A veteran speaks out on STARBASE

Note: Anti-war activist Brian Willson sent this letter to the school board and superintendent February 16. –Ed.

RE:DoD & Portland STARBASE (Science Technology Academics Reinforcing Basic Aviation and Space Exploration)

1. Introduction

I examined representations from printed and electronic web materials offered by DoD (Department of Defense)* and Portland STARBASE, a “fun academy” conducted at a military base designed for “opening young people’s minds to the military” – specifically at risk 5 to18 year-old Portland Public School (PPS) students (K-12). I am struck by the fanciful rhetoric which, from my experiences as a veteran, former officer in the US Air Force and commander of a ranger-type unit in Vietnam, and general observer of military life and activities, severely masks the realities on the ground. That STARBASE is represented in lofty terms, of course, is not surprising since its funding derives directly from the Pentagon’s recruiting budget, and is considered by military commanders as a “cornerstone” in the creation of their public image [DoD STARBASE 2008 Annual Report]. The U.S. Military Recruiting Handbook unapologetically declares that “School recruiting is critical to long-term recruiting success…It means having the Army perceived as a positive career choice as soon as young people begin to think about the future.” And as DoD admits, STARBASE “is one element in the building of that talent pool” [italics added for emphasis].

*Department of Defense is Orwellian doublespeak for Department of War. Since World War II, scholars identify more than 350 overt military interventions in countries around the world without the Constitutionally required declaration of war, and thousands of additional covert interventions, all illegal.

2. (Mis)Representations

I am particularly struck by the stated goals of STARBASE Portland: “[I]mprove the knowledge and skills of at risk youth in math, science, and technology by exposing them to the technological and positive role models found on military bases and installations,” specifically the Oregon Army National Guard Jackson Armory and the Portland Air National Guard Base. And, “Strengthen youth resistance to negative influences, including substance and alcohol abuse.”

During my four years of active duty employment I was stationed at four different bases in five states ­ three Air Force (TX, MD, LA) and one Army (KY, TN), plus two in Viet Nam, before being honorably discharged at the rank of Captain. Putting public relations fluff and recruiting rhetoric aside for a moment, I cannot think of a poorer setting to which to expose impressionable young children than military bases. Their representations as “technological and positive role models” have clearly not been critically examined!

3. DoD Largest Polluter in the World

The DoD is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. This includes poisonous compounds such as pesticides, defoliants, solvents, petroleum, perchlorate (from rocket fuel), trichloroethylene (TCE), lead, depleted uranium, and mercury, among others. TCE, used as a degreaser for metal parts, is the most widespread water contaminant in the country, and more than 1,000 military sites are contaminated with it, but perchlorate is a growing contaminant in groundwater as well. The DoD controls more than 31,000 environmental sites officially declared severely dirty at more than 4,600 active and formerly active installations scattered around all 50 states. Yet, the DoD continues to resist orders from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean them up. Of the dirtiest of the dirty, the Pentagon owns 129 of the 1,255 identified Superfund clean-up site. [“Pentagon Fights EPA On Pollution Cleanup,” Washington Post, June 30, 2008; “Military Pollution: The Quintessential Universal Soldier,” commondreams.org, March 27, 2005; “Communities Seek Accountability For Military Pollution,” Press Release (of five Environmental Groups), commondreams.org, March 23, 2009]. This is the record of the same DoD that pretends to offer young children a superb “technological role model.”

The Portland Air National Guard Base hosts the 142nd Fighter Wing, which includes A-15 fighter jets, as well as hosting the 939th Air Refueling Wing. This means lots of fuel storage and inevitable fuel spillages, use of TCE degreasers, solvents, etc., that normally accompany the high tech atmosphere of military and aviation installations.

In sum, military installations are very unhealthy places environmentally, as I can attest to from personal experiences, despite public relations representing the opposite. I served for two years on a command-wide Inspector General staff where we wrote and enforced regulations for bases that emphasized appearances far more than substance, a kind of image-making endemic in our culture.

