Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Mother’s Memorial Day at Arlington

“We don’t shake hands, we hug,” says Karen Meredith as she pulls a new member of “Team Ken” into her warm embrace.  “We’re family.”

Team Ken is the group of people who meet every Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the life of 1st Lieutenant Kenneth Ballard, who was killed in action May 30, 2004 in Najaf, Iraq at the age of 26.

Karen Meredith is Ken’s mother.

On a sweltering, humid day at Arlington, Karen welcomes a crowd of roughly 30 people -- relatives, friends and men who had served with her son – to a place where all wilted a bit in the 90-degree heat but where none would have been anywhere else on this day.

For this group, the gathering place is the same every Memorial Day: Arlington Site 8006 in Section 60, which today is the most crowded of the expansive cemetery’s 70 sections because, sadly, it is the final resting place for so many of our troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s a subdued scene with quiet conversations and singing birds as the only ambient sounds, punctuated with mournful bursts from the ceremonial bagpipers who wander America’s most sacred military burial ground.

An older man stands before a grave weeping softly as a woman he does not know walks by with a soothing pat of support on his shoulder. One young woman is draped over a headstone, quietly shedding tears while a few rows away, an Army wife sits on the ground alone, softly dabbing her eyes and rocking gently.

And of course, there is that sea of headstones -- white marble and a uniform 13 by 24 inches – extending as far as the eye can see, row upon row in a landscape that can be overwhelming in its sheer numbers and make it difficult to understand the individual scope of each life lost.

Then you come back to Site 8006, where Ken Ballard was buried on Friday, October 22, 2004 at 2 p.m.

It is now about 11 a.m. on Monday and Karen Meredith is still greeting arriving guests and supporters.

“Ken was such a dynamic person and everybody always said when he came into the room they knew something good was going to happen so there are plenty of Ken stories to share today,” she says. “So this does get a little easier in some ways, the people who show up at Arlington with their stories, who knew Ken, who served with him… They show up and it helps.”

“I think Vice President Biden said it the best that I’ve ever heard when he was speaking to military survivors he said ‘I promise you that one day a smile will come to your lips before tears come to your eyes when you think of your loved one.’”

Karen says she will be at Arlington every Memorial Day for the rest of her life.

Families who have lost someone to war come to Arlington having paid a price beyond anything most of us could imagine. When they think of Memorial Day, it’s not an abstract, vaguely-patriotic thought of countrymen who have died in service.  Rather, it is about their child, a husband or wife, parent or grandchild – it is a national holiday suddenly made the most solemn and personal of family traditions.

For Karen, it is about a little boy, her only child, who grew up with a love for reading and sports, mostly soccer and baseball, and graduated from Mountain View High School in 1995.  Coming from a family with a long tradition of service, Ken became the fourth generation in his family to enter the military, joining the Army as an enlisted man right out of high school.  He would serve in Bosnia and Macedonia and, after winning an Army scholarship, attend Middle Tennessee State University, earning a bachelor's degree in international relations and getting his commission as a second lieutenant in 2002.

Ken would go on to become a tank commander and helped lead the initial march to Baghdad in May of 2003.  He then became a leader of 2nd Platoon, of the Crusaders of Charlie Company in the summer of 2003.

He had expected to leave Iraq in April of 2004 but was extended when a series of battles broke out in Baghdad. After scrubbing a welcome-home party that had been planned for May  22, 2004, Karen got the call that, as she puts it, “would change my life” at 8:53 a.m. on May 31, 2004 notifying her that her son had been killed.

The Team Ken gatherings began at Arlington the following Memorial Day in 2005 and continued Monday, marking the eighth year of Ken Ballard’s mom making the cross-country trip to celebrate her son’s life.

“This really is a celebration,” she said. “We had him for 26 years and it wasn’t long enough for him or for me or all his family but he has brought us all together in a way we probably would not have. We’ve got family coming from Alabama, Kentucky, California and, yes it’s a day of celebration where we celebrate Ken’s life.”

A member of Gold Star Mothers, who has made countless media appearances as an advocate for military families, Karen says there’s nothing wrong with people enjoying the long weekend and that most military survivors ask only for a few moments of remembrance for their loved ones.

“They can go to the beach, they can have a barbeque,” Karen says with a smile.  “But please just remember what Memorial Day is about and what it’s really about is those we have lost.”

