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Local Syrians Want Action, Military Suicides And Insurance, Plastic Bags May Get Tossed

September 13, 2013 1:42 p.m.


Mark Sauer


Susan Murphy, KPBS News

Tony Perry, LA Times

Erik Anderson, KPBS News

Related Story: Local Syrians Want Action, Military Suicides And Insurance, Plastic Bags May Get Tossed


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

SAUER: Welcome. It's Friday, September 13th. Joining me at the roundtable are Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the LA Times, KPBS reporter Susan Murphy, environment reporter Eric Anderson. President Obama pointed out his plan for a military strike in Syria. Americans are deeply divided over the idea. But the debate took a sudden turn when a possible diplomatic option emerged. A vocal group of Syrian Americans here were disappointed that plans were put on hold.

MURPHY: Many of these folks are from Syria. A lot of them have spent the majority of their lives living there, some are refugees. All seem to have family members still living there. A lot of them belong to the Syrian American council, a group pushing for a free and democratic society there. They say there are 25 hundred Syrians living in San Diego. Their families are suffering greatly, and they can't take anymore. They say diplomacy won't work, and they're basically desperate.

SAUER: So I really want a strike here. What are they saying about contact with their families?

MURPHY: Most of them say they have not been able to be in communication with their families for at least two weeks. They believe that phone lines have been cut. Before the lines were cut, they say their families had no running water. There was very little food. The families were afraid to go out into the streets for fear of being shot. They are basically living as hostages in their own homes. One woman told me about her grandmother who had fallen down her stairs to her basement, and there was no medical help. This is one young man who is here for college, his family remains near Aleppo. His brother is unable to go to school, they're malnourished. The parents are trying to school him from the basement.

SAUER: It's really a desperate situation.

PERRY: How are these folks doing? Are they assimilating to America? Are they like the Iraqi immigrants we've seen, getting that education, or still trying to cope with this place called America?

MURPHY: A lot of them have been here for a long time, they consider themselves Syrian Americans. They say they love America as much as they love Syria. They are living with a lot of anxiety, fear, worry, the unknown they say is just eating at them.

SAUER: You say anything about a military strike, suddenly you realize America is going in, you see the bombs, the reporting from this end, and how does that square with not knowing already what's going on with the families?

MURPHY: Some say they believe these precision strikes will only target the military compounds and their families will stay safe. So they think the military strike is the best solution.

PERRY: I think we have to be careful. We have seen other circumstances, Iraq, the expatriots, they're more enthusiastic for America going and getting in the middle of a dispute in their homeland than the rest of America is. They want America to go over there and extend money and blood to straighten things out in their homeland, even though they may or may not know what we can do and not do. Our hearts go out for these folks.

SAUER: But we have to evaluate their wants and wishes.

RIGHT2: I got a sense that they were very strident in some of the goals that they had, and some things they would like to see happen.

MURPHY: Right. They have been rallying around San Diego, passing out Flyers and pamphlets on who they are. They would love diplomacy if it would work. They would love to avoid any strikes if possible. But they just believe that there's no more time for diplomacy.

SAUER: You also reported on San Diego's congressional delegation. What were you learning from the stances of the Republicans and Democrats?

MURPHY: Juan Vargas seemed to be the only one who was fully backing President Obama's proposal. The others were urn sure, they remained undecided. Juan Vargas sat in on two different intelligence briefings. He felt custody that when his other colleagues were able to sit in on those briefings, they too would back the president.

PERRY: Yet you have Duncan hunter, a marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a very strong statement saying no. It just doesn't fit. And he quoted the Colin Powell doctrine, the first point being is there a crucial American interest involved? And he said after the briefings, I don't see it. So we're spread all over the lot, I think in San Diego. Juan Vargas, for it. Duncan hunter? Not for it. Darryl Issa, not sure.

SAUER: We're a little war-weary with our marines and the other folks in this county.

PERRY: I don't think they have a great appetite. On the other hand, they follow orders. The chief of naval operations of talking to the sailors this week and said in a matter of fact tone, this is what we do, we train for it, we are when it matters where it matter, and if the president gives the order, we'll do it. Not for gung-ho. Just a day at the office when you're in the business of putting the hurt on American enemies or protecting American interests. So I don't sense they're really patriotic server types, they've done that. We did Iraq, we did Afghanistan. These are technicians, people paid to do a certain difficult, bloody blood, and they do it. But they're not sort of jumping up and down, put me in, coach!

SAUER: And the polls are reflecting what you're talking about with the military, not a tremendous strong support for this.

MURPHY: Right, the majority of Americans are opposed to U.S. military strikes. Some polls show more than 60% opposing. When I was at a recent rally outside of Susan Davis's office, one side with the Syrian Americans, the, side were people opposed to strikes. And some of them told me they basically fear retaliation, on U.S. soil, they don't want to get involved, others say we have no business getting involved.


