Reflecting on Agent Orange victims and Vietnam Veterans Memorial

It may be fair and decent to honor Vietnam veterans who die from diseases related to Agent Orange by putting their names on the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, but then what?

What words do you put on the memorial in Sacramento Capitol Park to explain their sacrifice? Do you say their deaths resulted from the actions of the U.S. government rather than enemy forces?

Do you explain that the United States sprayed close to 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos despite strong evidence of their danger to human health? Agent Orange, which includes a dioxin found to cause cancer, birth defects and disruptions to the immune and endocrine systems, accounted for about 60 percent of the total.

Do you acknowledge that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs refused for years to acknowledge long-term health dangers from exposure to Agent Orange and denied benefits to many veterans?

What do you say about the children of these veterans who suffer from genetic-related problems tied to the herbicide heavily used in the Vietnam War? There could be thousands of such afflicted children, according to the Vietnam Veterans of America. The VA now provides benefits for children with spina bifida and other birth defects resulting from their parents’ exposure.

Might there be a mention of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children who are third-generation casualties of the 10-year U.S. campaign cavalierly coded Operation Ranch Hand?

A California Department of Veterans Affairs committee was to meet this week to review the issue of adding names to the state memorial.The meeting is an outgrowth of a law enacted a year ago. Assembly Bill 287 was authored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier, with the support of state veterans groups.

The idea behind the law, according to a Bee article Tuesday, was to consider adding the names of service members left off  the state memorial list inadvertently, those whose deaths were ruled ineligible on narrow technical grounds, and, more controversially, those who died decades after the war from documented Agent Orange-related illnesses or suicides tied to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re trying to accommodate not only those who died in the line of duty but those who died later because of their duty,” Frazier said. “We want to acknowledge that sacrifice.”

But Zack Earp, who helped raise funds to build the California memorial when he was state president of the Vietnam Veterans of America, doesn’t like the idea of noncombat deaths being included. At 19, he was severely wounded in Vietnam when he stepped on a small mine. At 63, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s as a result of Agent Orange exposure. Now, at 66, he also has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and coronary artery disease, both presumed to be related to his Vietnam service.

“I would not want my sons to have my name added to the wall for Agent Orange diseases,” Earp told the Bee. “Personally, for me, I question that. The memorial is very sacred ground. The original intent was to honor those killed in action. In some ways, this lessens the integrity of the memorial.”

The new law, with all its implications, calls attention to the ongoing toll taken by the Vietnam War. Adding names to a list, without talking about accountability, would be a disservice to those who died and those pay the price in physical and mental suffering every day.

And, as with Vietnam, so it is with the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and whatever war comes tomorrow.






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Raccoons and earthquakes

raccoonSaturday night, my wife and I watched “Raccoon Nation” on PBS television. The documentary reveals the incredible way raccoons have adapted to city life. They’re capable of all kinds of mischief, and if there’s a way to get inside your house, they’ll find it. Human efforts to thwart them may, in fact, be creating a breed of brainy creatures that will come to overrun cities.

Although skunks and possums are more common, we see raccoons occasionally. Our cat, Zack, drove a raccoon up into the oak tree in our front yard earlier this summer. Our neighbors across the street told us last week that several raccoons had been scratching at the bedroom window where their baby lay sleeping.

With raccoons on the brain, my wife and I went to bed. A few hours later, I woke up when Carol opened the bedroom door and turned on the back patio light.

“Is there a problem?” I inquired.

“I think raccoons may be swimming in the pool,” she whispered. “The water is sloshing all over.”

“That would be odd,” I said.

“The noise woke me up,” Carol said as she checked out the pool. “I suppose it could have been the pool sweep, but why would that be running in the middle of the night?”

Far be it for me to roll over and return to sleep at the thought of a raccoon swim party right outside the bedroom. They might decide to wander over to the adjacent koi pond for a fishy snack.

I went outside with a flashlight but saw no sign of invaders in the pond. Zack the cat was lying low in the kitchen. I returned to bed.

“That was the craziest thing,” my wife said.

“We’ll have to avoid raccoon shows before bed.”

In the morning, I noticed the small fountain in the pond had fallen off its stone base. Maybe the koi had been thrashing around, I thought, or maybe raccoons had been up to no good.

