Thursday, January 04, 2007

A Poor Cousin of the Middle Class

Published: January 18, 2004
The New York Times/
Sunday Magazine

Caroline Payne embraces the ethics of America. She works hard and has no patience with those who don't. She has owned a house, pursued an education and deferred to the needs of her child. Yet she can barely pay her bills. Her earnings have hovered in a twilight between poverty and minimal comfort, usually between $8,000 and $12,000 a year.

She is the invisible American, unnoticed because she blends in. Like millions at the bottom of the labor force who contribute to the country's prosperity, Caroline's diligence is a camouflage. At the convenience store where she works, customers do not see that she struggles against destitution.

Others of the unseen sew clothes, clean offices and harvest fruit. They serve Big Macs and stack merchandise at Wal-Mart. In a California factory, they package lights for kids' bikes. In a New Hampshire plant, they assemble books of wallpaper samples.

They cannot afford the wallpaper themselves, just as the man who washes cars does not own one. The assistant teacher cannot pay the fees to put her own children in the day-care center where she works. The clerk in the back room of a bank, filing canceled checks, may have $2.02 in her own account, as Caroline had when she briefly did that job. The clientele never saw her. She was out of sight, part of the hidden America.

Always in search of something better somewhere else, Caroline has moved from job to job, from place to place, from New England to Florida and back -- and now to Indiana -- without anchoring herself solidly in a community that can offer support.

Just over a year after arriving in Muncie, where she lives in a small apartment in a public housing project, she remains unconnected. ''I don't know many people here still,'' she told me recently. ''I just get out to go to work and do errands.'' Her hours at the store provide only a trickle of cash. ''I just can't get ahead,'' she declared. ''There's no good jobs, and I'm just not happy here.'' She has spent her life in perpetual motion while standing still.

Futility has nagged at Caroline for a long time. Four years ago, at the dawn of the new millennium, she sat at her kitchen table in Claremont, N.H., and added up her life. It was the height of the economic boom. The nation wallowed in luxury, burst with microchips, consumed with abandon, swaggered globally. Everything grew larger: homes, vehicles, stock portfolios, life expectancy. Never before in the sweep of human history had so many people been so utterly comfortable.

Caroline was not one of them. She had achieved two of her three goals. She had earned a college diploma (a two-year associate's degree), and she had gone from a homeless shelter into her own house (owned mostly by a bank). The third objective, ''a good paying job,'' as she put it, still eluded her. Back in the mid-70's, she earned $6 an hour in a Vermont factory that made plastic cigarette lighters and cases for Gillette razors. A quarter century later, she earned $6.80 an hour stocking shelves and working cash registers at a vast Wal-Mart superstore.

''And that's sad,'' she declared. ''I'm only making 80 cents more than I did more than 20 years ago.'' Or less, taking into account the rise in the cost of living.

She was not the victim of racial discrimination; she was white. She was not lazy; she was caustic about colleagues who were. She was punctual, rarely out sick, willing to do night shifts and assiduous in her work habits. The Wal-Mart manager, Mark Brown, called her ''a nice lady'' with lots of enthusiasm. ''She's self-driven,'' he observed. ''She's always willing to learn and better herself. She's got potential. She can definitely move up.''

But she did not move up. She had never moved up. And that ceased to amaze her; it had been going on for so long, in job after job after job. She was astonished only by Mark Brown's praise. ''I'm surprised,'' she remarked when I told her what he said. She was stacking blank videotapes on a shelf. ''I didn't think they liked me here. People don't usually say nice things about me.''

Somewhere along this track that leads nowhere, a good many Americans give up on the dream. They sink back onto welfare, or they stop imagining themselves as foremen or managers. Caroline was then 50, with so many years of disappointment that her bouts of depression, for which she was occasionally treated, seemed unsurprising.

Still, she kept striving. She called herself ''luckylady'' in her e-mail address. She said, ''Have a wonderful day,'' on her answering machine. She did not have big thoughts about corporate profits or dark judgments about society's unfairness. She just tried for basic financial security. Her persistence played like a dissonant melody against the monotone of job stagnation.

Again and again, she applied to manage one sales department or another at Wal-Mart, and again and again she was passed over in favor of men -- or, she observed wryly, women who were younger and slimmer.

''I work my butt off, excuse my language,'' she said sharply. ''I'm there most of the time, but that don't matter to them.'' She was paid a dollar an hour more during nighttime shifts, nothing close to what her flexibility was worth to a store that stayed open around the clock. Trying to get ahead, she always made herself available to change hours and fill in, even during evenings when she had to leave her 14-year-old daughter, Amber, home alone. Without a car, Caroline had a 20-minute walk each way, trekking back and forth at odd times of night in all kinds of weather. One cold February day, walking gingerly along icy streets, worried about her temperamental back, she trudged from her house to her job at her normal time of 10 a.m., only to be told to come for a shift beginning at 1 p.m. instead. So she made her way home and then returned to the store: three trips consuming one hour before earning her first dime of the day.