SAUER: Sometimes there's a note laying out specific reasons, often there is no way to know what's going on through the minds of the tortured souls who end up taking their own lives. Getting at the why of suicides is a particular challenge for the military. Tony, let's set these grim statistics. Of they have been going up for sometime.

PERRY: Ten years ago, was one of the characteristics of the military, that even they are populated by young men, 18-24, that group in the civilian community commits suicide at greater age rates, their suicide rate was lower than the civilian community. Not true now. It's been going up and up and up. And now several of the services exceed the civilian community. Why? It's devilishly difficult in the civilian community to find out why people commit this terrible act. And the why is all over the lot. Many have served multiple deployments and have had the stress. But a lot haven't! Most of the current suicides have not deployed, and those who have didn't see direct combat. What do you make of that? The president of the United States a few weeks ago put some $107 million into greater research on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, what's the brain injury, how can we help these folks who come home? This is an issue that is as current as today a big conference going on in Washington, and as old as Sophocles. A wonderful first rate university like this one we're sitting at, the other graduates read Sophocles. Ajax, he comes home from war dramatically changed.

ANDERSON: Isn't that the point? It's the experience with war that has been pointing at?

PERRY: For some. But what do you make of the fact that most of these committing suicide now have not deployed! They didn't go to Iraq, Afghanistan. The factors that push young civilian males to suicide are the same that push the military folks, similar age. Broken relationships, the only woman in the world breaks up with their, money problems, work problems, a little too much drinking and far too many drugs. All of those kinds of pathologies that lead young civilians now lead young military. Who do you do about it? All sorts of counseling, help lines, discussions. It isn't a sign of weakness to seek help. And there are some mall small signs that it's working. The Navy, for example, was saying this week that they're seeing a downturn in their numbers. That could uptick again, but there's no laying off the problem. It's there, it's real, they're doing what they can. Enough, probably not, but they're doing what they can.

SAUER: Your newspaper had a story on this fact that could be this, the insurance rate.

PERRY: Indeed. One of my colleagues had a story in which he pointed out that other studies in other countries, to be sure, have found that insurance, that is to say, when someone knows that their family will be taken care of, this may be a factor. Now, nobody is --

SAUER: And the rates have gone up substantially.

PERRY: In 2005 they went up $150,000. It's more if you're in a war zone. So there's an economic aspect to a lot of conduct. Nobody we know of is studying this. But there's a lot of these kinds of things. If wee looking for one common cause, we're not going to find it. But people are looking.

SAUER: So a lot of folks, this as you noted is reflected in the civilian population, a lot of folks are under enormous stress, tough job market, a lot of people went into the military because it was a job! It was benefits, it was a career.

PERRY: And the military folks have access to weaponry. They have been part of a culture that has trained them in the use of weaponry, part of a culture that has suggested that some problems can be solved by the use of weaponry.

SAUER: And a culture where it's taboo to go and talk about your feelings, get into a group session?

PERRY: It is. They start in boot camp right here Marine Corps depo San Diego, they tell the recruit, if you have a problem, tell the sergeant who will tell the Chaplin. Also look to your buddy, if your buddy says life has no meaning, start saying he's going to give away his favored truck or water skis or something, do something. They start lecturing them in boot camp. Still a problem. And people who study this say it's going to be with us, forever, of course. Sophocles? 500 BC? It's going to be with us. But let's see if we can stop the numbers from ratcheting up.

MURPHY: And also the stress of boot camp and the first couple years of being in the military?

PERRY: Sure! Boot camp is meant to be stressful. You are getting ready to do a dangerous job. It's meant to be stress willful. Boot camp suicides are relatively low. But what is higher is folks that get further up the chain, a year, two, three years into service and just don't see a way out. They have money problems, relationship problems, drinking. Drinking! 20% of those committing suicide in the military have been heavily drinking just prior. Then you throw in some drug, and you've got a mess of a problem.

SAUER: The Times had a marvelous story on Sunday, and it talked about this couple, the reporter and photographer followed for 14 months. And you talk about a candidate for suicide, finally a long intervention.

PERRY: That was a wonderful story, long look. They spent a lot of time with the wife and how she stuck with him, even though he brought the war with him is the tag line, and alcohol, and PTSD, and an outreach, and driving under the influence, and criminal time. They went through hell. And again, not to --

SAUER: Lost home, shut off electricity.

PERRY: And he did get treatment. And deep in the story, you find out he had gotten 100% disability from the VA.

SAUER: Which she had to fight for.

PERRY: Had to fight! You've got to prove it to them. But it was very deep, very moving look at what happens to a certain number of men and women when they come home from war. Did look it up. You're going to learn a lot about the cost of war and what the love of a good woman, in this case, can do to counteract that.

SAUER: And it brings up this clash from coming out of this combat zone and world into the civilian world, and there's been movies and novels and things.