It wasn’t until about 11 in the morning that my wife, more wired into the world of breaking news than I, learned of the 6.0 earthquake near Napa, about 60 miles southwest of Sacramento. The sloshing water in the pool and the fallen fountain suddenly made sense. I remembered seeing the ceiling fixtures in the Bee newsroom shake when the more distant 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck near Santa Cruz in 1989.

It’s interesting how the mind tries to normalize abnormal events. On my first newspaper job, I covered the crash of a small plane in the rolling grasslands west of Red Bluff. Deputies and firefighters were at the site. When I first saw the plane, I asked myself: “Why are there two black mannequins sitting in the front seats?”

Years ago, I returned home from work about midnight and found the living room in disarray. “Did I leave the house such a mess?” I asked myself, a question I repeated when I saw a similar mess in the kitchen. It was only when I saw an empty space where the television had been that I deduced that thieves had broken into the house.

If I see any raccoons in the pool, I’ll take it as an earthquake-warning signal.






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A luxury box at new Kings arena for the mayor and council

You can say this about Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his cronies on the City Council: they won’t have trouble finding parking and getting good seats at Kings games and other events at the new downtown arena.

While the city’s hoi-polloi will struggle to find a parking space anywhere near the arena, to say nothing of  just getting off the jammed streets,,our elected officials will have the pleasure of  parking passes, tickets and a luxury box available to them. That’s because they had the foresight to have these perks written into the arena agreement with the Kings. The final deal was approved May 20 by the council.

Heck, if you’re going to fork over $300 million in taxpayer money to millionaires, why not pick up a few crumbs for yourself?

I was late finding out about this tawdry display of self-interest. Neil deMause posted an item on his Field of Schemes website three days ago. KCRA television produced a fine report last weekend. Sacramento Taxpayers Opposed to Pork posted an item on its Stop Arena Subsidy Facebook page June 13.  

Here’s the deal, according to KCRA’s investigative report:  Page 27 of the arena financing deal ensures Sacramento City Hall gets a luxury box, with 10 free tickets and parking passes, for Kings games, rock concerts, UFC fights and all other events at the arena.

Roger Noll, a Stanford economics professor who has researched arena deals, told KCRA 3 that suites aren’t given to all cities during arena negotiations. “Most cities don’t do that, but some do, because usually it’s a political hot potato. But if you can get away with it, you do,” he said.

 Luxury boxes often rent for about $200,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, the local deal could be worth more than $8 million over the 35-year agreement, Noll said.

Craig Powell, from the watchdog group Eye on Sacramento, called the suite the worst form of government waste.

“I think people are going to be upset if they visually see that their tax dollars are going to pay for an extremely expensive luxury box so that city officials can live high on the hog at the expense of city taxpayers,” Powell  told KCRA. He suggested the City Council to renegotiate and give the luxury box back to the Kings and use the proceeds for something else.

The Sacramento Bee made mention last year of a “public sector suite” in a preliminary arena financing agreement approved by the council last year. The newspaper seems to have lost interest in the subject as the deal became finalized this year. A July 6 Bee story took a lengthy look at arena seating, including VIP  luxury suites and lofts, but said nothing about the perks for the mayor and the council.   




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On racial front, it’s two steps forward and a big one back

Depending where you choose to put your focus, recent events on the racial front can make you feel depressed, inspired or an unsettling combination of both.

 The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer and the ensuing community violence are depressingly familiar.

What isn’t typical of the past 50 years is the sight of a 13-year-old black girl pitching her team to victory in Little League World Series competition, or the selection of a woman – a black woman at that – as the new leader of the NBA players union.

Mo’ne Davis, she of the long black braids and 70-mph fastballs, has thrown two straight shutouts to lead her Taney Dragons team from Philadelphia into the U.S. semifinal today against Las Vegas. Win or lose, Davis has shown a generation of children and their parents that a girl’s place can definitely be on the pitcher’s mound. Little kids are running around with hand-made signs reading “I want to throw like a girl!”

While Davis has burst on the scene like a shooting star, Michele Roberts, 56, is a woman who spent years overcoming entrenched societal obstacles to achieve success. “Smashing a ceiling and a lot of egos” was the headline over the Sunday New York Times story on Roberts.

In seeking the position of executive director of the players union, the story said, Roberts pointed out the obvious: she was all too aware that if she was selected, she would represent several hundred male athletes in the NBA; she would deal with league officials and agents who were nearly all men; she would negotiate with team owners who were almost all men; and she would stand before reporters who were predominantly men.

