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2011: San Diego's Top Military Stories

Marines prepare for deployment as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first major deployment of U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan.
John Poole
Marines prepare for deployment as part of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first major deployment of U.S. Marines into southern Afghanistan.
2011: A look at San Diego's top military stories.
GUESTS:Alison St John, KPBS Senior Metro Reporter Beth Ford Roth, Home Post Blogger, KPBS

As we approach the end of 2011, KPBS is taking a look back on the stories that impacted San Diegans the most this year. Today, we're speaking with KPBS Senior Metro Reporter Alison St John and Home Post Blogger Beth Ford Roth.

It's been a big year for the military: Thousands of soldiers sailors and Marines are coming home from Iraq, and they're reintegrating into the civilian community.

Many need health care, almost all of them need jobs.

San Diego has a thriving military community, with about 100,000 active duty personnel and their families living in the county. Civilian employees of the Department of Defense also make up a big part of our community.

San Diego also has the largest population of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the country.

St John and Ford Roth will speak with us about the year's biggest military stories.

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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.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. 2011 marked the end of nine years of US military intervention in Iraq. This year also brought an end to the contentious military policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. We now look back on the top military stories covered by KPBS reporters this past year. The military beat is always so important to San Diego. Our military community includes about 100,000 active duty personnel and their families. KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John welcome.

ST. JOHN: Glad to be here, Maureen

CAVANAUGH: And Beth Ford Roth is the editor of our military blog, home post

FORD-ROTH: Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: I started out mentioning US troops coming home from Iraq. And US troops are being systematically withdrawn from Afghanistan. Many of the stories that you've done have to do with a kind of care US marines get when they return. Now, what were the major health issues that you covered for veterans this year?

ST. JOHN: Well, the one that I was most interested in and did the most looking into were the mental ones, the injuries that are not so much physical and are more invisible. So you don't see somebody who's lost a leg or arm, but there's something that has really changed inside of them. So PTSD and TDI are two conditions that are remarkably common among veterans returning back. And there's a lot of research going on in ways of treating them

CAVANAUGH: Now, PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. TBI, though, traumatic brain injuries is one of the signature injuries of the Iraq and Afghanistan war; is that right?

ST. JOHN: Correct because of all the explosions, the IEDs. A lot of the forces are being caught in these explosions, and sometimes they don't even realize the effect it has on them until later. And it's a variable kind of injury. It's not one that even the medical profession is really on top of because it can sometimes get better in just a matter of days. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes it is prolonged for year, and sometimes it never gets better. So it can really affect somebody's ability to readjust back to civilian life

CAVANAUGH: Now, what kinds of reporting did you do on the new techniques being tried to help fight these two residual effects of the war that veterans may face as they come home?

ST. JOHN: Well, there is one fairly interesting piece of equipment that is being developed at the VA in UCSD, which is a brain scan. Conventional brain scans only pick up the physical logical effects of TBI 10% of the time. So for everywheres who don't have any physical evidence that something happened to them while they were deployed, this new brain scan is one of only 20 in the country, and it can apparently pick up evidence of damage to the brain from traumatic brain injury 90% of the time. So it's an amazing machine. It looks like something out of star wars. It has this huge head piece. And I understand that the Marines who do find that there is some evidence of injury, it makes a big difference to them because just to know that they are credibly, that there's some acknowledgement that they were wounded. Will so it doesn't heal anything. But it does help them to get the help they need.

CAVANAUGH: Another big health related military story this year, Alison, was how the military is gearing up to take care of women veterans who are coming home.

ST. JOHN: That's right. 14% of the force now are women. 8% veterans. So that's obviously going to go up. And the VA medical center has seen a huge increase in the last 20†years. So the VA is gearing up its resources and trying to put as many of its doctors through more training. Many of the doctors at the vaare much more comfortable dealing with men. Now all of a sudden, they're being faced with women who have different kinds of problems, different ways of reacting to health issues. So there is nation-wide a kind of initiative to try to get the doctors more trained. And one of the conditions that an unexpectedly large number of women are suffering from is this military sexual trauma, MST. It's like a relative of PTSD, that many, are many women are suffering from. Again, something that is not easy to see but it later, for years -- linger for years, and it's only now being discovered how many women veterans are really struggling with the symptoms of MST. And it has really affected their lives and their ability to get back on their feet when they come back.

