President Barack Obama delivering his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
January 13, 2016

Reactions To President Obama's Last SOTU Address

In this election year, members of Congress each side of the political aisle had a different take on President Obama’s final State of the Union Address, and what it could mean for his legacy.  Area lawmakers praised some plans, including a pledge for criminal justice reform, but Republicans say he's taking the wrong approach to battling ISIS.

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November 11, 2014

State Treasurer Trying to Reunite Veterans, Medals

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford says his office is trying to reunite veterans and their families with lost military medals, ribbons, dog tags and paperwork left in unclaimed safe-deposit boxes.  

Rutherford says his office has 120 unclaimed military medals in the Capitol vault in Springfield.  

He says some of the material may have been put in a safe-deposit box by people who eventually died or who since have moved.  

More information about the effort can be found online at http://www.treasurer.il.gov by clicking on the link labeled ``Operation Reunite.'' That section lists the names of people last connected with the boxes.  

Rutherford says he hopes someone will recognize the names so the items can be returned.  
 


Karachi airport
(Shakil Adil/AP)
June 09, 2014

Karachi's Airport To Reopen One Day After Terrorist Attack

One day after being the scene of a terrorist attack that left at least 23 people dead, the largest airport in Pakistan is slated to reopen Monday. Gunmen attacked Karachi's international airport Sunday night; several explosions were reported in the fighting that followed.

The 10 attackers are among the dead, officials say. They had reportedly disguised themselves as security guards before launching the assault. According to Pakistani media, several airport workers and at least 10 members of the security force were killed.

Pakistan's Taliban has claimed responsibility for the attack, which sparked a five-hour gun battle and threw travelers' plans into disarray. The facility is expected to reopen for air travel at 4 p.m. local time.

The death toll has been rising as details come from officials and reporters at the airport. Pakistan's Dawn news agency says at least 28 are dead; the Geo TV channel says the number is 30.

From Karachi, NPR's Jason Beaubien reports:

"The assault on Karachi's international airport began before midnight and stretched in to the early hours of the morning.

"Gunmen armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades shot their way past guards and gained access to the tarmac. Several fires quickly erupted. Local TV showed images of smoke billowing behind the tail fins of jumbo jets. And there were reports of multiple explosions at the facility as security forces battled the militants.

"Officials say all passengers were safely evacuated and incoming flights were diverted to other airports. But it took hours before the gunmen were finally subdued."

Photos from the scene show police officers lining up rows of RPG rounds and other weaponry that was reportedly taken from the attackers.

From the Dawn newspaper comes this perspective on the assault's timing:

"The attack all but destroys prospects for significant peace talks with the government of Nawaz Sharif, who came to power last year promising to find a negotiated solution to years of violence.

"Peace talks between the government and the Pakistani Taliban have failed in recent months, dampening hopes of reaching a negotiated settlement with the insurgency, which continues attacks against government and security targets."

Prime Minister Sharif ordered a quick reopening of the airport today. According to Geo TV, the terrorists had hoped to destroy all the planes at the terminal.


Sgt. Bowe Bergdhal in image from video
(Associated Press)
June 08, 2014

Reports: Bergdahl Tells Medical Officials Taliban Kept Him In A Cage

The New York Times and the Associated Press are reporting details about how Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was treated by his Taliban captors.

The AP reports that Bergdahl, who was freed after almost five years when the U.S. agreed to trade five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the U.S. soldier, was tortured and beaten and held in a cage in Afghanistan.

The New York Times adds that Bergdahl is still receiving medical treatment in a military hospital in Germany. He has not been allowed to consume media coverage, so he is oblivious to the debate his release has unleashed in the United States.

The paper adds:

"He has received a letter from his sister but has not yet responded, and objects when hospital staff address him as sergeant instead of private first class, his rank when he was captured nearly five years ago after walking off a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, the official said.

"While medical officials are pressing him for details about his time in captivity to help begin repairing his medical and psychological wounds, these specialists have not yet focused on the critical questions about why he left his outpost and how he was captured by insurgents, the officials said — and there is no predetermined schedule for doing so.

