Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lone Survivor

On June 6, 1944, Bob Sales--and many other soldiers from central Virginia--were on landing craft heading for the beaches of Normandy and an appointment with destiny.  They already knew their units would help form the first invasion wave at a place called Omaha Beach.  Scales and his fellow Virginians quickly discovered they had drawn one of the toughest assignments on D-Day, and few of them would make it back alive.

Mr. Scales, who passed way Monday at the age of 89, described his experiences in a 2011 interview with the Lynchburg (VA) News and Advance:

Unlike anything he could have imagined, German machine guns began to unload “like bees” as they landed, he said. His captain was struck instantly.
Sales said he remembers thinking, “My God, we done lost the captain! What are we going to do now?”
A radio operator for the company, he said he shed the heavy communication device in the water to keep from drowning. He turned and saw that “everybody coming off that boat was being cut down” by bullets. He knew he had to make it to the beach.
Dead bodies were all around and he crawled from one to the next.
“Nothing like this ever crossed my mind,” he said of the horrific scenes unfolding in front of his eyes.


Sales was the only one of the 30 men in his landing craft to survive the day. He said “the blood ran together” with Company A and others that suffered heavy casualties.

At the time of the landing on Omaha Beach, Sales was only 18 years old.  He lied about his age to join the Virginia National Guard before Pearl Harbor.  As the nation geared up for World War II, the guard's 116th Infantry was absorbed into the 29th Division and eventually shipped out for England.  Three companies of the 116th--A, B, and C were drawn from small towns in the Blue Ridge foothills around Lynchburg.  

Company A was largely comprised of soldiers from Bedford.  They were among the first Allied troops to hit the beaches on D-Day and they paid a heavy price.  Mr. Sales estimated that Company A was about "10 minutes ahead" of his unit, and by the time he arrived, many of the Bedford boys were already dead.  A total of 19 were killed approaching the shore, or in their first moments on Omaha Beach.  By the time Allied forces secured a foothold on the Normandy coast, 22 soldiers from Bedford had died.  

For a town with a pre-war population of 3,000, it was a staggering sacrifice--the highest, percentage-wise, of any community in America.  The price paid in blood and lives by the men of Bedford is now commerated in the National D-Day Memorial, which is located near the intersection of Highways 460 and 122, south of town.               

As for Mr. Sales, he survived that terrible day on Omaha Beach, and served in combat for another six months.  His luck finally ran out as Allied forces approached the western bank of the Rhine; Sales was wounded leading a small team of infantry, supported by a tank, against German defenders near the town of Setterich.  For his actions that day, Mr. Sales received the Silver Star.  

By that time, the war was already over for the Bedford veterans of Company A.  As recounted in Alex Kershaw's superb book, The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice, the last man from the town assigned to Company A was evacuated after being wounded in combat near the German-Dutch border on 29 September.  He had missed the D-Day invasion due to ankle injury, suffered in training while in England.  It was a mishap that likely saved his life.

Funeral services for Mr. Sales will be held Thursday at Fort Hill Memorial Park in Lynchburg.  While he lost an eye in combat and spent almost 18 months recovering from his wounds, Sales considered himself lucky.  More than 100 men from Company B died in combat between D-Day and Germany's surrender in May 1945. 
ADDENDUM:  If you're traveling through central or southwestern Virginia, a stop at the D-Day Memorial is worth a stop, and the price of admission.  It's a fitting tribute to the 150,000 Allied troops who stormed ashore n June 6, 1944, and began the final liberation of Europe.  The memorial features the most complete listing of all who died that day, including the boys from Bedford. 

Mr. Kershaw's book is also worth a read.  Not only does he capture the combat experiences of the men in the 116th, Mr. Kershaw also describes war's impact on the home front.  Particularly haunting is the passage when the telegrams began arriving in Bedford, announcing that a local soldier had been killed in combat or was missing in action.  The first telegrams weren't received until mid-July (more than a month after the invasion), and they came in a terrible wave.  There were no military notification teams during World War II to comfort a grieving family; just a telegram from the war department, delivered by a pastor, friend or the Western Union delivery boy.     


Monday, February 23, 2015

Our take on the Academy Awards (in 140 Characters or Less)

From our Twitter feed (@NateHale)

"Brave men like Chris Kyle protect the right of Hollywood libs to feel good about themselves by voting against "war pictures." 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Hollywood's Forgotten Hero

Lt Wayne Morris in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat during World War II.  The Hollywood actor served as a Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific, shooting down seven Japanese planes (U.S. Navy photo) 

On the weekend when Hollywood celebrates itself--and its "values--it is worth remembering that the film community was once populated with patriots, men and women who actually believed in America and what it stands for.

Such traits were on full display in World War II, when scores of actors--and literally thousands of production staffers--gave up lucrative careers in the entertainment industry and volunteered for military service.  Some became heroes while in uniform; Jimmy Stewart actually joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, quickly earned his wings and later served as commander of a B-24 bomber squadron and group, flying more than 20 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.  He earned both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Eddie Albert, best known for the 60s sitcom Green Acres, commanded a section of landing craft during the invasion of Tarawa in 1943.  His boat rescued at least 40 Marines who were wounded while trying to cross 500 yards of open water and reach the shore.  Military planners had failed to account for a neap tide that left the waters too shallow for landing craft to cross, and put the Marines on the beach.  Mr. Albert, a two-time Academy Award nominee, received the Bronze Star for his actions.

