MRFF's Inbox

May 23, 2008

It takes courage to speak truth to power through MRFF -
A personal testament of positive results

Dear Mikey,

It's almost hard to believe that it's been three years already since I moved back to Iowa City – the city where I was born. Although throughout the years I had been back here to visit many times, it had been nearly forty years since I'd lived here. During those years it was easy for me to dismiss my childhood experiences of religious intolerance here in Iowa as anachronistic. However it didn't take long after I moved back to discover that bigotry and intolerance are still, unfortunately, a way of life for some Iowans.

As you know, I am a 100% "service connected" disabled U.S. Navy veteran. Three years ago when I moved back to Iowa City and began to access services through the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center I was surprised to experience blatant discrimination from the beginning. Despite being a religious Jew (and the V.A. knew this – it was and is in my medical records) the Iowa City V.A. demanded that I attend orientation class in the Christian chapel –decorated with a prominent crucifix and the Stations of the Cross (a clear violation of long-standing Department of Veterans Affairs rules and Federal Law). When I objected, they demanded I attend anyway, and after I refused the instructor threw my orientation papers at me and I was denied any further orientation.

During two hospitalizations, despite my written and verbal instructions to the contrary, the hospital staff was not content to just refuse to contact my rabbi, they sent a proselyzing Protestant chaplain in to see me – while I was bedridden and wired to a heart monitor – to tell me that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews too and that my only hope was salvation through Jesus Christ. During three hospitalizations I was denied kosher food and spent my time in the hospital not eating. Later, when my rabbi accompanied me to a meeting to lodge a formal complaint with the patient advocate and a representative of the chaplains' office, I was told it was all my fault because apparently I had failed to protest vigorously enough, although it's unclear how I could have jumped up and down and screamed when I was suffering chest pains, wired to a heart monitor and being sedated. Still, it gets worse.

The day after my rabbi and I met with representatives from the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center, the V.A. struck back. At the time I was suffering through one of my frequent bouts of kidney stones, and the day after our meeting my primary care physician informed me that they would be discontinuing my care – they weren't going to either remove my seven (yes, SEVEN!) kidney stones or continue to provide me with pain medication. They cut off my pain meds! I was shocked and asked the doctor why; his response was simple – he rolled his chair over next to mine, put his hand on my leg, looked me in the eye and said, "You're a religious Jew. Why don't you try prayer or meditation?"

During the unbelievably painful weeks that followed I contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and you immediately sprung into action. You flew out to Iowa and together we had a press conference in Des Moines which was carried by both the local and national media. The Department of Veterans Affairs took notice and ordered a formal investigation which was conducted by Rabbi Kronick (a noted medical ethicist as well as the Associate Director of Chaplains for the Department of Veterans Affairs). Chaplain Kronick's investigation confirmed not only all of my assertions, but found other egregious policy violations that negatively impacted my care. But most important of all, with the assistance of Ross Perot, you worked tirelessly to secure treatment for me at the Dallas, Texas V.A. Medical Center.

As a disabled veteran living on a fixed income there was no way I could have afforded either the trip to Dallas or the cost of staying in a hotel near the Dallas V.A. Hospital; but once again you came to my rescue. The MRFF helped out as much as it could and I know that you kicked in money from your own pocket. You and I also worked together to assemble a group of supporters that included personal friends, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak of jewsonfirst.com, the Jewish Federation of Portland, Oregon (where I had lived and been active in the Jewish community for years), the Jewish Federation of Dallas, Texas and others who covered my expenses; and when that money ran out, Ross Perot pitched in.

Mr. Perot picked up the tab for my hotel room the last week I was in Dallas, and while I was there he often called me personally to make sure I was okay and was being given first rate treatment. Those calls meant so much to me; I couldn't believe that someone of his stature cared enough to take the time to personally check up on me. (Of course it goes without saying that you also personally called me nearly daily, and often more than once a day, to check up on me.) Additionally, Mr. Perot regularly called the medical director of the Dallas V.A. to advocate for my care.

