- This Memorial Day weekend, the nation will pause to remember and honor Americans of all generations who lost their lives in service to the United States, and this year's National Memorial Day Concert will spend time highlighting the children of those recently lost a parent in combat and how their lives are forever changed.
The concert airs live on Sunday, May 24, from 8:00-9:30 Eastern Time on PBS. One of the focal points will on the work done by American Gold Star Children to reach out to kids devastated by the loss of a parent and connect them with other children going through the same heartache.
"That's an ultimate sacrifice when a parent has had to give up their life, knowing that they had a child and yet they put themselves in harm's way so the rest of us in this country could live the good life and live with the freedoms and protections and advantages we have in this country," said actor Joe Mantegna, co-host of the National Memorial Day Concert.
"Being able to focus on those children will be a very important part and I'm sure a very moving aspect of the program," said Mantegna, who is co-hosting the event for the thirteenth straight year. For the past decade, he has partnered with fellow actor Gary Sinise.
The Dostie family was chosen to represent American Gold Star Children at the concert. U.S. Army Sgt. First Class Shawn Dostie was killed in Baghdad on Dec. 30. 2005. The 32-year-old Dostie was a 14-year veteran and left behind his wife, Stephanie, an eight-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter.
"Befor Shawn was killed, I didn't know myself, even as a military wife, what a Gold Star was. All of a sudden, I became a Gold Star wife and my children became Gold Star children," said Stephanie Dostie. "Of course it was devastating. Your whole family dynamic changes. The first three years were pretty rough. It took a lot of adjusting."
She says part of the reason those early years were so difficult is because often times it didn't feel as though Shawn had been killed.
"As a military family, we were used to him being deployed or in training somewhere, so we were used to him being gone quite a bit. For a long time, it felt like he was still on a deployment or he was away at training. It took a few years to really comprehend that he wasn't coming home at all," said Dostie.
Even after that realization, Dostie says adjusting to a new life was very difficult.
"We have spent the last years trying to put everything back together and beginning to be a family of three instead of a family of four. We take it one day at a time, still to this day we take it one day at a time and I think that's the best way to get through something like this. Surround yourself with wonderful people, have a good support system and take it one day at a time," she said.
Dostie's children were chosen as the faces of Gold Star children for the National Memorial Day Concert after many were considered. She says this attention is so meaningful to Gold Star families.
"The only thing harder than losing your hero is feeling like they have been forgotten. To us, this is a wonderful way to honor Shawn. We're very blessed that they were picked and we're really looking forward to sharing our story with the nation," said Dostie, who says her family's experience with American Gold Star Children has been critical for her kids.
"When they meet another Gold Star child, they have a camaraderie with them. They're able to open up to that child because that child knows that they've been through," she said.
While life has resumed some sense of normalcy in since receiving the news of Shawn's death nearly a decade ago, nothing will ever be the same.
"I think my son had a harder time than my daughter for quite a few years. He really needed his dad in his life. There were pivotal points where he just needed his dad there. He can talk to mom but there are some things he doesn't want to talk to mom about. He wanted his dad there," said Dostie.
That son will soon graduate from high school.
"It's bittersweet because I want his father there to see him walk across that stage. It's going to be a beautiful day for my son. It's also going to be a hard day for the family because his dad isn't there," said Dostie.
"Once you're a Gold Star child, this follows you for the rest of your life. I think down the road when my daughter's going to get married, she's not going to have her father there to walk her down the aisle. I'm not going to be able to sit on a porch with my husband and tell stories to my grandchildren," she said.
"This isn't something that ends once the funeral is finished. This is something that follows these children for the rest of their lives," added Dostie.
She hopes the family's participation in the concert will help the American people understand families of those grieving loved ones from wars past and present.
"I just hope the nation realizes the sacrifice these children have made by sacrificing their parent for freedom for this country. I hope it brings awareness to teach others to educate what a Gold Star child is," said Dostie.
