Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A gift for a Gold Star Mother

One year ago, on May 28, 2007, Memorial Day, Nanette West lost something precious. Her son was killed in Iraq.

On March 17, 2008, she was given a wonderful gift, to try to give her back a part of what she lost. She was presented with a portrait of her son, 1LT Kile G. West, painted by Phil Taylor [reproduced with permission], who has decided to use his talent as an artist to help ease the pain families of the fallen experience. Thank you, Nanette, for sharing this story with me.

So far, Phil Taylor has painted eighteen portraits. He does not charge the families for the portraits. It costs about $800 per portrait (I assume for supplies and framing, which I know isn't cheap [being a past purchaser of custom framing]). The Texas Fallen Soldiers Project is a non-profit organization. If you wish to help support this project, you can donate here via PayPal or you can mail a donation to:

The Texas Fallen Soldiers Project
2405 FM 423
Suite 300
PMB 912
Little Elm, Texas 75068


KEYE 42: A priceless gift given to mother of soldier who died in Iraq (with video report) - 3/17/08

Austin American-Statesman photo essay - 3/17/08

Austin American-Statesman: Texas artist paints fallen soldiers' portraits for families - 3/18/08

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kile West honored by high school alma mater

I wasn't home much this weekend, and at any rate, I don't watch a lot of local news, so I missed this story yesterday, and just happened upon it because the local station linked to my post on Kile's funeral from last June.

Yesterday, Memorial Day, Hutto ISD honored the Hutto High alumnus in a ceremony dedicating the new Kile G. West Memorial Field House. Kile was killed in Iraq on Memorial Day one year ago. I think this was a very appropriate choice, since Kile played high school football and baseball for Hutto High School.

KXAN video report on dedication (5/26/08)

Tribute to Kile West - Part 1

Tribute to Kile West - Part 2

Patriot Guard Kile West Mission video

Another video tribute to Kile

And another video tribute

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

Last night at the ballgame, I saw what I guess was a couple of JROTC cadets - one Navy and one Marine (I had no idea we had anything other than Army or Air Force JROTC programs around here...). Turns out they were passing out red poppies, along with members of the VFW. I later overheard a father talking to son, who was there to participate in the pre-game little league parade. The father was trying to attach the poppy to his son's ball cap and telling him that it was important to honor our veterans. I mentioned that there is a poem that explains the meaning of the red poppy, In Flanders Fields, and the symbol dates to World War I. I can only hope that father takes the time to look up the poem and share it with his son.

Today, as part of the pre-game ceremonies, the Austin Army recruiting depot's color guard presented the colors for the singing of the National Anthem. Also, day of game staff (mostly ushers) who are veterans were asked to come down onto the field to be recognized. There was a moment of silence to honor the fallen, followed by the National Anthem. After the colors were retired and the veterans left the field to go back to their assigned stations, many fans applauded them. I thought that was great, since a lot of these vets are Vietnam era veterans.

The flags, both outside the ballpark, and those inside the ballpark, above center field, were at half staff. Apparently, one of the veteran ushers reminded someone it needed to be done, and it was taken care of quickly before today's early game.

If you haven't already, please take a moment today to remember why we have Memorial Day. This shouldn't be just another 3-day weekend. (H/T to commentor bthun for the Memorial Day observation link)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

I stumbled upon an excellent book while in Barnes and Noble after work on Monday, checking to see if the store had a copy of Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot. Instead, I found The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain written and illustrated by Peter Sis. Essentially, it is the memoir of a man who was born in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Cold War and grew up under the thumb of the Soviet Union.

The book begins with an introduction from the author, which is a condensed history lesson of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union:

The Soviet Union and the Western nations managed their territories in very different ways. The Western Bloc countries were all independent democracies, while the Eastern Bloc was tightly controlled by the Soviet Union. But not everyone in the Eastern Bloc countries wanted to live under totalitarian dictatorships, and many people began leaving for the West. To prevent a mass exodus, the Soviet Union fortified the borders around much of Eastern Europe and eventually built a wall that cut the city of Berlin in half. And so Europe was divided - symbolically, ideologically, and physically - by what Winston Churchill, the British statesman, called an Iron Curtain.
I was born at the beginning of it all, on the Red side - the Communist side - of the Iron Curtain.

I wouldn't pick Sis's style of art for decorating, but his simple line drawings work beautifully in telling his story. Most of the illustrations are black on white, with red accent - flags and stars, mostly; the color you do see comes from the depictions of the work of the young Peter - he's drawn as long as he can remember... He tells his story through the pictures, like a storyboard or a comic book. Words are used sparingly with the illustrations, but he is able to make his point:

1948. The Soviets take control of Czechoslovakia and close the borders.
The People's Militia enforces the new order.
Communist symbols and monuments appear everywhere.
The Czech government takes its order from Moscow.
The display of red flags on state holidays - COMPULSORY. People who don't comply are punished.