And the list goes on.  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., developed tactical deception techniques as a Naval Reserve officer, used to great effect in the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters; Sterling Hayden actually completed British commando training but was medically discharged after injuring his leg in a parachute jump.  Undeterred, he returned to the U.S., enlisted in the Marine Corps, earned an officer's commission and went on to fight with the OSS behind the lines in Yugoslavia.  Character actor John Howard--best known as Katherine Hepburn's fiance in The Philadelphia Story--served as executive officer on a Navy minesweeper.  Howard was credited with saving the vessel and its crew after it struck a mine off the southern coast of France, killing the Captain.  for his heroism, Howard was awarded the Navy Cross.

Yet, among all from Hollywood who served, only one became a fighter ace.  That distinction belonged to actor Wayne Morris, who seemed headed for stardom in the late 1930s, after his performance in Kid Galahad, alongside Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.  At 6'2" with an athlete's physique, Morris looked the part of a heavyweight boxer.  Critics praised his "natural, realistic performance."

Three years later, Morris decided to learn to fly in preparation for "Flight Angels," a "B" feature from Warner Brothers, where he was under contract.  While the film was largely forgettable, Morris discovered an affinity for aviation.  He earned his private pilot's license and with America's entry into World War II, he joined the Naval Reserve.  Morris completed military flight training in 1942 and (like Jimmy Stewart) was initially assigned as a flight instructor.

Determine to fly fighters--and serve in combat--Morris contacted Commander David McCampbell, a relative through marriage who was Commander of Air Group 15, and would become the Navy's leading ace of all time.  "Give me a letter," McCampbell told Morris and few months later, the actor found himself flying F6F Hellcats off the USS Essex.  During his tours in VF-15, Morris flew 57 combat missions, shot down seven enemy aircraft and helped sink five enemy ships.  For his actions, Morris earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

When he returned to Hollywood in 1946, Morris found his acting career had stalled.  Making matters worse, Warner's didn't put him back on the screen until a year later, and for most of the following decade Wayne Morris found himself relegated to low-budget westerns.  He maintained his military connections, remaining in the Naval Reserve (where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander) and performing drill tours between acting roles.

Almost a decade later, Morris mounted a career comeback, receiving good notices for playing a washed-up boxer on Broadway in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers.  That same year (1957), Stanley Kubrick cast Morris in Paths of Glory, as a drunken, cowardly French infantry officer in World War I.  Movie-goers who knew of Morris's record as a brave, tenacious fighter pilot appreciated the irony of Kubrick's decision, and the actor delivered: his performance as Lt Roget is remembered as one of his finest.

Sadly, Paths would mark one of final screen appearances.  During a reserve tour on the carrier Bon Homme Richard in 1959, Morris suffered a massive heart attack and died a short time later at a navy hospital in Oakland, CA.  He was 45 years old.

Fifty-five years after Wayne Morris's passing, Hollywood is speculating about this year's competition for Best Picture, which includes American Sniper.  There is general consensus that Clint Eastwood's film about Chris Kyle will lose to one of the other entries, since many academy voters are squeamish about his depiction of the Navy SEAL sniper, who killed 160 enemy combatants with a dedication and determination that some (falsely) depict as racism.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  Chris Kyle understood the savagery of war, as did Wayne Morris.  It's one more reminder of how much Hollywood has changed over the past 70 years, and not for the better.                                        

Religious Science

Ever wonder why the Muslim world has contributed relatively few scientific breakthroughs since the 13th century?  Or that the number of Nobel laureates from Trinity College, Cambridge (32) is far greater than the total from the entire Islamic universe (10)?

If we were aiming for a show at MSNBC (there are vacancies), or a spokesperson gig at the State Department, we could offer the usual blather about centuries of colonial occupation, oppression, and lack of access to education.  However, this doesn't explain the large number of Muslims who have earned advanced degrees in a variety of fields--and often use their education and skills as a ticket to places that are less oppressive and violent.

Maybe the real answer lies in how some Islamic states utilize their scientific talent.  In countries like Pakistan and Iran, nuclear physics and rocket science have been the "hot fields" for decades, to advance the cause of developing nuclear weapons and the means to drop them on your enemies.  If all of your R&D efforts are focused on creating a thermonuclear device and an ICBM, there won't be much left over for new cancer cures.     

Or perhaps a better explanation can be found in the influence of religious leaders who have dominated the Muslim world since the days of the prophet.  Folks like Saudi cleric Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari, who recently told a university audience in the United Arab Emirates that the earth does not rotate, and sits at the center of the universe.  According to Al Arabiya, students were "stunned" by al-Khaibari's discovery, including his assessment that planes could never reach their destination if the earth rotated on its axis.  Take that, Galileo and Copernicus!

Watching clips of the exchange, it appears that al-Khaibari received only the mildest of challenges from his audience.  We're guessing the absence of derision or outright laughter wasn't the product of ignorance--it was the fear of ridiculing a respected Saudi cleric and the consequences it might generate. So, students and faculty members stayed quiet.

To be fair, every religion has its share of crackpots and idiots.  And there's never any hesitancy in calling out Christians, Jews, or members of other faiths who offer theories that defy scientific fact (and no, we don't include climate change in that category).  But a different standard applies to the leaders of Islam, and there's the rub: if you can't criticize your theological scholars for something as basic as the earth revolving around the sun, how can you challenge them on scriptural foundation for beheading non-believers, or strapping a bomb to your child's body, so they can kill the infidels? 



Friday, February 13, 2015

The Fabulist and the Reporter

Then and now: Bob Simon in Vietnam; Brian Williams in Iraq.   