"'Physically, he could be put on a plane to the U.S. tomorrow, but there are still a couple of mental criteria to address: the family unification piece and the media exposure piece,' said one American official who has been briefed on the sergeant's condition."

Meanwhile, CNN reports that the FBI is investigating threats made against Bergdahl's parents. Critics have claimed that Bergdahl deserted and that other soldiers were killed in the search for him.

The Washington Post reported earlier this week that the town of Hailey, Idaho, was planning a homecoming celebration for Bergdahl but ended up canceling. City Hall, for example, received many letters criticizing the president's decision and calling Bergdahl's father a Muslim.

Secretary of State John Kerry defended the administration decision in an interview with CNN today.

He said it would be "offensive and incomprehensible to leave an American behind." Especially, Kerry said, with captors who may "torture him, cut off his head."

Kerry also said the five Guantánamo detainees released in exchange for Bergdahl are being watched by Qatar and others.

"I'm not telling you that they don't have some ability at some point to go back and get involved (in fighting)," Kerry told CNN. "But they also have an ability to get killed doing that."


Fort Hood
(Staff Sgt. Gregory Sanders/U.S. Army)
April 03, 2014

Should Soldiers Be Armed At Military Posts?

For John Lott, Wednesday's mass shooting at Fort Hood was a test of personal beliefs that struck uncomfortably close to home.  His son is serving at Fort Hood and was close enough to the activity to hear shots and screaming.

But he wasn't in a position to respond. Department of Defense policy forbids soldiers and sailors, in most circumstances, from carrying weapons at installations.

That frustrates Lott. For years, he has been promoting the idea — including in his book More Guns, Less Crime — that relaxing gun restrictions would make for a safer society.

"Even though my son just got back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he had his gun with him all the time, he isn't able to have his gun with him on the base," Lott says. "We somehow don't trust people to carry a gun on base here."

Lott is not alone in this debate. With the third mass shooting at a military facility in five years, some members of Congress want to re-examine the policies that leave soldiers unarmed on base.

"I personally think if you're trained for combat, you ought to be able to carry a weapon," Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said Wednesday on Fox News. "If they are trained in warfare [and] they can carry weapons in warfare, it seems to me there is some logic to allowing them to carry weapons on a military base, where they can defend themselves."

But it's not necessarily an idea that is going to catch on quickly in Congress. A bill along these lines was introduced last fall, after the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard that left a dozen people dead. But it has seen no action.

"I doubt there's going to be much support in Congress to allow military personnel to carry weapons on base," says Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

Weapons Are Prohibited

Last month, Defense Department officials released a report examining security in the wake of the Navy Yard shooting. The department concluded it had done a poor job securing the facility, screening personnel, and recognizing and addressing the mental health issues of the shooter.

The review included 14 recommendations for improving security. Letting soldiers carry weapons on base wasn't one of them.

The report recommended instead that signage be "posted conspicuously" at installations as reminders of the prohibition against carrying firearms in federal facilities.

"I don't think soldiers should have concealed weapons on base," Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of Fort Hood, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Tightening Restrictions

It wasn't always the case that soldiers had to disarm while on post. Prior to the first Bush administration, base commanders determined what the rules were at their facilities. But regulations formalized in 1993 block personnel who are not on security duty from carrying firearms.

Further restrictions have followed. In the wake of the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, which left 13 people dead, the installation requires soldiers to register their weapons with commanders.

"The carrying of privately owned firearms on Fort Hood is prohibited unless authorized by the installation's senior commander," according to guidance offered to soldiers stationed there. "The carrying of a concealed weapon on the installation is prohibited regardless of whether a state or county permit has been obtained."

But will a person intent on killing others care about violating such restrictions?

"The problem is you have these good, rule-abiding soldiers, but in this case, the killer knows everyone else is following the rules," Lott says.

Soldiers, Not Teachers

Fort Hood neighbors Killeen, Texas, a town where in 1991 a man named George Hennard drove into a Luby's Cafeteria and shot 50 people, killing 23 of them.