I will never forget the morning I showed up for the procedure to remove my kidney stones: about mid-morning the medical director came into my hospital room and asked me how I was doing. He stuck around for some time, personally ensuring that I was being well taken care of. After a while he got up the courage to ask me how I knew Mr. Perot and I was able to tell him about you, the MRFF and how you had personally contacted Mr. Perot and asked him to assist me. Then the medical director asked me, "Do you feel like we're taking care of you?" I responded in the affirmative, and he asked me then, "Do you think you could do me a favor and call Mr. Perot then, and let him know we're taking care of you? He's been calling me ever 15 minutes on my personal cell phone just to make sure, and I really do have other work I need to do." Of course I was happy to call Mr. Perot and let him know everything was okay. I'm not sure anyone can even imagine how good that made me feel.

It's been a year now since my journey to Dallas, and recent events have led me to decide it was time I wrote and made clear how things have changed for me. First of all, as you well know, I have been honored to join the MRFF team in its vital work to advocate for the religious freedoms of veterans – I am now the Director of Veterans Affairs (a voluntary position) for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and in that capacity I have the privilege of working with veterans across the Country to advocate for their Constitutional Rights as well as both their physical and psychological wellbeing. But that's not all. As a disabled veteran I live on a small, fixed budget; but every month I am proud to send what small amount of money I can afford to support the work of the MRFF.

The sad truth is that the Bush Administration has not only turned its back on our veterans, but has become their adversary through government sponsored religious intolerance and outright discrimination. Americans everywhere are rightfully ashamed by the manner in which our servicemen/women and veterans have been neglected and even targeted for abuse by their government. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do everything in my power to improve the lives of those who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice so much for our nation. Further, I am proud of my military service and take seriously (just like you, Mikey) the oath I swore when I entered the military, to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I'll be damned if I sit idly by and ignore those who have risked their futures, their lives to defend the same Constitution and the same nation we all cherish.

But that's not the end of the story. This week the kidney pain returned and I ended up back in the emergency room of the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center. A CAT scan confirmed that I have kidney stones once again. But this time it's different. Sure, coming forward, going public with the religious discrimination I've experienced here, cost me something; I've experienced first hand the somatic reality – the tremendous pain – of reprisals, and for months when I showed up at the local V.A. Hospital or clinic for an appointment I was even greeted by other veterans who saw my yarmulke or recognized me from the local TV news (veterans who do not share my views regarding religious tolerance or comprehend the value of the constitutionally mandated wall of separation between Church and State) and made comments such as, "There's that fucking Jew!" But I also now know what if feels like to come out the other end of a long, dark night filled with pain, because this time I didn't have the same experience.

Last year the doctors in the urology clinic at the Iowa City V.A. Medical Center virtually taunted me, and despite my seven kidney stones accused me of drug-seeking and refused me treatment; this year they have gone out of their way to treat me both promptly and humanely. They have gone out of their way to ensure I was cared for – a 180 degree turnabout from last year. One could say, "What a difference a year makes." But I say, "What a difference Mikey Weinstein and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation makes." If you hadn't, at some personal cost, stood up for me I know absolutely that I wouldn't be getting the care I am receiving, and deserve, today. Mikey, simply put, any "thank you" I could give you would be inadequate. What I can do, however, and what I will do is follow your example and pursue my volunteer work for the MRFF with both dedication and vigor; and I will continue to send the MRFF my few dollars every month to help in my own small way support the work the MRFF does for the military personnel and veterans who are more than deserving of every ounce of our sacrifice. In truth, I only wish I could do more.

In regards to others who may have opportunity to read this: regardless whether you're a Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Wiccan, Agnostic, Atheist, etc., Republican, Democrat, Independent or even political at all, whether or not you belong to any group, sect, denomination or fit neatly into any one demographic, to care about those who have and are sacrificing their lives for our Country, you just have to refuse to be complacent – a decision that recognizes the value of our shared humanity, a decision that echoes the intrinsic suppositions of our Nation's Constitution.

We are all faced with choices everyday; you can choose to support our military personnel and veterans, or you can choose to look the other way. I choose to get busy and do my part, give of myself and out of my own small resources. Don't you think you can afford a few dollars or a little effort to support our troops and our veterans? In regards to those of you who are currently serving our country in the Armed Forces and those who have already served, if you are being discriminated against, bullied or threatened because of your particular faith or even no faith, I know it feels like a risk to come forward and ask for help – believe me, I've been there, I know what reprisals feel like – but I also know what it's like on the other end; trust me, it's worth the risk. Let Mikey and the rest of us help; we honor your service and will not fail to do everything in our power to improve your situation and ensure that your life, safety, personal religious choice and wellbeing are respected and protected.