4. Military Social Environment is Chronically Problem-Laden

Furthermore, I can attest to the fact that the “positive role models” to which you are exposing Portland’s “at risk” youth are quite farcical when you look below the surface. No matter what military regulations dictate or public affairs officers describe, the military social environment possesses serious racism (cf. civilian life), chronic abuse of alcohol and drugs – prescription and illegal (cf. civilian life), domestic violence, rape, mental illness, suicides at much higher rates than found in civilian life, and popular but unhealthy high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar diets offered on military bases by Fast Food chains like McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Popeyes, etc.

Military bases have histories of violence, especially domestic abuse and homicides (described as a “spousal aggression issue” by the military) [“Base Crimes: The Military Has A Domestic Violence Problem,” Mother Jones, July/August 2005], as well as collective murders [“U.S. Army Base Has Bloody History,” CBS News, November 5, 2009]. Domestic abuse is believed to be double that of the civilian population [“A Considerable Service: An Advocate’s Introduction to Domestic Violence and the Military,” Domestic Violence Report, April/May 2001, Civic Research Institute, Kingston, NJ]. And sexual assaults and rape of female veterans by male soldiers is chronic: more than 40 percent of female veterans report being victims of sexual assault, including rape, while serving in the military, with few of the male criminal perpetrators brought to justice [“Sexual Assault In Military ‘Jaw-Dropping,’ Lawmaker Says,” CNN.Com, July 31, 2008].

The stated Portland STARBASE goal to “strengthen youth resistance to negative influences, including substance and alcohol abuse,” is simply an irresponsible resort by the PPS to unexamined representations which ironically expose at risk youth to ever more health and life risks as targeted military recruits. Serious alcoholism and drug abuse continues to plague military life, just as it did when I was in the military 40 years ago [“Heavy Drinking Still Acute Among Young Military Members,” Pacific Institute For Research and Evaluation News Release, March 2, 2006; “Wounds of War: Drug Problems Among Iraq, Afghan Vets Could Dwarf Vietnam,” Join Together newsletter, Boston University School of Public Health, June 15, 2009; “U.S. Troops Admit Abusing Prescription Drugs,” USA Today, December 16, 2009; “Alcohol Abuse Weighs On Army,” USA Today, February 9, 2010]. General Peter Chiarelli, Army Vice Chief of Staff, recently admitted “an increase in military violence, alcohol and substance abuse, and an increase in destructive or reckless behaviors” [Oregon Military Department Official Blog, September 15, 2009]. Just in the past week, two soldiers with the Oregon National Guard have been removed from duty for serious substance abuse and erratic behavior, each now facing punishment [“The Military and Substance Abuse,” by Mike Francis, The Oregonian, February 10, 2010].

5. Suicide Epidemic

In 2009, suicides among active duty personnel exceeded number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and was the highest number since records began to be kept in 1980. For every successful suicide, at least five other active duty members are hospitalized for attempts. Resources of the military and Veterans Administration for dealing with problems experienced by soldiers simply have not been sufficiently allocated [“Suicide Claims More US Military Lives Than Afghan war,” World Socialist Web Site, January 6, 2010; “Despite Prevention Efforts, U.S. Military Suicides Rise,” McClatchy Newspapers, January 15, 2010; “Investigation Shows Military Suicides Up; Leaders Push Response,” CaliforniaHealthline, November 25, 2009, California Healthcare Foundation]. Our society continues to glorify the military and war. However, when it comes to honestly addressing the reality of military life and the costs and traumas of war, our society historically falls terribly short [Richard Severo & Lewis Milford, The Wages of War: When America’s Soldiers Came Home – From Valley Forge to Vietnam(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)].

