<\body> Stories in America: August 2005

Monday, August 29, 2005

Time for a Break...

We spent the past week driving from Nebraska to Utah with many stops along the way, including a nice visit with this family from West Point, Nebraska.

We also spent a day on an Indian Reservation in Thurston County, Nebraska, interviewed a few truck drivers in Little America, Wyoming, crossed the Rockies in foul weather and had a great couple of days in Salt Lake City where we attended a belly dancing event in the park and a Muslim Cultural Festival.

After four months of non-stop interviews, we've decided to take a break. We'll be offline and out of touch until September 5, then we'll be on our way to Montana for a month. Thank you for all of your support, encouragement and donations thus far! Feel free to send over any recommendations and/or suggestions for our stay in Montana.

Off the Front Lines and Forgotten

Here is a piece I recently wrote for AlterNet:

Off the Front Lines and Forgotten

Twenty-five-year-old Michael Thomas, a member of the Navy since December 2002, was on the ship that fired the first tomahawks on Baghdad in March 2003.

He was discharged for psychological problems three months later.

When I met Thomas at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he was still visibly shaken by the experience. On his "bad days," he locks himself in his room. "I usually don't talk to anyone. I usually cry and get depressed. No one sees it because I isolate myself."

Like tens of thousands of veterans, when Thomas returned to the states, he attended a class about federal benefits. "They send you to a three-hour course and give you a book. If you don't ask questions, you won't get the answers," he says. "I'm still trying to get my claim. I filed it in December. If it wasn't for my cousin, I wouldn't know what to do."

Michael's cousin Dennis Hammons was a member of the Marine Corps from June 1993 to August 1997. Hammons, 30, was discharged in 1996 after he experienced a parachute malfunction and fell 500 feet at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Hammons suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome and has knee, back and neck injuries.

"I'm one of the people that falls through the cracks. I was in during Clinton's police actions," he says. "I was all over Liberia and Rwanda. I got stabbed and there's no record of it. I'm not eligible for benefits because it didn't happen during a conflict. They wrap a lot of that stuff under humanitarian awards. As soon as I got hurt, I was treated like a piece of crap."

Hammons says the claim he filed with the VA took 14 months to process; it took another four months to get into the VA medical system. "My experience with the VA has been horrible. I go to a private doctor for pain meds. If I need to see a doctor here [at the VA], it takes three to four months to get an appointment," he says. "I took my son down a slide, which wasn't real smart, and I couldn't walk. I had pain shooting down my arm and leg. That happened in April. I got in the second week of July. That's how it is here."

Robert Piaro, a Vietnam veteran who serves as the volunteer president of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, a non-profit organization of veterans helping veterans, says he's seeing Iraq veterans with intense cases of posttraumatic stress syndrome who have no idea what's available when they return.

"These guys are so frustrated," he says. "I understand the bureaucracies; I understand budget problems, but man if you're gonna send young men and women to war, you've got to take care of them."

The CVAF receives 95 percent of its funding through grants. "If the American public actually knew of the deficiencies in VA healthcare, they would be outraged," says David Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), a 1.2 million-member group that represents disabled veterans. "It's really changed to become an us against them-type mentality on Capitol Hill. Right now the Republicans have the majority and they flex their muscle whenever they have a chance. It doesn't do the country any good and doesn't do the vets any good."

In April, Republican senators, including Rick Santorum, R-Pa., John McCain, R-Ariz. and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., voted to defeat a Democratic effort to add $2 billion to the 2005 VA healthcare budget. The only Republican who voted in favor of the bill was Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

"Democrats are the ones supporting the troops. Republicans aren't supporting us," says Bill Huber, Disabled American Veterans Hospital Coordinator in Muskogee, Oklahoma and Korean Veteran. "I'm 71 years old and I've been around a while. The problem is, veterans don't protest. We take what we get. I'm the president of our DAV chapter and I tell my people to write to their congressmen. They just sit back and let our lobbyists do it. They can't do it by themselves; we have to help them."

Huber's group provides transportation to vets who have no means of getting to their VA appointments. The transportation service relies on donations to pay for vans, and volunteers to pick up and drop off veterans, including some who live as far as three hours away.

"We have a breakfast fundraiser once every three months and the only ones that will come are our members. We have that fundraiser so we can go on with our projects, but we don't get support [from the locals]. That's disheartening," says Huber.

The transportation service was recently asked to cut back its operations by 45 percent because of lack of funding, but the director refused to sign on. "What kind of people do we have running our government? So many are non-veterans. The ones that are veterans aren't supporting the veterans," says Huber.

In June, the Department of Veterans Affairs admitted an unexpected shortfall of nearly $1 billion for 2006 budget. "The administration has consistently gotten the numbers wrong throughout this war," says Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq vet and executive director of Operation Truth, an organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. "They've done this entire thing on the cheap. People at the VA are trying hard and doing their best, but in the end, they're allocated few resources."

