateside security forces where the wrong choice also results in consequences.

Other than just learning how to face challenges, I have learned to keep things in perspective and committed. I’ve always been taught that, once I commit myself, I must follow through. I don’t think I really got it until I joined the military.

As part of my job, I’m constantly thinking about the benefits of the Air Force for young females and Latinas, and I think the most important message to get across is the one that I have repeatedly told myself. I can get skills that I didn’t know I had, and then make use of those back in civilian work. I can go back to the community and be a teacher, go to law school, become a policeman or fireman. I don’t have to decide on the rest of my life; I have joined the United States Air Force.

One thing I am certain to have acquired from military life is leadership. There is a lot of focus on leadership development. I’m trained to be a leader through leadership study and getting “hands-on” training on a daily basis due to the nature of the military rank structure, which allows an opportunity to lead. As you move up in rank, you continue to refine and develop your leadership style.

Being a veteran of both Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, I believe that there is nothing that can hold individuals back except themselves. The harder you work, the more you will get. Don’t wait for praise. Work until you are satisfied with yourself.

Ultimately, I believe that God has given me the strength to overcome the challenges in not only my career but in my personal life. He has also placed great people in my path that have helped me along my journey.

For the females and Latinas who are entering the workforce, my advice is to “surround yourself with friends and mentors that will provide help and guidance along the way.”

Emma Lopez Shares About Being the Mother of a Soldier: A Mother’s Life Changes

Emma Lopez, who has her own blog A Mom of a Daughter Soldier, talks about being the mother of a soldier – Natalie Lopez, who is shown above at sniper school. Natalie’s guest post will appear here next.

I have never been to war, but I have sent a child. Twice.

My husband is a Marine, a Vietnam veteran. My son is in the Army. My daughter is in the Air Force Security.

I received many encouraging words from moms when I mention that watching a child go to war is the most heartbreaking event a parent can endure. I spent my child’s growing up years making sure she knew right from wrong and, hopefully, I have taught her life’s values.

I guess the feelings are the same for those left behind when it is a wife or a husband that leaves. Yet, I can assure you that the intensity is different. It’s a feeling that only mothers can identify with.

We, as parents, smile bravely as our own soldiers leave, and we tell ourselves, “Be strong, we’ll find the strength.” The truth is we find only distractions from our pain. We go through our daily routines, and we attempt to maintain some serenity, but life has changed for us.

I think about my daughter all day in everything I do. When I eat, I wonder what she is eating. Is she eating a hot meal or a cold meal? I shop to send items my daughter needs.

I put together a care package, and I stand in long lines at the post office to mail it. As I wait my turn, I talk about her to anyone who listens. The pictures are pulled out, and everyone wants a glimpse of one of our heroes. I pray for her safety, and all those soldiers overseas.

I learn to use computers, cell phones, webcams, and other available technology in order to stay in touch with her. I listen for my computer to make that distinct sound (a ring, ring) which announces that my daughter is online. I hear my phone make that special sound my daughter programmed into the cell phone so I would know it is she on the other end.

Standing in line, people around me smile when I explain, “It’s my daughter. She’s calling from Iraq.” Many times, people tell me, “Thank your daughter for me.”

Let the soldiers know you care. Don’t hesitate to shake the hand of soldiers when you see them walking down the street, taking a subway, or riding a bus. They will feel grateful for that one small gesture -- their sacrifices noticed, their efforts rewarded.


“God Bless America.”

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nancy Brown Reports: Blog Talk Radio Featured 3 of Your Military Life Guests

Nancy Brown of on her wrote the following post on Feb. 20th. As I am as excited about this news as Nancy is, I wanted to share Nancy's blog post with my blog readers:

My co-host Phyllis Zimbler Miller and I have experienced some great guests on our featured Blog Talk Radio talk show Your Military Life. In fact, Blog Talk Radio has featured 3 of our shows for the entire day on the Blog Talk Radio home page!

Our first featured show was Dec. 15th. Our guest was Jared Still, director of the Soldier Wish campaign and senior vice president of Special Projects with Wishy, Inc. Soldier Wish is a non-profit initiative that lets supporters make tax-deductible donations that go directly to grant "wishes" for our troops and their families. Soldiers are signing up right now and placing wishes for themselves and their families. To learn more on how you can help, please visit

Our second featured show was on Jan. 13th, and our guest was Andrew Lubin. He is an author and journalist and has been embedded with the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan for 12 of the last 30 months. He is the author of "Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq." His topic was: Afghanistan - Are We Winning or Losing? He also discussed his book and the experiences he had as he was embedded with the soldiers.

He will be going back overseas in April to be embedded once again and is funding the trip on his own. If you would like to assist him, he is using the proceeds of his book sale to help defray the costs of his trip. The book is fantastic and you will enjoy it. Andrew came back on our show on Feb. 5th and discussed the ramifications of closing Guantanamo Bay. To learn more about Andrew Lubin, please visit

(Note: Andrew Lubin has agreed to be a regular guest on the Your Military Life talk show beginning this May. Visit our host page for more details.)