PERRY: Sure, a structured world with its value systems in tact, but a world where there's violence and craziness and irrationality and all of that, and then you come home to San Diego, California, and we're worrying to death the fact that the Chargers lost. There is a culture crunch. Also now, to be honest, if as this fellow did, you enter military service, the army, in his case, at an advanced age, you may bring with you certain issues which are incompatible with military service, and this has been studied by the suicide folks too, but there have been studies that suggest that one of the factors -- well, who's committing suicide? What did they bring with them?

SAUER: I would recommend that story highly.


SAUER: More and more shoppers can be seen entering stores with their bags these days. Still, countless plastic bags are used every day, following the environment, the land, and the sea. City leaders started doing something about that. They took up the matter of a ban on plastic bags and agreed to draft an ordinance. Give us the details, Eric.

ANDERSON: The plan hasn't been drawn up yet. But what they're looking at doing is eliminating the single-use plastic bags at all grocery stores and big-box realtors. So if you go to a target or a Walmart, or a Vons, you're going to have to have your own bag. Or you could pay ten cents for every paper bag that you would use, which can be recycled or reused. But the idea is to take this item, this, you know, controversial item out of the waste stream so that it doesn't end up in landfills, as litter around the town.

SAUER: And what are some of the exemptions being talked about?

ANDERSON: Restaurants for example would still be allowed to use the single-use plastic bags. Even grocery stores could still use them for produce or meat. If you're a person on food stamps and you went into the store, they're talking about possibly waiving that fee to pay for the extra bag. But the idea is to get people to wrap their heads around this idea that it's not a right to have the grocery bags given to you at the store. You play a role there and have some responsibility and that's good for the environment and for the 73's covers.

PERRY: I read that one of the City Council members is worried that this will impose a burden on private industry, unfairly! Is that real?

ANDERSON: I don't think it's spooky talk.

SAUER: We love the word spooky talk.


ANDERSON: What you look at is what is the real world impact going to be, and folks like the California growers association, they're behind the ban. They were in front of the council this week too. And they're saying we think it's okay. I think we can live with this idea if it's something that everybody plays by those rules. In other words, if everybody has the same thing. There are about 80 municipalities now in the State of California that have some form of restriction on single-use plastic bags, and the thing that the industry folks are looking at, we don't want to be in a situation where the store on one side of the street has to follow these rules, and the store on the other side of the street doesn't.

MURPHY: Has there been any talk of where the reusable bags will be manufactured? I know in Los Angeles, they had veterans and gang members making these bags. It could be a job growth opportunity.

ANDERSON: I'm sure there are a lot of recycled bag companies who are very anxious for this legislation to pass.


ANDERSON: The big question though when you look at this is when is it going to happen at the state-wide level? It's great love the local legislation, but it really is limited in its impact. And there has been a push, they have been getting closer and closer to getting the support for a statewide ban, and I think the public discourse is at a point where it's hard to find people who will stand up and say we really need these plastic bags.

SAUER: Let's talk about the Ned and why the cities are doing it. This stuff really does need get into the environment and does get into the ocean.

ANDERSON: A lot of marine mammals that have been caught in the ocean, dissected, they have plastic in their stomachs. It's not just from at this time single-use plastic bags, but they're a contributor. There's this huge patch of garbage floating out in the pacific ocean. Out in the middle of the ocean where the currents Eddy, there are particles of plastic floating and that gets into the food chain. The bottom line is it costs money. It costs the city money to clean up bags in the environment to, clean them up at, pas, beaches, to clean them up in a landfill. They blow around, it's not high science out there when you're dumping and piling garbage.

PERRY: Might the people say, hey! I'm already recycling, I'm putting my diet soda cans in one can and another in another?

ANDERSON: Well, I think just take it back a few years. Plastic bags didn't exist before 15 or 20 years ago. So that's a relatively new phenomenon. We got used to the idea.

SAUER: You said the grocery stores, they're not really against this. Who is against it? The merchandisers of the bags might be.

ANDERSON: Well, the agency that really funded the effort to defeat this at the state level was the American chemical council. And that's a group, an industry group that represents petroleum products. They make a lot of these bags! Billions of bags just in the State of California every year.

SAUER: It's hard to get your mind around how many bags are out there.

ANDERSON: That's a lot of bags. So there's a financial stake there, but I think what you'll see is the opponents' voices are becoming quieter because people are less receptive to their arguments.

SAUER: And have we seen what the polls are now? They're kind of split.

ANDERSON: Well, legislatively, 80 communities in the State of California have decided to go ahead with some sort of a restriction on this plastic bags. It has failed twice at the state-wide level, but it is expected to be back on the docket in January, and the vote lost by seven the first time, so you can see the momentum is moving.

SAUER: How about he were in the city?

ANDERSON: Right now, the majority wife the members of the rules committee want to look at this proposal, so they're going to have a proposal to look at. They'll be back in October where the committee will see the ordinance that's drawn up, and they'll give it to the City Council to make that final decision. I think it's a case of momentum. A lot of people see the arguments on some sort of restriction, and the voices against the restrictions are starting to fade.

SAUER: All right. We'll wrap it right there.