Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

A Focus on Violence by Returning G.I.’s

Posted in Uncategorized by allisonkilkenny on January 2, 2009

New York Times

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham has made mental health a focus in his command. One of his sons, an R.O.T.C. cadet, committed suicide. (Kevin Moloney for The New York Times)

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham has made mental health a focus in his command. One of his sons, an R.O.T.C. cadet, committed suicide. (Kevin Moloney for The New York Times)

FORT CARSON, Colo. — For the past several years, as this Army installation in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains became a busy way station for soldiers cycling in and out of Iraq, the number of servicemen implicated in violent crimes has raised alarm.

Nine current or former members of Fort Carson’s Fourth Brigade Combat Team have killed someone or were charged with killings in the last three years after returning from Iraq. Five of the slayings took place last year alone. In addition, charges of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault have risen sharply.

Prodded by Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, the base commander began an investigation of the soldiers accused of homicide. An Army task force is reviewing their recruitment, medical and service records, as well as their personal histories, to determine if the military could have done something to prevent the violence. The inquiry was recently expanded to include other serious violent crimes.

Now the secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, says he is considering conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers “involved in violent crimes since returning” from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a letter sent to Mr. Salazar in December. Mr. Geren wrote that the Fort Carson task force had yet to find a specific factor underlying the killings, but that the inquiry was continuing.

Focusing attention on soldiers charged with killings is a shift for the military, which since the start of the war in Iraq has largely deflected any suggestion that combat could be a factor in violent behavior among some returning service members.

Maj. Gen. Mark Graham, the Fort Carson commander, said, “If they had a good manner of performance before they deployed, then they get back and they get into trouble, instead of saying we will discipline you for trouble, the leadership has to say, Why did that occur, what happened, what is causing this difference in behavior?”

General Graham, whose oldest son, Jeff, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq a year after another son, Kevin, committed suicide, has made mental health a focus since taking command of Fort Carson in 2007. “I feel like I have to speak out for the Kevins of the world,” he said.

The inquiry, the general added, is “looking for a trend, something that happened through their life cycle that might have contributed to this, something we could have seen coming.”

Last January, The New York Times published articles examining the cases of veterans of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan charged with homicide after their return. At the time, it counted at least 121 such cases. In many of them, combat trauma and the stress of deployment appeared to have set the stage for the crimes.

At Fort Carson, at least four of the accused killers from the Fourth Brigade Combat Team, Fourth Infantry Division were grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder and several had been injured in battle.

One was John Needham, a 25-year-old private from a military family in California, whose downward spiral began when he sustained shrapnel wounds in Iraq and tried to commit suicide. This September, after being treated for stress disorder and receiving a medical discharge from the Army, Mr. Needham was charged with beating his girlfriend to death.

John Needham, discharged from the Army, was charged in the fatal beating of his girlfriend, Jacqwelyn Villagomez. (Top, Orange County Sheriff's Department, via Associated Press; Bottom, Janet Wood)

John Needham, discharged from the Army, was charged in the fatal beating of his girlfriend, Jacqwelyn Villagomez. (Top, Orange County Sheriff's Department, via Associated Press; Bottom, Janet Wood)

“Where is this aggression coming from?” asked Vivian H. Gembara, a former captain and Army prosecutor at Fort Carson until 2004, who wrote a book about the war crimes she prosecuted in Iraq. “Was it something in Iraq? Were they in a lot of heavy combat? If so, the command needs to pay more attention to that. You can’t just point all of them out as bad apples.”

The Fourth Combat Brigade, previously called the Second Combat Brigade, fought in Iraq’s fiercest cities at some of the toughest moments. Falluja and Ramadi, after insurgents dug into the rubble. Baghdad and its Sadr City district, as body counts soared. By 2007, after two tours, the brigade, which numbers 3,500, had lost 113 soldiers, with hundreds more wounded. It is now preparing for a tour in Afghanistan this spring.

Most Fort Carson soldiers have been to Iraq at least once; others have deployed two, three or four times.

Kaye Baron, a therapist in Colorado Springs who treats Fort Carson soldiers and families, said, “It got to the point I stopped asking if they have deployed, and started asking how many times they have deployed.”