The third Your Military Life show that Blog Talk Radio featured was this week, Feb. 17th. Our guest was Karen Driscoll, Marine wife and mother of three small children, one of whom has autism. Karen is working to educate and raise awareness with senior military leadership and Congress to effect the comprehensive health care coverage changes that military families with autism require.

If you would like to become a guest on our show, please email Nancy Brown at Our half hour shows are held live twice a week on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time. We do the radio interviews on the telephone and over the Internet so you can do the interview from the comfort of your home. We are booked solid through April and are now booking guests for May and June.

The topic can be ANYTHING military, and once the show is completed you can download the podcast to your blog or website and even send to friends or clients.

And if you have your own blog, you can go to the host page and get the cute widget you see in the right-hand column of this blog. Put this widget on your blog to keep up-to-date with our informative Blog Talk Radio shows.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

PTSD Featured on Upcoming BlogTalkRadio Shows of

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a subject that I take very seriously. While at a conference this weekend I met a professional who uses music therapy to help people with PTSD. I’m planning for Nancy Brown of and I to interview the music therapist on our BlogTalkRadio show

On March 10th Nancy and I will be interviewing Heather Hummert from -- “dedicated to helping our heroes and their loved ones survive and thrive after combat.”

And on April 28th Nancy and I will be interviewing Bob Page, Chief Petty Officer, United States Navy Reserve. His presentation “Iraq Never Leaves Us” is on the website of the National Center for PTSD with a viewer discretion warning. Here’s the into to the presentation:
In this presentation, Bob Page shares his story to provide the viewer with an “up-close and personal” view of “What’s it like over there?” in the combat theater of Iraq via his personal photos. NOTE: This special feature is not a course, but instead a story of one veteran's experiences.

Bob Page is a husband, father, veteran, and, in his civilian career in the television and broadcasting industry, an Emmy Award (4) and AP award winner. During his numerous Active Duty and Marine Reserve periods, Bob has served in several theaters including Beirut, Lebanon; Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield; and in the battles of An Nasiriya, Al Kut, and the liberation of Baghdad, Iraq.

Like many combatants, Bob must manage his PTSD and associated symptoms. Since 2004, Bob has been receiving counseling at a Vet Center and states, “I continue to work hard to heal so I can be the best husband, father and Sailor I can be.”
Tonight my daughter Yael showed me the parts from the newest episode of television show GREY’S ANATOMY that deal with former army major Dr. Owen Hunt and his PTSD from being an army doctor in Iraq. Dr. Hunt explains why he can’t tell his mother that he’s back from Iraq because of his PTSD – she would be upset that the son she saw off to war is no longer the same person.

If you missed Yael’s guest blog post ”PTSD: Achilles in Vietnam and the TV Show Grey’s Anatomy,” read it now.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

England’s Ministry of Defense to Appoint First Full-Time Jewish Chaplain

(Jewish Chronicle photo of British Colonel Martin Newman)

This past weekend I spoke at a conference about my project Operation Support Jews in the Military. And I met two young men from London who shared with me a February 12th newspaper article from the U.K.’s The Jewish Chronicle – “Wanted: a chaplain for the armed forces” by Marcus Dysch.
The Ministry of Defence [MoD] is to appoint its first full-time Jewish chaplain to the armed forces.

He will be expected to advise on religious issues, organise services for Jewish personnel and arrange kosher rations.

Jewish servicemen and women are the last to receive a dedicated chaplain, with Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Sikh padres already employed by the MoD.

Jonathan Woodhouse, MoD deputy chaplain-general, said the appointment was “essential”.

The number of Jewish personnel in the armed forces is thought to be in the low hundreds, but includes troops now serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Martin Newman, of the Jewish Committee for HM [Her Majesty's] Forces, believes the number of troops is “small but significant”, and growing.
Now as an American Jew, here’s the part of the article that I found most interesting, and this also perhaps explains why the U.K. already had Buddhist and Sikh chaplains and no Jewish chaplain.
“Because the [forces] community has become more active in recent years, people are coming out of the woodwork and changing their records to show they are Jewish,” he [Newman} said.

“If someone in the forces says they are Jewish then we need to be in a position to give them the best possible support we can.”

Lynette Nusbacher, senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, said: “For a very long time service personnel hid the fact they were Jewish. They are a bit less likely to do that now the MoD’s commitment to diversity has been demonstrated.

“For many years members of the services would take leave for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur and go back to their family. So rather than be affiliated with a Jewish community in the armed forces, they were affiliated with their family synagogue.”

But with personnel now regularly serving in operational theatres of war around the world, Dr. Nusbacher said, demands had changed.

“It has become much more intense, so ordinary members of the forces need more assistance. We need chaplains who can go to those theatres, make sure kosher rations are available and do whatever is necessary. The idea that there has not been a full-time chaplain is pathetic.”
Here in the U.S., American Jews believe that there is more anti-Semitism in England than in the U.S. Thus I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that, until recently, Jewish military personnel in the U.K. hid their religious affiliation.

And in connection with this U.K. newspaper article, I’d like to share with you a February 6-12th article I just received from my parents in the mail – “Rabbi Abraham on the occasion of his 200th birthday, a look at Lincoln and the Jews” by Pauline Dubkin Yearwood in the Chicago Jewish News. Here’s the section circled by my parents:
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Congress passed legislation allowing the Union to raise a voluntary army. The same bill allowed for the provision of military chaplains, who by law could only be bona fide Christian ministers.