You see the word "COMPULSORY" many times, along with the list of things that are mandated by the state that the people MUST do. I think it will be very eye-opening for an American child who has only known freedom.

Telephones are bugged.
Display of Western flags - PROHIBITED.
Only the official art, Socialist Realism, is permitted.
Certain books and films are banned. Art and culture are censored.
Western radio is banned (and jammed).
Letters are opened and censored.
Informers are rewarded for snooping.
There are shortages of almost everything. People stand in long lines.

"This was the time of brainwashing." That is the caption of an illustration which includes Lenin, the Kremlin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.

Sis also includes excerpts from his journals, from 1954 through 1977. Family members are declared enemies of the state. Children are encouraged to inform on their parents. He's in a rock band with friends. He wants to have long hair, but that brings the suspicion of the government and his father makes him cut it. Someone he knows is beaten to death by police. His professor is relieved of his teaching position - he is considered progressive. He also tells of a hijacking on June 8, 1972 in which the young hijackers shoot the pilot. He tells of censors looking for hidden messages in his artwork - is the wind sock blowing in the proper direction (from the east)?

You see color when he tells of things from the West that somehow find their way behind the Iron Curtain: a yellow submarine and a walrus, rock musicians and records and films... That all ends on August 21, 1968 when the Soviets invade, along with their client states of Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland. "The Czech progressive government is sent to Moscow for 'reeducation'."

"He was painting dreams... and then nightmares. The dreams could be kept to himself, but the drawings could be used against him. He stopped drawing and was left with only his dreams."

He draws the fortified border, people trying to escape, and sometimes the soldiers are trying to stop them. My favorite illustration follows those images - a young man on a bicycle with his drawings, then the next page shows the young man, still on his bike, flying through the air with his drawings as wings, escaping from the pursuing police, and finally leaving a dark land labeled with "stupidity", "suspicion", "terror", "fear", "envy", "injustice", "corruption" and"lies" into bright one labeled with "truth", "justice", "hope", "inspiration", "integrity", "freedom", "joy", "liberty", "dreams", "wisdom", "dignity", "respect", "love", "morality", "happiness", "benevolence", "virtue", "spirit", "equality", "honor", "knowledge", "pride", "trust" and "art".

In the Afterword, he concludes "Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech famliy in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it's hard to put it into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life - before America - for them. Any resemblance to the story in this book is intentional."

I cannot more highly recommend this book. Although this book is recommended for children from 8 to 12 years old, you could use this book for older children, too, especially in a teaching setting - I even asked my dad if he taught The Cold War in his World History class at a local high school. It is the first book that I am aware of that broaches the subject of the evils of Communism that is designed for a young audience, and for that alone, it is an important work.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

JROTC Needs Help [Bumped]

Update 6/1/08: We are about $200 shy of the original goal. Also, CJ informs me the Air Force isn't getting any love. I'm sure there's some Zoomie out there who can help fix that...

Updated 5/21/08, 8:18pm

The fundraising effort, per CJ, now stands at
$1207, so we've got $2293 left to go.

Updated 5/18/08, 10:54pm

CJ updates to let us know that the fundraiser still stands $2828 short of the $3500 goal - it hasn't changed since May 12 - and I'd really like to see us make the goal. Plugging the 4 cross-stitch pieces I donated: I think they would be nice (as a finished, framed piece) as a gift for Hail & Farewells, promotions, retirements, or as a memorial (like I did with mine, for my grandfather). I will include (upon request, at no additional cost) the custom mat so it can be framed with a photo (mat fits a standard 8x10 frame).

Also, welcome BlackFive readers, and Thanks, Uncle Jimbo, for the link.

A while back, I had talked with CJ over at A Soldier's Perspective about doing a fundraiser with him like I had done previously with Any Soldier, Inc. last fall. He agreed, and now he's come up with a worthy cause to benefit from my work (and a few things he's offering up). So, here's the deal, from CJ:

When I moved here, I realized that I was going to miss going to Walter Reed. The opportunities to do something special for troops beyond the few I'm directly responsible for. So, I thought that I would do something special for those that may one day become troops and volunteer with JROTC program at the local high school.

This is the first year that the program has existed and they need help. Through other donations and fundraising they've been able to take the kids to various competitions. In their first year they have won two first place trophies in physical fitness, but they really need help with drill and ceremony (marching and movement). Since this is the first year, there aren't any experienced cadets that can train them. Unfortunately, most of the Soldiers (like me) who consider themselves subject matter experts on D&C aren't able to be at the school during classes to teach them.

The JROTC instructor, retired Chief Warrant Officer Hobbs, would like to send two returning Juniors to a Drill and Ceremony Camp this summer. The problem? The camp will cost $3500 to send them both (not each). I'm thinking that we have enough support here through direct donations as well as enough people with blogs elsewhere that we can put a substantial dent in that need.

