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.

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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."


August 14, 2013

Pentagon To Permit Benefits For Same-Sex Spouses

The Pentagon says it will make health care, housing and other benefits available to same-sex spouses of military members by Sept. 3.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that it reached the decision after consulting with the Justice Department, following the Supreme Court's ruling in June on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The benefits will be made available to same-sex spouses as long as the service member provides a valid marriage certificate.

Military personnel in a same-sex relationship who are stationed in a state that does not permit same-sex marriage will be allowed to take leave for travel to a jurisdiction where they can marry legally.


August 09, 2013

Furloughs Ending for Champaign Engineering Lab

Employees at a federally-funded facility in Champaign can expect to see their required furlough days end later this month.

The Construction Engineering Research Laboratory starting taking their required furlough days a month ago, but that is about to change because of a recent decision by the Pentagon to cut the number of days from 11 to six.  Defense officials said they were able to identify about $1.5 billion in new savings.

As a result of the decision, CERL spokeswoman Dana Finney said it now appears staff at the Champaign facility can stop having to take unpaid leave in the next couple of weeks.

Finney noted that some projects have been delayed because of the furloughs.

The Construction Engineering Research Lab is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. 


August 03, 2013

Director Of Danville VA Hospital Leaving

The director of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Danville will leave this month to take over a VA hospital in Kentucky.

According to the Commercial News in Danville, Emma Mitchell announced Thursday that she will leave the VA's Illiana Health Care System. She will become the director of the Lexington VA Medical Center on Aug. 25.


Mitchell said in the announcement that she will miss her job in Danville. She became director of the VA facility in the town on the Illinois-Indiana state line in March 2012.

Her replacement has not yet been named.

The hospital serves veterans living in both Illinois and Indiana.


U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning
(United States Army)
July 30, 2013

Bradley Manning Acquitted Of Aiding The Enemy

Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning has been acquitted of the most serious charge against him -- aiding the enemy -- a charge that carried a potential life sentence.

But he still faces up to 136 years in prison at a sentencing hearing that begins tomorrow.

The judge at the court-martial in Maryland deliberated for about 16 hours over three days before deciding to convict Manning on espionage, theft and computer fraud charges, but not on the charge of aiding the enemy.

Manning stood and faced the judge as she read the decision. She didn't explain her verdict, but said she would release detailed written findings.

Manning had acknowledged giving WikiLeaks more than 700,000 battlefield reports and diplomatic cables, and video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians in Iraq. He said during a pre-trial hearing that he leaked the material to expose what he said was the military's "bloodlust'' and disregard for human life.

A defense lawyer said Manning could have sold the information or given it directly to the enemy, but chose instead to give the material to WikiLeaks to "spark reform'' and provoke debate.

Prosecutors said Manning knew the material would be seen by al-Qaida, and that he broke signed agreements to protect the secrets.


Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning protest his detention by marching around the perimeter and blocking the gates of Fort McNair in Washington, D.C., on the final day of closing arguments in his military trial Friday.
(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
July 30, 2013

Military Judge Will Likely Announce Bradley Manning Verdict Tuesday

The military judge presiding over the case of Bradley Manning will likely hand down her verdict on Tuesday.

Manning is accused of perpetrating the biggest leak of classified information in the history of the United States. Col. Denise Lind has been deliberating since Friday. The Guardian reports:

"In the course of the eight-week trial, which ended on Friday, the US government sought to create a new precedent by arguing that Manning knew he was helping al-Qaida when he released more than 700,000 documents to the anti-secrecy website.

"The verdict will be issued at 1pm ET by Lind sitting alone in the courtroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the absence of a jury – an arrangement made at Manning's own request. The soldier's decision to put his faith in a military judge, rather than in a panel of his peers – the military equivalent of a jury – was a big legal gamble whose merits will become clear when the verdict comes in.

"In another huge legal roll of the dice, Manning decided to plead guilty to a lesser version of 10 of the 21 counts of which he is accused, carrying a possible maximum sentence of 20 years in military jail. He did so with nothing in return in the form of a plea bargain, a highly unusual step in criminal proceedings."

As we've reported, Manning has denied the most serious charge he's faced with: aiding the enemy, a charge punishable by life in prison. At issue is whether Manning knowingly provided intelligence to enemies of the U.S.

The government argued that when Manning released information to WikiLeaks — instead of traditional news outlets — it was because he wanted the data to be available in an indiscriminate manner. The defense argued that Manning was a naive whistle-blower who wanted the information he leaked to spark a national discussion about war and diplomacy.

If the verdict is guilty, don't expect this to go away anytime soon. U.S. News reports Manning's case could remain in the courts for years. It reports on what's next if a guilty verdict is announced:

"They then proceed to the sentencing phase where the judge will issue punishment. For Manning this could be life in prison.

"It is then passed to a post-trial phase, in which the convening authority reviews the case. In this instance, that's the commander of the military district of D.C.

"But Manning's attorneys have many options from there, including the Army Court of Appeals, the civilian Court of Appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and possibly even the Supreme Court."


July 05, 2013

Illinois Supreme Court Changes Rules For Military Spouses

A new Illinois Supreme Court rule took effect that is intended to make it easier for spouses of military personnel to get a law license.

Angela Allen practices law in Chicago. With a husband in the Illinois National Guard, she is one of about 800 members of the Military Spouse J.D. Network.

Allen said the job market for lawyers is tough enough as it is, but with the frequent transfers that are a part of military life, she said the time and expense of getting a new state law license made it even harder on the lawyer-spouses.

"They were facing large gaps of employment due to having to take the bar every time their spouse member moved, which is on average two to three years," Allen said.

Through the Illinois Supreme Court's Commission on Access to Justice, she urged the court to make an accommodation, and the justices agreed.

Under the new rule, any lawyer who is married or in a civil union with a member of the military stationed in Illinois will have a much easier time getting a law license for the duration of their partner's assignment.

Allen said Illinois is home to about 25,000 active-duty personnel. She says it's only the fifth state to adopt special rules for military spouse lawyers.


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