The people who received promotions tended to have something that Caroline did not. They had teeth. Caroline's teeth had succumbed to poverty, to the years when she could not afford a dentist. Most of them decayed and abscessed, and when she lived on welfare in Florida, she had them all pulled in a grueling two-hour session that left her looking bruised and beaten. Under the state's Medicaid rules as she understood them, a set of dentures would have been covered only if she had been without any teeth at all; while some of them could have been saved, she couldn't afford to do less than everything. In the end, the dentures paid for by Medicaid didn't fit and made her gag, so she couldn't wear them. An adjustment would have cost about $250, money she didn't have.

Probably no employer would ever admit to passing her over because she was missing that radiant, tooth-filled smile that Americans have been taught to prize as highly as their right to vote. Caroline had learned to smile with her whole face, a sweet look that didn't show her gums, yet it came across as wistful, something less than the thousand-watt beam of friendly delight that the culture requires. Where showing teeth was an unwritten part of the job description, she did not excel. She was turned down for a teller's position with the Claremont Savings Bank, which then hired her for back-room filing and eventually fired her from that. Wal-Mart considered her for customer-service manager and then promoted someone else, someone with teeth.

Caroline's is the face of the working poor, marked by a poverty-generated handicap more obvious than most deficiencies but no different, really, from the less visible deficits that reflect and reinforce destitution. If she were not poor, she would not have lost her teeth, and if she had not lost her teeth, perhaps she would not have remained poor. Poverty is a peculiar, insidious thing, not just one problem but a constellation of problems: not just inadequate wages but also inadequate education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households. The villains are not just exploitative employers but also incapable employees, not just overworked teachers but also defeated and unruly pupils, not just bureaucrats who cheat the poor but also the poor who cheat themselves.

Caroline has been caught in a web of childhood, marital and educational restraints that intertwined with the ruthless efficiencies of the free market. Her father, a school janitor, and her mother, an occasional factory worker, moved repeatedly around New England to find work. She was yanked from school to school like ''nothing but a piece of furniture being shoved around in all directions,'' she once wrote in an essay. She didn't remember her mother ever reading to her.

When her father walked out, a seed of distrust was planted. ''We didn't have a lot of love and security that kids need,'' she said. Nor was there material plenty, and long after that early void, neediness remained. ''I always wanted things,'' she admitted. ''I can get spending and overdo things sometimes.''

Her mother remarried when Caroline was 12 or 13. ''My stepdad drank a lot,'' she recalled. ''He tried to touch me and French-kissed me, and I didn't like it,'' she said. ''I was scared and never told my mom, you know? And I got to the point where I hit him.''

Two months after graduating from high school -- the only one of three siblings to do so -- Caroline married. ''Now there's times I wished I hadn't,'' she declared. ''I think it was so easy for me to latch onto people because I haven't had lots of love and security and communication and things. It was almost like if a guy gave me affection, I'd latch onto almost like the first one that come along. And that's not good. I've learnt over the years, it's not good.''

The marriage produced three children, lasted 14 years and finally sank into a swamp of suspicions that her husband was unfaithful. Because she could not afford a lawyer and just wanted out, she ended up with only $400 a month in child support and a modest amount for her share in their house. So she moved with her children into a small apartment and bounced between welfare and dead-end jobs, supplementing her income by scavenging for cans. ''We'd go and watch a ballgame at school, and I'd take bags and stuff them in my pocketbook,'' she recalled. ''After the ballgame I'd be going around poring through the garbage cans picking out 5-cent cans.'' Her first daughter would ride her bike as far ahead of her mother as possible to avoid any hint of association. ''I figured that a few cents buys some milk, buys some bread, things that you need, you know what I'm saying? It all helps. But it embarrassed her. She hated it as she got older.''

Alone with her children and scared, Caroline married again. This time, it was worse. Vernon Payne insulted her, hit her and flew into jealous rages. Her boys chose to live with their father, her girl with a family friend. The marriage lasted two years. ''At times I hated men,'' she said. ''Men were no good, they just lied, and you're not gonna tell me no different.'' Here she fell into a nationwide pattern. Half of all poor families in America are headed by single mothers, many of whom carry wounds inflicted by men -- and so crave but cannot create loving partnerships. Besides the emotional cost of failed relationships, the economic price is high -- for a single mother is also a single wage earner.

Determined to move up, Caroline applied for good office jobs and, when she failed to be hired, called to find out why. The answer was always the same: the winning candidate had a college degree. So she decided to get one, too. Gathering credits from community colleges in Vermont and Florida, she ended up with a two-year associate's degree in office technology and information processing. She also ran up a debt of $17,000 in student loans, a sum that rose to $20,000 as she deferred payments. It turned out to be a bad investment; she never landed a job in her field of training, never got one that required anything more than a high-school diploma. A full bachelor's degree would have been a door-opening credential, of course, but the associate's degree proved useless.

Perhaps if Caroline's personal life had been stable and content, she could have concentrated more intently on her work; perhaps she could have found the focus to stay in a job long enough to advance. But family turbulence can rarely be walled out of the workplace. An employer may tolerate a distracted employee who has crucial skills or a powerful position, but Caroline had no such capital to purchase a boss's patience.

As her life at home got tense, her life at work got perilous. That meant marginal performance, no promotions and a rolling career of short stays in jobs with no accumulation of seniority. ''You're all nerved up, you're stressed, you don't know what somebody's gonna pull on you next,'' she said. Even at the factory in the middle of the night, she would cry and cry, ''and people would know things were wrong.''