Ms. Baron added, “There are some guys who say, ‘Why do I have to get treatment for P.T.S.D.? I just have to go back.’ ”

While most soldiers returning from war adjust with minor difficulties, military leaders acknowledges that multiple deployments strain soldiers and families, and can increase the likelihood of problems like excessive drinking, marital strife and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Domestic violence among Fort Carson soldiers has become more prevalent since the Iraq war began in 2003. In 2006, Fort Carson soldiers were charged in 57 cases of domestic violence, according to figures released by the base. As of mid-December, the number had grown to 145.

Rape and sexual assault cases against soldiers have also increased, from 10 in 2006 to 38 as of mid-December, the highest tally since the war began. Both domestic violence and rape are crimes that are traditionally underreported.

Fort Carson officials say the increased numbers do not necessarily indicate more violence. Karen Connelly, a Fort Carson spokeswoman, said the base, whose population fluctuates from 11,000 to 14,500 soldiers, is doing a better job of holding soldiers accountable for crimes, encouraging victims to come forward and keeping statistics.

Even so, Col. B. Shannon Davis, the base’s deputy commander, said the task force was examining these trends. “We are looking at crime as a whole,” he said.

The killings allegedly involving the nine current or former Fourth Brigade soldiers have caused the most consternation. The first occurred in 2005, when Stephen Sherwood, a musician who joined the Army for health benefits, returned from Iraq and fatally shot his wife and then himself.

Last year, three battlefield friends were charged with murder after two soldiers were found shot dead within four months of each other. Two of the accused suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and all three had been in disciplinary or criminal trouble in the military. One had a juvenile record and been injured in Iraq.

The latest killing was in October, when the police say Robert H. Marko, an infantryman, raped and killed Judilianna Lawrence, a developmentally disabled teenager he had met online. Specialist Marko believed that on his 21st birthday he would become the “Black Raptor” — half-man, half-dinosaur, a confidential Army document shows. The Army evaluated him three times for mental health problems but cleared him for combat each time.

Senator Salazar, President-elect Barack Obama’s choice to be secretary of the interior, called for the Fort Carson inquiry, saying the killings raised questions about what role, if any, combat stress played.

“It’s a hard issue, but it’s a realistic issue,” he said.

Since arriving at Fort Carson, General Graham has spoken openly about mental health, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, calling it an act of courage, not frailty, to ask for help.

His 21-year-old son, a top R.O.T.C. cadet, hanged himself in 2003 after battling depression. He had stopped taking his antidepressants because he did not want to disclose his illness, fearing such an admission would harm his chances for a career as an Army doctor, General Graham said.

“He was embarrassed,” the general said.

He added: “I feel it every day. We didn’t give him all the care we should have. He got some care, but not enough. I’ll never be convinced I did enough for my son.”

At Fort Carson, in cases of dishonorable discharge, General Graham asks whether the soldier might be struggling with combat stress disorder.

He has sometimes opted instead to grant medical discharges, which entitle veterans to benefits. All Fort Carson soldiers who seek medical attention are now asked about their mental health and, if necessary, referred for treatment.

Still, some sergeants view stress disorder skeptically and actively discourage treatment, some therapists and soldiers say.

Billie Gray, 71, who until recently worked at a base clinic helping soldiers with emotional problems, said “that was the biggest problem at Fort Carson today: harassment” and “the very fact they are harassed made their mental status worse.”

Ms. Gray said she believed she was fired in October for being an outspoken advocate for mental health treatment. Base officials declined to comment, citing privacy reasons.

Colonel Davis, the deputy commander, acknowledged that sergeants had been reprimanded for discouraging treatment. “We have had to take corrective action,” he said, “but fewer and fewer times.”

John Wylie Needham, one of the accused killers whose case is now being examined by the task force, was “cracking up” in Iraq, he told his father in an e-mail message. Yet, he felt he had to fight to get help, his father said in an interview.