The shortfall announcement resulted in negative press and an embarrassed Bush administration. Before Congress took its August recess, the House and Senate were at odds over how much money was needed to adequately fund the VA. The Senate asked for $1.5 billion and the House asked for $975 million. The House finally joined the Senate and approved the $1.5 billion supplement.

The question is, will the VA be able to distribute the money in time to help veterans? "I'm not sure the money will be spent on hiring healthcare professionals," says Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion, a wartime veterans organization. "It'll be spent on replacing equipment and construction maintenance problems."

For its part, the Muskogee VA Medical Center, which is enrolling 400-500 veterans a month, says the $1.5 billion supplement will fully fund all of its veterans' programs. "We haven't heard how much the trickle-down will be, but we'll be fully flush," says Greg Sorenson, chief of volunteer services at the Muskogee VA Medical Center.

Hammons says he's glad the supplement was passed, but doesn't believe it will improve the situation. "If they [politicians] supported our troops, Iraq war veterans that come back with missing legs wouldn't have to wait six months to get an appointment. Until that's taken care of, they're lying," he says. "I know personally, I'm not letting my kids join the military and have their lives destroyed.

Monday, August 22, 2005

"What's the Matter with Kansas?"

I couldn't leave Kansas without asking people what they think about Thomas Frank's book, "What's the Matter with Kansas?" We didn't have much time until we had to be in Omaha, Nebraska for a radio interview, so we made a quick stop at Border's in Overland Park, Kansas. The book is on display near the front counter and sells extremely well, according to a salesperson. I spent some time in the parking lot asking people whether they have heard of "What's the Matter with Kansas?"

Here are a few answers:

"I'll tell you what's the matter with Kansas. Outside this area there's nothing to do. There's a lot of culture here. There's a lot of wealth in the community. Good roads. Good government. I don't agree with everything, but it is good. This is the center. This is the third wealthiest county in the country, but for some reason, you go out west and it's dead. Most people think about The Wizard of Oz when they hear the word Kansas. That's what they think, but when you come to Johnson County, it's totally different. I just came back up from Tuscon and went through Liberal. It's flat. There's nothing there. The wind blows. The weather changes, but Johnson County. This is it. What's wrong with Kansas? Outside this area, there's nothing. I know about the premise of the book, but there's nothing wrong with being conservative. People who are conservative are more aware of their money and their estate. There are a lot of good things about being conservative."
-Dan, Unemployed

"I've never heard of it."

"I've heard of it, but haven't read it because I figure I already know what it's about. It's so upsetting to live here and see the trends. I try not to read about them and just move on. It's pretty backward. I strongly agree that there are real difficulties here with objective problem solving and being able to separate disciplines to the realm in which they belong. People don't seem to be able to separate their mental capabilities and problem solving and looking at problems from different directions. It's not just in Kansas. I'm gonna go beyond Kansas to our country. They seem to be afraid of melding those things to arrive at a decision. It's a shame because people would prefer to use half their brains that way. That's what it looks like is happening, doesn't it? Here and in our country. I'm a teacher and I try to teach my students to stop being afraid of differing opinions and to investigate issues on their own. Our kids don't get that at home. They probably get too much of the opposite. This close minded stuff is just so hard to watch. "
-Susan, Teacher

"I don't have to read it. I agree with the premise. I live here, after all."

"My friend has read it, but I don't plan to."

"No. I've never heard of it."
After giving this woman a copy of the book, she read the back, gave me a strong look and walked away.

What is a Kansas Democrat/Republican?

Driving an old car around the country can be challenging. During the middle of a drive the other day, one of our windshield wipers suddenly snapped off. As I bought a replacement, I struck up a conversation with a man who was in need of battery repair and asked him if he'd be interested in sharing his thoughts on politics and issues of interest. Here are excerpts from my interview with 49-year-old Dennis Reed, a Kmart forklift driver who lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

Tell me about the area and how it's changed over the years.

We've lived there 10 years and it's a college town, so every year it seems like there are more college kids coming in. The congestion is like everywhere else. It's gotten a lot worse. The enrollment is up 10,000 since 1995. That's quite a difference.

How is the economy and the job market there?

It's expensive. There are five factories, so there's quite a few jobs for people who live there, but the college kids mostly go to fast food places.

How long have you been a forklift operator?

Almost 20 years.

Do you like your job?

Yeah, I do.

Does it pay the bills? Do you have health insurance?

Yeah, it pays the bills and the company provides health insurance, but of course, you have to pay for it. Of course, all health insurance is expensive.

How does Lawrence tend to lean politically?

It's mostly Republican. There's quite a few gay people living people there and quite a few mixed couples living there.

That's pretty common for a college town.