CAVANAUGH: Beth, let me get you into the conversation. Your blog, Home Post, took the lead on the story of how a San Diego based aircraft carrier was involved in the end of Osama Bin Laden. Tell us about that

FORD-ROTH: I think we were all surprised the morning after we found out that Osama Bin Laden had been killed that he was buried at sea. I think there was some shock for that. So I was scouring the Internet for localized story, and I saw something I think in a British newspaper mentioning that the USS Carl Vincent, which is based here in San Diego, was the ship on which his body was prepared. And then dumped overboard, basically. I got some backup, and it was true. It was sort of surprising that it was that much of a personal involvement. And I think a lot of the family members who have loved ones on board felt a sense of pride. But also of worry. And so that was sort of the worst post on Home Post to go viral. Because so many family members were really concerned about their loved ones having such a close involvement in this man who was responsible for 911. And sort of income NO.†1 to the United States.

CAVANAUGH: There were concerns about possible retribution, and things of that nature. But I think you're right now. It is a point of pride for the sailors on board the USS Carl Vincent to have been involved, at least partially in that entire operation. This has been a huge year for the USS Carl Vincent. Not only where they were involved in the burial at sea of Bin Laden. But weren't they involved in some of the rescue and relief efforts in Japan for the tsunami?

FORD-ROTH: Actually that was the USS Ronald Regan. But that was also a San Diego-based ship. And that was another post that did very well because, again, it was family members concerned. It's really hard to get information. There's often information blackouts on the aircraft carrier itself. So they can't contact their loved ones. So they're searching for any information on the Internet. And somehow if we're able to, through Facebook page, that's a great way to find out information about the aircraft carriers. Finding out when there's going to be a town hall, any snippet of information these families are just craving because they're getting nothing. And they're so worried. There's an earthquake, a tsunami, then there's a nuclear reactor, and is my child going to be exposed? Any information they can get. So it's sort of a print to be able to provide family members with that kind of information during that time

CAVANAUGH: Now, I go back to the USS Carl Vincent for a light-hearted story. And that was the carrier classic that happened recently

FORD-ROTH: I found that personally fascinating that they chose the Vincent, considering the fact that it was sort of the last burial place of Osama Bin Laden. Then to have a college basketball game on board, again I think it was sort of a source of pride of look what we were able to accomplish and sort of capturing this man who did such terrible things to our country. Now we're going to use it as a basketball stadium of sorts. But yeah, it was on 11/11/11 on veterans' day, and it was the Michigan state Spartans against the UNC tallers. President Obama was there. And it sort of seemed like a victory for him to go out on the Vincent and say, hey, this is where we disposed of Bin Laden, and it's enjoy this basketball game. It did very well. It brought a lot of attention to the servicemen and women here in San Diego and what they do. And I know that it did very well on ESPN. It was not just a basketball game but it was a chance to say thank you to the military and what they co. And they were the ones who were able to watch the game on the aircraft carrier. Tickets were not for sale.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right Alison, we were expecting the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which of course was the military's policy against openly guy personnel. We were expecting that for quite some time. And it finally happened in September. Just how revolutionary was it by the time it was enacted?

ST. JOHN: I think perhaps the victory was when it was repealed back in December of last year. By the time it happened, the people that I spoke to, obviously there was a huge amount of celebration down at the LGBT center here in San Diego. But the feeling was that, about time! Let's move on. What's the next thing? Now we want the right to marry our partners and get the benefits that other married couples get. So the thing is that, you know, even although that's a sense of celebration, and just last week we heard about the first sailor to be reinstated under the new policy, which was a breakthrough. However, you're hearing in it some of the election rhetoric that's going on already, people saying that having guys serve openly in the military is a problem. And I am aware of the fact that there are people who are still very concerned that it could still be overturned, so it's not something to be taken for granted. On the one hand, it's I major victory. And leads to the next step in terms of guy rights. And on the other hand, it's not necessarily a done deal. And I think people are very much on the qui vive to make sure it is not reversed

CAVANAUGH: In the waning months of this policy, one of the ones who expressed reservations about it was the head of the Marine Corps. How is this policy being accepted now at Camp Pendleton?