In October 2006, during his first week in Iraq, Private Needham, a California surfer, watched a good friend die from a sniper bullet. Months later, he was blasted in the back by shrapnel from a grenade. To cope with his growing anxiety, he stole Valium and drank liquor. Caught twice, he was punished with a reduction in rank, a fine and extra work, a confidential Army document shows. Eventually, he was prescribed medication, but he wrote to his father, Mike Needham, that it did not help.

Private Needham became angry at the way other soldiers reacted to the fighting, and he did not hide it. “They seemed to revel in how many people they had killed,” said a friend in his unit who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In September 2007, Private Needham tried to kill himself with a gun, the Army document states, but another soldier intervened. Mike Needham, a veteran, said that rather than treating his son, the Army disciplined him for discharging a weapon and confined him to barracks. The Army declined to comment.

“I’m stressed to the point of completely losing it,” Private Needham wrote to his father in October 2007. “The squad leader brushed me off and said suck it up.”

He added, “They keep me locked up in this room and if I need food or water I have to have 2 guards with me.”

The Army evacuated Private Needham to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to treat his back and his post-traumatic stress disorder. But a month later, he was back at Fort Carson.

“The first words out of the Mental Health Authority was, ‘we are severely understaffed,’ ” Mr. Needham said in an e-mail message to an officer at Walter Reed. “If you’re suicidal we can see you twice a week, otherwise once a week.”

Fort Carson assured Mike Needham that his son was receiving proper care. But during his son’s visit home during the Thanksgiving break, Mr. Needham found him smearing camouflage-colored makeup on his face and frantically sharpening a stick with a kitchen knife.

“He was a total mess,” Mr. Needham said.

He was treated at a California naval hospital until last July when he received a medical discharge from the Army. While Private Needham was in the early stages of getting help from a Veterans Administration clinic, he spent his days depressed and often drinking at his father’s condominium.

Then last summer, Private Needham met Jacqwelyn Villagomez, a bubbly 19-year-old aspiring model who saw him as a kindred spirit, said Jennifer Johnson, who had helped raise her. Her mother had died of AIDS when she was 6 and her father had left the family. Ms. Villagomez, “who saw the good in everyone,” had recently kicked a heroin habit, Ms. Johnson said.

“She thought she could save him,” Ms. Johnson said. But a month later, the police say, Private Needham beat Ms. Villagomez to death in his father’s condominium.

Mr. Needham said the Army handled his son’s case poorly, but Ms. Johnson finds it hard to muster sympathy for him.

“I’m sure what happened to him was awful,” she said. “I’m sure he saw some horrible things that altered him. But this is a 200-pound guy who beat up this 95-pound little girl. It’s disgusting.”

Katherine Harris, Ken Blackwell, and now…Mike Coffman?

Posted in voter disenfranchisement by allisonkilkenny on October 26, 2008

What’s going on in Colorado? Colorado may be our 2008 Ohio.

New York Times

 

Colorado Faces Suit on Voter Purges

By DAN FROSCH

Published: October 24, 2008

A national voter group filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Mike Coffmanalleging that as many as 30,000 voters had been purged from the rolls in Colorado. According to the Advancement Project, which filed the lawsuit in Federal District Court in Denver, Mr. Coffman, a Republican, illegally disqualified thousands of voters by removing them from voter rolls within 90 days of Election Day, which is prohibited by federal law. The lawsuit also alleges that a few thousand new voters were improperly disqualified because election officials did not follow federal guidelines in seeking to verify their home addresses. Instead, the new voters’ registration was canceled if a notice sent by election officials to their address was returned within 20 days, the Advancement Project says. The lawsuit seeks to reinstate those voters who have been illegally purged from the rolls. Richard Coolidge, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, would not comment on the lawsuit.

Politics West

Colo.’s Katherine Harris threatens ’08 election

Colorado, as anyone following the election campaign knows, is a major presidential battleground state. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have visited the state multiple times, including in recent/coming days. Though a new poll shows Obama taking a commanding 12-point lead, everyone expects both the presidential and U.S. Senate race here to be very close. That’s why the Secretary of State Mike Coffman’s (R) moves should worry everyone in Colorado and elsewhere. We’ve got our own Katherine Harris here – and a careful look at the news suggests he’s moving to game this election in a state that could be the Florida of 2008.