That massacre led to the state's concealed carry permit law.

"Do people have a right to protect themselves? They do outside the base," says Richard Feldman, president of the Independent Firearm Owners Association.

"Today, there would be some people who would fire back at George Hennard," he says. "If that makes sense outside of Fort Hood, why not inside, with trained personnel?"

After the school shooting at Newtown, Conn., in 2012, the National Rifle Association suggested arming and training teachers and other school personnel. That proposal was highly controversial, but the debate about letting soldiers carry firearms would have to take place on an entirely different footing, suggests Harry Wilson, a political scientist at Roanoke College and author of a book about gun control.

"Clearly, with the military, you can't make the argument that they aren't trained," he says. "It just doesn't begin to fly."

Following the shooting at the Navy Yard and now two shootings at Fort Hood, the military will have to examine the question of allowing soldiers to carry weapons, Wilson says.

"This is the third mass shooting on a military base in five years, and it's because our trained soldiers aren't allowed to carry defensive weapons," Texas Republican Rep. Steve Stockman, the lead sponsor of last fall's legislation to allow soldiers to carry guns, said in a statement on Thursday.

Prospects May Be Dim

Usually, it's the gun control advocates who are frustrated by their lack of success changing policies after a horrific incident. This time, it may be supporters of gun owners' rights who fail to achieve the changes they want.

Any move that loosens gun regulations seems unlikely while President Obama is in office. And policymakers will want to examine all the questions of risk that would be involved, from accidental discharges to the fear that fights between armed soldiers could escalate into serious violence.

If the Pentagon decides that it needs to heighten security by increasing the number of military police, that would be fine, says Murphy, the Democratic senator. Letting all or most personnel walk around with weapons, though, is another matter.

"This is ultimately the military's call, but there's no evidence that putting more guns into a community or into a workplace leads to less violence," Murphy says. "All the evidence tells us that the more guns you put into a location, the more likely there is to be more gun violence."


A still frame taken from a YouTube video shows Marines who were later disciplined for desecrating three dead Taliban members in a 2011 incident in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
(YouTube)
October 31, 2013

A Marine Controversy In Afghanistan Takes A New Twist

In a case that caused a major stir last year, a YouTube video surfaced showing Marines in Afghanistan joking and laughing as they urinated on three dead Taliban fighters.

The Marines involved in this July 2011 incident in the southern province of Helmand were disciplined.

It seemed the case was over, but now it has taken a strange twist. There are allegations that the Marines' top officer, Gen. James Amos, illegally interfered with the judicial proceedings in an effort to ensure harsher penalties.

Amos spoke about the video and other incidents last year during a worldwide tour of Marine bases. And in a written statement after the video came to light, he said the Marine Corps would not rest until the allegations were resolved.

He appointed a senior officer, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, to investigate. Waldhauser said Amos told him he wanted those involved "crushed" and kicked out of the Marine Corps.

Waldhauser told Amos the incident didn't deserve that kind of harsh action. Amos told him he could appoint someone else to handle the cases, Waldhauser recalled in court papers, saying the conversation was tense but professional. A few hours later, Amos relieved the investigating general.

"It just smells so bad. I've never seen anything like this," says Gary Solis, who became a Marine lawyer in 1971 and is now a law professor. He said the removal of the investigating general is a problem for Amos.

"That apparently was done so he could get a better result," said Solis. "And that's unlawful command influence."

A Threat To Military Justice

Unlawful command influence is often called the mortal enemy of military justice. And it means a senior officer improperly acts to influence those taking part in an independent judicial process. Among the rules: A commander may not order a subordinate to dispose of a case in a certain way.

Amos declined to talk to NPR. But he sent Waldhauser a memo the same day he was fired. In it, Amos said his comments "could be perceived as possibly interfering" with the cases. So he was removing Waldhauser to avoid any "potential issues." Marine officials said much the same in a statement to NPR.

Waldhauser now serves as the military assistant to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and has declined interviews. He was replaced on the Marine investigation.

Then the story took another turn.