The National Memorial Day Concert will have a number of other special features, including a salute to World War II heroes 70 years after the war ended.
Mantegna says with the World War II generation slipping away, this is a critical tribute.
"They're losing thousands and thousands every day. There's going to come a time when there's actually no living person alive from that conflict. Yet it had such a major impact on world history, so it's important that we spotlight it," said Mantegna.
He says the importance of the victory in World War II cannot be overstated.
"Evil could have triumphed but it didn't. It was only due to the sacrifices that millions have made throughout the world, not just in this country but throughout the world," said Mantegna.
- Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe is blasting President Obama for telling U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduates Wednesday that climate change is one of the most serious threats to security here in the U.S. and around the world.
In the midst of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and just days after the Islamic State capture of Ramadi, Obama focused his remarks on the temperature of the earth.
"Climate change constitutes a serious threat to global security, an immediate risk to our national security. Make no mistake, it will impact how our military defends our country. So we need to act and we need to act now," said Obama, who called avoidance of the issue a "dereliction of duty."
"Denying it or refusing to deal with it endangers our national security. It undermines the readiness of our forces," he said.
Sen. Inhofe, who is also a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the author of "The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future."
"It shows that they're getting more and more desperate," he said. "He's trying to resurrect the issue of global warming. This has got to be the most desperate statement that he's made because it's one that no one's going to believe."
"It is kind of humorous, the desperation that this president goes to trying to trying to bring this issue back," added Inhofe.
He says Secretary of State John Kerry is floundering on climate change as well.
"He's getting equally desperate. He's been in on the very beginning of this with Al Gore and others. It has not panned out. The public knows it. The polling is now against them. He will say anything in order to fortify or resurrect the issue," said Inhofe.
The senator says desperation is growing on the left because the public is less accepting of the dire climate predictions and feels less urgency to address the issue.
"We all know that climate changes all the time but it's not a result of man-made gases. They've lost the argument. I can remember ten years ago it was polling as the number one or number two environmental issue. It's now number thirteen out of fourteen," said Inhofe.
Even if climate change were one of the most imminent threats to national security, man wonder what Obama actually expects the U.S. military to do about it. Inhofe says it's less about logistics and more about building a consensus.
"I think what's he's trying to do is to get military members, and now and then he'll find a retired general to cater to the president, to get them to agree with his assessment. So far, that hasn't happened on anyone who didn't have another reason for wanting to agree with the commander-in-chief," said Inhofe.
"He's trying to find some allies in the military, but they're not there," he added.
Inhofe says Obama's commencement remarks are especially jarring given the major international challenges erupting in just the past few days.
"North Korea has just announced they have a miniaturized nuclear weapon. ISIS has already taken control of Ramadi. ISIS has sixty percent of Syria right now. They're beheading Americans. We're not responding," said Inhofe.
"His timing could not have been worse to make a statement like that to a group like that, right after the declaration by everyone including James Clapper, the director of national intelligence (and others) that this is the most threatening time in the history of this country," he said.
The senator is also blunt in blaming Obama for creating the conditions that give us so many national security challenges that he believes are infinitely more urgent than climate change.
"At a time when our enemies don't fear us, our allies don't respect us, they know this president has drawn the line in the sand many times as he's done in Syria and other places and then backed away from it," said Inhofe.
Inhofe was at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy on Friday, speaking with the underclassmen. He says the cadets there know very well what the real threats to national security are.
"These people at the academy know. They're really tuned into the threat that is out there because they are trained to meet that threat," he said.
The good news, says Inhofe, is that the young men and women at the academy show America's military has a bright future.
"I quoted a lot of the past heroes and let them know that when they take their oath that they're going to have to defend this country at the risk of their own lives. There wasn't one hand that didn't go up saying each one was willing to do that," said Inhofe.
- The congressional moratorium on earmarks has drastically reduced the amount of pork barrel spending in Washington, but billions of taxpayer dollars are still lost on redundant or worthless programs and the perpetrators are now harder to identify.