Yeah, pretty much so.

Is that new? Was it common to see gay couples, say 10 years ago?

It may have been common, but you didn't see it as much as you do.

How do people feel about it?

I guess they feel pretty good because they just allowed a Republican gay group to establish a place there.

How do you feel about it?

Biblically speaking, I don't think it's right and morally it ain't right, but I don't have to live with them. As long as they stay on their side of the fence. I guess there's nothing we can do about it. You're gonna be with whoever you want to be with and that's the bottom line, whether it's the way god wants it to be or not.

Are you a Republican?

No, I'm Democrat. I'm too poor to be a Republican if that's what Republican and Democrat mean. I don't even know.

So why are you a Democrat?

That's what my father was and that's the only thing I've ever known I guess. I've never really looked into it cause politics really wasn't the thing that interested me.

Do you vote?

Yeah, I did vote for the last couple presidents. The first time I voted was for Carter. That depends on who's running because I wouldn't have voted for Kerry even though he was Democrat. He couldn't say the same sentence twice. It was pretty evident with everybody.

So you voted for Bush?


Do you like him?

He's OK, I guess. That's all I can say. Him being the way he is and his dad the way he is. They have all the money in the world so they don't really care about nothing but protecting their money. You can tell by the way he acts over in Iraq and towards the people in Saudi Arabia. He's got friends over there and big interests over there.

What do you think of the war?

It's like all wars. I don't think it'll stop soon. One dictator's as bad as another.

What do you want to hear about in the next election?

Mostly the economy and social security. Stuff that's gonna impact us in the next 10 years.

The Best Baklava in Kansas

For the first time in weeks, we were able to enjoy falafel, hummus and baklava for lunch. To our right was an Israeli family also enjoying the delicious afternoon buffet. After they left, a few locals and a group of Saudi men attending college nearby stopped by for a late lunch. They were followed by three men from India who recently arrived to work for Sprint. The owner of the restaurant, who does a good job of appealing to a wide array of customers, is originally from Morocco and a recent naturalized US citizen. The restaurant itself is adorned with several photos of Greece, Arabic writings and a large Moroccan flag. Aside from a late arrival the previous evening, this was our first experience of Overland Park, Kansas.

Here are excerpts from my interview with Mustapha Alhiane, 30, owner of the Marrakesh Cafe.

How long have you been in the states?

Since '99. I moved to Kansas in 2000. It's a little close minded. I'm used to big cities like Paris, Nice, Casablanca and Morocco.

Why did you choose Overland Park, Kansas?

I have a friend here.

What's the community like here? Do you feel like you're part of it?

Overland Park is a large community of Jewish people. There are professional Muslims, too. Lots of doctors and engineers. There are South Asian families, like Pakistani and Indian families. A few Arabs are here.

So it's pretty mixed. Do those different groups interact?

No, but the people who come here are open minded. Somebody who comes to eat your food, you can say they like you. The Jewish families that were here come often. I play Hebrew music when they come in.

Do you hear opinions about the war from your customers?

I get questions sometimes. They are asking from their heart.

What kinds of questions?

The majority of the American people here don't know what's going on outside and they're very close minded. If you ask them, 'What is the difference between Morocco and some other country?' They don't know where Morocco is. Even when somebody hears I'm from North Africa, they are surprised. Oh, North Africa and you are Arab? Or, North Africa and you are Muslim?

Some Americans learn about other countries when we're at war.

It's sad. Today, the total number of soldiers that have died in Iraq is over 1800. For no reason. What do we get from this war? High price in gas? When I came here, it was 96 cents. Today it's $2.56.

How do you feel about the war?

It's very sad. I think they [the US government] hide a lot of stuff. They're paying a big price for it, but the money is just money. Eighteen hundred Americans died. More than 60,000 innocent Iraqi people died. What do we get? Saddam is in jail. If you want to get rid of him, we could do it without all this stuff. We can pay big money and take care of him, but we were never honest about it. What we want is to control the area.

When you say "we," you're talking about America.

I am an American citizen. I passed my test for citizenship and hopefully I will get it real soon.

How do you feel about that?

I'm proud of it. If we talk about democracy and justice, we need to be honest about it, not just lies. American people, I don't think they get the point yet about it. Overseas, most of the people understand Bush is not honest about the change in the world. All he wants is control. It's not for justice or democracy. In South America, they are suffering and they would cost America less than what Iraq and Afghanistan are costing. Most of the people there are suffering. Most of the people there make less than $500 a year. If you want to bring something good, think about our neighbors.

What is the citizenship process like?

Every person who moves to the states for five years has the right to be a citizen.

So you became a citizen last year?

That's right. My test was in July 2004.

What's the test about?

A few questions. Actually, they are stupid questions. They ask me, 'What is the color of the flag?' And the flag was behind the office door and you could look at it. (laughs)

What else did they ask?