A Marine lawyer, Maj. James Weirick, was increasingly troubled by what he saw. There was an apparent effort to withhold information from the defense, including the details of Waldhauser's removal. That removal might show unlawful command influence, and could lead to dismissal of the cases.

Weirick complained to his bosses and heard nothing. So in March of this year, he filed a complaint with the Pentagon inspector general, charging Amos and his staff with unlawful command influence and suppressing evidence.

"He spoke truth to power. And there's a consequence for that, unfortunately, in this world. He's paying the price for that," says Lee Thweatt, a former Marine lawyer and friend of Weirick.

Removed From The Job

Weirick was removed from his job six months after filing the complaint with the Pentagon's inspector general. He was told by Marine officials to surrender his personal firearm and make an appointment with the mental health clinic. Weirick did both, said his lawyer, Jane Siegel, and got "a clean bill of health" from mental health workers.

"He's been publicly demonized and professionally exiled," Thweatt said of his friend. "As recently as the last few weeks, rather than working in his capacity as a lawyer for the Marine Corps, he was assigned to help place water bottle stands for the Marine Corps Marathon."

Thweatt and 26 other retired military lawyers wrote to Congress last week, asking for an investigation into how Weirick was treated and how Amos and his staff handled the cases involving the Marines in Afghanistan.

Congressional staffers tell NPR that any decision on an investigation will come after the Pentagon inspector general reports.

Meanwhile, there is still one final case in the Afghanistan incident.

Capt. James Clement was a company officer of the Marines who were charged. He's been recommended for separation from the Marines by a Marine Board of Inquiry, which cited substandard performance of duty.

John Dowd, Clement's attorney, said he's asking for the case to be dismissed, citing unlawful command influence. A final decision rests with the Navy secretary.

"To me it's a tragedy," said Dowd. "It's a terrific overreaction."

In the end, none of those who urinated on the Taliban corpses or videotaped the incident was ever kicked out of the Marine Corps. Some were demoted. Four have left the Marine Corps. Four others are still on active duty.

 
Listen

September 10, 2013

Among Last Illinois Guard Units Deploys To Afghanistan

More than a dozen of Illinois' citizen soldiers are heading off to Afghanistan as the nation debates a decision whether to enter another overseas conflict in Syria.

A small contingent of Illinois National Guard soldiers from across the state was given an official send-off Tuesday at the Bloomington armory.

A National Guard spokesman says it could be the last deployment of Illinois troops there. Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner said it was reminder that the U.S. has not wrapped up its other foreign entanglements.

The event came just hours before President Barack Obama planned to address Americans about Syria. He's been lobbying Congress about what he called the need for limited military strikes against the country the administration says unleashed chemical weapons on more than 1,000 of its own citizens.


Phylis Wise, the chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, speaks on Sept. 8, 2013 during a ceremony honoring fallen soldier Shawna Morrison.
(Sean Powers/WILL)
September 08, 2013

Fallen Soldier Honored At University of Illinois

The first female member of the Illinois National Guard to die in combat operations overseas was honored this weekend on the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. Shawna Morrison of Paris, Ill. was killed nine years ago this month in Iraq.

Morrison was a student at the University of Illinois when she died Sept. 5, 2004 at the age of 26 in a mortar attack. In fact, she was the first female student at the U of I killed in a military operation in any war or conflict. She majored in psychology, and planned to enter Officer Candidate School.

She was one of five members of the 1544th Transportation Company killed in combat in 2004.

“Nine years just doesn’t feel like nine years,” said Brandon Tackett, who was Morrison’s commander.  “They say that time heals all wounds, but I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t.”

Tackett said Morrison embodied what it means to be a citizen soldier.

“Soldiers like Shawna Morrison are absolutely, and ready to commit themselves to a higher cause,” he said. “These soldiers serve as guiding lights to the rest of us. They are a special reminder of what really matters in life. ”

A stone marker located in the courtyard of Lincoln Hall at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is left to pay tribute to Shawna Morrison. (Sean Powers/WILL)

U of I President Robert Easter, a veteran himself, linked Morrison’s dedication to serving her country to the values of the architects of the Land Grant Act, which led to the creation of the University of Illinois.