But with many Jews serving in the army, a delegation of Jewish soldiers' families soon appealed to Lincoln to allow rabbis to serve as chaplains to provide appropriate religious services for Jewish soldiers.

"The debate about the chaplains went on for months," [historian Gary] Zola says. "The issue distressed American Jewry greatly. They had people in service; they were appalled." Eventually, the law was changed and rabbis were allowed to serve as chaplains.
Two different English-speaking countries. Two different responses. And today there’s a shortage of Jewish chaplains in the U.S. military, which is the impetus for my new site

Check out this site now, and you can read the entire Jewish Chronicle article and the entire Chicago Jewish News article.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Proposal to Add U.S. Military Unit to Elementary School Curriculum

I'm at a conference in LA, and Friday evening my younger daughter Yael and I did a presentation to a small group on my project Operation Support Jews in the Military. Then yesterday afternoon I gave a shorter presentation to elementary-age children.

The experience talking to the children was very revealing. A couple of the older boys (11 and 12) had a good understanding of the U.S. military. The rest of the boys and girls had little or no knowledge of anything about the U.S. military.

And at the same time I'm reading Malcolm Gladwell's third book -- OUTLIERS. I've just read the chapter about how important the family environment is for the fostering of practical intelligence -- such as how to negotiate with a college professor on changing the time a student takes that professor's class.

Recently I read something about how military families are taking on more and more of the responsibilities of a standing militia while much of the rest of America takes no part.

Putting all of the above together, here's what I'd like to suggest:

Teaching about the U.S. military and its branches today be part of 5th or 6th grade required curriculum throughout the U.S. -- just as learning U.S. history is a required school subject at some point in a student's school career.

Military families pass on commitment to serving one's country -- and they also pass on an understanding of what the military is about. If no one ever teaches you (per Gladwell) about the military, you are unlikely to ever consider joining the military as a viable option.

If we want a strong America supported by a strong standing militia, then our schools need to teach practical intelligence about the U.S. military's mission and opportunities.

What do you think about this proposed curriculum requirement?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Supporting the Troops: If Cake Is Your Thing ...

My older daughter just handed me a page from the July 2008 magazine Entrepreneur. The one-page article by Nicole L. Torres was headlined:"Earn Your Stripes: Feeling patriotic this Fourth of July? Follow the lead of these four entrepreneurs who've built businesses that help soldiers overseas and let the troops know how much they're appreciated."

The first company Treats for Troops was founded by Deborah Crane in 2003 and sends care packages to soldiers.

The second is TakePride founded by Patrick Gray and John Betz in 2006 with T-shirts "to provide an apolitical way for people to stylishly show support for the troops."

The third is project Operation: Birthday Cake from Bake Me A Wish! founded by Josh Kaye in 2004. This project enables customers to order cakes to be delivered to soldiers on their birthdays. Plus the company works with the Armed Forces Foundation and Soldiers' Angels "to donate birthday cakes to service members overseas."

I'm planning to contact all of these featured entrepreneurs to ask if they'd like to be guests on the BlogTalkRadio show that I co-host with Nancy Brown.

Also check out the site of this supporting-the-troops project -- Operation Troop Aid -- that I just learned about on Twitter. The organization's founder, Mark Woods, is scheduled to be interviewed on our BlogTalkRadio show at the end of April. (Yes, we're booking that far ahead for our twice-weekly show.)

Here are Mark's own words about his project:
My dream is to turn OTA into the "Premier Care Package Provider" to deployed US Troops, by using major concert promotions and branch OTA out all over the country. I have worked tirelessly and assembled all the right players and now I just need corporate sponsors. Please help as we reach out to the deployed U.S. Troops, they need us NOW!! The mission of OTA is to make a positive difference and inspire deployed U.S. service members by letting them know America stands with them. OTA provides care packages with revenue generated through professional concert promotions and through public financial generosity.
Check out all these sites now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

HBO Films’ TAKING CHANCE Is an Amazing Story

I’ve just had the opportunity to see HBO Films’ TAKING CHANCE before its air date of February 21st. And I’m at a loss for words.

The film is based on the true story of Marine Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl volunteering for escort duty to take home the remains of 19-year-old Marine Lance Corporal Chance Phelps.

During this overwhelming experience Lt. Colonel Strobl wrote a journal account of his escort duty. This account originally circulated via the internet, and I remember reading the account with tissues clutched in my hands. So I was prepared with an entire box of tissues for watching the film.

The film’s director Ross Katz wrote the screenplay with Michael Strobl, who is now retired from the Marine Corps, while Kevin Bacon played Lt. Colonel Strobl.

Kevin Bacon says very few words in the entire film. Yet he conveys with the minutest of facial expressions his own turbulent emotions throughout his escort duty.

The respect that Americans showed Lt. Colonel Strobl and the remains of Chance Phelps throughout the trip from Dover to Philadelphia to Minneapolis to Billings, Montana, to Dubois, Wyoming, is a compelling reminder that Americans are grateful for the sacrifices made by young men and women serving their country.