The second question they asked was, 'Who is the Vice President?' The third was, 'What are the two major parties in the states?' And they asked me to write the name of President George Bush and the United States.

You had to write down Bush's name?


And that's it?

That's it. it's very easy.

When you were living in Morocco, did you follow American politics?

Yeah, that's the difference between here and there. Right now, the people in what they call the third world, are more informed than American people because they have satellites, they have free dishes where they can get news and they have nothing to do. They are not very busy.

They don't have strip malls to go shopping like you do here.

Yeah, and they're not working three jobs for the system. People here work two jobs, three jobs. They don't have time to watch news.

If you went there to ask a [Moroccan] high school student about the map of America, he can name all the states and the capital of the state. I knew a lot about the states before I came here.

Since you moved here right before 9/11, did you feel a backlash at all?

I remember it was a Tuesday and I used to have a store in Missouri. I was just opening. It was 8:30. A lady across the street from me was knocking on my door. She said, 'You did it.' And I said, 'What happened?' And she said, 'The Twin Towers. They are gone and Osama bin Laden hit them.' What's this about me? 'You did it. You are the same.' I mean she's a friend. It was a joke and serious. The same day I had a visit from the FBI, the CIA and another agent. They are three agents. They gave me their card. They asked me some questions. If I heard anything or know people talking about it. Actually they did that with all the Muslim and Arab stores in the area.

How did you feel about that?

I think it's normal. Everybody was shocked.

When I do interviews, a lot of people are confused. In one breath, they say we're freeing the Iraqi people from the horrible dictator Saddam Hussein. When we further the conversation, they say the Iraqis were involved in 9/11 and we need to kill them.

Who are we? This is the point. How can America be the police of this world? We have a lot of problems here. If you want reality, just go to Prospect, just a few miles from here and you can see African American people. Very poor people. They have nothing. They are living on welfare. Why are you spending billions and billions of dollars for nothing and our people here are suffering? It's not just African American people. There are a lot of poor people. Even the white people.

Did the high level of poverty surprise you when you first moved to America? America, to the outside world, is all about the brands and the movies, but people don't think about poverty when they think about America.

Personally, no, because I tried to know a lot about here before I came here. I knew there were a lot of problems here before I came here, but most of the people, yes, they get a big picture of America, but when they come here, they will see the reality. It's totally different. Sometimes people don't have enough to eat. I just read that more than 50 percent of American people, if the economy stays as it is, they will go bankrupt because they can't afford to pay their credit cards and their bills. Everybody is in debt.

Does that surprise you?

The system is not honest. You cannot see the justice. I can see huge problems in the system.

What does this country mean to you as a new citizen?

There's a lot of opportunity. The people, in the beginning, you can see are a little afraid. But when you try to talk to them nicely and explain the reality, they are very good listeners. Even the Kansas people, which are the hardest ones. When you talk to them and make the point, they are not stupid people. When I talk, it's just one opinion. They have opinions. Listening is a good start. It's a very good start and after that we can be friends.

Are you looking forward to voting in the next election?

I will vote. I can tell you that in reality, the two parties have the same project, especially in foreign affairs. There's not that much difference.

What will determine the way you vote?

The important things. Justice. If we want justice, we need to do it for everybody. We don't judge people about what they believe. Look at the money we spend on Israel from our taxes. We can rebuild Africa with it. Why are we spending it on a corner of land? It's a holy land for three different religions and I do respect that, but it's too much. How can you kick more than four million people from their land and bring other people from Europe, from America, from everywhere and tell them, 'This is the land of your grandfather.' And even they can get a passport. And this is the problem of England and America. Just two countries. I'm surprised to see that in the news yesterday when they said people were crying. 8,500 people getting out from Gaza are crying because they leave their land. Give me a break. I mean they give these people houses, they give them money and they move them from Gaza to a new house. How is that for the four million they kicked out and gave them nothing. All they gave them was the gun behind their head.

We should think about that. Where's the justice? When we have that justice in our politics, then we can say we are trying to bring freedom to everybody and everybody will listen. The first who will listen and help are Muslims because it's part of the religion. To work for justice.

Many of the people I've interviewed have strong opinions about Islam, but don't know many Muslims.

This is another mistake, as a Muslim, in our community. We need to talk to the people. We have nothing to be afraid of. We are already suspect. We should open our hearts to people and talk to them.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Welcome to Liberal, Kansas!

When we planned this trip earlier this year, we chose a handful of states to visit, but decided not to follow a specific itinerary. We usually go to large towns and ask people for recommendations or look at the map for points of interest. For obvious reasons, we couldn't resist going to Liberal, Kansas (population 20,218)!

