Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Help for all those Audie Murphys

     A book from my childhood about Medal of Honor winners has a chapter about him: "Too Young to Fight."

     The Texas boy lied about his age at 17, his face and physique betraying him to the Marines and Paratroopers who turned him away. Enlisting in the Army at the stroke of 18, he was nicknamed "Baby." Then he become one of World War II's most highly decorated warriors. From there, Second Lt. Audie Murphy graduated to the rank of movie star and, away from the set lights, to basket case.

    When I wrote recently about 'Baby" Murphy's largely untold battle with psychiatric wounds, I heard from a chorus that jointly expressed this thought: What person is ever seasoned enough for this? Combat, that is.

     Eighteen — yeah, that's a man. And pimples are facial muscles.

     A two-term Iraq veteran who's had success dealing with his own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) wrote to say that he despairs over so many brothers and sisters in arms who won't acknowledge they carry the same weight, and won't seek help.

    Then again, I heard from a veteran in Austin, Texas, who had sought help, and wanted everyone to know what worked for him. He called it a cure. "It" is EMDR.

    Eye Motion Desensitization and Reprocessing is a mouthful. It causes the unversed to think "quackery" by the sixth or seventh syllable. It's not. It's a tremendous breakthrough that could help countless war veterans and others who are dealing with trauma.

    The procedure was discovered and refined by San Francisco behavior therapist Dr. Francine Shapiro. She found that effecting a pattern of side-to-side eye motion with a trained practitioner somehow can dislodge crippling things from the brain's right hemisphere — deeply buried impressions and memories that, said Shapiro, "are beyond verbal comprehension."

   This is a major departure from traditional psychotherapy because it doesn't involve talk.

   "Talk doesn't affect the emotional brain or the physical brain," said Waco, Texas, therapist Sharon Rollins. "EMDR works on all levels," just as REM (rapid-eye movement) plows the fields of sleep.

   If anyone thinks this is a fringe activity in a clinical nether world: Rollins is one of 35,000 EMDR technicians nationwide. She said she became convinced of the procedure's worth in dealing with her own personal trauma.

    Austin therapist Sue Hoffman, past president of the EMDR International Association, said that not only could more veterans benefit from the procedure, but so could family members. She has treated several military wives.

      When facing psychiatric illness, she said that too often "a veteran tries to numb it" with alcohol or drugs. Additionally, in many cases, PTSD will be suppressed for years before it explodes in destructive behavior.

      Audie Murphy made all the rounds as a war hero, always keeping his youthful chin up. When Hollywood discovered him, he made dozens of movies, often re-enacting actual battle scenes from his To Hell and Back experience. Having talked to veterans who climb under the bed at the sound of an engine backfiring, I could only imagine what such movie making did to Murphy's psyche.

     Unknown to most, Murphy experienced every dimension of PTSD, then known only as battle fatigue or shell shock. He suffered from insomnia. He lashed out in frightening ways at his wife.

      The Department of Veterans Affairs now operates a  Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans at the Waco VA Medical Center, a hospital threatened with closure until two years ago. One of the center's initiatives is to track 1,000 veterans, upon their return from war, for the rest of their lives.

     Let's hope they all get help the moment they need it. No human being is fully prepared for what these men and women have endured, no matter what the movies say.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Under ‘accountability’: Blame the bricks

  What to do with a "failing" school:

   Summon a demolition party with torches? Convene priests and exorcize it of pedagogical demons?

   Convert it to a prison, the destination to which we assume students are bound due to the building's failure? Yes, the building's failure.

    All of the above fit neatly into the set of superstitions behind 21st century school "accountability." Yes, the 21st century.

    If we can't take educators to the dunking pond for a school's rating, we shall condemn the bricks.

    Submitted: You have a perfectly functioning school building. But because of the immense social challenges it faces, the school is pronounced "failed" and forced to cease existing.

    The Austin Independent School District faced that prospect this summer. The Texas Education Agency threatened inner-city Pearce Middle School with closure for failing to meet state testing targets.

    Fortunately for all concerned, the state approved a "repurposing" plan and allowed it to stay open.