And to see the reverence afforded to the remains of fallen military personnel by the people at the Dover Port Mortuary is an incredibly moving testament to the sanctity of every person’s life.

Ross Katz, Michael Strobl and Kevin Bacon, plus all the other people who worked on this film, created a dignified tribute. You must see what they have wrought to honor our military personnel -- as well as to honor grateful Americans.

Here are Lt. Colonel Strobl’s own words:
Chance Phelps was wearing his Saint Christopher medal when he was killed on Good Friday. Eight days later, I handed the medallion to his mother. I didn’t know Chance before he died. Today, I miss him.

Falling Afghan Support for U.S. Forces

Below is the weekly guest post from Andrew Lubin.

ABC News published a poll today detailing how precarious the situation is becoming:

• There is declining local support for President Karzai and his incredibly corrupt government – the next elections have just been postponed (not a move that builds confidence).

• The majority of Afghans considers public corruption to be a problem, and there are widespread complaints about the availability of jobs and electricity along with concerns about prices of food and goods.

• Outside of the larger cities, basic services do not realistically exist.

• There is also a sharp decline in Afghans who think their country is headed in the right direction.

It’s the security situation that worries the locals the most. Only 42% have confidence in American or NATO forces to provide security in their areas, and only 32% think our troops are doing a good job.

It’s the airstrikes that are giving us the bad name. A full 20% say American airstrikes have killed civilians in their area, and 80% believe that killing civilians exceeds the benefit that may come from killing Taliban. More blame the U.S. and coalition forces for poor targeting than blame the Taliban for keeping assets among civilians (41 to 28%), with 27% saying both sides share the blame.

In an unusual twist, 58% say that the Taliban is a greater threat to the future of the country than warlords, drug lords, or the Karzai government, but 36% say the current problems are the fault of the United States.

And despite the negative turn in public views, most Afghans continue to say the U.S.-led invasion and the ouster of the Taliban were a good thing for their country, and most want U.S. troops to stay.

Yesterday Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, confirmed that we will be sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year. And he also explicitly stated that this new “surge” needs to be accompanied by a parallel surge from the State Department and other government agencies.

For two years now, CENTCOM has been promoting the “whole nation strategy,” meaning our whole nation participates – Marines, State Department, Army, USDA, Air Force (when not bombing civilians), SBA, Commerce. It should be an embarrassment to these agencies – all government employees – that CENTCOM is still begging these agencies to get involved.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

PTSD: Achilles in Vietnam and the TV Show Grey’s Anatomy

Here’s a guest post from my younger daughter Yael K. Miller:

“War changes men” has probably been a saying around as long as war. In my own family’s history, my great-grandfather returned home from World War I and everyone said he was never the same, although that may be because he was supposedly gassed.

Now PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in the news since U.S. military personnel have been returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In my senior year of college I had to write a paper on Stephen Crane’s novel THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. And as I had to write this paper over a break, I thought this was the perfect time to read a book on the bookshelf of my father (a military history buff).

As a Classical Studies minor I had been waiting to get the opportunity to read ACHILLES IN VIETNAM: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE UNDOING OF CHARACTER by Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., published in 1994. The book compares Homer’s THE ILIAD with Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD whom Dr. Shay treated. (See below a summary of symptoms as quoted in the book.)

I am certainly not qualified to diagnose PTSD in any way but the book gave me the tools to recognize the signs of PTSD, at least in fiction. I have seen this most prominently in ABC’s current television drama “Gray’s Anatomy where no one has ever explicitly said PTSD but they are clearly dealing with this subject in the character of former army major Dr. Owen Hunt.

We first encounter this character in one episode when he’s in Seattle before being deployed again to Iraq. A couple of episodes later he returns to the hospital, and it turns out he was medically discharged after he was the sole survivor of an attack on a 20-person convoy.

Here’s where the “Grey’s Anatomy” writing staff does something I find incomprehensible. Even though he was medically discharged and the chief of the hospital knows this, there is no indication that this character receives any counseling (even though a well-written therapist has already been featured in previous episodes).

Dr. Hunt displays classic (according to ACHILLES IN VIETNAM) symptoms of PTSD. He has outbursts of rage, and most recently in the February 5th episode, Dr. Hunt experiences a full-blown panic attack.

PTSD is not a condition that can only be found in soldiers. As the name implies – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – it can occur to any one who endures a traumatic effort. In the same episode, Dr. Miranda Bailey displays what to my unscientific knowledge seemed to be PTSD.

Previously a dying child that she worked for years to try to save almost died, although a miracle was pulled off at the last moment. The Feb. 5th episode shows Dr. Bailey telling the chief that she has for the first time, except for her maternity leave, taken three days off. Now she is hesitant in walking around the hospital – quite at odds with her former take-charge attitude.

When she gets pulled into another pediatric case, she whispers to another doctor: “If that child so much as looks like she’s going to die, I’m walking out of here.” And in fact when the surgery goes south at one point, Dr. Bailey leaves the emergency room, overwhelmed by panic.