Citizens Against Government Waste is out with its "2015 Congressional Pig Book." The group uses several criteria to determine if a project counts as pork barrel spending. Items requested by only one member or appropriated without competitive bidding are telltale signs, as are expenditures not requested by the president or that greatly exceed his budget request. Spending that only benefits a specific local area is another red flag.
In the 2015 report, 105 projects are identified as pork, costing taxpayers $4.2 billion.
"We continue to find earmarks after the moratorium, but it's way down from the record $29 billion in 2006," said Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz.
"It's up from 2014, but $4.2 billion is fairly small compared to years of tens of billions (in spending) and fifteen or sixteen thousand (earmarks). Now there are 105," said Schatz.
However, Schatz is quick to assert that "fairly small" is still not good enough.
"Everything still counts. We still have a large deficit even though it's lower than it used to be, lots of liabilities for future entitlements. Every penny, every million counts here in Washington," said Schatz.
In 2014, the "Congressional Pig Book" counted 109 pork projects, so that number is slightly lower. However, spending is up significantly from $2.7 billion a year ago. The jump to $4.2 billion constitutes more than a 55 percent increase.
"What they've done essentially is put into single earmarks what used to be multiple earmarks. So a $25 million earmark that used to be divided among 58 members of Congress is now just a $25 million earmark and we're not quite sure who's going to get the money," said Schatz.
So is pork barrel spending really on the decline or are lawmakers just doing a better job of disguising it?
"Little bit of both," said Schatz, who says some members make it pretty clear they are behind these earmarks.
"There are a few we can track to members of Congress. There's $5.9 billion fore the East-West Center in Hawaii, which Sen. Brian Schatz, no relation I might add, has requested over the past few years. There's $15 million for the Pacific Salmon Recovery Trust Fund out in Washington State and California, which Sen. Patty Murray specifically said she requested," said Schatz.
Schatz says defense spending is responsible for multiple earmark violations.
"For example, $25 million for a science, technology, engineering and math program through the Department of Defense, when there are more than 200 of those STEM programs identified by the Government Accountability Office in 2012. Not only is it duplicative but the Department of Defense shouldn't be teaching kids science and math education. That's up to other agencies," said Schatz.
The Pentagon ventures into seemingly unrelated fields doesn't stop with education.
"Why is the Defense Department spending $20 million dollars for alternative energy research when there are billions of dollars for that purpose in the Energy and Water Bill where, if the government should be spending money at all, they should be spending money on alternative energy research," said Schatz.
Even projects that no longer have a sponsor and no one wants to keep find a way to survive.
"Here's a great example, not a lot of money but an absolute waste: $2.6 million for the Denali Commission, created in 1998 to build rural infrastructure in Alaska. Even President Obama said to get rid of this in 2012. The inspector general of the Denali Commission himself said, 'I've concluded my agency is a congressional experiment that has not worked out. Congress should put the taxpayers' money somewhere else,'" said Schatz.
The "Pig Book" has many other eye-opening revelations. Money for the Fund for the Improvement of Education soared from $21.1 billion in 2014 to more than $298 billion this year even though Obama did not request funding for it. The feds are also spending more than three million dollars per year on the Valles Caldera National Preserve even though government spending was supposed to end this year.
For Schatz, the problem of congressional pork isn't going anywhere, but things are moving in a more responsible direction.
"There are still some outrageous examples of waste but they are far fewer," he said.
Copies of the "2015 Congressional Pig Book" can be obtained for a small donation at cagw.org or by calling (800) 232-6479, which translates to (800) BE ANGRY.
- The U.S. Senate voted unanimously to make religious freedom a factor in future trade agreements and the lead sponsor says it is vital that we make liberty our greatest export once again.
Earlier this week, the Senate voted 92-0 to approve the amendment sponsored by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. It is now part of the Senate bill that would grant the president the power to negotiate trade deals and submit them to the Senate for an up-or-down vote. The issue is known as Trade Promotion Authority, or TPA.