Her fourth child, Amber, was born into the troubled second marriage. Except for a clubfoot, she seemed normal -- petite and dark-haired, sweet and cheerful. Only gradually did telltale signs point to the profound disability that was confirmed when she was tested in first grade: an I.Q. of 59. Her score was in the low range of mild mental retardation, a handicap more prevalent in lower-income households. Although the cause was unclear, Caroline's pregnancy had been marked by two factors known to affect brain development: she had not eaten nutritiously, and she had smoked.

If mild retardation is also caused partly by emotional assaults, as some scientists believe, then Amber may have been susceptible. As a toddler, she seemed upset by visits to her father. Caroline once saw redness around her genitals. She took her daughter to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that the girl had been penetrated. Police were called, a restraining order was issued against the father and Caroline escaped with her daughter from Vermont to Florida, where relatives lived.

There she repeated her parents' rootless syndrome. She moved from place to place in New Port Richey, Fla. -- a tiny apartment, a trailer with a woman friend, a filthy trailer of her own, a place with a male friend, another trailer -- then to a cousin's in Winter Haven, back to New Port Richey and finally back north to New Hampshire, where she moved a few times from one school district to another. Amber was thus deprived of consistent, special education that might have helped. By ninth grade, Caroline estimated, her daughter had been in seven or eight schools, ''like this little rag doll that just got brought anywhere,'' said Brenda St. Laurence, a home visitor in a program to advise impoverished parents. Unless Caroline resisted her urge to keep moving, St. Laurence told her, teachers and counselors could never get to know Amber well enough to provide fruitful attention.

If Caroline had drawn up a résumé, it would have been impressive only in its length, documenting the passage from one treadmill to another. She worked in a clothing factory in New Hampshire, sewing for $6 an hour. She was laid off. She worked a few hours a week at the homeless shelter where she had lived, helping people apply for a fuel-assistance program. When winter ended, she was out of a job, so she worked at Tambrands, a factory that made Tampax, for $6.50.

Sitting for hours at a time, she began to get acute pain in her legs and finally went to the emergency room. Her back was the cause. ''And so the doctor says: 'I want you to take one night off and rest as much as you can. Stay off your feet. Stay off your legs.''' She called Tambrands, owned by Procter & Gamble, to tell them she wouldn't be in on Sunday because of her back. Monday morning the temp agency called: she had lost her job. So she returned to the sewing factory and was laid off two or three times. Working at the edge of poverty means working on the coldest side of corporate America.

Her fondest dream, to own a house, shimmered elusively across an arid landscape of meager wages. Nothing in the numbers added up. Yet just by being in the working world, she was assembling an essential structure of attributes to open a door to a mortgage. They included a record of diligence on the job and connections with people of influence. Furthermore, because of Amber's disability, she had a reliable monthly check from Social Security -- a rare asset among low-wage workers.

The main person of influence, Caroline's employer at a thrift shop, was a friend of the president of the Sugar River Savings Bank, who met Caroline and told her boss, ''She seems like the type of woman who would go hungry to pay the bill.'' Not quite. She had several outstanding bills and spent a year paying and burnishing her credit record while the house she wanted stayed unsold.

The snug, gray clapboard building, built in 1891, was nestled among others on a street in Claremont, N.H. In a different place at a different time, the house would have been considered quaint and charming enough to be worth plenty. But sitting in a sad, old neighborhood near the center of a New England town that had been left behind, it was worth just $37,000 when Caroline discovered it in 1997. With $1,000 from her income-tax refund to cover closing costs, she became the owner -- along with the Sugar River Savings Bank.

When the mortgage was approved, it didn't hurt that $514 a month was being deposited directly from Social Security into an account at Sugar River Savings, from which the mortgage payment would be automatically withdrawn, leaving a low balance but ensuring the bank its payment. Because Amber would eventually inherit the house, Caroline reasoned, it was a legitimate use of the funds. But it was also a terrible fact that a mortgage would not have been available without Amber's handicap.

Caroline had never felt such a satisfied sense of possession and autonomy. She proudly conducted a tour: the two beige couches in the living room, the flowery wallpaper, the yellow curtains, the old TV set and VCR, Fluffy the cat with a red collar and a bell, the pantry and storeroom behind the kitchen, her adult son's crossbow for deer hunting, the cellar with a washer and dryer and oil furnace, the upstairs where colorful afghans she had crocheted lay folded waiting to be given to Amber's teacher and school-bus driver and principal for Christmas.

It also needed improvements, for which she managed to get grants from a federal program that would install new siding, repaint the trim and remove lead paint inside. She needed a second mortgage for $19,000 as well to replace the windows, the doors and the roof. Somehow, she would have to move up the pay scale at Wal-Mart, where she was then working.

Anyone who walked all the way around the outside of the Wal-Mart superstore on Route 103 would walk a mile, Caroline said. The place was immense. But it didn't seem to have room for Caroline to progress. She bounced from one department to another, from one shift to another, while her pay stayed within a narrow range, beginning at $6.15 an hour, going to $6.80, sometimes up to $7.50 if she worked at night. So unpredictable were her hours that she couldn't work a second job to help her cash flow. She kept applying for higher positions and kept hearing that she needed a bit more experience. When asked to work odd shifts, ''I never said no to them,'' she insisted. ''But why couldn't they have the decency to pay me a little bit more?''

