Hard to stay on the sunny side with so many snafus

October 30, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Victor from Munster, Ind., really puts me in my place regarding my criticism of Rush Limbaugh.

I must be jealous, Victor writes, because Mr. Limbaugh has built a following of millions by being "positive" and "upbeat," while I, dear readers, sound like a sourpuss.

"When I read your column, I get very depressed and discouraged," Victor writes. "The world is in a royal mess. When I listen to Rush, I get a lift and encouragement and all seems right."

That's right, pal. Nobody ever went broke by making the majority feel satisfied with itself. Mr. Limbaugh is an entertainer. I'm an optimist by nature, but sometimes I just can't get in the mood to sow undeserved apathy and contentment about the countryside.

For example, I did not feel good about the news that our troops don't have enough of the new Interceptor flak jackets to go around. Most are left with old Vietnam-era flak jackets that have failed in several tragic episodes to stop bullets from AK-47's, a round commonly used by America's enemies in Iraq.

I was shocked, until I remembered how some units in the first gulf war didn't receive biochemical weapons suits, while some other units received twice as many as they needed.

Such stories remind me of a phrase from my Vietnam-era Army days: "Snafu - situation normal, all fouled up," except we didn't say "fouled."

For example, imagine the look in Sgt. Brandon Erickson's dazed face when, after losing his right arm to an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade, he woke up in Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center to see a private with a clipboard.

The private told the 22-year-old North Dakota National Guardsman that he was being charged $8.10 a day for his meals.

Yes, it turns out that active duty and retired enlisted service members have been charged for their hospital meals since 1981. (Officers have been charged since the late 1950s.) Somehow that bit of news never gets mentioned in the military's recruitment ads.

No matter. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who was contacted by Sergeant Erickson's mother, a Baltimore resident, co-sponsored an amendment to the $87 billion Iraqi appropriations package to exempt military personnel from having to pay for their hospital meals. Good. And it only took about 22 years for this reform to come. Snafu, GIs!

Maybe Army Spec. Shoshana Johnson will be luckier than that.

Remember her? If not, perhaps you remember her famous friend and comrade-in-arms, Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

When their support convoy was ambushed in southern Iraq in March, Private Lynch fractured both legs and was knocked unconscious. She was famously rescued from a hospital after 11 days. Specialist Johnson, an El Paso mother of a 3-year-old, was shot through both legs and held prisoner for 22 days.

Now Specialist Johnson, who is to be discharged in a few months, has been told that she will receive a 30 percent disability benefit. Private Lynch was discharged in August with an 80 percent disability. The difference amounts to $600 to $700 a month in payments. Is there some sort of double standard at work here?

"There is," Claude Johnson, Specialist Johnson's father and himself an Army veteran, told The Washington Post last week. "I don't know for sure that it was the Pentagon. All I know for sure is that the news media paid a lot of attention to Jessica."

When I spoke with Mr. Johnson, an El Paso resident, he played down the racial angle that the news media have been playing up. Specialist Johnson's family does not begrudge Jessica Lynch one penny of what she's getting, they say, and Private Lynch, recovering in her Palestine, W.Va., home, expressed "100 percent support" for Specialist Johnson's efforts to get more compensation.

Still, the Johnsons did what many other people have done who are eager to get a little more attention to a grievance: They called the master of attention-getting, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Why, I have often been asked, do black people still give any credibility or support to Mr. Jackson? That's easy: When you're black in America, you never know when you might need to call him.

"Race clearly is a factor," Mr. Jackson said when he announced that he was taking Specialist Johnson's case to the White House, Congress and the Pentagon last week. But when I talked to him Tuesday, he, too, played down the race angle. "I think there's a bigger picture than that," he said. "Shoshana's treatment is the key that opens the door to larger questions of how our soldiers in Iraq are being treated generally."

You make a good point, Reverend. By the way, have you ever heard of the military term snafu?

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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