I highly, highly recommend that everyone even tangentially involved with the military (actually I think everyone should read this book) read ACHILLES IN VIETNAM. I believe this book will give you insights into PTSD signs that you might be seeing and not know you’re seeing, and you’ll be better prepared in the future.

(I just learned that Dr. Shay wrote another book, ODYSSEUS IN AMERICA: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE TRIALS OF HOMECOMING, published in 2002 with a foreword by Senator John McCain.)
(H)ere is a summary of the key symptoms of PTSD and of the personality changes that mark its severe forms. … The symptoms can range in severity from mild to devastating, and not everyone will have all of the symptoms at the same time:
• Loss of authority over memory function – particularly memory and trustworthy perception
• Persistent mobilization of the body and the mind for lethal danger, with the potential for explosive violence
• Persistence and activation of combat survival skills in civilian life
• Chronic health problem stemming from chronic mobilization of the body for danger
• Persistent expectation of betrayal and exploitation; destruction of the capacity for social trust
• Persistent preoccupation with both the enemy and the veteran’s own military/governmental authorities
• Alcohol and drug abuse
• Suicidality, despair, isolation and meaninglessness

Thursday, February 5, 2009

CardsForHeroes: Helping Our Nation’s Heroes Keep in Touch with Home

Here’s a guest post from Sandy Allnock, president of The photo was taken in 2007 when the organization sent its very first boxes.

In these days of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging, a hand-written letter from a loved one is an absolute treasure. But there’s no card store in Kabul or Baghdad —what’s a hero to do? has stepped in to help, providing handmade cards to encourage deployed service members to write that letter they might otherwise have sent via digital media. And when that note makes it home, it brings smiles, heals hurts, and renews relationships in ways that an e-mail could never accomplish! was started by a group of crafters who wanted to share their handmade creations with deployed service members — and the idea has taken off!
Currently 100,000 cards have made the round trip to deployed heroes and back home to bless their families and friends at home. Those making the cards as well as sorting and shipping them have been touched by the experience as well. This project touches lives across the U.S. and around the world!

Over 1,000 crafters are involved in the making of cards -- individuals and groups, stamping clubs and retail stores -- using supplies they purchase or items donated from local businesses.

The cards are packed up and mailed to a shipper (addresses on the website), who in turn process the donations and sorts the cards until each box of 200-350 cards contains a wide selection of styles and themes from people across America.

Each box is “topped off” with a bag of “AnyHero” mail — cards or letters filled with messages of gratitude from the homefront. Children in schools and scouts make their own cards and write letters inside them that encourage deployed heroes and remind them of home.

The service members receiving the boxes distribute this hero mail, focusing on those who get little mail or need extra encouragement at the time. Feedback on AnyHero mail is tremendous: letters are posted on a wall to share with others, treasured in a locker of memories from home, or carried around in a pocket as extra incentive to do their job well on a difficult mission.

There are many opportunities to get involved with
• make blank cards (all-occasion or for holidays)
• donate funds to help with shipping
• write letters to deployed heroes
• sign up your deployed loved ones to receive and distribute cards

Visit the website or e-mail

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Who’s the Enemy – Afghanistan or Pakistan?

Here is the weekly guest post from Andrew Lubin:

The news from the front today is that the Taliban blew up a bridge and halted the main supply route from Karachi port to the Khyber Pass. The attack took place outside of Peshawar, and as too often happens, the Pakistani Army security guards who were supposed to be guarding the bridge against just such an occurrence were nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first time the Taliban has cut the roads or attacked convoys. A few months ago two large convoys were attacked as well as a supply depot, and some 150 vehicles (Humvees, trucks, etc) were destroyed.

While General David Petraeus (now head of Centcom and responsible for this AO -- Area of Operations) recently signed an agreement to bring in supplies and equipment via air through the ‘stans to the north, it is logistically impossible to fight the war in Afghanistan without road access from Karachi.

Today’s attack is not good news, and it’s going to get worse. There are two issues:

1 - It’s not that our Marines and soldiers are short of bullets and beans, because they’re not. The problem is that seven years of large FOBs have fostered a mindset amongst the Army and Air force that, if the military personnel are not given regular access to several kinds of soda, taco night, an ice cream bar, or an omelet station, they can’t handle the stress. Nothing wrong with giving them Coke, Diet Coke, or Pepsi and Diet Pepsi. But to have both and fruit drinks and several types of bottled water …

Do you really want your son or daughter killed on a re-supply mission carrying diet sodas? Or carrying TVs that are sold in the PXs? There has to be a mindset that Afghanistan is a war zone, and the troops need to adapt accordingly. Creature comforts have their place, but it’s so grossly overdone that it costs lives.

2 – Maybe we need to re-define who is our enemy. The Taliban? Al-Quada? The tribes in the lawless North-West Frontier? I’d certainly add the Pakistani ISI, and perhaps the Pakistani Army, to the list.

Obviously Al-Qada is our enemy. This stateless group still acts as a financier to most any anti-west group out there. Probably the Taliban makes the list also, but since most of the Taliban consists of fanatical Muslim poor from Pakistan, does this mean that the Paks are our enemy now? We surely don’t see much help from the Pakistanis in exchange for the $9 billion in cash aid that President Bush shoveled at them.