She won recognition. ''I did make Cashier of the Month for November,'' she reported happily, for collecting more than $1,500 for the World War II veterans memorial in Washington. She also persuaded customers who checked out at her register to buy a total of 72 tickets to a Boston Bruins game to raise money for the Claremont Fire Department, and that won her a weekend getaway from Pepsi. She could take herself and three other people to a paid stay in any Marriott she chose, anywhere.

''But I have to get there,'' she said, and she had no money to travel. So Hawaii never entered her mind, not even New York; she considered only places in New Hampshire. ''I think there's one up here in Lebanon,'' she said. ''If I could get somebody to take me to Manchester, Amber likes to look at the malls. I've never been down there. Just to look at things.'' In the end, she and Amber rode with a friend north to a hotel in Bethlehem, N.H., where they visited a small shopping center in North Conway. For $31.99, Caroline bought a winter coat to replace a jacket that she had torn two years before.

Her anemic paycheck failed to improve. The Wal-Mart manager who liked her, Mark Brown, was transferred, and no promotion seemed in the offing. When a temp agency found her a $7.50-an-hour job assembling books of wallpaper samples, she took pleasure in telling Wal-Mart's assistant manager that she was leaving. ''I'm just hoping they'll be sorry someday,'' Caroline said.

Unwittingly, Caroline then stepped into the vortex that drags numbers of low-wage single mothers down into the great chasm between decent work and decent parenting, a place where a child's safety has to be balanced against survival in the labor market.

After a month at the wallpaper plant, the temp agency offered Caroline a job back at the Tampax factory for $10 an hour, the most she had ever earned. She took it, but there was a problem: Procter & Gamble had organized the factory on rotating shifts. One week she left the house at 5:30 a.m. and got home at 2:30 p.m., the next week she was gone from 1:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and the third from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. Putting aside the question of sleep, stamina and the basic requirements of an orderly life, the swing shifts raised havoc with Caroline's arrangements for Amber. Unable to find care, she very reluctantly left the girl home alone during her evening and nighttime shifts.

While Caroline was running machines that put packages of tampons into boxes, she was worrying about Amber, and with good cause. At 14, Amber could barely read and write, could not easily tell time from clocks with hands, and was unable to understand that she had enough money if she gave a storekeeper $10 to buy something for $4. Yet she could play the flute if her mother wrote the letter for each note on the musical score. She took gymnastics lessons at a dance school, for which her mother paid by cleaning the school's studio once a week. She also had epilepsy, and the risk of a seizure prompted doctors to advise that she not be left alone for long. The logistical maze of arranging care for Amber around constantly shifting hours of work had Caroline tangled in anxiety.

Amber happened to tell her teacher how scary it was being home alone after dark. The teacher was alarmed and threatened to report Caroline for neglect. ''She can't take care of herself,'' said Donald R. Hart, the principal of Claremont Middle School. ''We have a legal obligation to report if neglect is going on.'' He raised the issue with his ''wrap-around team,'' comprising a school psychologist, a local counseling agency representative, a juvenile protection worker and a guidance counselor. ''I've asked them what is out there for services for Amber while Mom is working,'' he reported, ''and there is just nothing out there.''

Faced with the threat of being reported to the state's child protection agency, Caroline stopped going to work, started working the phones trying to find care for Amber and came up empty-handed.

''I'm trying to do the best I can and get caught up on little bills,'' she said. ''And now I don't have a job, and I'm gonna have to go apply for welfare. You pull yourself up, and then somebody has to knock you down. If I don't work, it's neglect: not feeding or clothing my child.''

Perhaps the most curious and troubling facet of this confounding puzzle was everybody's failure to pursue the most obvious solution: if the factory had just let Caroline work day shifts, her problem would have disappeared. She asked a supervisor and got brushed off, but nobody else -- not the school principal, not the doctor, not the myriad agencies she contacted -- nobody in the profession of helping thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace.

Indeed, this solemn regard for the employer as untouchable and beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law permeates the culture of American antipoverty efforts, with only a few exceptions. The most socially minded physicians and psychologists who treat malnourished children, for example, will advocate vigorously with government agencies to provide food stamps, health insurance, housing and the like. But when they are asked if they ever urge the parents' employers to raise wages enough to pay for nutritious food, the doctors express surprise at the notion. First, it has never occurred to them, and second, it seems hopeless. Wages and hours are set by the marketplace, and you cannot expect magnanimity from the marketplace. It is the final arbiter from which there is no appeal.

Caroline faced a cruel choice. Amber was chafing against the limits of her schooling in Claremont, one of New Hampshire's poorest communities. She hungered to read, but the high school provided only one hour of tutoring a week. She craved more math than she could get. She yearned to be in the main part of the school, not in the vocational wing, where she felt students were stigmatized by teachers as stupid.

When a counselor at the community center appealed to school officials to give Amber intensive instruction, she said, ''they laughed at me.'' Perhaps they wouldn't have laughed if Caroline had been able to afford a psychologist or a lawyer to bring pressure, as the affluent must often do.