6. Veterans Experience Serious Problems

Once discharged from the military into civilian life, problems experienced while in the military often continue, or are even exacerbated. The suicide rate among veterans is twice that of other US citizens – 6,500 a year, or 125 a week, or 18 per day. One thousand veterans receiving care from the VA attempt suicide every month. Of the 1.7 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, 300,000 suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Another 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury or physical brain damage, a majority of whom have yet to receive mental health and disability benefits. These two categories alone comprise 36 percent of the wounds, not counting thousands more suffering from various other bodily injuries. In the six months leading up to March 31, 2008, nearly 1,500 veterans died while awaiting to learn if their disability claim would be approved. And veterans who appeal a VA denial of their disability claim wait an average of nearly four-and-a-half years for an answer. Veterans also exhibit higher rates of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, overeating, unsafe sex, and higher rates of physical and mental health problems and mortality [“The Truth About Veteran Suicides,” Foreign Policy In Focus/FPIF, May 8, 2008; “Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans: A CBS News Investigation Uncovers A Suicide Rate For Veterans Twice That of Other Americans,” CBS News, November 13, 2007]. As many as 400,000 veterans experience homelessness during the course of each year [“Homeless Veterans,” National Coalition for the Homeless, September 2009].

7. Bribery To Public School Systems Purchases Pentagon Access to Children as Young as Five

That the Pentagon is able to effectively pay a bribe worth several hundred thousands of dollars to PPS each school year in order to access and brainwash its youth, while government funding is being cut for genuine creative learning programs and college assistance, is grotesque. This policy squeezes out other educational and career alternatives while deliberately channeling certain young people to the military. I cannot think of a more insidious recruitment scheme under the mask of providing special math and science education for at risk students, a curriculum PPS is already charged by law with providing. DoD STARBASE defines the characteristics of those it intends to target, apparently with the cooperation of five PPS staff: “[B]eing from a single parent household, having an older sibling who dropped out of high school, changing schools two or more times…, having C’s or lower grades, being from a low socioeconomic status family, or repeating an earlier grade.” Educators should spurn this program offer.

What process does the PPS staff undertake for selecting young people to attend a military “science camp” packaged as if it is a fun video game? This is a mockery of the PPS policy of zero tolerance for weapons in the learning environment. PPS school staff, working with DoD STARBASE officials, are likely to disproportionately select low-income students and minority students of color, softening them up for subsequent hard-core recruitment into a “career pathway” toward an early death sentence, i.e., white-washing a “career” of being cannon fodder. What constructive and creative alternatives are school officials exploring and implementing for these youth? That it is those students with the fewest options in life who are selected for this masked military recruitment program is deleterious discrimination.

Children do not possess the maturity of judgment or critical thinking skills needed to carefully analyze all opportunities presented to them. Would we offer children a rifle to shoot at targets without careful thought, even if the child was eager to do so? Would we offer a child a computer to simulate launching of robotic drone warfare directed at targets in far off lands, even if the child finds this a thrill? Would we offer various drugs and alcohol even if children desired same? Would we continue to feed them fast foods without regard to nutrition, knowing the harmful health effects and likely onset of obesity and diabetes? Learning settings require understanding contexts and long term consequences which educators presumably assess before offering them. I am not suggesting that these specific things are being offered by STARBASE, but that the program insidiously opens certain doors to at risk children that likely will not lead to the glorious future represented in the promo.

Children are impressionable, and the glamour of military high technology of “Aviation and Space Exploration” imparts exciting images in young children’s minds, the content and context of which have not been assessed for appropriateness in developing open minds. STARBASE enables further militarization of our culture, distorting our cultural psyche to the detriment of everyone. Remember, that once in the military, a soldier undergoes basic training where the primary skill learned is to operate a firearm and become proficient at killing another human being without first gaining knowledge of the history or context of the killing fields to which the soldier may be thrust.

8. My Experiences

As a security and law enforcement officer at headquarters of a major Air Force command Inspector General’s Office, I assisted in overseeing compliance at dozens of bases with safety, security, public relations and readiness requirements.