There were a couple of reminders this week regarding the state of American journalism.  One reminded us of what it could be, the other of what it has become.

An example of the former could be found in the long career of Bob Simon, the veteran CBS News correspondent, who died tragically in a Manhattan car accident Wednesday night.  He was 73 and there was a certain, bitter irony in his passing, in the back of a livery cab that slammed into a median.  Over a 45-year career at CBS, Simon had reported from more war zones and escaped more close calls than he could count.  But his luck finally ran out on the West Side Highway, far from a distant battlefield.

At the time of his passing, Mr. Simon was celebrating his 16th year with 60 Minutes, where his work won praise and admiration.  A segment from 2012 was one of his best: Simon traveled to the Congo to profile a former airline pilot who decided form a symphony orchestra.  When he launched the enterprise, none of his musicians could read music and few had instruments, but they were undeterred.  For more than a decade, they pursued their passion with an admirable determination.  The piece concluded with the orchestra performing Beethoven's last symphony in a rented warehouse.  As Mr. Simon, noted (fittingly) at the end of the segment, the symphony "has been performed with greater expertise before, but with more joy...hard to imagine."

It was vintage Simon; beautifully written and expertly voiced, the product of decades of experience and patience.  Journalism wannabes who covet the big chair at a broadcast network or cable outlet might remember that Bob Simon was a reporter at CBS for 29 years before that promotion to 60 Minutes.  Before that, he cut his teeth as a foreign correspondent, often reporting from the Middle East.  Covering the first Gulf War in 1991, Simon and his CBS crew were captured by Iraqi security forces near the border with Saudi Arabia, after venturing away from a military-run press tour.

For their troubles, the CBS team spent more than a month in the same prison with Allied prisoners of war, experiencing the same deprivations and abuse as their military counterparts.  Mr. Simon later chronicled the experience in a book, 40 Days, but sometimes expressed guilt over the project, noting that his release (roughly) coincided with the return of western hostages from Lebanon, who spent years in captivity.  Simon's book is a thoughtful, straight-forward account of his time in captivity.  An honest book by an honest reporter.  What a concept.

The current state of journalistic affairs is reflected in the current travails of disgraced NBC anchor Brian Williams.  Anxious to polish his skimpy credentials as a "foreign" correspondent, Williams traveled to Saudi Arabia ahead of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and well, we know what happened next.  The fictitious "downed chopper" incident took on a life of its own, with Mr. Williams telling it over and over again, with new embellishments to enhance his reputation.  The NBC anchor didn't stop telling his whopper until he was called out by crews on the Army chopper who were involved in the incident.

You know what happened next.  As his employer--and the rest of the media--began to dig into Williams's tales of derring-do, they found more lies, including his account of watching a dead body float by his New Orleans hotel during Hurricane Katrina.  Never mind that his luxury digs were in the French Quarter--which did not flood--and no one could support his other claims of contracting dysentery from accidentally ingesting water from the storm, or being rescued from street gangs which stormed the hotel.

And the hits just keep on comin'.  While Mr. Williams has been suspended for six months (without pay), and his name has been literally scrubbed from NBC News, his superiors are still wading through reports of additional lies, supposedly told by their former star anchor.  On at least two occasions, Williams publicly bragged about flying into Baghdad with members of SEAL Team 6, and claimed that a member of the elite unit sent him a piece of the helicopter that was lost on the bin Laden raid.  The Pentagon refused comment on the matter, but former SEALs dismissed it as another fabrication, noting that special ops units "don't take embeds [embedded journalists]" on their missions.

Additionally, questions are being raised about Williams's reporting during the fall of the Berlin Wall.  At various times, he has credited his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, as being the only anchor present when the wall came down in 1989, but on other occasions, Williams (then a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York) has suggested he was there with Brokaw when the wall first began to crumble.  According to a widely-accepted timeline of events (and Williams's own reporting for WCBS) he didn't arrive until 12-24 hours after Brokaw's first broadcast from the wall.

Once upon a time, there were a number of men (and women) at broadcast news organizations with the same skill set as Bob Simon.  They knew how to tackle complex stories, write a script and narrate it flawlessly, all against deadline pressure.  They reported from battlefields without a huge entourage or military minders, and without inserting themselves into the story.   

Unfortunately, many of today's media stars have followed a career track closer to Brian Williams than Bob Simon.  This is not to say they have lied about their accomplishments, or embellished elements of a story.  But like Mr. Williams, many could be described as ambitious and more concerned about climbing the TV news ladder than learning their craft.

As we noted in a recent post, Brian Williams resume was a bit thin when he joined NBC News in 1992; in fact, he was barely a decade removed from being fired from his first reporting job in Pittsburg, Kansas. Yet, that early setback was followed by an improbable, seemingly meteoric ascent which included stops at the Carter White House and extended on-the-job training at a station in Washington, D.C.  From there, it was on to Philadelphia, New York and the network.

By comparison, Bob Simon began his CBS career on the assignment desk, after graduating from Brandeis, studying abroad as a Fulbright scholar and working as a foreign service officer.  In the early days, CBS wasn't sure if Simon had the right stuff to be a broadcast reporter, given his rather pronounced Bronx accent.  Mr. Simon lost the accent and made it on the air covering the news in places like Vietnam, Cyprus and Lebanon.  But he was never viewed as anchor material and didn't get the 60 Minutes gig until he was 57 years old, when the CBS bench had been depleted by budget cuts, layoffs and retirements.

