For the Writers Island prompt "outrageous:"
One of the most fascinating encounters I had during my last trip to London was talking with an Iraqi mini-cab driver. The minute I saw him, I knew he was an Iraqi refugee. He was wearing the usual three-piece brown suit, white shirt and tie made of cheap fabric; had carefully combed hair and a heavy douse of scent. I say this not to disparage this gentleman, but to explain that I have seen a version of him in nearly every country in the Middle East, in Europe and - more rarely - in the United States: someone who has lost nearly everything. A desperate person trying to make his way in a foreign country, with very little, while working hard to make ends meet. This particular man drives a car seven days a week to support his family.
While moving slowly through London traffic to St. Pancras International, we chatted about war in Iraq and the American presidential election:
"The situation is so bad that most teachers, doctors and anyone who can afford it have left Iraq," the man said. "We knew when the Americans arrived that they would not be leaving anytime soon and no one was happy about that. But we worry that if American troops pull out now, Iran will seize the opening. They are always looking for a way in (and he referenced the eight-year Iran-Iraq war)...We are threatened by Turkey from the North, Iran from the South and Al-Qaida taking advantage of the chaos."
Asked why Iraqis are listening to Iran, a non-Arab country and longtime enemy, the man replied: "Only a few are listening, but they have influence with others." He said Moqtada al Sadr "gets all his weapons and support" from Iran.
We talked about the dilemma for the US, as 68 percent of Americans believe we never should have gone into Iraq and want our troops home, but have sympathy for the Iraqis' plight. Then we discussed the double-edged sword for the Iraqis, who badly need help, but resent the foreign troops' presence. He said he believes it will take "50 years" to rebuild Iraq. "The situation is so perilous that Iraqis now living outside Iraq talk about it only at dinner and when questioned by people like you," he noted. Otherwise, "we try to forget about it," he said. "It's just too horrible to think about."
He expressed concern about Iraqi deaths that often go unreported by the media. "There have been hundreds of Iraqis killed this week alone and nobody talks about it or does anything about it," he said.
He said Iraqis are watching the American election with a mixture of interest and fear. "We're worried that the next president might pull all the troops out too soon, leaving Iraq to fend for itself," he said. "The Iraqi government isn't strong enough and can't fight powerful influences of people like Moqtada al Sadr, without help from outside."
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band singing Worlds Apart in Barcelona, Spain. I had the privilege of seeing Springsteen on this same "The Rising" tour in Paris. In memoriam: Danny Federici of the E Street Band.
Outrageous battles for those who live to tell
Meanwhile, more than 120 veteran soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan commit suicide every week, while the Bush administration delays mental health treatment and benefits to which returning troops are entitled, veterans advocates told a federal judge in San Francisco.
The rights of hundreds of thousands of veterans are being violated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), "an agency that is in denial" and by a government health care system and appeals process for patients that is "broken down," Gordon Erspamer, attorney for two advocacy groups, said in his opening statement at trial. Erspamer said veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 18 a day - a number acknowledged by a VA official in a Dec. 15 e-mail. The agency's backlog of disability claims exceeds 650,000.
Justice Department lawyer Richard Lepley told the court that the VA runs a "world-class health care system." He said changes sought in the lawsuit - better and faster mental health care and more rights for veterans appealing denials of benefits - are beyond the judge's authority. "Of course we're obliged to provide health care," Lepley said, but "the court does not have standards to determine the speed or the scope or the level of that care."
U.S. District Judge Samuel Conti is presiding over the nonjury trial. In allowing the trial to proceed, Conti rejected the government's argument that civil courts have no authority over the VA's medical decisions or how it handles grievances. If advocates can prove their claims, Conti said, they would show that "thousands of veterans, if not more, are suffering grievous injuries as the result of their inability to procure desperately needed and obviously deserved health care." The judge ruled veterans are legally entitled to five years of government-provided health care after leaving the service, despite federal officials' claim that they are required to provide only as much care as the VA's budget allows in a given year.
At a later hearing, Conti said he was uncertain about his authority to require spending on particular types of health care. The lawsuit plaintiffs - the 11,500-member strong Veterans for Common Sense in Washington, D.C. and 500-member Veterans United for Truth of Santa Barbara - want Conti to order the VA to provide immediate treatment for suicidal veterans and prompt care for those suffering from post-traumatic stress.
The lawsuit is a proposed class action on behalf of 320,000 to 800,000 veterans or their survivors. Advocacy groups say the VA arbitrarily denies care and benefits to wounded veterans, forcing them to wait months for treatment and years for benefits, then offering little recourse when rejecting medical claims. Veterans seeking benefits within the VA's grievance system have no right to a lawyer and no right to demand records or question opposing witnesses, Erspamer said. The plaintiffs want Conti to grant those rights and require the agency to set a timetable for deciding claims.
The trial follows publication of a Rand study estimating 300,000 U.S. troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from major depression or post-traumatic stress.