ST. JOHN: It's interesting because general James Amos came to Camp Pendleton last year before the reversal. And at that point he had said, look, I don't think it's time to do that. Especially when people are deployed. He was concerned about how it would affect the people in harm's way in Afghanistan. And he explained that. And you know, you could tell that he was really -- he had the interests of his marines at heart. However, when the political winds were obviously blowing in a direction that he could not stop, he got on board. And now just quite recently, I think he has very much said, look, this has been -- this has been not such a big deal. It seems to be happening very successfully. And the other brass that I spoke to, like general Anthony Jackson up in Camp Pendleton, he was so dismissive of the problem. For him it was, like, oh, this is not a problem at all. It's time this country woke up and gave these people equal rights. I'm glad to see it happen. And I'm looking forward to implementing it. Of the so I think there has been a readiness, which it's just falling into place. Now, there may be, and there almost certainly are people having a hard time dealing with the change in the policy. And it may still be that there are some difficulties adapting to it. But in general, the military appears to have adopted it with some grace, and be carrying on.

CAVANAUGH: Another big story this year, Alison is the idea that the Navy is laying off 1% of its force. What have you heard from military members about that kind of downsizing?

ST. JOHN: It's interesting because the Navy, even some of the Navy people here this San Diego don't know how much it's affected San Diego. Even a week after the -- a couple weeks after the news came down, nobody seems to quite know how many people have been affected here in San Diego. It's something which feels a little bit like a canary in the coal mine. There's so many talks about military cuts. Everybody is wondering where is it going to hit? The Marine Corps is going to have to downsize to 186,000. But they said they want to preserve their new equipment. They really want the high-tech new planes that they have coming. They probably will be looking at more cuts in the very near future bump not until their mission in Afghanistan is complete.

CAVANAUGH: We heard so much about the super committee back in Washington and further cuts down the road for the military. And of course, San Diego's economy is quite dependent on military spending. So where do you see -- taking it from the wig stories of this year, where do you see this going in the next year?

ST. JOHN: This is something that next year, and the year after, it may be that it takes a couple of years to actually start to bite. But of course, San Diego's economy depends so much on the military. The San Diego military advisory council has done a couple of studies suggesting that one in five jobs in San Diego depends on that federal income coming to the military, directly or indirectly. So any kinds of cuts are bound to affect us. And as well as all the active duty military, 100,000 or so, there's all the civilian work force. And they're going to be affected too. The army just announced they're planning to reduce their civilian work force by almost 9,000 people

CAVANAUGH: Beth, you can round out our lookback with a story. It's the picture of Hawkeye, the dog. Tell us that story

FORD-ROTH: Oh, goodness, yeah. So Hawkeye, the dog, belonged to a Navy seal named John tumison. And he was one of the 30 service members who was killed on August†6th when the Chinook helicopter was shot down by Afghan insurgents. And I think the enormity of that loss of life was almost too much for people to grasp. And this picture sort of really narrowed it down. And it was during the funeral for John tummilson. His cousin took a picture of Hawkeye the dog, this beautiful chocolate lab, who walked up to the coffin and just lied down and stayed there. And wouldn't leave his master's side. And that photograph I think touched so many people because it was so unique. I think maybe we've become desensitized to pictures of grieving widows or small children at funerals. We've seen it a lot. And I don't think wee seen something like that where this man was so beloved by his family and his dog that his dog was just bereft with grieve. There are some people who don't believe dogs are capable of that. I'm one who is quite certain they are. And I think people sort of associate it with their own dogs, and the amount of loss in just this one human being and what happened. And it ended up going viral on home post. It's been viewed more than 110,000 times. I was contacted by fox news, and it was printed in the New York Times, and the national review, and "Good Morning America" called. So many people were touched by this. It was a way to take that huge grieve of Hughes losing so many service members at once and just boil it down to this one image of what we've lost. And how human these service members are. They're not just sort of, you know, robotic fighting machines. They're sons and they're husbands, but they're also dog owners, and this dog loved this man so much he wouldn't leave his side even in death.

CAVANAUGH: And if you missed this picture of Hawkeye, the dog, you can go on the home post website, and you can get their on Thank you so much. I've been speaking with KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John and the editor of the military blog, home post, Beth Ford Roth. Thanks for the lookback.

ST. JOHN: Pleasure, Maureen

FORD-ROTH: Thank you.