Brian Williams was already the primary substitute for Tom Brokaw--and heir apparent for the anchor chair--when Simon finally got the coveted slot at 60 Minutes, after 30 years of distinguished work.  That alone speaks volumes about the evolution of television news, and what it takes to reach the very top of that profession.  By the time Brian Williams arrived, it was all about finding someone glib and good-looking enough to bring in the maximum number of eyeballs at 6:30.  Reporting skills and personal integrity were clearly optional.
ADDENDUM:  Bob Simon's sojourn in that Iraqi prison provided a brief moment of levity for the detainees.  Among those being held was then-Captain Dale Storr, an A-10 pilot shot down by an Iraqi missile.  Storr had only seconds to escape his stricken jet--no time to get off a Mayday call, and his wingman assumed the flight lead was dead.  Predictably, Saddam's thugs had no interest in providing a complete roster of prisoners, so Captain Storr was listed as KIA; his squadron even held a memorial service for him at their base in Saudi Arabia. 

But the A-10 pilot had survived the shootdown and was taken--along with the other detaineess--to a complex in Baghdad that the Iraqis hoped the coalition would bomb.  And sure enough, it was targeted by Allied aircraft.  Miraculously, all of the prisoners survived unhurt, as the multi-story building collapsed on itself.  Kevin Graman of the Spokane  Spokesman-Review picks up the story from there:

As Storr dug himself out of the rubble he heard American voices, including that of CBS newsman Bob Simon.

“Bob Simon!” Storr thought. “Tell everybody I’m alive.”

“I would,” Simon told him, “but I’m a prisoner, too.”

Storr and other POWs reported the guards sometimes passed on opportunities to beat them, but they never missed a chance to beat Simon.  By various accounts, the CBS correspondent survived in his ordeal (in part) because his Red Cross-issued ID card identified him as Protestant (he was Jewish).  The mistake was eventually uncovered--and Simon was roughed up even more---but the trajectory of the war was already clear, and the Iraqis knew they would have to return captured prisoners.  Their window for killing Bob Simon had passed.







Thursday, February 12, 2015

Loose Lips (You Know the Rest)

The gang at The New York Times is back again, with another breathless exclusive that jeopardizes American strategy--and lives--in a war zone.

According to reporters Matthew Rosenberg and Eric Schmitt, data from a captured Al Qaida laptop has led to a spike in raids against terrorist leaders in Afghanistan over the past four months:

"As an October chill fell on the mountain passes that separate the militant havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small team of Afghan intelligence commandos and American Special Operations forces descended on a village where they believed a leader of Al Qaeda was hiding.

That night the Afghans and Americans got their man, Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti. They also came away with what officials from both countries say was an even bigger prize: a laptop computer and files detailing Qaeda operations on both sides of the border.

American military officials said the intelligence seized in the raid was possibly as significant as the information found in the computer and documents of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, after members of the Navy SEALs killed him in 2011.

In the months since, the trove of intelligence has helped fuel a significant increase in night raids by American Special Operations forces and Afghan intelligence commandos, Afghan and American officials said."

The increase in missions against enemy leadership is hardly unsurprising.  The "trove" of material taken from al-Kuwaiti's hideout generated plenty of actionable intelligence, giving special forces teams critical information on terrorist locations, communications networks and planned operations.  Obviously, the data was perishable; if SF personnel and the CIA didn't act quickly, they would miss golden opportunities to kill or capture terrorist leaders and disrupt their networks.  

Equally unsurprising is the NYT's decision to run with the story.  The paper rarely gets a leak it doesn't like--or publish--with little regard for the military consequences.  Mr. Schmitt, you may recall, was among the reporters who first exposed NSA's domestic surveillance program.  The merits of that program (and its impact on civil liberties) are open for debate, but the NYT's revelations made it more difficult to track terrorists within our borders, giving them a primer on the scope and scale of electronic collection efforts.        

Indeed, the head of the FBI's Counterterrorism Division, Michael Steinbach, told Congress yesterday that the threat posed by Americans who have fought with ISIS is "far from being under control."  The Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the senior intelligence official for the Department of Homeland Security also testified, and agreed with Steinbach's assessment.  

Of the dozens of Americans who have gone to Syria or Iraq and trained with terrorists there, “a small group” of them have returned to the United States and are now being tracked by the FBI, sources previously told ABC News. 

But today, Steinbach told lawmakers: "It would not be true if I told you that we knew about all of the returnees. … We know what we know.”

Nevertheless, authorities are “doing the best we can” to keep tabs on Americans and others traveling to Syria or Iraq, and to develop new “processes” to identify travelers, Steinbach said. He suggested automated searches of social media could help deal with the problem. 

Steinbach described ISIS’ online efforts as “dangerously competent like no other group before,” using social media and other Internet forums “to both radicalize and recruit.” 

Apparently, no one asked Mr. Steinbach (or the other officials) about the impact of intelligence leaks on counter-terror efforts.  But it's a fair bet that some of the Americans who fought with ISIS received training on how to cover their trail overseas and upon returning to the United States.  And that process becomes much easier with more information on how we gather intelligence information--and act on it.  

Back in Afghanistan, someone ought to ask if there's been a decline in the number of terrorists killed and captured since the raid that netted al-Kuwaiti.  To be fair, there is always a bit of a falloff when a major Al Qaida or Taliban leader is taken down; other individuals in the network often go to ground, realizing their identities (and place in the operation) may soon be exposed.  But the Times' expose will make it even more difficult to track down other terror figures in the weeks ahead.  Even in Afghanistan, word gets around.  