Very likely it does. And if we need to start guarding our Karachi-Khyber Pass convoys with Marines, then we’ve just widened the war by 150 million outraged Pakistanis. That’s a small price to pay, however, when the mission is to get sodas and fresh tacos to those back-office REMFs in Kabul and Bagram.

BRATS: OUR JOURNEY HOME Documents the World of Military Brats

I’ve been screening the documentary “BRATS: Our Journey Home” by writer-director Donna Musil as Donna is scheduled to be the February 24th guest on the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life that I co-host.

Here’s the brief synopsis from the documentary’s website
U.S. military BRATS share intimate memories about their unique childhoods - growing up on military bases around the world, then struggling to fit into an American lifestyle with which they have little in common. Narrated and featuring songs by Kris Kristofferson. Interviews include General Norman Schwarzkopf.
In an exchange through Facebook messages, Donna provided this info in response to my questions:

Why did I decide to do this in the first place? To figure out who I am and where I belong. My dad was an army JAG officer – lieutenant colonel – when he died at 42. He retired 100% service-related disability, so we were taken care of after he died.

After 40 years I finally know that I'm a military brat and I belong to this wonderful, crazy, global subculture of military brats, third culture kids, and cross culture kids of all ages, races, religions, nations. It's a very exciting thing and I think we're just beginning to tap into it.

It was a very long process making this film. After reading all the research I could find, I put up a website and asked folks to fill out a very extensive questionnaire. Five hundred responses later (including questionnaires up to 70 pages typed), I started choosing folks who I thought represented what the bulk of the people were saying.

I interviewed about 50 people on tape from the 500 questionnaires. They were pretty intense interviews. It took seven years to complete the film – with no formal funding – just me and brats donating $10 or cheaper services, etc.

All the footage was donated by brats or the DoD or teachers, etc. I had to pay a little for “The Great Santini” clips, but even they cut back on their prices. Kristofferson let me use all his music for free. It was really a worldwide group effort. And very hard to edit!

My first cut was six hours long. So much had to get cut out just because of time, including a lot of the "mom" stuff (both good and bad), and some of the more fun stories, because I thought it was more important to help those who had difficulties. But I tried to be balanced and present the good and the bad. Hopefully, I succeeded.

I do know I had two people in the same audience accuse me of being too negative and too positive the same night! I figure that's about as balanced as you're going to get with a film that deals with people's emotions!"

Donna can be contacted at, and you can order a DVD of the film from the website

Monday, February 2, 2009

Specialist Gerardo Llamas Makes First Delivery to Orphanage in Afghanistan

We first learned of Specialist Gerardo Llamas’ project to help poor children in Afghanistan at the end of December. We’ve had some updates since then, including how you can help by donating through Spirit of America. Now here’s the latest report from Specialist Llamas in Kabul:

Here are some pictures of my first delivery to a local orphanage.

It was a great experience. I can't believe how happy these kids were. The smiles on their faces said a lot, and I, of course, was touched by this.

When we got there we were received by the people that run the orphanage. They told us the kids were all outside waiting for us and that they were really excited. They helped us unload the boxes from the vehicles and took them inside the orphanage.

As I was walking in I realized how much these people needed. As you can see in the pictures even the walls are falling apart. When I got in I saw all the kids lined up; girls on one side, boys on the other.

We started giving all the blankets away. I must say that at the beginning I was scared that maybe I didn't have enough blankets for every kid.

As the kids came to get their blanket they just smiled. Some were shy and just walked away with their blanket. Some tried to say thank you. Some thanked me in their language; some just smiled. And one little girl, pretty as a doll, smiled and then gave me a hug. That was the highlight of my day -- she seemed so thankful.

At the end I was really happy to see that every single kid got a blanket. I even had enough to give to the teachers that live with them and care for them.

When we finished handing out the blankets we started giving away some jackets and coats. Unfortunately I only had about 60, and they were boys’ coats. So we handed these to the boys and some stuffed animals to the girls.

After everything was all done we said bye to the kids. Some came and gave us hugs; some asked us to come back.

I will definitely try to go back soon to give the school supplies and, if possible, take them some bags of candy and other treats.

You can donate to Specialist Llamas’ outreach through Spirit of America.

Visit the Blog of EmailOurMilitary to Enter a Contest for Free Flowers to Thank Our Troops

EmailOurMilitary has teamed up with and CJ of Soldier’s Perspective and for Valentine’s Day. As Trish Forant’s post says:
ProFlowers wants to thank our troops for the amazing work they do day in and day out and came to us to bring our military community together to help give back.

To show their appreciation and say thanks, Proflowers has given us FIVE FREE $70 Gift Certificates to give away. That means our five winners will each get a $70 gift certificate to use at ProFlowers any way they choose.

We're going to make it fun and easy to win these 5 FREE gift certificates and help support our military community. We can only pick 5 winners however, since you're all so deserving we're going to do something special for everyone who enters so be sure to participate and spread the word!
Read Trish’s whole post now to learn about free flowers to honor our troops. And enter today as the contest ends February 8th.

U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Graduate Always Gets Asked If He Has Any Tattoos

Here’s the second part of the guest post by Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR. If you haven’t already, read the first part of his U.S. Merchant Marine guest post.