I say “careful look” because Coffman’s behavior – while outrageous and potentially election-throwing – has received coverage mostly in the back pages of local newspapers (and similarly little attention from the national media). But if you bother to dig down, you will see what I’m talking about – and it’s scary.

Here’s page 21 of Saturday’s Rocky Mountain News:

The story on the left describes Coffman’s efforts to invalidate roughly 5,000 registrations (depending on which source you ask). Here’s the crux of what’s going on:

“5,000 Coloradans whose voter status is in limbo because of [a] controversial check box…The registration form asks for a driver’s license or state ID number. If applicants don’t have that, they’re supposed to check a box and then put down at least the last four digits of their Social Security numbers. But thousands of people didn’t check the box. According to a policy adopted last year by Secretary of State Mike Coffman, these applications are supposed to be listed as incomplete…National and local voting-rights organizations criticize Coffman’s policy, saying it violates other federal laws. They say Coffman is unfairly putting up barriers for people who are eligible to vote and want him to change his policy.”

The check box is “controversial” because you are asked to check it on the form if you don’t “have” a driver’s license or ID card. Here’s what it looks like on the form (which you can download and see yourself here):

So, here’s the thing – what’s the definition of “have?” I may have one at my house or in my car, but not with me at the very moment I am filling out the registration form. In that case, it would be logical – and, in fact, honest – for me to not check that box, while also putting down the last four digits of my social security number as my selected method of verifying my registration. Alternately, for whatever reason (privacy, etc.), I may simply feel more comfortable listing the last 4 digits of my social security number, rather than my entire driver’s license number. So therefore, I might have listed my social security number and not checked the box.

And yet, if you made any of those logical choices – if you gave all the social security information required by law, but simply didn’t check the box – Coffman is attempting to use that choice to potentially invalidate your registration and prevent you from voting.

In case you think Coffman’s move isn’t extreme or motivated by partisanship, consider the fact that two big Republican counties are doing exactly the opposite of Coffman. As the Rocky Mountain News notes, “Election officials in Jefferson and Larimer counties also disagree with Coffman, saying they are weighing in on the side of the voter and won’t disqualify people because of what they call a technicality.” The Denver Post reports that Coffman reacted by sending a letter to other counties telling them they cannot follow suit, meaning two Republican counties are registering these voters, but others are not.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Rocky Mountain News notes that “the largest number [of registrations affected by Coffman’s edict] are Democrats, followed closely by unaffiliated voters,” and “hundreds live in predominately minority neighborhoods in Denver and Aurora” (ie. traditionally Democratic constituencies).

Remember, Coffman is an up-and-coming Republican “star” – he’s simultaneously Secretary of State and running to replace Colorado U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R). So he’s not some nonpartisan election observer – as I said before, he’s positioning himself to be Katherine Harris, who also went on to use her notoriety as an election thief to win a seat in Congress.

And Mike Coffman in particular understands that 5,000 Democratic votes is no small number in a place like Colorado. A 12,000 vote switch from Republican to Democrat in2006 would have cost him his election to the Secretary of State’s office. 

To be sure, there are going to be a lot of election-day shenanigans all over the country, much of it in the shadows. But what we’re seeing here in Colorado is a very public attempt to use Republican-controlled offices to potentially disenfranchise thousands and rig the election. Indeed, the Denver Post now reports that Coffman has asked his fellow Republican crony, state Attorney General John Suthers (R), to validate his moves with an official legal opinion so as to trip up potential pre- and post-election legal challenges to the disenfranchisement. This isn’t a conspiracy theory – it’s happening all right out in the open for everyone to see.

It all adds up to the kind of coordinated Republican scheme we’ve seen in the last two elections. And once again, that scheme could throw a national election.

And the Saga of Missing Ballots:

By John Gideon

In a stunning admission Sequoia Voting Systems has admitted to not printing and mailing over 11,000 absentee ballots to Denver, Colorado voters. Their spokeswoman claimed they “made an unfortunate mistake”. In fact, the company had failed to notify the city of this “mistake” and when originally asked they lied and told the city they had delivered all 21,450 ballots they were supposed to print and deliver  to the post office on Oct. 16. Sequoia claims they will have ballots printed and delivered to the post office by tomorrow, Monday. Voters have until election day to get those ballots marked and either back in the mail or delivered to any early polling site. Not mentioned by anyone is if any overseas voters or military are affected by this failure.