She feels oddly at home at Arlington, a place filled with memories of men and women who in some cases rest here after dying of old age, their lives having run their natural course, and where others are honored for lives that had just begun. These marble headstones can mark either the end of a long fruitful life or a life ending in ultimate sacrifice, where the full measure of what this man or woman could have become remains forever unknown.

There is a bond among people who come here to celebrate and remember and Karen feels that very strongly in Section 60 where the emotional wounds are so fresh.

“We do know a lot of other families and they’ll come by and talk to me,” she said. “The man buried next to Ken has the same birthday and we know his family and a couple of rows down a couple lost their son on Ken’s birthday. Both of his parents are older and have died so I always make sure he gets flowers on his grave since his parents are gone.”

“And this is just Arlington.  This is not all the other national cemeteries, the private places, the small town cemeteries,” she continues. “But for these recent wars this is 800 people out of 6,000 killed and there are many other important places out there.”

For Karen and the rest of Team Ken, it is a sad day but it’s also a time for hugs, stories of a life well-lived and a quiet champagne toast at this most sacred of military places that now also belongs to Ken’s family and friends.

“To Ken,” the group cheers in unison, clinking their glasses after Karen offers a moving tribute not to loss, but to the exceptional life of Ken Ballard.

After all the champagne has been poured, Karen Meredith floats among Team Ken at her designated spot in Section 60. She hugs everyone – multiple times – she jokes, smiles a lot and makes this as happy a celebration of her son’s life as she possibly can.  But then you look at her eyes and see much more. She works so hard to make sure everyone else is enjoying the day, but those eyes reveal the silent hurt that only a person who has lost a child or a spouse can fully understand.  Her eyes seldom well up on this Memorial Day but they speak volumes of sadness, loss and a gathering that she would undoubtedly give her own life to not be hosting on the last Monday of each May.

But she smiles and laughs, tries to brighten those eyes and goes on.  Based on the sense of sacrifice and commitment Ken Ballard stood for, it’s what he would have wanted.

“Ken wrote something in his journal before he went over there,” says Karen, softly. “He wrote ‘I have a lot of responsibility for my platoon and I hope that I’m able to bring everyone back’.”

“Ken was the only one who died over there.  And I don’t think he would have had it any other way.”

Memorial Day 2012 - My Favorite Pictures From Arlington

I went to Arlington National Cemetery for the first time on Memorial Day to celebrate the life of 1LT Kenneth Ballard, with his mother, Karen Meredith, and the other proud members of "Team Ken". It was a moving and inspiring day and I'm posting some pictures that I especially like.

Washington DC on the other side of the Potomac

A Reminder...

The sun breaks through on Memorial Day

All white marble... Row upon row...

Upon row...

A single rose...

Section 60, where those we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan are at rest

Headstone at Site 8006 for 1LT Kenneth Ballard

Karen tells me these stones are called "Mother's Tears"

Karen hugs an arriving member of Team Ken

As only she can, Karen speaks to us of Ken's life and memory

"To Ken!"


A bagpiper plays and walks the rows...

The newest graves really get me

Marines... Always faithful.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Me, Long Ago...

There's something about Memorial Day that I think makes many Vets, no matter what our bodies may tell us, feel forever young.  Perhaps it's the memories that come flooding back to a time when we actually were so young... I don't know.  But this is me, at 18, young, a bit nervous about the future and very unsure of what was to come.

From The Pen of Paul Jamiol

Another spot-on piece of work from my friend, cartoonist Paul Jamiol...

 If you enjoy Paul's work as much as I do, check out the site for his book.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Take A Moment To Go Silent On Memorial Day

I like a good hotdog and a beer as much as the next guy -- maybe more than the next two guys -- but it's important that everyone remember that this Monday is not really about firing up the grill and getting an extra day off from work. We're talking Memorial Day, people, and let's start by keeping our two main "military holidays" clear and distinct. Veterans Day celebrates all who have served our country in the armed forces.  Memorial Day, which we observe on Monday, recognizes those who have lost their lives in serving our nation.

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) announced yesterday that it is asking all Americans to ‘Go Silent’ this Memorial Day " honor of the 6,442 Americans who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11."