Since she could not buy services, she tried her old pattern, her parents' pattern, of geographical escape. She sent Amber to live temporarily with her daughter-in-law in Muncie, Ind., where the schools were reputedly better. By September, Amber was in higher-level special-ed classes in Muncie; on the phone, she sounded ecstatic, so Caroline decided to follow.

To leave, however, she had to sell her precious house, for she could not comfortably rent it out from a distance. Tenants might do damage, and she had no money to travel back and forth to oversee repairs. It took a few months to find a buyer who would invest $79,000 in this struggling town, the minimum Caroline needed to break even. In the end, she made nothing, not a penny, she said sadly. ''I gave it away.''

She had maintained and improved the house sensibly for the long term, but she spent more on it than it was worth in the end. She still owed $34,000 on the first mortgage, and the second mortgage of $19,000 carried a prepayment penalty, which forced her to pay just over $20,000 to get out of it. The federal grants of $17,000 required prorated reimbursement of $16,000 because she hadn't lived in the house long enough. After adding the agent's fee, taxes and other closing costs, she ended up short $300, which the agent kindly absorbed. Five and a half years of mortgage and interest payments had yielded nothing, and one of her dreams was gone.

As the New Hampshire winter arrived after Thanksgiving, Caroline left with pockets nearly empty. To escape from $10,000 to $12,000 in credit-card debt, she had declared bankruptcy earlier that year, much to her shame. She could not even afford to rent a truck without a $700 loan from her older daughter. A couple of friends donated their vacation time to drive the truck and Caroline to Indiana, by way of a slashing blizzard in upstate New York. She was on the move again, as she had been since childhood, but she was happy to see a little of the country.

Muncie has not been gentle, though. She found her first, shabby apartment in a neighborhood riddled with drug dealers and prostitutes, her first job in a convenience store at $5.45 an hour, a downward slide from the Vermont plastics factory in the 1970's. In April she moved into a two-bedroom apartment in a newer, safer public housing project, but she can't get more than part-time work at the store, for about $10,000 a year.

She has a new set of dentures, courtesy of $400 from Medicaid, plus a $322 loan from her older daughter. She is still trying to get used to wearing them. She misses her house and her friends in New Hampshire. ''I used to go out with some of the girls, you know,'' she recalled. In Muncie, ''I don't get out much,'' she said. ''I'm broke.''

Furthermore, the reason for the move now seems less certain. Amber's courses are more challenging, but her big, urban school is tough and full of fights. And testing in Muncie confirmed the diagnosis in Claremont: Amber will never learn to read.

Money may not always cure, but it can often insulate one problem from another. Parents of means could have addressed Amber's handicaps without uprooting themselves and discarding their assets. They could have purchased services; brought their own skills to bear and walled off their house, their jobs and their lifestyle from the intrusion of hardship. In the house of the poor, however, the walls are thin and fragile, and troubles seep into one another.

Into Caroline's spirit, hopes also filter. Her latest is that WorkOne, a job-training agency, will pay $403 for a course to make her a certified nursing assistant. She knows she would do well in a nursing home. ''I've got the personality,'' she said. ''It's helping people, and I feel sorry for them.''

David K. Shipler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and a former New York Times correspondent. This article is adapted from ''The Working Poor: Invisible in America,'' copyright 2004 by David K. Shipler, to be published in February by Alfred A. Knopf.

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Lawmakers hail Hickam hydrogen fueling station

Staff report

Members of a Congressional delegation visiting a state-of-the-art hydrogen fueling station Dec. 29 at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, lauded the project as a step toward freeing the U.S. from dependence on foreign oil.

“This is going to be an enormous geopolitical problem,” Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., said in a press release. “I’m very pleased with what the military is doing, particularly pleased with what the Air Force is doing, in leading this.”

The delegation included 15 members of Congress.

The hydrogen facility, which opened in November, generates hydrogen from water for fueling buses, tow-tractors, vans, sedans and ground-support equipment.

The Air Force hopes it will some day provide a significant source of renewable energy that can help the service overcome its dependency on petroleum products.

The facility is a joint green-energy initiative between the Hawaiian Center for Advanced Transportation Technology and the Air Force’s Advanced Power Technology office.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Shalikashvili calls for rethinking ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

By Gordon Lubold
Staff writer
The Air Force Times

The man who served as the nation’s senior military officer when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military was put in place says it is time to rethink that policy.

Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, who retired in 1997, says he supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it was enacted in 1993, now argues that circumstances today —a military straining to deal with two wars amid calls for a bigger force — dictate that it’s time for the country to revisit the issue of gays in the military

“I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces,” Shalikashvili said in an op-ed piece in Jan. 2 edition of The New York Times. “Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.”

Shalikashvili has met with several gay and lesbian service members over the past year, some with recent combat experience, and said he has come to the belief that their sexual orientation would not have the detrimental effect on morale that many believe.

“These conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,” he wrote.

As chairman of the Joint Chiefs between 1993 and 1997, Shalikashvili said he supported the current policy because “implementing a change in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders.” But as Democrats take over both the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, the opportunity may arise to raise the issue again.

“Don’’t ask, don’t tell” allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep their orientation secret and do not engage in homosexual sex. It also forbids commanders and supervisors from directly questioning a service member’s sexual orientation.