In Jefferson Co Arkansas voters will vote on ballots that don’t have some alderman races on them. The county discovered their error too late and they have now fixed it but all early voting has been done without those races being voted on by the voters. The county will just forget all of those voters and hope that none of the races are close which would open them up for potential lawsuits.

CO: Problem with Mail-in Ballots

Posted in voter disenfranchisement by allisonkilkenny on October 21, 2008

Just received this email from a reader in Colorado

Just letting you know what’s already being reported (but without the urgency necessary). 

I just went and got a replacement mail-in ballot, because they said they sent mine on Oct. 15th and it never arrived. I met a lady who said that they told her that hers was sent on the 8th.

In Colorado, an estimated one-third of the voters are voting mail-in, and at the Denver Elections Commission, they said there’s a problem with about half of the mail-in ballots.

My intention was to go mail-in without the mail, but I did get suckered into waiting for mine to arrive. It’s no problem getting a replacement, beyond the hassle of getting to the location. There are plenty of places where mail-in voters can put their filled-in ballots in an actual ballot box, to avoid the same hassles with outgoing mail as there are with incoming.

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Early voting begins as some wait for mail-in ballots

With Election Day just two weeks from today, tens of thousands of Coloradans who requested mail-in ballots still have yet to receive them.

County clerks, however, say they are now largely caught up processing the flood of mail-in ballot applications and that voters who have not received their requested mail-in ballots will soon get them.

“They’re done with voter registration now, so they can devote more resources to the mail ballots,” said Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, which oversees the counties’ election efforts. Oct. 6 was the final day for people to register to vote.

So far, more than 1.5 million mail-in ballots have been mailed out to voters in Colorado, according to secretary of state figures. But tens of thousands more people who have requested a mail-in ballot still have yet to receive theirs.

Denver elections spokesman Alton Dillard said 150,000 of the requested 174,000 mail-in ballots have been sent to Denver voters. The city’s elections vendor, Sequoia Voting Systems, plans to send another batch of 23,000 mail-in ballots Friday and the city has begun mailing out smaller batches of ballots as well, Dillard said.

In Douglas County, Clerk Jack Arrowsmith said the county will send out a batch of 4,500 more ballots today, but he added that the shipment won’t eliminate the county’s backlog of applications.

“We plan to be caught up by the end of the week,” Arrowsmith said.

The assurances do little to relieve the anxiety of voters who have watched the days to Election Day count down without receiving their mail-in ballots.

“It’s a big mess,” said Ernesto Alvarado, a retired school administrator in Thornton who said he heeded officials’ calls to vote by mail and avoid Election Day lines but has yet to receive his ballot.

Voters can check their requested mail-in ballots’ progress by going to www.GoVoteColorado.com and clicking the “Verify your Voter Registration Information” link. Alvarado said he did that, and the site told him his ballot had been mailed out on Oct. 13.

“But I suspect that they’re so far behind that they haven’t mailed it,” Alvarado said. “And it’s getting close.”

By law, county clerks have 72 hours after processing a mail-in ballot application to send out the ballot, Coolidge said. Voters can request a mail-in ballot until Oct. 28 and until Oct. 31 if they apply in person.

Voters who requested mail-in ballots but haven’t received them by Election Day — or voters who want to vote early at polling places instead of waiting to receive their mail-in ballots — can do so by casting provisional ballots. Before being counted, a provisional ballot mustbe verified after the polls close as having been cast by an eligible voter.

The potential complexities of it all have clerks making a new plea to voters: Return your mail-in ballots quickly.

“There’s an unprecedented number of people voting mail ballots this year,” said Larimer County Clerk Scott Doyle.

“With this long of a ballot and as long as it takes to process them, we need people to vote them and get them back to us.”

John Ingold: 303-954-1068 or jingold@denverpost.com.