When you’re a Governor, making difficult decisions is part of the job description. Just ask the chief executives of 33 states who attended the 97th annual meeting of the National Governor's Association in Des Moines, Iowa on July 15-16, where they had to choose between boots, bats, or bucks. The 233 pairs of combat boots -- one for each National Guard soldier killed in Iraq – were the focal point of a Memorial service co-sponsored by American Friends Service Committee and Military Families Speak Out to honor the citizen soldiers. Batting practice at Principal Park included a lavish reception for governors and their families, and was followed by an Iowa Cubs baseball game. A couple of heavily barricaded blocks away, Republicans held a fundraising reception at the Des Moines Club. The events took place within a six-block radius, but they were worlds apart.
8-year-old Mary Sapp, of Billerica, Mass., her older sister Lydia, and her mother, Anne, were at Nollen Plaza for the commemorative service. Mary clutched a picture of her dad, Staff Sgt. Andrew Sapp, a National Guardsman deployed to Iraq in October 2004. Mary talked about how much she missed him, and how sad she was that he hadn’t been able to attend her first softball game.
Back at the ballpark, Anibal Acevedo-Vila, Governor-Puerto Rico, stood next to his son, chatting up the players before throwing the opening pitch. After the Cubs rallied to beat the Omaha Royals, the Gov’s and their families were treated to a fireworks display. The next morning, the Governors tackled the conference agenda, focused on health care and Medicaid costs and economic development.
The war in Iraq wasn’t highlighted on the docket because it’s not considered a pressing domestic concern. But with nearly 300,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers deployed to Iraq so far, and 138,457 pairs of boots belonging to citizen soldiers currently on the ground, how can it not be?
Reserve and National Guard troops tend to have significantly higher rates of stress-related disorders than active duty military. A study of Persian Gulf War veterans found that upwards of 90% of Reservists had one or more symptoms of Post-traumatic stress six months after coming home, compared to approximately 20% of fulltime soldiers. (Comprehensive Clinical Evaluation Program, Department of Defense Report, June 1995)
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Reservists returning from Iraq are reporting mental health problems at levels more than twice that of active duty personnel, and a Seattle Times article stated that “out of 76 members of [the Washington National Guard] Bravo company, 14th Engineer Battalion, just under half were referred for counseling.” (July 26, 2005) But Vet Centers are so desperately underfunded that they’ve turned away citizen soldiers seeking medical and dental services, making veterans care a state health care issue by default. Federal labor statistics revealed that the unemployment rate of young male veterans was nearly double that of comparable civilians in the first quarter of 2005, which is obviously relevant to local economies. When a military newspaper cites “ divorce rates as high as fifty to eighty percent in some [Guard & Reserve] units returning from yearlong deployments.” (Fort Lewis Ranger, March, 2005), clearly the war has come home. The unprecedented suicide rate of Iraq War Veterans makes the war a domestic problem, as does the number of women who are murdered by their returning husbands. One such case is Matthew Denni of Oregon’s Army Reserve 671st Engineer Company. Driven, in part, by the trauma he experienced in Iraq, Denni murdered his wife and packed her corpse into an Army regulation footlocker. He was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to 20 years in a state penitentiary.
Celeste Zappala, co-founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, received a different sort of sentence when her son, Sherwood Baker, was killed in Iraq. His was one of the names she read at the Memorial service. When a mother bears witness to the death of her child, this nations’ foreign policy becomes a domestic matter of the highest order.
Meanwhile, George Pataki (NY), Mike Huckabee (AK), and Mitt Romney (MA) socialized with donors. Their quips about being Republican Governors in predominantly Democratic states got some laughs, which isn’t surprising, because Republican leaders have proven that they can be a very funny group.
After all, President Bush did his own comedy routine at a party fundraiser in 2004. The Commander-in-Chief looked behind curtains and under tables, laughing with the audience, telling them that he was searching for hidden weapons of mass destruction. His joke has cost 233 of our Guard and Reserve troops their lives. But the Governors decided there was no time for mourning in Des Moines.