Respectfully,

Akiva David Miller
Director of Veterans Affairs
Military Religious Freedom Foundation
Iowa City, Iowa

 


 

POLITICAL WRITER-WSWS.ORG

U.S. soldier in Iraq disciplined
for using Koran as target practice

By David Walsh
May 20, 2008

The US military in Iraq announced Sunday that it had disciplined and sent home a soldier found to have used the Koran for target practice. A Sunni Arab militiaman collaborating with American forces found the copy of the Muslim holy book 10 days ago in a police station shooting range west of Baghdad.

“Riddled with bullets,” according to CNN’s Michael Ware, “the rounds piercing deep into the thick volume, the pages were shredded.” Two handwritten English words were scrawled in the book, “F—- yeah.”

The militiaman complained to his superiors. The report caused an uproar in Radhwaniya, “a semi-rural area long home to loyalists of the former regime of Saddam Hussein.” Sunni Arab tribal units fighting with the US threatened to quit unless the perpetrator were punished. Tribal leaders approached the American military, who have become dependent in recent months on a tactical alliance with Sunni forces opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

US military officials launched an investigation and determined that a sniper section leader, an unnamed staff sergeant from the 64th Armor Regiment, had used the Koran during target practice May 9. The soldier claimed that he hadn’t known what book he was using, but investigators dismissed his story. No action was taken for a week.

On May 17 the commander of US forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Jeffery Hammond, and other American military commanders arrived at a formal ceremony of apology “in heavily armored vehicles to be met by a human tempest: hundreds of chanting tribesmen lined up behind razor wire ...” (CNN) Residents of the area carried banners and chanted anti-US slogans, including, “Yes, yes, to the Koran” and “America out, out.”

Sheikh Hamadi al-Qirtani delivered a speech on behalf of all the tribal sheikhs in Radhwaniya in which he condemned the shooting as “aggression against the entire Islamic world.”

Hammond issued a formal apology, declaring, “I come before you here seeking your forgiveness. In the most humble manner, I look into your eyes today, and I say, please forgive me and my soldiers.” Another US military official kissed a copy of the Koran and offered it as a “humble gift.”

A letter said to have been written by the alleged offender was also read aloud. The message, presumably crafted by some US military press officer, said in part: “I sincerely hope that my actions have not diminished the partnership that our two nations have developed together ... My actions were shortsighted, very reckless and irresponsible, but in my heart [the actions] were not malicious.” The local sheikhs, for their own short-term reasons, announced that they accepted the apology.

The influential Iraqi Association of Islamic Scholars denounced the incident: “This heinous crime shows the hatred that the leaders and the members of the occupying force have against the Koran and the [Muslim] people.” The vice-president of the puppet Iraqi regime, Tariq al-Hashemi, in the name of his leading Sunni party, the Iraq Islamic Party, demanded that the “US administration deal firmly with this desecration and also calls on our government to have a position in keeping with the enormity of this humiliation.”

Hammond’s public mea culpa is an indication of the sensitivity of the issue of US-Sunni relations and the tenuousness of whatever minimal stability has been achieved in recent months as a result of the Sunni tribal leaders’ actions and the truce declared by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Every aspect of the situation could blow up in the Americans’ faces at any moment.

Colonel Bill Buckner, a US military spokesman, told the media that the military viewed the incident “as both serious and deeply troubling,” but he claimed it was an “isolated incident and a result of one soldier’s actions.”

This is demonstrably false. Incidents of this type are the inevitable products of the US colonial-style occupation of Iraq and its more general designs on the Middle East. In fact, in 2005 it was alleged that abuse of the Koran in front of detainees was a feature of the interrogation technique used at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as well as prisons in Afghanistan.

While the Bush administration and the military high command, for public relations reasons in Iraq and to maintain relations with various Arab and Muslim regimes, publicly dissociate themselves, for the most part, from overt anti-Muslim propaganda, such racist and chauvinist poison is an essential lubricant of the entire US effort to conquer the Middle East and its vast energy reserves. One doesn’t have to travel too far, in any event. One of Bush’s personal advisors, Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, in 2001 declared that Islam had attacked the US on September 11 and that it was “a very evil and wicked religion.”