Additionally, stories like the one published today may increase the risk to U.S. and Afghan personnel assigned to carry out such raids.  Al Qaida and its allies are certainly capable of mounting major deception operations, like the one that killed seven CIA operatives in 2010.  Kicking in the doors of suspected terrorist dens became even more dangerous, since the NYT was kind enough to confirm that we're hot on the trail of al-Kuwaiti's key associates.  

But we shouldn't place all of the blame on reporters and editors who printed the story.  Without the required leaks (this time from "military officials") there would be no exclusive.  And that begs other questions, namely, who are these individuals and why in the hell are they talking to The New York Times while the operation is still underway?  

We're guessing--and it's pure speculation--that the U.S. officials who talked to the paper are civilians and political appointees.  With President Obama's re-formulated strategy against ISIS already under fire, the administration wanted to show it's still mounting aggressive efforts against our enemies.  This is (apparently) an illustration of how Mr. Obama's policies--heavy on SOF and drone strikes, light on conventional forces--can successfully counter terrorists.  

Unfortunately, that theory has a couple of problems.  First of all, Al Qaida, ISIS and other terror organizations have always demonstrated a fair amount of resiliency.  Whack a leader here, and a new one emerges.  And secondly, these decapitation missions--while expertly planned and executed--have little impact on the environment that supports terror networks, particularly those as large as ISIS.  

It will be interesting to see if anyone is punished for this latest leak.  As we've noted in the past, the Obama Administration has been extremely aggressive in going after individuals who divulge classified information--except when they happen to be senior officials.  Last December, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa excoriated Pentagon officials after it was revealed they bungled an inquiry into a leak by former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  Mr. Panetta was accused of discussing classified information relating to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden with producers of the film Zero Dark Thirty. 

If the latest disclosure goes unpunished, you can assume it came from one of the "big boys" (and girls) who speak without fear of consequences.  Too bad we can't put them at the head of the next SF "stack" entering a terrorist compound in Afghanistan or Iraq.  With their perfumed and pampered asses in the line of fire, they might take a different view on leaks.                                 



Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Closer to the Action

With the recent execution of that captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS, the U.S. is taking steps to improve survival prospects for other aviators who are downed in terrorist-controlled territory.

According to Military Times, American commanders have moved search-and-rescue aircraft and personnel to northern Iraq, placing them closer to areas where U.S. and coalition aircraft fly combat missions.  That will reduce response times, and (hopefully) allow SAR forces to reached downed aircrew members before the bad guys.

Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said some aircraft were recently deployed into northern Iraq as a precaution.

"It increases our ability to respond rapidly," Warren said.

Warren declined to identify the number of troops or aircraft. Reports suggest it includes a detachment of V-22 Ospreys.

The United Arab Emirates, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, halted direct participation in the American-led bombing campaign in December shortly after a Jordanian aircraft crashed in Syria.

There are reports that the UAE, which flys state-of-the-art Block 60 F-16s, halted its participation because of concerns about SAR procedures.  Specifically, UAE officials questioned the basing of key rescue assets in Kuwait, including HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters; HC-130 tanker/C2 platforms and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.  Even with those crews on heightened alert (probably a 15-minute scramble time), they still faced long missions to target areas in northern Iraq and even greater distances to operating areas in Syria.  

The Pentagon hasn't disclosed where the SAR forces have moved, but it's a fair bet they are co-located with A-10s from the Indiana Air National Guard's 122nd Fighter Wing, which had been operating in Afghanistan.  A total of 12 A-10s from the wing moved to southwest Asia late last year, and have been flying almost daily missions against ISIS targets.  A-10s not only provide close air support for rescue missions; the lead Warthog pilot also typically serves as on-scene commander, coordinating the aerial ballet required to retrieve a downed airman from bad-guy land.  Initially, A-10s were limited to missions in Iraq, but more recently, they have begun operating over Syria as well.  

Describing USAF SAR crews as extraordinarily skilled would be an understatement.  Combat search-and-rescue tactics were developed in Vietnam and since that time, the Air Force has made every effort to rescue aircrew members brought down by enemy fire. A number of rescue pilots, chopper crews and pararescue jumpers (PJs) have given their lives for the SAR mission, in Southeast Asia and the conflicts that followed.  While the basics of the mission remain largely unchanged, the availability of A-10s, the Pave Hawk, night vision equipment and advanced navigation aids allow rescue forces to operate in all conditions.  In fact, most rescue commanders prefer to operate at night, when advanced gear provides a distinct advantage.  

Perhaps the only disconcerting element of the recent SAR controversy was the delayed decision to move assets closer to the fight.  To be fair, there are certain diplomatic requirements that must be met before moving more aircraft and personnel into another country.  Still, it's surprising that SAR elements didn't move at the same time as the A-10s (late November).      

There may be other explanations as well.  Creating an effective SAR operation requires thorough training in rescue procedures--for all aircrew members--and developing a database that can be used to identify downed personnel.  As anyone who's been through SERE (survival, evasion, resistance and escape) training can attest, the chopper crew isn't coming to get you until your ID has been confirmed, and it's safe enough to make the pick-up ("safe" being a very relative term in the rescue world).  If a crew member can't provide the info to verify their identity, or the Pave Hawk crew believes the threat  is too risky, the downed airman will be on the ground for a bit longer. 

At the time the Jordanian pilot punched out in December (reportedly due to mechanical problems) it was unclear if SAR assets were launched in a rescue attempt.  The Pentagon has also been tight-lipped about the familiarity of non-western pilots with our rescue procedures, and if we had the required data to identify a Saudi, UAE or Jordanian pilot in a SAR situation.  