Injecting religious freedom or any human rights consideration into trade policy hasn't been seen much since the 1990's. Lankford says with two major trade bills in the pipeline, this was the time to take a stand for a core American value.
"We're doing a trade agreement and conversations with the Asian Pacific and we have countries like Vietnam in the mix. We cannot, for the sake of a dollar in our trade, turn aside from hundreds of prisoners of conscience that are in Vietnam and a lot of problems that are happening there with human rights and basic religious freedoms," said Sen. Lankford.
"If we're going to export something, let's start by exporting our liberties," he said.
Lankford says his amendment is structured so that religious freedom and human rights cannot just be checked off the list in future trade negotiations but will be a serious part of the discussions.
"It is part of the normal trade agreement and the negotiating terms of the agreements. They have to bring it up and be part of the conversation, to talk about human rights and religious freedom specifically in this area," said Lankford.
What would those discussions look like? Lankford says the big issues are obvious.
"Beginning with prisoners of conscience, pastors that are imprisoned, priests that are imprisoned right now simply because of their faith and the practice of their faith. Let's make a part of our negotiation conversations about those individuals, rather than saying we'll allow those people to be imprisoned for their faith as long as we can make a dollar in Vietnam. That's not our value," he said.
In addition to Trade Promotion Authority, lawmakers are also about to consider advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. That would be a 12-nation partnership. Lankford sees Vietnam as the worst offender on the list of prospective partners. The communist nation claims it allows religious freedom, but only to those who get approval from the government.
Not only does that policy bother Lankford, but he says Vietnam has a slippery history when it comes to honoring its trade deals.
"They were what's listed as a "country of particular concern", which is a particular heading dealing with religious liberties. So there's some restrictions based on that. They had some improvement so they were removed from that list in 2007 and they've gone right back to the same issues," said Lankford, who believes a focus on religious freedom during trade negotiations will make the world a better place.
"We'll have better trading partners if we have trading partners that have greater freedoms in their location. There'll be a more stable government, a more open government, better with trade if they have an open, functioning conversation about faith and allow people to be able to live their own faith in their own country rather than being an oppressive dictatorship," said Lankford.
While repression of religion is much harsher in Vietnam and other parts of the world, it has become a flash point in the U.S. culture battles as well. In March, Indiana and Arkansas were the focus of intense battles over religious freedom legislation. Both passed strong conscience protections for business owners, but vocal protests forced GOP governors in both states to amend the bills.
Lankford says there is a growing number of Americans who badly misunderstand the separation of church and state.
"I understand the separations and protections in government, but that has moved now to actually trying to push people to not be able to practice their faith. The Constitution is very clear. It's the free exercise of religion," said Lankford. "To say that you're free to worship but you're not free to practice your faith would be to say that you're free to think something but you're not free to speak it."
However, the senator does not see the need for any federal action to shore up religious freedom in the U.S.
"This doesn't require additional legislation. It requires us to actually follow the Constitution and what's very blunt and clear there," said Lankford.
While the religious freedom debate plays out in our own country, the fight over trade in the U.S. Congress is intensifying as well. Last week, the Senate played host to the odd spectacle of Senate Democrats filibustering Trade Promotion Authority while Republicans unanimously sided with President Obama.
Lankford says TPA has very little to do with Obama.
"In all likelihood, this trade agreement wouldn't be complete until the next president. So we're lining up at the end of this presidency authority that will extend the majority of it into the next presidency," said Lankford, who is a proud advocate of free trade.
"You remember that document called the Declaration of Independence? One of the grievances the colonists had with King George is that King George inhibited our ability to trade around the world. We have been free traders as a nation since before we were even a nation. This has always been a big deal to us," he said.
"I believe the American worker and the American product can solve a lot of the issues and can beat the competition around the world if we get a level playing field," said Lankford.
As the TPP fight draws near, lawmakers from all points on the political spectrum have expressed great frustration at the secretive process and the great lengths to which members must go to even read the proposal. Reports suggest senators and representatives must go to a specific room with no electronic devices or staffers. They can take notes but give them up before leaving and cannot discuss the details in public.