    Imagine: Your family has a middle school within walking distance. You like the teachers and administrators. But because of a state-mandated numbers game, you are told that your school is being shut down. The cross-town bus loads at 7:15 a.m.

    We are to presume that something was seriously wrong at Pearce. So said state Education Commissioner Robert Scott repeatedly. Still, was "accountability" helping or hurting any effort at Pearce to get things right?

     At a Texas school I know much better, Waco's G.L. Wiley Middle School, the state's hammer-on-the-head approach hurt as much as it helped.

    Under pressure from the state as low-performing, Wiley ceased to exist as a school last year. The stately building of red bricks and pillars served generations as a secondary school. But it had the toughest of all challenges in a pocket of poverty. Schools never "fail" where the SUVs roam. But where hubcab theft is the only growth industry, schools can't get anything right. Right?

     Sure, Wiley had chronic problems with test scores. What ultimately caused its demise, though, was sagging enrollment.

    The key reason for that, paired with the stigma of getting tagged a "low-performing" school, was that the district has a magnet middle school, G.W. Carver Academy, only a few blocks away. Carver does great things with an integrated curriculum — fascinating themes like space flight on which all core subjects come to bear.

     Carver's curriculum is in Technicolor. Meanwhile, Wiley parents complained that their middle school was more of a drill-and-kill, test-driven, monochrome production. Drill and kill? Well, at Wiley it was raise test scores or die.

      If Wiley students had been afforded the same opportunities as those at the nearby magnet school, their school might still be a school.

     That said: Anyone who has much involvement with inner-city schools knows the fallacy of the statement: "They refuse to change." In fact, the problem is the opposite: no stability, too many top-down teaching edicts, a rotisserie of personnel as one "new team" cycles in with "new focus" and then cycles out when results don't satisfy policy makers.

      Get the best educators to the scene so they can make a difference? Good luck. A system based on shame does not do that. Just the opposite.

      Seasoned teachers avoid can't-win situations. And don't assume that bonuses or higher pay will get them into the mix. A recent study by The Education Trust found that inexperienced teachers predominate in Texas schools where poverty prevails, calling it an "educationally deadly" trend.

     Too many states, and Washington through No Child Left Behind, think they can berate schools into excellence. No, they can't.

   The last Texas Legislature made some concessions to this reality. It tweaked the school accountability system to make it less punitive and aimed more at monitoring individual student growth, rather than taking incriminating subgroup snapshots.

    But you can't blame Texas educators for wondering if it's just another verse in the same old torch song.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why keep playing Reagan's game?

    Scanning the ranks of the noble Tea Party protesters — exiles of conscience, taxed into penury without representation — it's hard to ignore one impression:

    For oppressed people, they haven't missed many meals.

    Also: Apparently they had their attentions turned to the buffet table throughout the Bush administration. 

    They certainly weren't protesting when a Republican administration and Republican Congress drove up the deficit without a care in the world.

     Granted, that regime had a care: "global war on terrorism," it was. (Was it four words or one?) But the deficit? No.

     Now, by George, the Tea Partiers are right. Regardless of ideology, anybody should be concerned — OK, alarmed to the point of hair loss — by the deficits facing this nation.

     And so we ponder the number $900 billion.

     That's the rough cost of the principal health-coverage bills in the two chambers of Congress. President Obama and Democrats have said they will find a way to make thie initiative deficit-neutral, largely through cuts in Medicare and new fees on insurance companies that offer so-called Cadillac health plans.

        Whether an income tax hike for wealthiest Americans is in the mix seems clearly in doubt after Obama's speech to Congress. That's unfortunate.

     It should be in the mix — just as the tinkerers press on with the very cuts and economies the system needs. 

      Tax hikes should be pressed for one simple reason: The biggest reason we are in our current hole is tax cuts without any means of mitigating the fiscal crevice created for pure political expediency.

      Citizens for Tax Justice points out that the cost of the Bush tax cuts was more than two-and-a-half times the cost of the health reforms Obama proposes. The loss of $2.1 trillion over 10 years from the Bush tax cuts includes $379 billion in interest on the national debt.