Kings Point (as the Merchant Marine Academy is better known) was created due to the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 to standardize training for merchant marine officers. Two years later the merchant marine cadet corps was created and given a temporary home in 1942 at Kings Point, NY. (Not so temporary now.) The school was needed to create officers to sail on all the cargo ships for the war.

What does this academy do to make merchant marine officers? At the school there are really three basic majors (out of those three there are sub-variations but there are really only three). You either study marine engineering (design, shipyard management or straight engine, which we called sweat hogs) or you study marine transportation (straight deck, logistics or operations with a minor in engineering) or dual (dualies have the joy of completing both programs in four years, i.e. doing everything an engineer does and a deckie does in the same amount of time).

The curriculum focuses on making you the best ship's officer you can be. You spend 11 months of a year in class -- that's right, 11 months a year in class. And you spend one year at sea as a cadet aboard actual merchant vessels. I spent six moths my 3rd class (sophomore) year at sea and six months my 2nd (junior) class year at sea.

During WWII the program was two years: they spent six months at school, one year at sea and then six months at school. Due to this 142 cadets died in combat during WWII.

We are the only academy to send their students into war and combat zones prior to graduation. As I am writing this there are Kings Point cadets going into the Persian Gulf, sailing into Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Gulf of Aden. We are the only academy to have a regimental battle standard! Our midshipmen have served in every war since WWII.

Visited 12 countries by age 19

As a midshipman at Kings Point, by the time I was 19 I had been to 12 countries and seen most of the world. By my second sea year I had the privilege of serving aboard a naval destroyer and a navy oilier (which made me realize that I really didn't want to go active duty in the navy).

One of the things about going to the Merchant Marine Academy was going to a place that seemed forgotten about. We were always told we were the fourth arm of defense but we felt more like the forgotten service. No one seems to care about merchant mariners or the academy.

We are not the "sexy" or "hot shot" service or academy. We always did and do with less. I remember my plebe year at the school when Vice President Al Gore came out with a report to shut down the school. That was a heart breaker. You work so hard to be at the school you wanted to go to and then you hear something like that happening.

I give our alumni a lot of credit. They fought this hard, and then Al Gore came up with the idea of charging tuition. However, our alumni got even smarter and put out the idea that, if you charge tuition at Kings Point, then you have to charge tuition at the other service academies. That fired up a lot of people and the rest is history.

Personal background – from a military family

How does a nice Jewish boy end up doing this job? I come from a military family. My grandfather, a veteran of WWII, served five years as an officer in the U.S. Army with 2 1/2 years in China as a military advisor to the Chinese. My father is a West Point graduate, who was an airborne ranger serving in the 82nd Airborne. So I always wanted to go to a service academy and serve in the military.

I also had a love and appreciation of the ocean. I worked at a dive shop as a teen and always wanted to do something on the water. When I was in high school, my father suggested the Merchant Marine Academy, the Coast Guard Academy and the five state maritime academies. Kings Point became my choice after a high school visit to the school.

I remember walking into Fulton Hall (the engineering building) and seeing the diesel engine lab and steam boiler lab. These were actual engines that students used for class! I then heard about the sea year and how could you pass up a year of adventure? So I decided that Kings Point is the place I wanted to go!

As for me, after graduation I went on active duty in the U.S. Army. Shipping in the merchant marine was tight when I graduated and it was hard to get a deep sea job. When you called up Military Sealift Command, the unions or companies to ask about a position, most of the people just laughed at you. In 1996 there weren't many third mate or third engineer jobs to be had aboard ship. You could get a job as an able seaman or oiler, but not many of us wanted to sail as unlicensed.

So I got commissioned as a second lieutenant in the army transportation corps. I knew the army had boats – in fact the army has more floating platforms than the navy – and that the boats were set up very similar to merchant ships. The army gave us "army mariners" an army license to sail aboard army watercraft. It was an opportunity for me to sail and in a somewhat familiar environment.

Why you might ask I didn't go in the navy? After being on a navy destroyer as a cadet and having a dozen people on the bridge -- an officer of the watch, a junior officer of the watch, combat information center calling you every two minutes updating you on radar contacts, five lookouts and a ton of other guys -- it wasn't for me. (On the bridge of a merchant ship there’s the watch officer and a lookout or two.)

Also, you might say what about the Coast Guard? When I graduated in 1996 the only thing you could do was marine inspection and that wasn't for me. Now, however, Merchant Marine Academy graduates are doing anything and everything in the Coast Guard.

However, I ended up resigning my commission as a lieutenant (army lieutenants don't serve as officers on army watercraft). In an army boat unit commissioned officers are REMFs (rear echelon mother f***s) and then, due to a really obscure army regulation, I became an army warrant officer. Why a warrant officer? Because in the army, warrant officers serve as deck and engine officers aboard army watercraft. I served as mate and vessel master aboard a variety of army watercraft for four years.

I always get asked as a mariner do I have any tattoos. I have four, which is odd for a Jew. But what is even odder is that one is the Star of David over my heart and the second is the Shema on my right arm.