Lankford is not worried about this. He says there is great misunderstanding about where Congress is in this process and the public will have time to review any final framework.
"The way this is set up is the twelve nations are negotiating. It is a closed process while they negotiate and talk through the different details. Once the twelve nations come to an agreement, based on the requirements that Congress actually sets...then it is a public document before Congress votes on it. So there'll be a lot of time that it's a public document before Congress does the final vote," said Lankford.
- The key Iraqi city of Ramadi has fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria but retired U.S. Air Force Lt. General Tom McInerney says U.S. air power could have wiped out ISIS but the White House won't use it out of fears of collateral damage.
Forces of the Islamic State, or ISIS, have been laying siege to Ramadi for months. Over the weekend, Iraqi troops fled the city, once again leaving considerable U.S. military equipment behind. Monday afternoon, Reuters reported that some 25,000 people are fleeing Ramadi to avoid savage treatment at the hands of ISIS.
Ramadi is the capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. It witnessed some of the most vicious fighting of the Iraq War and was also the scene of the Anbar Awakening, in which local Iraqis rejected Al Qaeda extremism and teamed with allied forces to stabilize the region.
Pentagon officials admit losing Ramadi is a "setback". McInerney says that's a major understatement.
"This is a huge loss for the allied forces. Nobody can discount it other than that," he said. "It is vital to retaking all of Anbar and pushing ISIS out."
McInerney, who flew combat missions in Vietnam and eventually rose to the third highest position in the Air Force, says the loss of Ramadi is even more infuriating because he believes it could have easily been avoided.
"It should not have happened. We were well aware of what was going on months in advance. We should have used our air power appropriately to stop them from doing it. I'm just amazed that we haven't done it. We've averaged six or seven sorties a day. We ought to be doing hundreds a day to defeat them," said McInerney.
While admitting the setback, Pentagon officials are also trying to downplay the significance of ISIS capturing Ramadi. They contend the ISIS siege lasted almost a year, so its eventual success wasn't really all that impressive.
McInerney not only says that's wrong but but that it also camouflages the real reason we're not inflicting far more damage on the enemy.
"Well, why didn't they destroy them when they had it surrounded. They were in easily locatable, geographical points that air power could have been used. The reason they didn't is because the White House is running this war. The Pentagon is not. The Pentagon is only running excuses," said McInerney.
What does he mean by the White House running the war?
"The White House is doing the targeting and the tasking. That should be done all in theater. They want to have an immaculate air campaign plan," said McInerney. "They do not want to have any collateral damage. They are making it to be so pristine and so perfect that they're not defeating the enemy."
As a result, McInerney says a war that should have been over a long time ago is dragging on because of politics.
"They do not have a grip on it because this White House has micromanaged it worse than any time in our history. It's very sad to see but this was something that could have easily been handled with the proper use of air power," he said.
The news of Ramadi falling into ISIS hands came on the heels of significant good news in the battle, when U.S. Delta Force commandos successfully targeted and killed a major ISIS leader and took his wife into custody. Abu Sayyaf served as head of the terrorist group's oil and gas ventures. Commandos were hoping to take him into custody as well.
"It was a brilliantly executed mission, absolutely brilliant. I'm amazed that we didn't have some casualties. So I give the administration great credit for taking this action," said McInerney.
But he says it once again begs the question about where decisive action has been during this campaign.
"If you can do this so perfectly, why couldn't you defeat, why couldn't you defeat those forces that were surrounding Ramadi. With all the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems we have, with all the precision-guided munitions we have, this should have been very easy," said McInerney.
- Famed economist and columnist Walter Williams says America has embraced the government thievery of personal property to benefit others and he says the politicians are only doing what the voters want them to do.
Williams is a distinguished professor of economics at George Mason University. He is a syndicated columnist and has substituted for talk show host Rush Limbaugh. His new book, a collection of his conservative-to-libertarian columns is entitled "American Contempt for Liberty."