CJ is offering up a copy of Luke Stricklin's debut CD "American By God's Amazing Grace", "Charlie Wilson's War" on DVD (starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts), a signed copy of his "cheesy, official Army First Sergeant Photo that all my [CJ's] offices are required to hang in their hallways (limited edition 1 of 1!)" and a thank you (chances of winning are 1:1). Also an ASP reader has donated a copy of Michael Yon's Moment of Truth in Iraq (while I'll loan my copy out - Daddy has it now - I'm not sure I could part with my signed copy permanently...)

I have contributed 4 cross-stitch pieces, one for each of the four services, which will be customized with the name, rank and unit (or conflict/operation) as requested by the raffle winner(s). Here's a sample of what a completely finished product will look like (note - the raffled items will not come framed, but I might be able to include the custom mat, since I was able to get more of them for a good price):

That's my grandfather. He served in the Navy as a fighter pilot in WWII.

The four pieces up for raffle:

So, if you are interested in helping out some young JROTC cadets at Columbia High School in Huntsville, AL, contribute to this raffle. Tickets are $1 per chance of winning (odds determined by the number of tickets sold) any given item. You'll need to specify which item(s) you are buying tickets for. If there is any (or enough, I should say) interest, a custom cross-stitch for the Coast Guard might be made available (I have a pattern, but have not made one yet): if you are interested, let me know. Until CJ is able to fix the problem with his missing PayPal link on this sidebar, you can go to the PayPal site to send money, using his dj_chcknhawk -at- email address. The drawing for winnings will be June 15th.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Faithful Elephants

I subbed the other day for a special education teacher, which means I was in a classroom, but not specifically doing instruction - sometimes, you are just "supporting" one or more students. Anyhow, I was in the classroom for the social studies portion of the day, which was also the end of the day. I had spoken to the teacher about a book she might be interested in (these were 5th graders, and they are reading a fiction book about WWII/the Holocaust) called The Big Lie Big Lie: A True Story. She showed me a couple of picture book titles, one of which she wanted to read to the class before the end of the day.

The book in question was Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People and War by Yukio Tsuchiya, translated by Tomoko Tsuchiya Dykes and illustrated by Ted Lewin ("recommended" for children aged 9 to 12). It is the story of the elephants at the zoo in Tokyo during World War II. You see, Japan is being bombed. The Japanese army worries about what would happen if the zoo were to be bombed and the large and dangerous animals were to escape from their cages. The order was given to kill all the animals that were deemed to be a danger if they were to get loose. First, they killed the lions and tigers. Eventually, it was time to kill the three elephants. They tried to feed them bad (or poisoned) potatoes along with their normal potatoes. However, the elephants would only eat the good ones. Then, they tried to inject them with poison, but the needles would break without penetrating the elephants' tough hide. It was decided that the only option left was to stop feeding the elephants and let them starve to death. First, one elephant was starved and died. Then, the remaining two were starved together. Their trainers couldn't bear to see them as they got thinner and weaker. The elephants would still do tricks in order to be rewarded with food. One day, one of the trainers relented. Against orders, he gave the elephants food and water. Everyone else pretended not to notice. But, that was the only time they were given food or water. The zookeepers kept hoping the war would end before the elephants died. However, that did not happen. The three elephants that lived in the Tokyo zoo during the Allied bombing of Japan are now buried at the zoo.

I could see where this story was going long before the end. I have no reason to doubt the basic truth behind the story: because of fears for the safety of the population should dangerous animals escape from the zoo, it was determined by the Japanese military the animals should be destroyed. The zookeepers reluctantly followed those orders, and animals died untimely deaths.

When she was finished reading the story, she talked about the "author's purpose" in writing the book, and read from the blurb on the book jacket. The author's intent was to show how war affects more than just the humans who fight them, and to encourage anti-war sentiment. She also mentioned that someone else would be perfectly able to write another book that is "pro-war". Oh, how I hate that term, as it is a grossly inaccurate descriptor for someone who is "anti-anti-war". I'll give her credit for voicing the fact that we have free speech, and that there is more than just the "anti-war" position. But, I was not comfortable at all with the fact that the only book she shared that afternoon was blantantly anti-war, and did not really explain the WHY of the bombing of Japan, or the goals of the Allied campaigns against both Japan and Germany at that point in history. The students may be reading Number the Stars by Lois Lowry (set in 1943 German-occupied Denmark), but they haven't actually studied World War II in social studies yet - they haven't quite finished with the Civil War... I don't know this teacher's political affiliation, but I think I can make a fairly good guess. However, I can only think that one of the other books she had, Mercedes and the Chocolate Pilot - a story of the Berlin Airlift [5/15/08: this story, more or less - I didn't realize it's been almost 60 years...] by Margot Theis Raven (who also wrote America's White Table), will maybe provide a balance to Faithful Elephants, even if it is delayed...