About practicing religion on the ship: I always take a pocket siddur (prayer book) with me so I can daven (pray) on the ship.

As with regards to diet, you have to be careful. A good example is that the first assistant engineer was saying how much he loved the pancakes on the ship and that he was always on his wife to make them just like the ship but could never find out why his wife’s pancakes never tasted as good as shipboard pancakes. So one morning we asked the chief steward what he did to make his pancakes so good. The answer was simple – he fried them in bacon fat!

After four years, shipping in the merchant marine started to pick up. I left the army to go back into the merchant marine. I couldn't wait to get back aboard a merchant vessel – as a dualie I’ve had the chance to sail on both my licenses as a deck officer and an engineering officer – and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

U.S. Merchant Marines Bring the Bread, Butter and Bullets to Servicemen and Women

On January 27th the Merchant Marine Academy was mentioned on the BlogTalkRadio show Your Military Life that I co-host, and I have to admit I hadn’t known that the U.S. had a Merchant Marine Academy or even what the U.S. merchant marine does. And then two days later I unexpectedly got an email from Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR, thanks to my new project Operation Support Jews in the Military.

I immediately asked Captain Schwartzstein to write for this blog about the history of the merchant marines, what responsibilities the service has today, and his own personal experiences. The first part of his response is below.

The picture above is of Captain Schwartzstein using a sextant. The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy still teaches celestial navigation as this navigation system is used on merchant ships for daily work at sea.

I always get asked "So you're in the Marines?" Which I reply actually it's the Merchant Marines, I'm a merchant mariner, the next response is "What is a merchant mariner?"

Which is always kind of funny to me because the U.S. is a maritime nation and 90% of all cargo travels by ship. But not many people know what the Merchant Marine is or what I as a mariner do.

Oh, and I'm Jewish, which usually gets "Jews don't do that!" In fact, on a recent trip to Israel during the High Holidays, I was sitting in shul (synagogue) next to an Israeli and he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a chief mate (first officer) aboard an oil tanker. He looked at me and said "I think you are the only one in the world," which struck me as odd to even hear in Israel where everyone wears a uniform.

So what is the merchant marine, and how did a "nice" Jewish boy end up being a merchant marine and graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, (Yes, there is an academy and five state maritime schools, just like West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy.)

Civilian licensed officers and crew

The merchant mariners are the civilian licensed and/or documented officers and crew aboard commercial and military vessels. These vessels can range from tankers, car carriers, containerships, cable layers, survey vessels, tugs, ferries and anything else on the water! We bring the bread, butter and bullets to our servicemen and women all over the world in addition to the gas you put in your car, the car you drive or anything that might be in your house that comes from anywhere but where you live.

We have served in every war. In fact America's first naval officers were merchant mariners! That's right. Commodore John Barry and the famous Captain John Paul Jones (who is buried at the Naval Academy) all started as merchant mariners. In fact, during WWII, the merchant marine had the highest casualty rate out of any other service. The rate was 1:26 as compared to the next closest one, the Marines, which was 1:34.

What is licensed or documented? All mariners have to be licensed (officers) and documented (crew) by the U.S. Coast Guard. In order to sail on ships you have to meet certain educational and training requirements set by the U.S. Coast Guard. Once you meet these standards you are given a series of exams.

You "sit" for the exams, and once passed are given your "Merchant Mariners Document" or Z-Card, which is your unlicensed rating, such as able seaman, QMED (qualified member of the engine department), oilier, fireman, wiper, ordinary seamen, or food handler to name a few. If you are an officer you "sit" for your officer's license exam, and each time you want to move up you have to take another exam.

I have to mention that most people either go deck or engine, i.e. you either sail as a third mate to work your way to captain or you sail third engineer to work your way to chief engineer. (If you are wondering, I was one of the weird guys at the Merchant Marine Academy and went dual, meaning I got both my third mate's and third engineer's licenses. Not many do it because it's hard.)

What is the Merchant Marine Academy?

The next question is what is the Merchant Marine Academy and where is it? Is it in New London? No, that's the Coast Guard Academy, our rival. The Merchant Marine Academy – "America's best kept secret" – is located in Kings Point, NY. (West Egg for all you "Great Gatsby" fans.) It is a four-year federally funded education just like our sister service academies.

We do have a service obligation too. You have to obtain a congressional appointment to attend just like West Point or Annapolis. You have to pass a navy physical because at graduation you get a commission as an ensign in the reserves.

However, you can go active duty in any branch of service. When you graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy you either have to go into the merchant marine and also take a commission as an officer in the reserves or go active duty in any branch of the service. I have classmates serving in the army, navy (as pilots, submariners and surface warfare officers), air force (a classmate is a bomber pilot), or Coast Guard (a classmate is a helicopter pilot).

I always tell people that, if you want to go navy flight, don't waste your time at the Naval Academy, go to Kings Point. My first class year the school had so many flight and NFO (naval flight officer, the men or women who sit in the back like "Goose" from the movie “Top Gun”) slots that announcements were made for anyone who wanted to go flight to report to naval science.

Stay tuned for the second half of this guest post from Joseph Schwartzstein, Captain, U.S. Merchant Marine, LTJG, USNR/MMR.