The Liberal Visitor's Guide explains how the town got its name:

"In the 1880's water was a rare commodity in Southwest Kansas. Travelers and ranchers needed a place to rest their live stock and quench their thirst as they headed to the west, but when water was available it was quite expensive.

Mr. S.S. Rogers homesteaded in this area and dug a well. When visitors came through the area they asked Mr. Rogers if they could use his well. He obliged their requests, and when they had watered their livestock and restocked their water supply they asked Mr. Rogers what they owed him. "Water is always free here," Mr. Rogers would say.

The surprised visitors would respond, "That's mighty liberal of you." In time the area became known as "The Liberal Well." As the name caught on, travelers were cautioned to be sure and stop at the Liberal Well. Just a few miles off the southern Santa Fe Trail route, Liberal became an important stop in the history of westward immigration.

Mr. Rogers added a goods store so people could purchase other items they needed during their travels. Some decided to stay and farm this area and in 1886 Mr. Rogers added a post office to his store, incorporating the small community known as Liberal, Kansas."

Ironically enough, Liberal couldn't be more conservative. Bush got 79 percent of the vote in this area.

Liberal, like many small towns across America, is full of stores and businesses that are named after the town. Some remain in business, whereas most are empty. It seems that in years past, there was much more pride in maintaining the look and feel of the local community. Those that are still in business are struggling to maintain their existence even though there's little to no chance of surviving after Wal-Mart comes to town.

Much to our surprise, Liberal is also home to Dorothy and the Land of Oz!

Being that I'm a big fan of the Wizard of Oz, we had to take the tour...and a lot of photos.

Who says Kansas isn't ready for gay marriage?

Wal-Mart, Iraq & the Oklahoma Panhandle

After four months of being on the road, I still find myself saying, "I can't believe there's a Wal-Mart here." As we drive through small towns, we immediately notice dilapidated downtown buildings and empty storefronts. Many downtowns are literally turning into ghost towns. Just when you think a town is too small for a Wal-Mart, it practically hits you in the face. I've found that Wal-Mart parking lots are great places to do interviews because they attract such diverse groups of people and are often the only option in town for affordable one-stop shopping. A lot of people making $6-7/hour have told me while they miss mom and pop shops, they wouldn't be able to afford the basics if it weren't for Wal-Mart. At first, I steered clear of the store itself. I'm now making it a point to go in to look for differences, but have yet to find any. The store in Oklahoma City sells the same exact items as the store in Alva, Oklahoma.

A few minutes after finding a parking spot in the Alva (poulation 5,288) Wal-Mart, we met Eli, a 24-year-old who served in Iraq for four months in 2003. Eli was stationed in Camp Doha in Kuwait before the war started and was 10 miles south of Baghdad after the bombing began. Eli was discharged after he blew out his knee while playing basketball. During our conversation, Eli said hello to several people coming and going, including a man he served with overseas.

Tell me about your experience in Iraq.

We had 40 days with no shower, five severe sand storms and a month without ammunition. Everybody else had tents. We didn't. Everybody else had air conditioners. We didn't. The only thing I had to eat for three days was crackers. We ran out of water for a full day. We went through a lot.

A month without ammunition?

Thirty-eight guys and the only thing we had was 210 rounds. And 210 rounds is supposed to be for one person.

I've been interviewing vets on this trip and often hear about the lack of armor and the lack of overall preparation.

The major thing with the military is, when you go through basics, the first thing you learn is how to become a soldier and how to shoot. The second thing you do is to learn your job. A lot of people over there are thinking more about their job and not what they were trained to do. To shoot. To become a soldier. That's what happened with Jessica Lynch. They were trying to do their job instead of being a soldier and shoot first. That's something that Bush needs to get through everybody's head.

A little over 1800 people have died. That's $250,000 per person that we have given out. In October, that's going up to $400,000 in life insurance. I lost a friend in Colorado. He was over there one week shy of a year. He had an affair with a colonel. He brought it home with him. The day before he was supposed to be court martialed, he went down to the local park and blew his brains out. $250,000 life insurance was supposed to go to his family. His family only gets 25 percent since it was a self-inflicted wound.

How has all of this affected you?

I have war syndromes just like everybody else. I have nightmares every single day. An eight-year-old girl holding a four-month-old baby came to my position begging for food and water. The little baby was so hungry, she was trying to nurse off of the girl. What really happened is she pulled a gun on me and I had to shoot her and the little child. When I saw my nephew for the first time, he was sleeping and my sister said, 'Hold him, I need to go to the restroom.' With him just laying there motionless, I started crying and gave him to my aunt. She said, 'What's wrong?' And I said, 'I can't do this.' I walked outside. I didn't hold my nephew for another two hours. It took so many people to try to calm me down. I thought I killed him. That's what happens in my nightmares.

I've lost several friends over there. For some reason, Bush is still keeping us over there. We've got a mission. We have to disarm everybody and find what we need to get and get the hell out of there.