Intensifying sharply since September 11 in particular, but beginning long before that, the demonization of the Arab and Muslim populations provides one of the necessary justifications for the American ruling elite’s new global mission. Such propaganda is as old as imperialism itself, justified in the late 19th century as the “white man’s burden” to bring civilization to the primitive Orient and Africa’s “Dark Continent.”

As part of the preparation to invade Iraq, US military forces were indoctrinated to believe that by overthrowing the Hussein government and seizing the country they would be avenging the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Whether they initially viewed the Iraqis as terrorists deserving of punishment or an oppressed people who would hail the American forces as “liberators,” US military personnel have long since come to understand that they are a hated and unwanted presence, “the foreign occupier.”

Forced to suppress the population on a daily basis, American troops are inevitably demoralized and brutalized. This is the experience of every colonial war. Mass round-ups, terrorization of civilians, torture in the name of obtaining intelligence—all of these elements of a savage “counterinsurgency” must produce atrocities of a spectacular (Haditha, Abu Ghraib) and everyday variety (the Koran as target practice).

“Haji,” the derogatory phrase for an Iraqi, the equivalent of the Vietnam War’s “gook,” is regularly used by US officers in Iraq, according to antiwar veterans of the conflict. Racist taunts were a regular part of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, a program instituted from the top of the military high command. US guards wrote “camel jockey” and other insults on the hoods of detainees.

Moreover, aside from the propagation of general notions that Arabs are subhuman and “don’t value life as we do,” a quite specific war is being waged by fundamentalist Christian elements in and around the military. Encouraged by the Bush administration and the Republican right, these forces view the war in Iraq as one front of a holy crusade against Islam.

Whether the particular soldier in this episode was under the influence of such ideas or not, the latter are held and propagated by a substantial layer in the military. One of the most notorious proponents of fanatical Christianity in the military was Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence from 2003 to 2007. (According to an article in the Guardian by Sidney Blumenthal in May 2004, it was Boykin who ordered Guantánamo internment camp’s Gen. Geoffrey Miller to apply the harsh methods employed there to Abu Ghraib and the US-run Iraqi prison system.)

In 2003 Boykin, who had previously worked at the CIA and as the commanding general of US Army Special Forces Command, delivered a speech to Southern Baptists in which he recounted seeing an interview with a Muslim militia leader who claimed that Allah would protect him and his forces. Said Boykin, “Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” On another occasion, Boykin showed slides of Osama Bin Laden, Hussein and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and told his audience, “Why do they hate us? The answer to that is because we’re a Christian nation.” In yet another appearance, he declared, “Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

Boykin is only the tip of the iceberg. One of the most sinister outfits pushing religion on soldiers is the Military Ministry, a subsidiary of the fundamentalist Campus Crusade for Christ. At Fort Jackson, South Carolina, according to a December 2007 article by Jason Leopold on the Truthout web site, “For US Army soldiers entering basic training ... accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior appears to be as much a part of the nine-week regimen as the vigorous physical and mental exercises the troops must endure.

“That’s the message directed at Fort Jackson soldiers, some of whom appear in photographs in government issued fatigues, holding rifles in one hand, and Bibles in their other hand. [The photos were removed from the Military Ministry’s web site, but they can still be viewed online on other sites.]

“Frank Bussey, director of Military Ministry at Fort Jackson, has been telling soldiers at Fort Jackson that ‘government authorities, police and the military = God’s Ministers.’”

A six-month investigation by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), which tracks such outfits, found that the Ministry successfully targeted US military personnel entering basic training at Lackland Air Force Base and Fort Sam Houston, “with the approval of the Army’s base’s top commander.” Mikey Weinstein of the MRFF, commented, “I’ve said it before and I will say it again ... we are in the process of creating a fundamentalist Christian Taliban and somebody has to do something to stop it now.”

Weinstein came across a Campus Crusade for Christ video filmed at the Air Force Academy in which cadets and academy officials in uniform discuss how the fundamentalist organization helps strengthen their bonds with Jesus Christ. The Crusade’s Scot Blom proclaims in the video, “Our purpose for Campus Crusade for Christ at the Air Force Academy is to make Jesus Christ the issue at the Air Force Academy and around the world,” Blom says in the video. “They’re government-paid missionaries when they leave here.”

Whether it takes this fundamentalist Christian form, or a more general ‘patriotic’ coloring, anti-Muslim sentiment is being encouraged by the Bush administration at home and abroad to provide a base of political support for further military aggression against Iran, Syria, and other countries.

 


 

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