In Vietnam I was commander of a 40-man ranger-type unit where I witnessed the immediate aftermath of low-flying fighter-bomber Turkey Shoots destroying inhabited but undefended fishing and farming villages, leaving hundreds of murdered and maimed Vietnamese in the bomb’s wake. My unit was primarily protecting US Air Force installations during which we survived 18 mortar and rocket attacks.

Subsequently, I was shocked when I realized that our military forces had invaded another country whose people simply wanted their independence from outside colonial powers. The Vietnamese were simply defending themselves from an attacking force of incredible firepower of which I was a part. I was not defending freedom for US Americans, but in fact destroying the deserving freedom of others. It was absurd! The reason I did not understand this reality: I was never taught this history, knew nothing about Vietnamese culture, and was ignorant about the insidious reasons my country was committing an egregious crime against peace. When the Pentagon Papers were published in 1971, it all became quite clear.

Commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity were normal, deliberate policy, despite being in violation of US Rules of Engagement, international law, the US Constitution, and my own conscience. Many of my superiors laughed at the “Rules of Engagement.” I witnessed these crimes more than 40 years ago, yet these experiences remain a permanent imprint, leaving me with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In my final assignment in the Air Force, I served as executive officer addressing personnel problems of a 250-man supply squadron: severe racism that existed on our base and in the nearby community, domestic abuse, violence in the nearby community, suicides or their attempts, drunkenness, drug addiction, etc.

Fifteen years later I served as executive director of a veterans outreach center. Homelessness was epidemic; alcoholism and drug addiction were chronic, causing a number of pre-mature deaths; veterans in car accidents died at nearly twice the rate as non-veteran car accidents; a number of “bush vets” lived isolated in nearby forests; many veterans suffered from chronic diseases, including various cancers and early deaths attributed to poisoning from the herbicides the United States used in Viet Nam. On several occasions I disarmed troubled veterans in threatening crises. Eight veterans committed suicide during my tenure there. Upon reflection I began to comprehend just how deep was the traumatic and unnatural conditioning that results from military training without context about the wars soldiers are ordered to engage in. It makes us fierce fighters, oftentimes murderers, as we witnessed peers being killed. Upon reflection, many of us knew deep down the reasons for our involvement in the war as told to us by our elders, schools, churches, families, and government, didn’t hold up to a critique that we wished we had been offered as part of our education as young men.

9. Conclusion

STARBASE is an egregious affront to the youth of our country, our culture, our city. That its assumptions and representations have been accepted without question by professional educators reveal an irresponsibility that is unconscionable. Why has no critical review been conducted by people who are in the know and can properly reflect upon the dangers of exposing young people to images and influences that are likely to have grave consequences on their future lives?

S. Brian Wilson is a Portland resident who served in the United States Air Force, 1966-1970, Vienam 1969; Honorably discharged as Captain.


Notes from the K-8 Planning Meeting 2/16/10

I attended the K-8 planning meeting on 2/16/10 at Harrison Park and took notes during the meeting. There were approximately 40 to 50 people mostly Faubion, Irvington, Jason Lee, Beverly Clearly, Bridger, and Marysville. The mood of the crowd was collaborative but still concerned. My impression was that the participants wanted to know how to be a part of the solution and that successful neighborhood schools and community pride was strong. I got the feeling from the comments that this crowd was primarily people that chose to stay in their neighborhood schools and wanted the district to hear them and work to address their issues.