With the re-positioning of rescue assets, those issues have likely been addressed.  It's also quite probable that some of the A-10s are now in northern Iraq, given its role in SAR missions.  However, the Air Force has disclosed little about the Indiana Guard's combat mission against ISIS; when the A-10s and support personnel moved in late November, their new bed-down base was believed to be in Kuwait.  To date, the only footage of the Hawgs in action has come from Iraqi sources, which recorded an A-10 going after ISIS targets in Anbar Province in mid-December

So far, the threat environment over Iraq and Syria has been permissive (readers will note the Warthog in that December video is not dispensing flares as it maneuvers for a target run).  But all it takes is one "golden BB" to bring down a jet, or in the case of the Jordanian F-16, an errant missile from your wingman.  That's why moving SAR assets closer to the action makes a great deal of sense, particularly if you're an aircrew member going after ISIS targets. 
ADDENDUM:  Sources tell Reuters the rescue aircraft, crews and support personnel are operating from an airfield near Irbil, in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.  If the A-10s aren't based at that location, they are probably using the field as a forward operating base, landing there to refuel and rearm between sorties against the terrorists.                                     



Monday, February 09, 2015

One Year On....

With the one year anniversary of the Veterans Administration scandal at hand, it's remarkable how little attention is being paid by the mainstream media.  What a coincidence.

One exception is the Arizona Republic, which has a scathing editorial in today's edition.  As the editorial board reminds us, precious little has changed at the VA, despite dismissal of the agency's director, numerous investigations and continuing complaints about long waits for medical care.

A few excerpts:

The greatest fear among reformers of the Veterans Affairs hospital system has been that the behemoth bureaucracy simply will wait them out.

Let the months and years pass. Let the outrage subside. Let the reform-minded lawmakers and the whistle-blowers move on to other things.

It turns out, however, that there is something else to dread — something that may be just as much of an impediment to improving our veterans' health-care as bureaucratic inertia.

And that is: incompetence. In some cases, as in the VA's vile attempt to scuttle Sen. John McCain's medical-voucher program, an exquisitely malevolent form of incompetence.

Faced with a quality-of-care scandal, the VA is proving incapable of addressing some of its grossest flaws, especially in urology care.


At the start of last year's inquiries, investigators quickly discovered that the Phoenix VA hospital's urology department was uniquely hapless, even compared to an administration so inept it couldn't schedule appointments for new patients for months and, even, years. Urology, they concluded, was so dysfunctional, it needed its own investigation.

As the one-year anniversary of the VA patient-care scandal passes, we still have yet to see the urology department investigation results. We still do not know the full extent of the delays and other incompetence that occurred within urology prior to last year's scandal.

We do know a little more, however, about what has been done to improve urological care at the Phoenix VA since the scandal broke. Next to nothing.

According to a memo prepared a month ago by an assistant VA inspector general, the department remains in disarray.

Should this come as any surprise?  Hardly.  Last August, we noted the VA was already in full, bureaucratic hair-splitting mode, releasing a report that claimed it could find no link between excessive appointment delays and the deaths of more than 40 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix VA.  Six months later, one of the worst clinics at Ground Zero for the VA scandal is still riddled with problems, and no one can find out how bad the situation really is, or the condition of many vets referred to private doctors.

As with other scandals that have surfaced during the Obama Administration, attempts at ferreting out wrong-doers--and holding them accountable--are a secondary consideration.  Far more important are the optics of the situation, which were accomplished by the forced resignation of the former VA Director, General Eric Shinseki, and his replacement with Robert McDonald.  Another West Point graduate (Class of 1975), Mr. McDonald faces a Herculean challenge in reforming the agency.  And he's painfully aware that the clock on his tenure is already ticking, and a new president will likely choose a new VA administrator in 2017.  Meanwhile, the legions of incompetent VA bureaucrats can simply run out the clock, while the agency awards hundreds of millions a year in "performance bonuses."    

Not that it really matters to Mr. McDonald's boss in the White House.  As a few media outlets reported at the time, the President's motorcade drove past the Phoenix VA facility during a January visit to Arizona.  Predictably, Mr. Obama did not stop and Congressional Republicans complain he has yet to offer a long-term vision for reforming the VA.  

Advice for Speaker Boehner and Senator McCain: don't hold your breath.


Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Truth Squad

If Brian Williams thought his lying scandal would soon end, he was sadly mistaken.

One week after the NBC anchor retold his false tale of being in a helicopter that was shot down over Iraq--and just days after an "apology" that has been described as half-hearted and misleading--Mr. Williams is facing new allegations about the truthfulness of his on-air comments.  And his employer has assigned a team of producers and correspondents to look into the matter.

According to the New York Post, the newly-appointed "truth squad" at NBC News will not only examine Williams's tale of near-disaster in Iraq, they will also investigate claims he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  Broadcasting from New Orleans, Williams told viewers he saw "bodies float by his hotel in the French quarter," and contracted dysentery from water he ingested following the storm.

As with his Iraq lies, Mr. Williams apparently repeated his hurricane story more than once.  In an interview last year with his predecessor at NBC (Tom Brokaw), Williams claimed he came down with dysentery after ingesting storm water.  He also repeated his account of a dead body floating by his hotel in a 2006 interview with former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner.  The imagery described by Williams was riveting, to say the least.  As he told Mr. Eisner:

“When you look out of your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said in [the interview].

And from his conversation with Tom Brokaw:

“My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater. I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. And uh, it just was uh, I look back at total agony.”