“My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on,” Roberts told the 117 pro basketball players who were deciding on a new union chief.

Hours later, Roberts drew 32 of 34 votes cast and was named the first female leader of a major North American professional sports union, ending a long and contentious search. She won out over about 300 candidates for the position, even though had no background in labor relations and no experience working in sports.

 Roger Mason Jr., a free-agent guard and the vice president of the union, said professional athletes had an acute understanding of the odds they had beaten to reach the highest tier of their profession.

In Roberts, he said, they recognized someone who had done the same. “It was a situation where the trust between the union and players was broken over the last few years,” Mason said. “Once we spent time with Michele, we realized her integrity was impeccable.”

Roberts grew up in a low-income housing development in the Bronx. Her mother raised five children on her own, cleaning houses and selling home-cooked food to supplement the money she received on welfare. She went to public schools through freshman year. Then she won a scholarship to the upscale Masters School, a boarding school for girls. She was one of two black students in her sophomore class.

Roberts got her law degree from UC’s Boat Hall School of Law. She worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C., for eight years and a private criminal-defense lawyer for another decade. She was a litigator at several prestigious Washington law firms before taking the players union position.

It’s nice to think Roberts and young Mo’ne Davis reflect the kind of society we’re becoming, but the racial upheaval in Ferguson brings to mind Black Panther H. Rap Brown’s line back in 1967: “Violence … is as American as cherry pie.”

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Get bikes off city sidewalks

Imagine this scenario: A guy’s walking on a crowded Sacramento sidewalk and decides to take a leak. He does his business and splashes a few pedestrians in the process. When a cop confronts him, the guy says he has a right to pee where he wants because the city has failed to provide public urinals. The cop doesn’t cite him because “we want Sacramento to be a pee-friendly city.”

That’s the kind of thinking some bicycling enthusiasts indulge in when they defend scofflaws who ride their bikes on downtown sidewalks. The Bee had two articles in Sunday’s Forum section that underscored some bicyclists’ belief they have a right to endanger pedestrians and break city law. Their logic was so warped I thought they must be suffering from an overdose of self-entitlement. And I say this as a bicyclist who has been injured on Sacramento’s less than friendly streets.

Hilary Abramson, a former co-worker of mine during the Bee’s golden era, told a sad, infuriating tale of having her leg fractured in three places last May when a bike rider smashed into her as she walked on 15th Street near Capitol Avenue at 10:30 in the morning. The teenage rider disappeared after giving minimal assistance.

Abramson cites City Ordinance 10.76.010, which prohibits sidewalk bicycling except in residential neighborhoods, or where a sidewalk is designated as part of an established bicycle route, and  California Vehicle Code Section 21200, which say a bicycle must be operated as a vehicle: on the street, moving with the flow of traffic, on the right.

Although violators in Sacramento could be fined up to $1,000,  police rarely take action. Sgt. Matt Young, who headed the Sacramento Police Department’s 10-officer bike unit last year, told Abramson he was “not aware of any officer writing a citation for a bicycle riding on the sidewalk. …  We want Sacramento to be a bicycle-friendly city.”

Jim Brown, executive director of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, told Abramson that “Bikes on sidewalks are a symptom of a problem of people not feeling safe enough in the streets. Particularly downtown, there are a lot of one-way streets that are no more convenient for people on bikes than people in cars. Bikes often take shortcuts by using sidewalks. High fines are an unfair choice for people. It wouldn’t fix the underlying causes of riding on sidewalks.”

In an accompanying article, two advocates for protected bicycle lanes, argued that “people bike on sidewalks for two main reasons: because they’re looking for a space that’s physically separated from cars and trucks, or they’re traveling against traffic on a one-way street.”

So, there you have the perverted logic. If bicyclists don’t feel safe on the streets, or they’re in a hurry, they’re entitled to break the law and endanger pedestrians on the sidewalks.

Taking this a bit further, if the city fails to meet your every need, then feel free to do anything you want. Take a leak where you want, drive the wrong way down inconvenient one-way streets, use all the water you want because the city should have anticipated long drought years.

Or how about this: If the cops won’t protect pedestrians by applying the law and subjecting violators to stiff fines, how about pedestrians taking guerrilla actions in self-defense? A thrust of a cane into a wheel could do wonders for bikers’ understanding of the real world. I get bicyclists’ call for safer streets, but bullying law-abiding pedestrians isn’t the way to go.

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