The title may sound a bit harsh, but Williams insists that's exactly what's happening in this country.
"The average American thinks that it is indeed moral for the Congress to forcibly use one American to serve the purposes of another American. It will forcefully use one American to use farmers to serve farmers in term of farm subsidies or bank bailouts or welfare or food stamps," said Williams.
"I think that the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another is immoral. As a matter of fact, that's the working definition of slavery," he said.
Williams is quick to point out that he has not problem helping his neighbor in need. It's how that help is structured that he rejects out of hand.
"I believe that helping one's fellow man in need by reaching into one's own pockets is praiseworthy and laudable. Helping one's fellow man by reaching in someone else's pockets is worthy of condemnation. For the Christians among us, when God gave Moses the commandment "thou shall not steal" he did not mean that thou shall not steal unless you got a majority vote in Congress," said Williams.
To see how far and how quickly the American system has drifted from its constitutional moorings, Williams cites an impassioned speech that James Madison delivered on the House floor just a few years after the Constitution was ratified.
"In 1794, Congress appropriated $15,000 to help some French refugees. James Madison stood on the floor of the House and he said, 'I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article in the Constitution that authorizes Congress to spend the money of their constituents for the purposes of benevolence,'" said Williams, who says our government is now drowning in forced charity.
"If you look at the federal budget today, two-thirds or three-quarters is for the purpose of benevolence, or it can be described as the government taking the property of one American and giving it to another to whom it does not belong," he said. "If a politician is running for office today, making the same statement that James Madison made, the American people would run him out of town on a rail because they'd have contempt for that sentiment."
Williams says both parties engage in this "contempt for liberty" on a regular basis.
"Conservatives and Republicans believe in taking your money and my money and giving it to farmers and banks. Liberals and Democrats believe in taking your money and my money and giving it to poor people and cities. They both agree on taking our money, but they disagree on what to use it for," said Williams.
As frustrated as Williams is by the redistribution of property, he does not blame the politicians. He blames the people who hired them.
"We can't worry about politicians because politicians do what the American people want. If the American people want us to have a constitutional form of government then politicians will do the same thing. We have to somehow get our fellow American to believe in the moral superiority of personal liberty," said Williams.
Williams says if he ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia, followed Madison's lead in vowing not to bring money back to the commonwealth for roads, education or health care, he would get crushed at the ballot box because everyone's incentive is to get in on the government thievery.
"The tragedy for our nation is that the people of Virginia would be acting exactly right by not electing me to the office in terms of their self-interest. If I don't bring back billions of dollars to the citizens of Virginia, that doesn't mean the citizens of Virginia will pay a lower federal income tax. All that is means is that North Carolina will get it instead," said Williams.
"Once legalized theft begins, it pays for everybody to participate," he said.
The problem with the government trying to meet everyone's wish list is that it spends more and more and falls further into debt. Williams says that lack of liberty and discipline will eventually harm the very people the government tries to help.
"To maintain today's level of benefits in Social Security in the 2030's, the Social Security taxes alone will have to be 31 percent. I don't believe that people in the labor force in 2030 are going to tax themselves 31 percent plus the federal income tax to take care of some old people," said Williams.
His optimism for the future remains quite low, due in large part to the state of higher education today. Williams maintains that half of college students don't belong there because over half of them require remedial work on campus that should have been done in high school.
Williams says the lack of understanding students have about the American founding is especially frightening.
"They don't know anything about the founding of our country. There have been survey questions asking college seniors, 'Where does the statement 'From each according to their abilities and to each according to their needs' come from?' Some will say say that it's in the Bill of Rights as opposed to the Communist Manifesto," said Williams.
Williams says the future of America really comes down to one choice. And right now, he says we're getting it wrong as a nation.
"Are we headed towards personal liberty or are we headed toward more government in our lives. I think it would have to unambiguously be the latter," said Williams.