Yet, both claims are demonstrably false.  As the New Orleans Advocate reported, the French Quarter--the high ground in the city--was virtually unaffected by the flooding that ravaged other neighborhoods.  And, a city health official says there were no reports of any dysentery outbreaks after the hurricane:

Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former city health director who manned an EMS trailer that was set up in the 900 block of Dumaine Street, a block from his house in the French Quarter, said he was a fan of Williams but dubious of his claims.

“We were never wet. It was never wet,” he remarked of the conditions in the city’s most historic neighborhood.

As for dysentery, “I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward,” Lutz said.

As for Williams saying he accidentally drank floodwaters, Lutz added, “I don’t know anybody that’s tried that to see, but my dogs drank it, and they didn’t have any problems.”

Looks like the truth squad will have a lot of material--and claims--to examine.  But Mr. Williams may not have much to worry about from the internal investigation.  "Producers and reporters" fall below the anchor in the pecking order at NBC News; it's tantamount to the technique sometimes used by the military to investigate general officers accused of wrong-doing--appoint a Colonel to run the investigation, with the tacit understanding that a lower-ranking individual will tread lightly in their pursuit of the truth.  

In one infamous example from the early 1990s, an Air Force Lieutenant General known for reprehensible behavior was accused of referring to a female, African-American officer as a "g--d--n black b---h" in front of his staff.  Because the general had friends in high places, the subsequent inquiry was run by a Colonel.  After many months, the Colonel determined the general's behavior was rgrettable, but the female officer did not suffer racism of discrimination, because the bigoted flag officer "treated everyone like that." 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the truth squad at NBC.  The guy sitting in the anchor chair can make or break your career.  As Bernard Goldberg described his relationship with Dan Rather, as long as you were on the anchor's side, your stories made it on the evening news, you got thank-you notes, even Christmas presents.  But after Mr. Goldberg penned his famous op-ed about bias in network news, he became persona non grata and was exiled from the CBS airwaves.  

Those unlucky reporters and producers at NBC face the same sort of Hobson's choice.  If they hammer Williams--and he survives--the anchor can make their careers a living hell.  On the other hand, if their findings convince the network to dump Mr. Williams, plenty of his friends in the news division will still be around to exact revenge and--if ratings crater--they could wind up being blamed for sinking a #1 newscast.  

In other words, don't be surprised if the "truth squad" produces a report that criticizes Williams's conduct, but provides enough wiggle room to keep him on the job.  It's worth remembering that the NBC News star re-upped with the network barely a year ago, a five-year, $50 million deal.  A good chunk of that money is probably guaranteed and there's another problem beyond a potential buyout: NBC has no one waiting in the wings to replace Brian Williams.  

To be sure, there are plenty of folks who would like a shot.  Matt Lauer, the $25 million-a-year host of Today, has subbed for Williams in the past, but many TV execs don't believe his skill set translates well to NBC Nightly News.  Beyond Lauer, you've got journeyman Lester Holt and that's... about it.  So, it's easy to see why the folks at NBC believe a "damaged" Brian Williams would still attract a larger audience than anyone who might replace him.  

But that creates another risk: given his record as a fabulist, what's to keep Williams from cooking up another whopper on the next big story?  If NBC decides to keep him in the anchor chair, they might as well make the truth squad a permanent unit in the news division; from this point forward, any controversial comment from Williams will be immediately challenged for its veracity.  It's a heavy burden for any news organization whose relationship with its audience is built on trust.  At this point, that relationship is hanging by a thread, but NBC will make every effort to keep Brian Williams.  It's all about ratings and money, and that's the main reason he still has a job.  

Of course, the great unanswered question is why anyone in that position would lie about being shot down in the first place.  Columnist Mona Charen has coined a term--borrowed valor--that sums it up pretty well.  Mr. Williams is part of a media/government culture which reluctantly acknowledges the bravery and sacrifice of those who wear the uniform--while wasting no opportunity to criticize the strategy (and leaders) that send them into combat.  

There may be another factor motivating Williams's body of lies, which can be found in the sense of guilt that liberals often feel about their success.  Not content with rising to the pinnacle of broadcast journalism, Mr. Williams found it necessary to embellish is credentials as a war correspondent.  Never mind that a network anchor in a war zone travels with an entourage only slightly smaller than that of a general officer.  At a minimum, most have a field producer, photographer, and sound technician in tow, and some have their own security details as well. It's not like Brian Williams was a free-lancer, working on his own, and depending on his own wits to survive. 

To be sure, the NBC anchor has enjoyed a storied career.  After bouncing around three colleges--and earning a whopping 18 hours of credits, Williams was fired from his first TV job in Pittsburg, Kansas.  But he quickly rebounded with an internship at the Carter White House, followed by a spot at WTTG-TV.  Despite Williams's poor performance in Kansas, the news director at Channel 5 took a liking to him and began tutoring him as an on-air talent--something that virtually never happens in a major market.  

From there, it was on to Philadelphia and New York, where he was the noon anchor at WCBS-TV.  For whatever reason, Channel 2 never gave him a shot at their 5 and 6 pm newscasts, and CBS News never expressed any interest in elevating him to the network.  But Tom Brokaw saw something in Williams and personally recruited him to NBC News.  From his earliest days, it was very clear that Mr. Williams was being groomed for the Nighty News anchor slot and when Brokaw retired in 2004, he moved into top job.   