“This Memorial Day, as Americans head to barbecues and the beach, IAVA will head to hallowed ground from Arlington to The Presidio. For our community, there is no other day of the year when the civilian-military divide feels greater," said Paul Rieckhoff,  founder and Executive Director of IAVA.  "We have lost more than 6,400 brothers and sisters in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These fallen Americans stand apart for their bravery, sacrifice and last full measure of devotion for our country. As we come together to support their families, IAVA encourages all Americans to unite with us this Memorial Day and pledge a moment of silence at 12:01pm in honor of their lives and legacies.”

Sadly, most of our citizens will not even remember what holiday we're celebrating this weekend and all IAVA is asking is that all of us take a moment of silence at 12:01pm on Monday to remember those we have lost in war.  This timing coincides with the Wreath of Remembrance service at Arlington National Cemetery.

I will be at Arlington for the first time on Memorial Day and I know it will be both a rewarding and emotional day -- as it is for all Veterans and military families. And there's certainly nothing wrong with Americans kicking back, relaxing and enjoying the long weekend -- but we should all take just a few moments to remember how much of great consequence has been given for our country.

Said Rieckhoff: “For veterans of all generations, Memorial Day is a solemn time to remember all one million Americans who have died to protect our freedoms. It’s important for the entire country to commemorate that sacrifice, as well as build a foundation for the hundreds of thousands of troops still serving in Afghanistan and around the world."

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Disgrace of War Widows Fighting for Benefits

Kristen Fenty knows a thing or two about pain and struggle.

Like all Gold Star Wives -- women whose spouses have died or been killed while on active duty in the U.S. military -- she has learned to live with the grief of losing her life partner, the disintegration of the life she imagined and, like so many war widows, the burden of instantly becoming a single parent and shepherding a child through the loss of her father.

What Kristen Fenty didn't expect was six years of getting raked over bureaucratic coals in simply trying to receive and keep the benefits to which surviving military families are entitled.

Fenty, whose husband Army Lt. Col. Joseph Fenty Jr. was killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2006, is fighting just such a battle and has become an activist on behalf of other surviving military spouses grappling with a system that seems geared toward nickel and diming widows who have already sacrificed so much.

"It was a very difficult time," Fenty said of the time immediately after Joe was killed. "And I had just had a baby 28 days before my husband's death."

At issue is a byzantine parsing of government programs that essentially eliminates one survivor's benefit for another, despite the distinct purpose of each and their origin in entirely separate entities. Specifically, Fenty and Gold Star Wives are fighting a government practice that offsets payments from the Defense Department's Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP) -- a survivor benefit collected through death in service or purchased through post-retirement premium payments -- with the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) death benefit, paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs to spouses who have lost a husband or wife at war.

What Fenty and so many others have discovered is that, according to the U.S. government, receiving payments from both programs constitutes a kind of double-dipping and that a dollar-for-dollar offset must take place to prevent that.

To civilians, this is analogous to someone telling us after losing our spouse that we can have his or her retirement money or their life insurance -- but not both. Of course, this would be considered an outrage and an earned-benefits rip-off, but for military families, this evidently makes complete sense to the government.

About 60,000 Americans are eligible for both benefits and many are affected by these offsets, which are sadly known as the 'Widow's Tax."

"It's very hard for the military community to look at survivors," said Fenty, who lives in Virginia with her 6-year-old daughter. "And the attitude might be, 'well, this person's grief-stricken and feels like they're not getting what they should get' -- and they aren't because they don't have their spouse."

"I don't think folks realize that it is a very real situation for the surviving families. It is an injustice and an insult and in no way says that we honor the service of the dead."

 And the ramifications of this income being in peril go off in many directions including often leaving the surviving spouse with no retirement money whatsoever. As Fenty points out, the many times that military families move limits the extent to which the civilian spouse can stay employed at the same company, grow their career and achieve a separate retirement nest egg.

"I moved 16 times in 19 years," she said. "I'm a professional with two master's degrees. I'm not the typical, but I had to bottom-rung my employment every time I moved. Nobody's earning a retirement or getting vested in a plan when you're moving around that often. So your spouse's retirement is your retirement."

Fenty first became aware that this was going to be an unexpected financial problem for her "immediately ... within a few weeks" of her husband's death. And while dealing with the reality of ongoing finances is not uncommon among people who have lost a spouse in any walk of life, what made Fenty's situation especially stressful was being forced to make financial decisions with a lifelong impact very quickly after the shock of her husband's death.

 "You're talking to a widow who has just lost her spouse and you're asking me to make immediate decisions that are going to impact my financial future and my ability raise my child."