After going through all of this, have your opinions about the war changed?

Yes they have. We were in Kuwait the day the war happened. We were supposed to go to Turkey to follow the Marines down to take the whole state of Iraq. Five hours later, they called us back and said, 'You're not going. Turkey won't let us in. No American troops can touch their soil.' A hundred and forty was the high and 25 was the low. Bush could have done a lot of things differently, but he's kept his head. He sent us over there to do a mission. A lot of people have died doing that mission. It's about time they finish it up and come home.

So you think it's time to pull out and bring the troops home?

Our main objective was to get Saddam Hussein. We got him. We're still looking for bin Laden. We just need to go over there, question every single person and take prisoners like we always have. A couple weeks ago, about 40 Marines were killed.

I was over there for two weeks wearing mop sweeps in 120 degree weather. I was wearing a tee-shirt with a jacket over it and coveralls for two weeks straight. I have the option to go back over, but I'm not going to because I have the option this time. My grandpa's health is real bad so I'm going to stay back and help with the family. I've been there and I've done it. I know how bad it is. I've lost several friends over there. My cousin was over there. He just had shoulder surgery. He's my age and is disabled.

Are people around here still joining the military?

Our numbers are so low. I'm with the Kansas National Guard now and they said we're down 2700 compared to this time last year. That's bad. Recruiters are losing their jobs because they can't get people in.

Are your friends' opinions about the war changing?

Kinda yes, kinda no. Some people are a little bit more gung ho than I am. They want to go back over there and shoot somebody. I tried to go deer hunting since being over there. I can't do it. It's not a challenge to me. There's a lifeless animal with no gun. I can't do it. We had machine guns over there. You name it, we had it. If somebody came up to us, you better be bringing lunch 'cause we're US; we're gonna tear you up.

But a lot of people's opinions have changed. Several guys from here in Alva and the surrounding areas went ahead and quit. They were thinking about staying in for the whole 20 years and after they got back, they said, 'My time is up. I'm through.' One guy was in for 22 years and he's 62-years-old. He resigned to go over there with us and he got gallstones. When he got back, he was gonna stay in for another year, but he quit because of so much crap that happened. Some people go treated good; some got treated bad. Like I said, 40 days without a shower. Hand wipes. Baby wipes. Toilet paper. That's what you can send the troops. Prayers. We always ask for prayers. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Shaving cream. Razors and a picture or two.

When you look at how much we're spending on this war, you would think there would be an abundance of those goods.

There's not. I celebrated my 22nd birthday over there and the barracks were named after me because I got so much mail. I had eight boxes come full of you name it, I had it. What they first told us when we went over there was, 'We're not going to have bacon. No pork allowed. It's against their religion.' As soon as we set base up, guess what we get? We get pork because we're on US soil. We're on the Army base.

I've been home since the end of '03. I've talked to over 1,000 people and maybe 300 have actually shook my hand and said, 'Thank you.' I'm Army National Guard. Everybody says we're weekend warriors. We only serve one weekend a month, but we make commitments like everybody else. I've got several friends in the Marines, Navy, you name it. We all sacrifice our lives. We sacrifice our marriages and our kids. I haven't been the same since we got home. I know a friend who, as soon as he got home, told his wife, 'No more. I'm getting a divorce.' Women are treated like crap over there. Women are the backbone of the family. Women do all the work. The men are the bosses. Men tell the women what to do. Women will do everything.

You mean the Iraqi women?


Did you have many interactions with Iraqi families?

Yes we did. Several came up to us and started to learn our language. We had several English interpreters over there. We learned a little bit of their language. We went through a three-hour class to see how they speak: no, yes, here's some food, here's some water. We really couldn't give them that stuff because it was just like throwing a piece of candy to a bunch of kids. You give one, you have to give to every single one of 'em. I remember several people would come up and say, 'I want food. I want water.' I had to say, 'I can't give you nothin'. It's against regulations.'

Some of them loved us being there because they knew what we were doing. We were trying to get rid of Saddam and give them power so they're not in war every single day. So some were grateful that we were there and others said, 'US, just go ahead and leave. We don't need you.'

I do thank god for bringing me home safe. I hope he brings home everybody else. They're fighting for their country and dying.

Have opinions about the war in this area changed?