The one-sidedness of the presentation wasn't my only problem. I am a lover of animals - I have dogs and a cat, and have had others in the past - but I can completely understand the perspective of those who were charged with protecting the civilian population in Tokyo during the war. Destroying the animals was an understandable solution to a potentially deadly problem - moving the animals out of Tokyo had also been considered, but discarded as the potential problem wouldn't go away during transport, or to whatever destination they may have decided upon. What I have a problem with is the manner in which the elephants were killed. Starving any creature, human or not, is an incredibly cruel way to kill them. As one of the students in the class noted to me, they could have always shot the elephants, which would have been much more quick and painless than weeks without food or water. If one wanted to share this book with students, it should only be presented to older students, and be paired with a book that offers balance, depicting some positive things that have resulted from armed conflict. Unfortunately, I am unaware of specific picture book titles that would "fit" with this WWII-era story: war is not typically the subject of picture books.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Forrest Gump" getting out of the Army

Thought it was kinda cool that the boy who played the "young Forrest Gump" actually grew up to join the Army. Now, Michael Conner Humphreys' enlistment is up, and he will play Eddie Livingston, one of the original "Pathfinders" of the 504th Parachute Regiment in World War II in a movie of the same name. Read the whole story here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A few things out of San Antonio

I got a call from my mom on the way home from work this afternoon. She said she had good news and bad news: which did I want first? I said the bad news. "Karam's is closing." "NOOOoooo!!!" The good news? There will be Karam's tamales & chili for dinner tonight (my parents went to San Antonio today for the funeral of my dad's elderly cousin [by marriage]). I think a trip to SA is in order in the next month (before they close their doors, after about 66 years in business) for Karam's dine-in, along with a bunch of tamales to go (they freeze really well).

The other news out of San Antonio is also good/bad. I had heard on the radio recently (I like to listen to WOAI out of San Antonio for Rush & Hannity) that Our Lady of the Lake University, in appreciation of our military, was offering tuition assistance to qualifying personnel. I'd been too busy with other things to write up a post about it. In checking their website this evening, it's a "Military Scholarship Program" that will cover the difference between the government tuition assistance of up to $250 per semester hour (I assume this is the GI Bill?) and OLLU's rate of $628 per semester hour, so a military member can go to school (for either a Bachelor's or Master's degree) for free (not counting books & fees). The scholarship of $378 per hour is also open to military spouses. Our Lady of the Lake University should be applauded for their generosity to our military and their spouses.

Unfortunately, OLLU, founded in 1895 by the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence, is in the news today for something entirely different. Last night, there was a 4 alarm fire in the old main administration building. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the Main Building was heavily damaged. The San Antonio Fire Department is investigating the cause of the blaze. Some are wondering, however, if this fire is connected to a recent bomb threat on campus. Regardless of the cause of the fire, it is sad to hear of the damage done to the historic main building. Listening to WOAI on the way home this afternoon, I learned that this building, not surprisingly, was appointed with lots of wood, and had a beautiful architectural style not seen in modern buildings. While the university is initially concentrating on getting students back to class (classes were cancelled today - about 110 students have been displaced because of the fire). There has also been a fund created for the rebuilding effort. Anyone who wishes to contribute may do so by credit card or by check (Make payable to OLLU. Mail to: OLLU Development Office, 411 SW 24th Street, San Antonio,TX 78207), or, if you are somewhere with a Frost Bank, they (Frost) have "set up account no. 01-0494593 for those who wish to donate to the “Our Lady of the Lake University Rebuilding Fund.”"


OLLU update
WOAI: Investigation Begins Into Our Lady of the Lake Fire
CBS 11: Building at 'Our Lady of the Lake' Campus Burns

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fox News: Ex-Gitmo Detainee Believed Responsible for Homicide Bombing In Iraq

Saw this story last night:

Three years ago, Abdullah Saleh al-Ajmi, a Kuwaiti soldier who deserted to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, sat in a detention cell at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while lawyers argued whether he was an "enemy combatant."

Last week, a Dubai-based television channel reported that al-Ajmi was killed carrying out a homicide bombing in Mosul, Iraq.

This is a prime example of why Camp Delta needs to stay open and why these people should be treated as the unlawful combatants that they are instead of pretending they are ordinary criminals who should be given access to American courts. As has been proven yet again, the people being held at Camp Delta cannot be rehabilitated - we let some of them out, and they return to the battlefield. Following the Geneva Conventions, we have every right to summarily execute them on the field of battle. But, we don't do that; yes, we incarcerate them (so they can't kill our soldiers or innocent civilians), but they have "3 hots and a cot", access to some of the best medical care available, and lawyers to represent them in military tribunals. Those who call for "closing Gitmo" need to do a serious reality check.