Fenty and Gold Star Wives have been active in Washington, including a two-day "Color The Hill Gold" trip to Capitol Hill last month to urge lawmakers to support pending legislation in both houses of Congress that would end the offsets. Those bills, S. 260 in the Senate and H.R. 178 in the House, would eliminate the Widow's Tax and other unfair financial hardships on surviving military families.

So, while the issue is certainly not being ignored entirely by Congress, it's difficult to describe the action being taken as anything but tepid, despite the fact that a strong bipartisan coalition of people usually at odds over almost everything agrees that a change is necessary.

"This is a matter of simple fairness," said Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), an initial cosponsor of the Senate bill introduced by Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) last year. "Military retirees pay for the Survivor Benefit Plan with their premiums and for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation with their lives. If they do both, it is grossly unfair to penalize their survivors."

The people who agree that these bills should pass illustrate the sheer magnitude of what a legislative no-brainer this should be. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) -- one of the Senate's most conservative members and someone inclined to disagree with Boxer on everything from climate change to what day of the week it is -- also strongly supports eliminating the offsets.

"The spouses and dependents who survive our warriors have earned every penny and should receive the full value of SBP and DIC without any offset," Inhofe said when endorsing the Senate bill in 2011. "Military families continue to make incredible sacrifices on behalf of our nation's freedom and it is time we give back these benefits."

And Republican Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who introduced the House version of the legislation, said the government needs to respect the wishes of troops killed in action and see that their families are taken care of in accordance with the benefits selected.

"Military members make necessary arrangements for their spouses to be taken care of in the event of their death," Wilson said. "We owe it to these fallen heroes to carry out their wishes and to ensure their expectations are fully met."

Despite the broad bipartisan group supporting these bills -- there are 188 cosponsors in the House and 50 in the Senate -- the legislation appears mired in committee in both legislative bodies and is getting little or no action.

"It's been introduced with every Congress, I think, at least 10 years back now," Fenty said. "There have been times where there were over 300 cosponsors and still it was not pushed through."

Though it is popular to support all Veterans programs making their way through Congress, the political advantage in a big election year is cutting spending and, especially among Republicans, avoiding like the plague any initiatives that increase spending. It is an ugly political calculus taking into account that, in absolute numbers, the families of our war dead represent a relatively small constituency.

"We're a very easy group to put to the side. We aren't the constituents of the military advocacy groups," Fenty said.

And the strain on widows like Kristen Fenty is exactly what one would think -- horrible and not being helped by a slow and painful battle to receive earned benefits.

"It's infuriating to think that something my husband earned is not going to his family," she said. "It demeans his service. It adds to the anguish about whether you're making the right decisions and it adds to the terrible thought process of 'if only.' If only my life was the way I thought it was supposed to be -- well, it isn't"

Fenty says that her biggest dollar loss has been not so much in missed benefits but in the additional taxes she's had to pay for years based on the offset rules and estimates that the Widow's Tax has cost her roughly $45,000.

While Fenty takes some solace in the many commemorations on behalf of her husband -- Fenty Hall at New York's Fort Drum was named after Joe in 2008 and a classroom in his name will be dedicated at Fort Benning in Georgia this summer -- they don't take the sting out of the ongoing battle her family and others are waging to simply get the benefits their war dead have earned.

"Several places have been named after Joe," she said. "But not every soldier has a hall or a building named after them and they have all earned a portion of a retirement and that ought to be paid to honor their service."

It's a difficult balance, this fighting for what's right, for one benefit earned by Joe's toil and the other by his blood and struggling for the equilibrium that best serves her husband's memory and her life, here and now. And then there's the part that's just for her and her little girl, the healing, finding calm and moving on that must take place. Kristen Fenty has found that while she still has the fire in her to hound legislators and mobilize others to action, she also realizes there will be a finite amount she can do and her life must be about something larger. She needs to find peace for her and a young child, who never met her father and was born less than a month before his death.

"I think that between three and five years is when young survivors typically turn away from advocacy," Fenty said with a sigh. "Not because it doesn't kill them that it's not getting changed but because it is killing them that it's not getting changed."

"I've hit a point where I can suffer over what we don't have or be joyful in what I do have. I have to put my eyes on what's important in this life and that's having the best life I can with my daughter."

* * * *

Please make your voice heard with your Congressional representatives on this issue. You can visit the Two Widows Walking Tall blog to read more and go here to easily let your House Representative know that you support ending the Widow's Tax.