“They required that the new campuses provided training in military tactics; training that has been a part of the curriculum on this campus since our inception,” Easter said. “Sergeant Morrison shared that land grant ideal in a sense and her commitment to duty that will serve as her enduring legacy.”

Thomas Lamont attended the U of I, and is now a U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army. He said the university has a long history of students, like Shawna Morrison, serving – and sacrificing their lives -- in the military.

“Today we pay homage to Shawna Morrison,” Morrison said. “Like those whose names are etched on the pillars of Memorial Stadium, her memory will forever live long, and let us pray that this ceremony to honor a fallen member of our Illini family will be our last.”

Lamont said the best way to honor those sacrifices is to care for and give opportunities to those who have served. He credited the U of I for taking the lead to offer support for students with disabilities, and moving forward with plans to build a center for wounded veterans who are in college.

Rick Daley of the Illinois Patriot Guard presents Cindy Morrison with a flag signed by more than 30 members of the patriot guard who came out for the dedication. (Sean Powers/WILL)

Speaking after the ceremony, Shawna’s mother Cindy said she was overwhelmed by the tributes to her daughter.

“Shawna was a soldier to us and she was our daughter, but I was amazed at all this recognition for one child when there’s thousands…I mean of course we knew her, but I didn’t realize the importance like this,” Morrison said. “It was humbling, really humbling, and I’m just thinking Shawna’s up there looking down. ”

A courtyard that is part of Lincoln Hall is now dedicated in Shawna’s honor. There is a stone marker bearing her name, picture, and a short biography – a lasting memory of one soldier who paid the ultimate price.


Ty Michael Carter
(Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
August 26, 2013

Obama Awards Medal Of Honor To Afghan War Veteran

President Barack Obama has bestowed the Medal of Honor on Army Staff Sgt. Ty Carter, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who risked his life to save an injured soldier and to resupply ammunition to his comrades during intense fighting in a remote mountain outpost.

Obama says Carter "displayed the essence of true heroism.''

The Oct. 3, 2009, battle occurred while Carter was stationed at Command Outpost Keating. U.S. troops were vastly outnumbered by 400 Taliban fighters.

In February, Obama bestowed the Medal of Honor on another survivor of that firefight, former Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha.

Eight soldiers died in the battle. Carter killed Afghan fighters, rendered first aid and saved a soldier's life. Carter still suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome and helps troops with their recovery.

Listen

Chuck Hagel
August 15, 2013

Pentagon Issues Directive Aimed At Preventing Sexual Assault

The Pentagon, hoping to stanch a sharp increase in reported sexual assaults within the ranks, has issued a plan designed to strengthen oversight and increase protections for victims.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a one-page memo ordering enforcement of policies against inappropriate relationships between recruiters, instructors and trainee soldiers; establishing a victim-advocacy program in each service branch; giving commanders authority to transfer those accused of sexual abuse and mandating a lawyer be appointed for all preliminary hearings involving allegations of sexual assault.

"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force. It must be stamped out," Hagel said in a statement.

The plan to deal with sexual assault comes after a series of embarrassments for the Pentagon earlier this year, including accusations of abuse against a member of the Fort Hood sexual assault response team and the arrest of the Fort Campbell sexual-harassment program on domestic dispute charges.

The incidents prompted strong words from President Obama, who told Naval Academy graduates in Annapolis, Maryland, in May that those who commit sexual assaults "have no place in the greatest military on earth."

In the same month, the Pentagon reported a 37 percent increase in cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military from 2011 to 2012, with 26,000 people reporting everything from groping to rape, up from 19,000 a year earlier, according to The Associated Press.

Since the report, 60 people have been removed from jobs as military recruiters, drill instructors and victims counselors since the report, the AP says.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that: "The initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks."

"The President expects this level of effort to be sustained not only in the coming weeks and months, but as far into the future as necessary," Carney said. "None of our men and women in uniform should ever have to experience the pain and degradation of sexual assault."


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