Yes, a lot of people who were with Bush have turned against him because it's gone on too long. What are we doing there now? At this very moment, what are we doing? We're still trying to help them gain control of their country. We have problems here in the US. People are dying everyday. It's time to come home. Let people spend the rest of their lives with their families. It's gone on too long. It's gonna be like this for several more years.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Photos: Leaving Oklahoma

Greetings from Wichita, Kansas! We've covered a lot of ground over the past few days and have done a wide variety of interviews. From Bartlesville, we drove through the Osage Reservation to the OK panhandle; we interviewed people in a firehouse, outside of movie theaters, at gas stations and Wal-Mart parking lots. We crossed the Oklahoma/Kansas border yesterday and spent today in Liberal, Kansas, home of Dorothy and the Land of Oz! We interviewed people in a laundry mat, at a garage sale and in the Wal-Mart parking lot (there's at least one Wal-Mart in almost every small town we've visited). Because we're trying to do as many on the street interviews as possible and doing a lot of driving, we don't have much time to transcribe. For now, here are a few photos. Enjoy!

Also, I'll be on Air America Radio Saturday night at 8:30 pm EST to discuss opinions about the war. Tune in if you can!

We spent a few hours in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, population 35,000. I had a great conversation with about five local firemen there.

This hotel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Conco Philips is the largest employer in Ponca City, OK.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Conversations at the Gas Pump

The average price of a gallon of regular gas here in Oklahoma is $2.20, which is an all-time high. Lucky for us, the further north we drive, the higher gas prices become. Yesterday unleaded gas in Bartlesville, OK, hit the $2.49 mark, but the high prices don't seem to be deterring people from driving. U.S. gas consumption -- which accounts for more than one-tenth of total world oil demand -- is projected to rise one percent this year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Yesterday we stopped at a gas station in Bartlesville to ask people why they think gas prices are so high. Bush got 70 percent of the vote here.

O.C. Ford, 79, Retired

Why do you think gas prices are so high?

Cause the oil companies are gaugin' us. They're going to continue gaugin' until the people quit drivin', but we're not goin' to quit drivin' cause we'll have to walk and I don't like to walk. If you had a ranch in Texas with oil, would you care how much money they were chargin'?

Are you from around here?

No, I'm from Kansas.

How much is gas in Kansas?

It's about 13 cents higher. At least.

Wayne Yeazal, 45 and His Mother Twila Yeazal, 67

Why do you think gas prices are so high?

Wayne Yeazal: The economy and the government. The owners of the oil companies are greedy.

Do you think high prices cause people to drive less or does it just get them angry?

Wayne Yeazal: It gets them angry.

Twila Yeazal: I don't go any further than I have to. We live out in the country and we drive 30 miles from here to there. You either gotta let your medicine go, your gas go or your utilities or your food. I've been letting food go and going to churches to get food. That's the only way we can make it.

Are you seeing more people at church asking for food?

Twila Yeazal: Yes. There's a whole bunch of 'em that give out food cause our income can't make it. There are four adults living in our house. Me and my husband, my son and my sister. We're all disabled. They're just starting to draw social security and it's been hard.

What do you think about Bush's social security plan?

Twila Yeazal: I think he's nuts. He better leave us alone. He gives everybody tax breaks, but he doesn't help the poor people. Poor people ain't got nothin'. We had to build us a new home because we lived in two trailer houses put together. We tried to fix them, but they were too old. Our new house is electric. Before that we used propane, electric and water. Now we're just using electric, so I don't know what our bill is going to be like. Our propane bill was so darn high, we couldn't afford it.

Are people able to find jobs in this area?

Twila Yeazal: Not a whole lot.

Wayne Yeazal: There are jobs for teenagers at fast food places, but no one can live off of $6 an hour.

Twila Yeazal: My other son is a truck driver and he can't make it on his salary.

Wayne Yeazal: I was a truck driver until I got hurt. I had a bunch of surgeries and had a $300,000 bill. There's no way I can pay for that. I'm on Medicaid and only make $400 a month from social security.

Do you vote?

Twila Yeazal: No. I don't like the government.

Wayne Yeazal: I don't vote. I don't pay attention.

Melvin Martin, 59, Part-Time Building Inspector

Why do you think gas prices are so high?

Pure greed and because they can get away with it. They're trying to see how much people will pay for gas. People will pay just about anything for gas except now that it's so high, people are starting to cancel their vacations. Mainly it's political. You got oil men in the White House after all. You know, Bush and Cheney are a bunch of oil men and they'll sock it to you every time. They don't care. They don't care about the people. Never did. It's so high now that if it drops back down to $2.10 or $2.20 everybody's gonna be dancing around saying, 'Oh boy, it's only $2.10 a gallon.' That's totally ridiculous. It's all about rich men and poor men. Poor men like me are pumpin' gas and rich men are on vacation telling lies.

You're not a fan of Bush?

No. I was lied to in Nam and he's lying to the people about the Iraqi thing and the oil thing. The Gulf of Tonken was a lie. Weapons of mass destruction was a pure lie. Young men and women are dyin' for nothin'. Afghanistan was a righteous cause. We should have sent all these men and women over there and gotten bin Laden, cut his head off and come home. Did they? No. We're over there losing people for nothin'. Eventually we'll pull out of that country and it'll be total anarchy anyway.