Shalikashvili is the most senior and prominent retired military member to call for a change to the policy, which was a compromise to President Clinton’s campaign call in 1992 to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

Many rank-and-file service members do not want to see homosexuals serving actively and openly, saying it would hurt unit morale because homosexuality simply isn’t compatible with military service. The Pentagon has long maintained that homosexuality is “detrimental to good order and discipline.”

But attitudes may be changing. A Zogby poll of more than 500 service members released Dec. 19 found that 73 percent of military members are “comfortable” with lesbians and gays, and 23 percent “know for sure” that someone in their unit is homosexual. At the same time, the most recent Military Times poll of more than 6,000 subscribers indicated that the percentage of active-duty personnel who think homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military has risen slightly every year since that poll began, from 24 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2006.

In the op-ed piece, Shalikashvili said the most vexing problem facing the military right now is addressing the challenge in Iraq. But if Congress does take up the issue, Shalikashvili said it should do so very carefully.

“By taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban” on gays serving openly, he wrote. “When that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.”

The Service Members Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy group based in Washington, estimates that 65,000 gay or lesbian service members are in the military. About 11,000 people have been discharged from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” including some in critical specialties such as foreign linguists, the group said.

A spokesman for the group said Shalikashvili’s piece is a big step forward for advocates of the change.

“Gen. Shalikashvili’s statement is the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman to call for repeal, and as such is enormously significant,” said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the SLDN, said in a prepared statement. “We continue to lose critical personnel who happen to be gay. As Gen. Shalikashvili points out, continuing to keep this law on the books is detrimental to our national security.”

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Chaos Overran Iraq Plan in ’06, Bush Team Says

Published: January 2, 2007

The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 — President Bush began 2006 assuring the country that he had a “strategy for victory in Iraq.” He ended the year closeted with his war cabinet on his ranch trying to devise a new strategy, because the existing one had collapsed.

The original plan, championed by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top commander in Baghdad, and backed by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, called for turning over responsibility for security to the Iraqis, shrinking the number of American bases and beginning the gradual withdrawal of American troops. But the plan collided with Iraq’s ferocious unraveling, which took most of Mr. Bush’s war council by surprise.

In interviews in Washington and Baghdad, senior officials said the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department had also failed to take seriously warnings, including some from its own ambassador in Baghdad, that sectarian violence could rip the country apart and turn Mr. Bush’s promise to “clear, hold and build” Iraqi neighborhoods and towns into an empty slogan.
This left the president and his advisers constantly lagging a step or two behind events on the ground.

“We could not clear and hold,” Stephen J. Hadley, the president’s national security adviser, acknowledged in a recent interview, in a frank admission of how American strategy had crumbled. “Iraqi forces were not able to hold neighborhoods, and the effort to build did not show up. The sectarian violence continued to mount, so we did not make the progress on security we had hoped. We did not bring the moderate Sunnis off the fence, as we had hoped. The Shia lost patience, and began to see the militias as their protectors.”

Over the past 12 months, as optimism collided with reality, Mr. Bush increasingly found himself uneasy with General Casey’s strategy. And now, as the image of Saddam Hussein at the gallows recedes, Mr. Bush seems all but certain not only to reverse the strategy that General Casey championed, but also to accelerate the general’s departure from Iraq, according to senior military officials.

General Casey repeatedly argued that his plan offered the best prospect for reducing the perception that the United States remained an occupier — and it was a path he thought matched Mr. Bush’s wishes. Earlier in the year, it had.

But as Baghdad spun further out of control, some of the president’s advisers now say, Mr. Bush grew concerned that General Casey, among others, had become more fixated on withdrawal than victory.

Now, having ousted Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Bush sees a chance to bring in a new commander as he announces a new strategy, senior military officials say. General Casey was scheduled to shift out of Iraq in the summer. But now it appears that it may happen in February or March.

By mid-September, Mr. Bush was disappointed with the results in Iraq and signed off on a complete review of Iraq strategy — a review centered in Washington, not in Baghdad. Whatever form the new strategy takes, it seems almost certain to include a “surge” in forces, something that General Casey insisted earlier this year he did not need and which might even be counterproductive.

In a telephone interview on Friday, General Casey continued to caution against a lengthy expansion in the American military role. “The longer we in the U.S. forces continue to bear the main burden of Iraq’s security, it lengthens the time that the government of Iraq has to take the hard decisions about reconciliation and dealing with the militias,” he said. “And the other thing is that they can continue to blame us for all of Iraq’s problems, which are at base their problems.”
Yet if Mr. Bush does send in more American forces, historians may well ask why it took him so long. Some Bush officials argue that the administration erred by refusing to send in a bigger force in 2003, or by sufficiently bolstering it when the insurgency began to take hold.

This year, decisions on a new strategy were clearly slowed by political calculations. Many of Mr. Bush’s advisers say their timetable for completing an Iraq review had been based in part on a judgment that for Mr. Bush to have voiced doubts about his strategy before the midterm elections in November would have been politically catastrophic.

Mr. Bush came to worry that it was not just his critics and Democrats in Congress who were looking for what he dismissed last month as a strategy of “graceful exit.” Visiting the Pentagon a few weeks ago for a classified briefing on Iraq with his generals, Mr. Bush made it clear that he was not interested in any ideas that would simply allow American forces to stabilize the violence. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine commandant, later told marines about the president’s message.