There were a handful of principals in the audience and I remember for certain that Woodlawn, Vestal, and Skyline principals were there.  PPS people present that I recognized (I tried to capture every name I heard but know I missed some): Supt. Carole Smith – Xavier Botana – Sarah Allan – Ruth Adkins – Trudy Sargent – Bobbie Regan – Harriet Adair – Sarah from Facilities – Sarah Carlin Ames –Marcia from curriculum and instruction – and also Rob Manning from OPB

Beryl Morrison opened the meeting and introduced Alisa Wood-Walters and asked what our #1 concerns were. A lot of people opened with positives that I did not capture here but the general theme was positive school climate, good teachers, and some programming related positives. The concerns:

  • Upper grade quality programs are lacking
  • Electives and facilities are too small and lack of lockers, age appropriate furniture
  • The perception that Irvington is less than Beaumont – a lack of feeder schools and having a hard time selling the program
  • We can’t offer what a middle school does
  • Would love to have band at Jason Lee and also a science lab
  • Electives, sustainability of programs from year to year such as sports with so much fundraising variability
  • Full time counselors would be nice
  • Losing kids in 6 to 8 because other schools have more electives and it is usually the high achievers
  • 2 programs existing in one school – Odyssey program – losing kids at 6th grade – peer pressure of going to certain schools with bad reputations
  • Direct competition with Beaumont at Sabin – you do not have to lottery in – half the kids leave – in competition with ACCESS program and there is no space and even if kids stayed we would have nowhere to put them – no more room for growth with two growing programs
  • Building up the 6th to 8th component and a program that prepares kids for high school
  • No electives
  • Ockley Green is an Art &Technology magnet with no art teacher
  • 6th to 8th graders do not feel like they are getting the middle school experience
  • A principal raved about AVID at Vestal – they are sending kids to Marshall for band afterschool so parents are relied on for transportation – Vestal seems to have a lot of community partners

Turned over to Sarah Allan and Harriet Adair

  • She told the audience this was a listening session and admitted it had been a long time since K8 discussion had happened
  • At that point we went through the Powerpoint and I did not take great notes because it went by quickly and can probably be seen on the website. There was some interesting data in the Powerpoint that I don’t want to butcher incorrectly here but is all in the presentation.

Next up was a forum to share positives and more concerns after filling out a handout and at that point we lost about 20 people:

  • Older kids and younger kids together is a positive
  • Teacher’s opportunities for collaboration
  • Improved student behavior
  • Great Spanish instructor (can’t remember which school)
  • K-8 model helps keep kids younger longer
  • Feeling welcomed and that kids are ok with parents being at the school
  • Less social pressure
  • Things you can do in a small school you can’t do in a large school – having kids be more a part of the process
  • Sabin SUN offers a transition program – good coordinator
  • A gender imbalance of more boys vs. girls at I believe it was Irvington
  • Kids keep coming back to visit from 9th grade and volunteering at the K-8
  • Having to compete with a myth – people think they know what a certain middle school has because of rumors that are simply not true – parent said that people think Beaumont has shop and home ec but don’t bother to research accuracy of claim.
  • We need support from PPS to do some K-8 PR campaign – all the chatter is about what we don’t have vs. what we do
  • Not sure why we have any middle schools if we want equity
  • No space – kids right on top of each other and band going on in the cafeteria while kids are trying to eat
  • Beverly Cleary – Staff having to travel between two buildings
  • A lot of people are using Title I  to supplement schools and it “looks like”  PPS is giving these things – it is not clear to everyone where the resources are coming from – More funding transparency
  • I gave input on the fact that when schools have space issues the first to go are the kids with disabilities. There is in fact a lack of incentive for principals to keep kids with disabilities in the building because of the way special education funding does not follow the child to their school. Principals that keep kids with disabilities are in essence punished because they have to use general education funding to shore up what special education does not provide.
  • PTA’s are typically only K-3 and how to build this up. I spoke to this gentleman after the meeting and told him that at my K-8 we learned that the best way to get people to show up is to call them vs. mail or email.

Carole Smith closed the meeting

Alisa from the Oregon PTA asked about what future forums should look like and if they should be cluster specific vs. district wide and audience response was both.

Sorry the notes are so choppy but if I did not submit this right now then it would never get done 🙂

Stephanie Hunter is a behavior consultant and the parent of a student at Ockley Green. She is active in local and statewide advocacy for children and adults with disabilities, which she writes about on her blog Belonging Matters.