Bush is popular in this state.

Yeah, unfortunately. Big oil is around here, so sure, he's popular. He'll lie and people will believe him.

Kerry didn't win one county in this state.

Yeah, he's too intelligent for them I guess.

What's the economy like in this area?

The economy is real poor. On TV, they say, 'Look at all these jobs.' They are minimum wage jobs. People are losing jobs. I got laid off in '99. I've been trying to make it ever since. I have three college degrees, but I don't know enough people.

What'd you do?

I was a building inspector for an insurance company. I made a nice living for a quarter of a century. When you get laid off, it's a big shocker. All of a sudden, you got no money coming in. If you're in your 50s and 60s, they're not gonna hire you to do anything. They won't even hire you to sweep the floor. People laid off my age have to get two or three different part-time jobs.

What are you doing now?

I do part-time building inspections and my wife went back to work as a teacher. Without that, we would have lost the house.

Do you have health insurance?

I get it through the VA and a clinic in Tulsa. If it wasn't for that, we'd get sick and just stay home and hurt. Or die.

What advice would you give the candidates who run in the next election?

Tell it like it is. Keep it honest. Focus on what people are interested in which is high gas prices, people dying overseas and social security which they're trying to take away. Important things. Not the garbage the Republicans throw at us.

Where do you get your news?

I watch a little CNN. I read the local paper, which is totally Republican and biased. I read the Tulsa paper, which is a little better. I listen to the radio.

Mary Fowler, 54, Housekeeper

Why do you think gas prices are so high?

From what I've read, they say it's because of the Iraq war. I've also read about alternatives to gas and even automobiles that use alternatives, but for some reason, the big oil companies bought up the patents for that, so it's not just the Iraq war and it's not President Bush's fault. He gets blamed for everything, but it's not his fault. It's just greed from other people. I feel like the president is doing everything he can to help.

Like what?

For one thing, he is protecting our country by being in Iraq. We can't pull out too soon because they'll think we're chicken and they'll try to attack us again. We can't pull out until they're able to fend for themselves. Those who are strong are supposed to help those who are weak. We are strong and we're that way for a reason. We've always been peacemakers. As long as we keep the peace, we'll be blessed.

So you believe we're acting as peacemakers in Iraq?

Yes and we're protecting the innocent. Muslims want to rule the world. They want to take over the whole world. That's their evil purpose.

Do you know any Muslims?

I've ministered to them. A few lived in my apartment building and they invited us over for dinner. I went with a Christian guy. They were nice. The food was nice. At the end, we said, 'Can we pray for you?' And they said yes, if we can pray for you. We prayed for the peace of god. Most of them are very harsh. There's no tenderness or love.

Do a lot of Muslims live in this area? Have you met any others besides the ones who invited you over for dinner?

Most of them live in Tulsa.

Why do you think we're in Iraq? People say we're freeing the Iraqis one minute and then change their opinion and say they're horrible people.

Soldiers over there say we don't get half the news. There's so much good going on. The majority of the people appreciate the help. The majority, not the weirdos who are deceived.

Where do you get your information about the war?

The Bible and the 700 Club. I also listen to preachers who know what's going on. Pat Robertson.

What do you like about Bush?

He's a praying man of god. He's a family man and he does care. He gets blamed for everything. If this country would turn back to god, things would get better. You can't go on killing babies and allowing homosexual stuff to stay. We do love the people, but we don't love their actions.

Do you think talking about homosexuality does anything to improve healthcare or poverty?

I guess for me I've always had to trust the lord for the next job, which is usually housecleaning. If you have your eyes on him, he'll take care of you. The government can't help us.

Do you always vote?

Yes, I volunteered for the Republican Party and I enjoyed it very much.

Have you always been Republican?

When I first registered, I was a Democrat. Just from studying in school, I thought that's what I wanted to be because I believed in government for the people, b

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Photos: Tulsa, OK Highlights

We just arrived in Ponca City after driving through the Osage Reservation. Here are a few highlights from our time in Tulsa. Before we left, we went to Wild Oats Market to stock up on food (our exciting diet: lentils, soup, rice, Odwalla Bars, almond cereal and soy milk). As we entered the parking lot, we immediately noticed the diverse array of bumper stickers.

We stopped at this gun shop/shooting range and watched a young man practice with a rifle he inherited from his grandfather. Another young man was shooting a handgun.

We spent some time driving around the city, which is spread out and rapidly growing. Outside the old downtown, the city has unintelligible areas of suburban patches and highway strip malls that offer everything from indoor gun ranges and sporting goods stores to strip clubs and chain stores. This strip club is down the street from a church.

Here's Priscilla's Lingerie Shop which is next to a Burger King.

The Right Wing Restaurant!

Across the street is Tie Dyes of Tulsa. Unfortunately they were closed.