“What I want to hear from you is how we’re going to win,” he quoted the president as warning his commanders, “not how we’re going to leave.”

Sectarian Killings Escalate

When 2006 began, the United States military did not have a systematic means of tabulating sectarian attacks in Iraq. The Sunni-led insurgency was the focus of Mr. Bush’s statements, and its destruction the focus of American military strategy.

The Bush administration was jolted on Feb. 22 when Al Qaeda blew up the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, a carefully plotted effort to fan sectarian passions, prompt Shiite retaliation and make Iraq ungovernable.

The day of the explosion, Shiites in Sadr City poured into the streets carrying banners and flags. Men, some dressed in black, the traditional dress for the Shiite militia in the area, piled into open back trucks, carrying weapons and shouting slogans of loyalty to Shiite saints. In Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, went to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to insist that the Iraqi government impose a 24-hour nationwide curfew. Mr. Jaafari, a member of the Shiite Dawa Party, was not persuaded.

“You’ve been here six months, and all of a sudden you know my country better than I do,” Mr. Jaafari replied, according to an official who witnessed the exchange. But even some Iraqi leaders, including the current national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, echoed Mr. Khalilzad’s advice. “I remember saying to him: ‘this is going to be the trigger of an all-out civil war,’ ” Mr. Rubaie said.

Mr. Jaafari insisted that he had a plan, which involved closing the Sunni television stations in the country, though as the violence grew he belatedly imposed a curfew that evening. It was the beginning of a debilitating pattern. The Shiite-dominated government did too little to protect Sunni citizens. Shiite militias took matters into their own hands. And the American military struggled to hold the city together with overstretched units.

It was clear that the retaliation was highly organized. Sunnis in the eastern portion of Baghdad, in an area called Rusafa, reported that Shiites in SUV’s were pulling up, knocking on doors, and seeking specific people. Bodies surfaced in sewers and garbage heaps days later.

When the killing abated, President Bush and his top aides declared that the worst had passed. Both Sunnis and Shiites had “looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw,” the president said.

Renegade militias were a concern but “not a major long-term problem as long as the Iraqi armed forces and the Iraqi police continue to be loyal to the central government, as they have been,” Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a March 5 appearance on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.”

Sectarian-inspired executions, however, rose from almost 200 in January to more than 700 in March, and continued upward, according to the Pentagon.

Even as the violence grew, General Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, appeared confident. He had served as a senior aide for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, where he gained the confidence of Mr. Rumsfeld before being sent to Baghdad in 2004. At 58, the four-star general reported directly to the defense secretary.

Mr. Rumsfeld had mused publicly that history showed that it could take a decade or so to defeat an insurgency. He was eager to turn over responsibility for the war to the Iraqis and to reduce the American footprint in Iraq as quickly as possible.

General Casey and Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the United States Central Command, appeared to be like-minded. During the summer of 2005, General Casey had forecast “fairly significant reductions” in American troops by the summer of 2006, an assessment that the commander said reflected “feelers” from Sunni insurgents that they might be willing to negotiate and lay down their arms.

Some of General Casey’s aides have said that in developing troop withdrawal plans they were cognizant that the Bush administration had not taken any steps to expand the American military presence despite a persistent insurgency, and seemed to have little appetite for substantially expanding the war effort.

No Wish to Stay Indefinitely

For his part, General Casey said that his plan was aimed at showing Iraqis that the United States did not want to perpetuate its role as an occupier indefinitely, and stressed that he was following a strategy to match the “convoluted” political and military situation in Iraq, and not seeking to advance his career with plans that suited the Bush administration’s political agenda.

"I have worked very hard to ask for what I need, for what I thought I needed to accomplish the mission,” he said Friday. “It’s always been my view that a heavy and sustained American military presence was not going to solve the problems in Iraq over the long term.”

By late 2005, the White House accepted the main tenets of the hand-over strategy. “Casey and Abizaid had what seemed like a plausible plan at the time,” Mr. Hadley recalled. “It was well thought out, and after the elections in January looked like the direction we were headed in.”

President Bush promoted the strategy in a speech to cheering midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., on Nov. 30, 2005: “We will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists. We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys.”

Yet not everybody at the Pentagon shared General’s Casey’s confidence. The Defense Intelligence Agency had briefed the White House in early 2006 that the insurgency was winning in Iraq, according to a former military officer. The briefing, which chronicled the steady rise in the number of attacks, prompted a counter-briefing from General Casey’s intelligence chief, who prepared an analysis tracing the positive trends in Iraq.

Data gathered by General Casey’s own command, which showed a steady increase in weekly attacks and civilian casualties, lent support to the Defense Intelligence Agency assessment.

At the State Department, skepticism about General Casey’s strategy ran deep. Philip D. Zelikow, the counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice until he resigned in December, went to Iraq in late 2005, and returned with a recommendation that the first part of 2006 be devoted to a big push — military, economic and political — to boost the soon-to-be-formed Iraqi government. His approach contradicted the commitment to reductions.

Still, the general was reluctant to abandon his basic strategy. According to a senior administration official, General Casey told the White House in April, May and June of 2006 that the American military was having success against Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia and the Sunni-based insurgency, and that sectarian violence could be managed.