      And while Obama seeks to help working Americans without insurance, the Bush tax cuts saw 52.5 percent of the benefits go to the top 5 percent of taxpayers.

       For this price tag, we got . .  . ? A killer recession.

       We didn't use the money to improve our infrastructure. We didn't use it to match federalized "accountability" hyperbole for K-12 education. We didn't treat a college education like the investment of a nation on the move. Instead we found more ways to stick college students with crippling debt.

       It's time to address the cost dimensions necessary for health care reform and to raise the money needed to pay for what we need.

        This nation has missed many opportunities to raise revenue to pay off its debts. The biggest missed opportunity was when, under Ronald Reagan's urging, Congress streamlined the income tax. It resulted in a better system with fewer loopholes. So, what did we do with the money that a better system could raise to wipe out burgeoning Reagan-era deficits? Nothing. The Gipper demanded a "revenue-neutral" plan.

       Since then, except for a brief moment during the Clinton years, we have refrained from raising income taxes, trying to find arcane means of paying for what we need — like user fees, stealing from trust funds, and, of course, borrowing from the Chinese. We built a sleek, progressive revenue superhighway, then placed orange cones at its ramps to keep traffic off it.

    Invest in what it takes so that Americans aren't taking hangnails and migraines to emergency rooms? "Outrageous," say the Tea Partiers.

     What were they saying when our we were spending billions on the hospitals and general infrastructures of Iraq and Afghanistan without any means of paying for it?

      By the way, the cost of those wars combined has reached an oddly familiar figure — $900 billion. That sum, advises, would pay the salaries of nearly 15 million elementary school teachers for one year.

      Or, based on what Congress is saying, it could make sure that no American goes without health insurance.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Waste of a perfectly good radio

When my hands held it again for the first time in decades, I felt the electricity that made it such an exciting gift for an 8-year-old.

A radio I could hold in my hand — pop music, sports, news — all at my command in a genuine leather holder.

By appearance, that radio — a Sun Mark 8 — emerged in near-perfect condition when I pulled it out of the time capsule of a long-undisturbed childhood drawer.

As anyone would, though the battery surely had been dead since Nixon's administration, I tried it. No dice.

Surely it had other issues. Surely the battery had corroded and left an inoperable mess. I pried off the back of the radio. There, looking pristine as if it had just come off the hardware store shelf, a yellow-and-red Ray-O-Vac 9-volt gleamed. That noble battery had served its purpose and over all the years had not spoiled its nest.

I inserted a new 9-volt, not really expecting to hear anything when I turned on the thing on. It was, after all, nearly 50 years old. The first pop I heard was a revelation of life. So, I searched the dial and found . . .

Rush Limbaugh.

And not just on one frequency. He was on three. Whatever else was to be found in a search on the dial was all a mumble. About pork bellies, maybe. Sigh

But why the surprise and disappointment? This priceless heirloom was an AM radio. The AM radio which once upon a time enunciated more than political monotone has gone the way of popcorn poppers and 45 rpm records.

Realizing how functionally worthless my prized transistor radio had become, I was reminded of another radio that showed up once upon a Christmas stocking. My Rocket Radio was red and shaped like a spaceship. It didn't need batteries. You just had to find some metal onto which a wire to the rocket could be affixed with an aligator clip. Then you got radio.

One catch: You couldn't choose the station. You got whatever station on which the Rocket homed in.

Sadly, that just about sums up AM radio, circa 2009, regarding information and commentary. Whereas just about any newspaper opinion page will avail a variety of opinions — if not in syndicated and staff offerings, then among the letters to the editor — today's AM talk is all hard-right talking points, all the time.

The unimaginable tempest over Barack Obama's education pep talk to school children had the taint of AM talk hype all over it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it "silly." Most times one can appreciate Obama's above-the-fray composure in the face of such slights. But at times one wishes that for once Team Obama responded with the kind of fire the Limbaughs and Savages of the airways issue forth.

Call the uproar moronic — much AM ado about nothing.