Since his early failure in Kansas, it is fair to say that Brian Williams has led a charmed professional life.  Perhaps his steady ascent created a personal sense of invulnerability, or at the other extreme, a sense of wonderment at how he rocketed past scores of equally talented and in some cases, more qualified, journalists.  For whatever reason, Mr. Williams found it necessary and convenient to lie about his accomplishments, and his reputation will be forever tarnished--even if he hangs onto his job at NBC. 





Monday, February 02, 2015

Remember that Military Education Crisis?

It was one of the hottest topics in higher ed less than three years ago.  Amid reports that military members and veterans were being "victimized" by colleges targeting the armed forces market, President Obama signed an executive order to "protect" those students from predatory institutions.  According to Mr. Obama and his education team, a handful of colleges and universities were fleecing military students, collecting billions in federal financial aid, while providing degrees and credentials that were of dubious quality.  

Here's an excerpt from an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 27, 2012), which echoed White House talking points about a "crisis" in military education:

"President Obama will issue an executive order today that is designed to protect veterans, service members, and their families from deceptive marketing practices by educational institutions that target them for their federal education benefits, the White House announced."


"The order mandates that more information be made available for veterans and service members, and that the government take steps to stop deceptive marketing and recruiting practices by institutions that are eligible to receive military education benefits."


"Fraudulent and aggressive practices by institutions that target veterans and service members have increasingly caught the attention of lawmakers. Though the administration says it is not singling out one group of colleges, for-profit colleges enroll far greater proportions of military and veteran students than do nonprofit institutions, and tend to be among the largest recipients of military education benefits. Of the $4.4-billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill dollars paid to colleges and universities from 2009 to 2011, more than one-third, about $1.65-billion, went to for-profit colleges, according to a report released last fall by a U.S. Senate committee."

Among its various provisions, Mr. Obama's regulatory scheme required institutions receiving military-related financial aid (tuition assistance and GI Bill payments) to sign and comply with a new, DoD-mandated Memorandum of Understanding, which banned the deceptive practices that were supposedly rampant in voluntary education programs serving the armed forces.

The new rules also require institutions to collect a wide range of data, covering everything from graduation rates to the average debt load acquired by students studying at that college, university, or trade school.  Institutions failing to meet prescribed metrics--or found guilty of using false or deceptive practices--faced the potential loss of federal financial aid.

To make it easier to identify predatory schools, DoD, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the federal Department of Education created formal complaint systems, complete with websites where military members, veterans and dependents could register their grievances.  Apparently, the federal agencies didn't spend as much on the complaint portals as the Obamacare website, but the on-line tools were more proof of the crisis in military voluntary education.

Given the hysteria of 2012, you'd assume the grievance system would be flooded with complaints from angry students, victimized by greedy schools trolling the armed services market.  And, with most of the same institutions still actively recruiting military students--and new reforms just taking hold--the number of complaints must number in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, based on what Mr. Obama told us less than three years ago.

But the actual numbers paint a much different picture.  The DoD website that handles education program complaints went live just over a year ago (January 2014); last week, the Defense Department's Chief of Voluntary Education Programs, Dawn Bilodeau, offered a brief update at the Council of Colleges of Military Educators (CCME) Symposium in Anaheim.  Between January and September of last year, she reported, the complaint website attracted over 9,000 "unique visitors," who filed a total of 223 complaints.  Ninety-three percent of those grievances have already been resolved and not a single institution has been sanctioned for ripping off military students.

In other words, the DoD portion of the complaint system averages about 24 "non-compliance" reports a month.  Most, according to Ms. Bilodeau, are the usual stuff of higher education; queries about financial aid, refunds or collection notices, and requests for the release of transcripts.  There were also a few complaints about the quality of higher education programs, but those apparently represented a small portion of a very meager total.  Ms. Bilodeau also told the Anaheim gathering that the DoD portal received 36 additional complaints between October and December last year, suggesting that overall volume is actually slipping.  

Supporters of the Obama program might claim that tougher regulations are forcing schools to do a better job of serving military students.  There might be an element of truth in that, but it's also true that the same schools recruiting armed forces students and veterans in 2012 are active in the marketplace today.  If those institutions were doing a poor job--as purported by the administration--you'd expect the DoD complaint system would be jammed.

Instead, the almost-dormant complaint network suggests that most military-affiliated students are satisfied with their educational experience.  In fact, the number of complaints reported by Ms. Bilodeau represents far less than one percent of the military students who utilized the tuition assistance (TA) program last year.  For the record, well over 200,000 service members used their TA benefits in Fiscal Year 2014, including many enrolled at so-called predatory schools.  Overall, the Defense Department spends more than $400 million a year on the TA program; outlays for the GI Bill total $15 billion.

Why all the fuss?  To be fair, there have been some bad actors in military vol ed, and those institutions deserve scrutiny and punishment (as required).  But the exceptionally low number of complaints affirm what many have known for decades: military voluntary education programs have been a rousing success, allowing thousands of service members to pursue their degrees while on active duty, or after leaving the ranks.  There was no need for new layers of bureaucracy and regulation; indeed, the new metrics that will measure school performance in the future have nothing to do with educational quality.  That's rather odd, since concerns about "fly-by-night diploma mills," churning out "useless degrees" drove recent efforts to reform military education.

In the words of Rahm Emanuel, never let a crisis go to waste.  Even when it's manufactured.
ADDENDUM: There's no word on how much DoD has spent on the education complaint system.  But with barely 1,000 unique visitors per month for the website, the cost per click must be stratospheric.  Then again, we're guessing the feds aren't exactly concerned about another wasteful website.