Calls for a Review of Strategy

By May 2006, uneasy officials at the State Department and the National Security Council argued for a review of Iraq strategy. A meeting was convened at Camp David to consider those approaches, according to participants in the session, but Mr. Bush left early for a secret visit to Baghdad, where he reviewed the war plans with General Casey and Mr. Maliki, and met with the American pilot whose plane’s missiles killed Iraq’s Al Qaeda leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He returned to Washington in a buoyant mood.

The visit meant that the reconsideration of strategy was not as thorough as some officials hoped.

Later in June, General Casey flew to Washington to give briefings on the latest version of his troop reduction plan at the Pentagon and White House. The number of American combat brigades, which then totaled 14, would be reduced by two in September and might shrink to 10 by December, if conditions allowed. If the Iraqis continued to assume more responsibility for their security, there would be only five or six combat brigades in Iraq by December 2007.

Yet already President Bush was signaling to top aides that he wanted to re-evaluate how to keep stability before proceeding with troop withdrawals. His caution matched a growing unease among American field commanders in Iraq, and officers on the streets of Baghdad, who said they were surprised by General Casey’s continued advocacy of withdrawals and consolidating bases. They said that American forces should be focusing on a greater counterinsurgency effort, which would require that a substantial number of troops be dispersed to protect that population against insurgent and militia attacks.

Events overtook the White House. In early August, the United States was forced to reverse course and add troops in Baghdad. On reflection, Mr. Hadley said, “Finally the patience of the Shia had worn thin,” and, “By the time the unity government took over the cycle of sectarian violence had begun. And they and we have not been able to get ahead of it .”

The administration’s summer strategy seemed simple: American and Iraqi forces would clear selected neighborhoods of insurgents and militia leaders, hold them with the Iraqi police, and win over the population with job-creating reconstruction programs.

But carrying out the strategy proved maddeningly difficult. The American troop commitment was modest at best. With the addition of roughly 7,000 troops the American military force assigned to carry out the operation in Baghdad was brought to some 15,000. (During one discussion of the operation in August, President Bush asked General Casey whether he had sufficient troops to secure Baghdad; the general assured him that he did.)

The Iraqis never delivered four of the six Iraqi Army battalions that they had committed to the effort. Some of the Iraqi police units proved to be so infiltrated by Shiite militias that they had to be pulled off duty for retraining.

Weaknesses in the Iraqi Forces

In the Sunni stronghold of Dora, in southwestern Baghdad, American troops were forced to clear thousands of homes twice: the Iraqi security forces who moved in behind them were too few, and too little dedicated to the task, to keep the insurgents from returning.

In neighborhoods like Baya, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi National Police set up menacing checkpoints on the routes Sunnis used to seek medical attention or buy fuel.

“They were trying to dominate the Sunni population and terrorize them to the point that they would leave Baghdad or leave the neighborhood,” recalled Lt. Col. James Danna, who had led the Second Battalion, Sixth Infantry Regiment, which oversaw those areas. He said that like the first Baghdad security operation, the second also failed. As the American elections approached, White House officials say, they believed it would amount to political suicide to announce a broad reassessment of Iraq strategy. But they recognized that unless they began such a review, they would be forced to accept the conclusions of the final report of the Iraq Study Group — headed by James A. Baker III, the former Republican secretary of state, and Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic congressman.

The effort started in September, around the time Mr. Bush decided to oust Mr. Rumsfeld. In the days before the election, Mr. Bush suggested during an interview that Mr. Rumsfeld could stay until the end of his term — a deliberately misleading statement that Mr. Bush said later was necessitated by the political season. Similarly, it was days after the election that the White House revealed that a major Iraq review was under way.

In public, Mr. Bush continues to insist that he and Mr. Maliki share the same vision. In private, one of his former aides said, “he questions whether Maliki has the will or the power” to make good on any commitments.

American military officers have also wondered if the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and the Americans share the same vision. Were the Iraqis not pulling their weight because they did not have the capability to provide security and proceed with reconstruction? Or did the Iraqi authorities have a sectarian agenda?

As security efforts in Baghdad faltered, a confidential briefing on possible “end states” in Iraq was prepared by officials under the command of Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarielli, who until a few weeks ago led the day-to-day operations in Iraq. It suggested the dark vision of a divided nation that haunts the administration.

Unless the United States persuaded the Iraqi government to change course, those who prepared the briefing foresaw an Iraq run by a relatively weak central government, which would include a largely autonomous nine-province Shiite region in the south and a Shiite-dominated Baghdad. The Kurds would retain their autonomy in the north. The Sunnis would essentially be relegated to the western Anbar Province and other enclaves.

The briefing posed a question: was this an outcome the United States could live with? If so, what could the United States do to minimize the bloodshed? If not, what should be done to alter this course?

Mr. Bush still insists on talking about victory, even if his own advisers differ about how to define it. “It’s a word the American people understand,” he told members of the Iraq Study Group who came to see him at the White House in November, according to two commission members who attended. “And if I start to change it, it will look like I’m beginning to change my policy.”


David E. Sanger and Michael R. Gordon reported from Washington, and John F. Burns from Cambridge, England, and Baghdad. Reporting was contributed by James Glanz, Sabrina Tavernise and Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi from Baghdad.

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