The fact is, a lot of what keeps AM talk so revved is the taking of nothing and making it into something, particuarly if self-serving or party-induced.

For instance, right-wing talkers have gone on and on about the threat posed by Obama to their First Amendment rights should the Fairness Doctrine be reintroduced. What has Obama said? He's said he doesn't support any such thing. Just as he's said he doesn't support a government takeover of health care or policies that take away one's coverage or choice of physicians.

Doesn't matter. Listen to the crackling on the AM dial.

I don't know what to do with my perfectly good AM transistor radio. Maybe I should put it back in the drawer with the pristine-looking Ray-O-Vac battery in it, to inspire someone's wonder when, plugging a new battery into it decades hence, it works like a champ.

I bet it will. But considering the downhill trajectory of AM radio, I'm not anticipating that my descendants will get anything worth hearing.

John Young is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Border wall is eco-catastrophe

   PRESCOTT, Ariz. — "It's no wasteland."

   No, not this mountainous berg where seemingly everyone over 65 wants to live.

   Sergio Avila is talking about the U.S.-Mexico border, which bobcats, ocelots, jaguars, mountain lions, black bears and so much more inhabit.

    Avila, a biologist with the Sky Island Alliance, is a lonely voice pointing out how political forces in America are subdividing a biome, in disastrous ways.

    At a colloquium at Prescott College, he described how the ongoing construction of the U.S. border wall brings ecological devastation — most particularly among the species that migrate and otherwise reside in a region with only natural barriers.

    This is made possible in fast-track fashion because Congress and the Bush administration strip-mined environmental safeguards from the legislation enabling the border fence.

    Congress also removed all fiscal common sense from the hysteria-derived gambit, as some segments south of San Diego cost $21 million a mile.

     That underlines a message Avila wants people to understand: "It's a wall. It's not a fence."

     It's a wall that not only blocks animal migration and destroys habitat. In its furious dust-raising construction, it causes air and water pollution. It also diverts rivers and floodwaters.

      Ah, but does it divert migration of Mexicans entering our nation illegally? In some cases, yes. In other cases, a medieval device called a ladder foils Washington's greatest designs.

       The amazing thing about this is that the Bush administration sought to justify it, at least in part, on ecological reasoning.

       Just look, said then-Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff, at all the trash left by the non-Americans crossing the border. A wall will stop that and save the environment, he said.

      But: Just in case a wall would cause other environmental effects far more long-lasting than sandwich wrappers in the sun, Republicans inserted in the Real I.D. Act of 2005 — the immigration grab-bag that included this monstrosity — a pretty puppy called Section 102. It allows Homeland Security to waive all standard environmental safeguards associated with giant infrastructure projects like this.

      That means that the 30-plus species of mammals in the region in question, as well as the owls, migratory birds and more, are all at risk. Federal policies typically take such matters into consideration. Not in this case.

      But it's a wasteland — no? Hot, dry, inhospitable to creatures in Bermuda shorts?

      What it is, as least in the borderlands of Arizona, is "one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world," said Avila. It is where a tropical ecosystem shakes hands with a temperate North American cousin. Don't be misled by the hulking presence of the Sonoran and Chihuahan deserts. The area teems with life. And we are destroying it.

      People can always outwit wall-builders. But nature has problems with obstructions. Avila shows sobering photos of how flood waters surging up against the wall dividing the border town of Nogales caused homes on the Mexican side to be submerged.

    Just the price of — what? Do we assume that such walls really accomplish what they seek to do?

       People living in the border areas point out the futility in trying to wall off the border. For one thing the terrain is too unforgiving in many places. For another, as observed day after day, what jaguars and ocelots can't master, wily human beings will as they seek to feed their families.

      It's the cats who will starve, or turn their attention to cattle or human beings to put food in their mouths.

       The border wall may be America's greatest boondoggle in terms of cost and benefits. So, why does it proceed?

      Why, particularly, when the administration and Congress behind it are now consigned to the dust. This Congress can put a stop to it. It ought to based on fiscal concerns alone. At minimum, it needs to yank out the provision which treats environmental protection as wholly alien.

    John Young is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: