Tag Archives: Medill Washington

Swords into ploughshares: Veterans find opportunities in farming (video)

WASHINGTON – Dan Mikulecky had an epiphany during his 2004 deployment to Iraq with the Montana National Guard.

He had joined the Guard for college, but wasn’t sure the direction he wanted to go in life post-deployment. Being out in the Iraqi countryside, however, it became clear to him: he wanted to return to rural Montana and become a farmer.

When he got back to the U.S., Mikulecky received a preferential veteran’s loan, agricultural training and financial advising through Northwest Farm Credit Services. He purchased land in Rudyard, Montana and grow it into a thriving wheat and grain farm.

“The hours from the service and the hours that you put into agriculture are very closely related,” Mikulecky said. “Yeah, it’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, but we’re self-starters, always trying to go the extra mile.”

For military veterans like Dan Mikulecky, turning swords into ploughshares – both literally and figuratively – is becoming an increasingly attractive option.

With the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan and thousands leaving the military, America’s veterans are facing over 20 percent unemployment. With 45 percent of armed service members coming from rural America, the draw to agriculture is a natural solution, according to the USDA.

“We should hope for all veterans to be able to come back and assimilate in the way they can, but we also need a lot of new, young farmers,” Mikulecky said in an interview. “Someone has to grow the food.”

The average age of farmers in the U.S. is currently over 58 years old, according to 2012 Census data.

For America’s aging farmers and ranchers, worried over who will take the reins in the next generation, an infusion of veterans into American agriculture would be a welcome relief.

“Almost half of those that have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have come from small, rural towns,” said Farmer Veteran Coalition founder and director Michael O’Gorman.

“We’ve become a disproportionately rural military, so we feel the health and prosperity of our rural communities is important to our military, and agriculture is an important and exciting avenue for those that are leaving the military,” O’Gorman said.

Since founding the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2008 to guide veterans’ transition into agricultural careers, O’Gorman has seen the organization grow from 10 veterans to over 4,500 members, with over 200 joining each month.

The Farmer Veteran Coalition provides small grants, livestock and used tractors for veterans, and also helps them navigate the world of finance through coordination with the USDA, and Farm Credit, which is a national network of lending institutions – including Northwest Farm Credit Services – tailored to agricultural and rural America.

The skills and ethos of military service directly translate into agriculture, according to O’Gorman.

“There’s a lot of the same sense of determinedness, the same sense of hard work, taking on a mission, standing up when you’re knocked down, and [being] really purpose-driven,” O’Gorman said.

The barriers to entry into farm life, however, may be daunting to many veterans. Obtaining land, seeds, equipment and training in cultivating crops or raising livestock present enormous challenges to those considering a career in agriculture.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Kory Cornum, who owns a 690-acre farm outside of Paris, Kentucky advises vets to start small and expand over time.

“It can look like a big hill when you’re young, but if you want to do it, you can make it happen,” Cornum said.

According to Rep. Michael Conaway, R-Tex., Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, taking advantage of the assistance and guidance provided by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Farm Credit helps veterans survive the tough early years and “build the capital to allow them to then expand their businesses.”

“We’ve asked them to do things way too often, too many repetitive deployments,” Conaway said. “So we owe them our gratitude, and one of the ways we can help their post-military service lives is to get them into agriculture.”

Conaway made the remarks at a Capitol Hill reception last week honoring farmer veterans. The event showcased agricultural products grown by veterans with the Homegrown By Heroes label.

The Homegrown By Heroes label identifies products sold in grocery stores and farmers’ markets which are grown and raised by U.S. veterans. Since its 2014 national launch by the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Farm Credit, it has expanded to 165 farmers and ranchers in 43 states and brought in over $15 million in sales for veterans.

Calvin Riggleman, a Marine Corps veteran with two deployments to Iraq and now owner of Bigg Riggs Farm in Augusta, West Virginia, was the first veteran in the Mountain State to use the Homegrown By Heroes label and sells his produce at farmers’ markets around Washington, D.C.

“I think it makes a big difference,” Riggleman said. “People walk up to my stands and they know I’m a veteran without me having to say anything.”

For Dan Mikulecky, becoming a farmer has offered a stable career doing what he loves.

“Farming is something that we’ll only need to do a better job at as the population of the world increases,” Mikulecky said. “It’s an industry that never runs out of demand.”

His wife Adria Mikulecky agreed, adding that their success was due to the support they received through organizations like the USDA, the Farmer Veteran Coalition and Northwest Farm Credit Services.

“That’s what veterans need when they come home and try to transition: a lot of support.”

Security threat interrupts White House press briefing (video)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Secret Service evacuated the White House Briefing Room Tuesday afternoon after a bomb threat was called in to Washington police.

Security threat interrupts White House press briefing from Medill Washington on Vimeo.

The evacuation came in the middle of a televised press briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest. The North Lawn of the White House was also cleared.

PHOTOS, STORIFY: Bomb threat sparks evacuation of White House press briefing 

Secret Service officials said the threat was called in at 1:53 p.m. About 30 minutes after the call journalists were allowed back into the White House. Secret Service officers on the scene said an all-clear had been issued.

“As a precaution, the White House Briefing Room was evacuated,” Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole B. Mainor said in a statement. “The evacuation was limited to the White House Press Briefing Room and did not affect any other sections of the White House.”

Shortly after the evacuation Earnest wrote on Twitter that the briefing would resume shortly after the room was cleared. “Hopefully won’t be long,” he wrote.

On Memorial Day: Remembering those who die from suicide


(Courtesy of the GI Film Festival)

Both of Saturday’s back-to-back films were inspired by the epidemic-level suicide rate among veterans, with 22 returning veterans taking their own lives each day, according to a February 2013 Veterans Affairs Department report. About 11 percent of Afghanistan and 20 percent of Iraq veterans have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the report. Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and emotional separation from others.

The first film, “SAM,” an artistic short, shows rather than tells about veteran suicide through the life of a young man returning from service in Afghanistan to find nothing has changed except himself. Based on a short story by Juan Garcia and directed by Alexis Garcia Rocca, the film seeks to raise awareness about the debilitating and sometimes deadly effects of PTSD.

“That was one of the main characteristics of the theme that we were trying to put across in the film — that there are not enough people caring about it,” said Juan Garcia in an interview. “But we’re starting to come together.”

“It was to put a face to the statistic, because a lot of people don’t have a military connection,” Garcia Rocca said. “I come from a military family, and that’s what brought me to the issue, and this was kind of made for everyone else — to be made aware that this exists.”

The second film, “Project 22,” follows two combat-wounded veterans, directors Scott Hansen and Doc King, on a 6,500-mile motorcycle ride to raise awareness about veteran suicide. They reveal their own story of struggle and recovery as they meet with advocates, program directors and researchers along the way. Many veterans they speak to open up about their struggles and the painful reality of life with PTSD and even suicide attempts.

Some audience members knew the difficulties of reintegrating into society and finding support.

“This country is absolutely not doing enough for these guys when they come back,” said veteran Beaux Watson, who watched “Project 22.”

“[When] we went to Vietnam, we went for one tour. You could ask for another tour … but you didn’t have to come again if you didn’t want to. But these guys, they’re going back three and four times.”

Members of the motorcycle club Men of War — one of its members rode with “Project 22” on a leg of the journey — attended the fest to support their friends’ film. The club’s mission is to help veterans with depression, anxiety, PTSD and separation anxiety.

“All of us suffer from PTSD, so the movie is very special to us,” said Tommy Caldwell, a Men of War member. “On top of it, it’s Memorial Day, and all of us know someone who has died or taken their own life.”

Joe Robert, national sergeant at arms for the club, put post-traumatic stress in context with today’s holiday.

“I feel like Memorial Day is rough because everyone remembers the ones who were lost in the theater, and everyone forgets about the ones who are lost here,” Robert said.

For those service members who return at risk of suicide, the men said that with support, there’s hope for regaining a normal life.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there,” Caldwell said. “But a lot of people don’t know.”

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

VIDEO: GI Film Fest fans name their all-time favorite military films

Medill News Service reporters interviewed red carpet attendees at the GI Film Festival, including military film icon R. Lee “Gunny” Ermey, about their favorite military films of all time.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo


VIDEO: ‘Reporting Vietnam’ a gritty look at reporting the war


Marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War, a new exhibit allows visitors to take a retrospective look at the war’s legacy through the lens of American journalists.

It opened Friday at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

“With the exhibit,” said Curator Carrie Christoffersen, “we really hope that people will gain the better understanding of how and why journalists did what they did, how they brought coverage of the Vietnam War to a divided nation.”

The exhibit, called “Reporting Vietnam,” showcases historic photos, news footage, newspapers and magazines, evocative music and more than 90 artifacts that characterized the war era.

Challenging perceptions of America’s first televised war, it considers the question, “Did the press lose the war?”

The answer was “no” for Neil Lakdawala, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“The media was not always just trying to portrait what the government wants,” he said. “I think they did a good deal of work to bring the truth to the light.”

For both Lakdawala and Christoffersen, the highlight of the exhibit was the collection of Larry Burrows, an English photographer known for his pictures of the war.

On display is a helmet found at the site of the 1971 helicopter crash in Laos that killed Burrows and three counterparts.

There also are iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures that symbolized the brutality of the war, such as “Napalm Girl,” which triggered worldwide controversy over the image of a nude, screaming South Vietnamese girl whose clothes and flesh were burned off by napalm.

“What’s a better way to learn about Vietnam and the war than by people who were actually in the war,” Lakdawala said.

The exhibit, accompanied by the screening of an original documentary chronicling the war’s key moments, continues through mid-September.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo

Florida postal worker who landed gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn pleads not guilty

  • Doug Hughes speaks after his hearing at the U.S. District Court. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL NSJI)
    Doug Hughes speaks after his hearing at the U.S. District Court. (Nick Kariuki/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) — Doug Hughes, the Florida mail carrier who landed his gyrocopter on the U.S. Capitol’s West Lawn last month, appeared in court on Thursday to plead not guilty to all six federal charges against him.

Among the charges against Hughes are two felonies: operating an aircraft without a license and flying an unregistered aircraft. He faces up to nine and half years in prison.

“As long as I’m free I’m going to introducing voters to groups with solutions to problems of corruption that the vast majority of voters recognize and oppose.” Hughes said after the hearing.

On April 15, tax day, Hughes piloted the low-altitude aircraft from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington, landing on the Capitol lawn.

Hughes carried 535 two-page letters, one for every member of Congress, highlighting the need for campaign finance reform because of what he sees as the corrosive effect of money politics. He described his actions as an act of civil disobedience.

“I’ll never do anything like this again, but I would do it exactly the way I did,” Hughes said.

Capitol Police arrested Hughes after he landed the small aircraft. He was later released on bail and remained under house arrest in Ruskin, Fla., where he wore an ankle monitor.

Mag. Judge Alan Gray allowed Hughes to move within Hillsborough Count,y where he lives, though he still must wear the monitor.

The judge also refused to let Hughes visit the Capitol, White House and other areas in Washington, which he was banned from doing immediately after the incident.

Hughes was also put on administrative leave from his job at the U.S. Postal Service.

The postal worker’s protest has raised concerns from lawmakers about the security of the Capitol. Hughes flew across 30 miles of some of the nation’s most restricted airspace on his route to D.C.

The Tampa Bay Times wrote about Hughes’s protest plans before the flight. He also informed the Secret Service and other news organizations by email and live-streamed the event on The Democracy Club, a website dedicated to congressional reform.

Hughes has stated his frustration at the focus on the security concerns raised, rather than the reasons for his flight:

“I have faith in a jury of my peers and will accept whatever consequence I must,” Hughes wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post. “I simply hope by putting my freedom on the line, others might realize how precious their freedom is and join those of engaged in this fight to preserve and protect our government of, by and for the people.”

Members of CODEPINK, the women-led grassroots activist group, presented Hughes with a framed stamp after the hearing.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

FBI director calls tech giants’ stance on strong encryption ‘depressing’


FBI Director James Comey told an audience he thinks the government should have a back door to gain access to secure devices. (Holly LaFon/MEDILL NSJI)


WASHINGTON — FBI Director James Comey on Wednesday criticized tech giants including Apple and Google for opposing so-called “back doors” in security software for government agencies to access encrypted phones, computers, and other devices.

The tech companies along with academic experts and advocacy groups wrote a letter to President Obama on Tuesday opposing statements by administration officials who have come out strongly against more robust encryption on consumer products. In fact, some officials have advocated that tech companies stop selling encrypted products altogether unless the government has a way to decrypt the data.

The letter makes the case that weakening products’ security would only make them more vulnerable to “innumerable criminal and national security threats.”

But Mr. Comey, addressing the Cybersecurity Law Institute at Georgetown University, said the FBI faces increasing difficulty in unlocking encrypted devices – and those who signed the letter were either not being fair-minded or were failing to see the societal costs to universal strong encryption.

“Either one of those things is depressing to me,” he said.

Citizens’ privacy interests and public safety are coming closer to “a full-on collision,” he said. Acknowledging “tremendous societal benefits” to encryption, Comey said the inability of law enforcement officials to gain access to encrypted devices when they have probable cause and strong oversight threatens public safety.

“As all of our lives become digital, the logic of encryption is all of our lives will be covered by strong encryption,” he said. “Therefore all of our lives … including the lives of criminals and terrorists and spies will be in a place that is utterly unavailable to court-ordered process. And that to a democracy should be utterly concerning.”

However, tech companies and encryption advocates argue in the letter that creating back doors would also pose an economic threat to the companies, especially in light of the Edward Snowden leaks.

“US companies are already struggling to maintain international trust in the wake of revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. Introducing mandatory vulnerabilities into American products would further push many customers – be they domestic or international, individual or institutional – to turn away from those compromised products and services,” the letter said.

What’s more, critics – including many lawmakers – who oppose efforts to weaken encryption say that creating a system in which government agencies have access to secure data would also create vulnerabilities exploitable by criminal hackers and other governments.

Comey acknowledged the business pressures and competitive issues involved, but urged tech companies to find a safe way to cooperate with government needs to access information.

“Smart people, reasonable people will disagree mightily, technical people will say it’s too hard,” he said. “My reaction to that is, ‘Really? Too hard? Too hard for the people that we have in this country to figure something out?’ I’m not that pessimistic.”

Published in conjunction with Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Logo

Helping Veterans Become Small Business Owners

CLINTON, Md. — From soldier to CEO is a more natural transition than many veterans realize. A large support network has sprung up to help vets start their own businesses, but many do not know it exists.

On Tuesday night the Small Business Administration and VetFran partnered with Marriott’s TownPlace Suites to host a workshop aimed at educating veterans on the basics of entrepreneurship as well as special programs available to former service members. The two biggest components for veterans preparing to start their own business are choosing the right kind of business for them and securing capital, they said.

They also recommended that aspiring business owners take time to think about their passion.

“If they’ve always wanted to own their own business they should definitely write down what they’re passionate about, what their interests are, what they want to do,” said Paul C. Rocchio, senior director of development and member services of International Franchise Association, which owns the franchising organization, Vet Fran. “Maybe tie it into what they did in their military service – what kind of responsibility, what kind of job they had.”

VetFran Manager George Eldridge works with veterans every day

He helped an Air Force veteran start a franchise in his living room and garage that has become so successful the vet has opened a showroom and warehouse.

“He is in his third year of franchising and in the program and doing great,” he said.

Eldridge encourages vets interested in business ownership to do their research and examine all possibilities.

“In the military you think ‘I can’t fail,’ but sometimes you have to think about the risks you’re getting into and have a balance expectation when getting into something like this,” he said.

Veterans interested in franchise ownership may find a good match for their interests on Vet Fran’s website, which offers a plethora of options, he said. Over 100 different industries franchise, the most active being food, followed by hospitality, home-based businesses, childcare and pet care.

Contacting SBA is also a good place to start, advised Laurie Sayles Artis, a Marine vet who owns Civility Management Solutions, a management consulting firm.

“The reason I say that is because they are free mentors there to do just that,” she said. It’s a cost-effective way to decide what area a vet wants to work in compared with paying for training that turns out to be in an area outside of the vet’s passion.

“I’ve watched people fumble through who didn’t know what business they were getting into before they got there,” she said. “I highly recommend no training until you decide what training you want to get.”

Financing opportunities also abound for veterans. The Small Business Administration, which has 68 field offices around the United States and 1,000 resource partners, has Veterans Business Outreach Centers throughout the country offering information on how to gain access to capital.

For veteran-specific programs, the SBA helps businesses obtain reduced loan fees for any loan under $350,000.

Earlier this year, the SBA also launched LINC, Leveraging Information and Networks to Access Capital, an online tool that simplifies the connection between loan seekers and lenders. By answering just a few questions, an applicant can reach out to lenders all over the country.

“If you qualify for something, and even if it’s maybe a non-traditional loan or a micro-loan, the lender will reach back out to you and say hey, maybe this is we can talk about and this is the next level,” Chris James, a SBA assistant administrator said.

At least 3,000 vets have used LINC to make a connection since the program launched two months ago.

“That doesn’t mean it translates into a loan exactly, but at least it’s linking up a business with a potential lender all around the country, and not just your bank,” James said.

VetFran does not provide financing, but, like LINC, it connects veterans to help with funding, working closely with the Small Business Association and lenders within its supplier group to help them afford the franchise opportunity they want.

Those shopping for a franchise can expect to pay from $10,000 to $20,000 for a home-based business, Rocchio said, to in the millions for a McDonald’s or hotel brand, with options everywhere in between.

“Our members that are participating in the Vet Fran program are offering their franchise at a discounted rate or in some cases are waving the initial franchise fee to make it easier for [veterans] to become an owner operator and to own their own business,” he said.

Rocchio and the other speakers urged veterans to think like entrepreneurs and be aggressive in reaching out for help.

“As veterans you do have a few more opportunities than some other folks,” he said.


Text by Holly LaFon. Video by Nick Kariuki.

Published in conjunction with Military Times Logo



Lew and Foxx urge Congress to fund infrastructure

WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called on Congress Monday to address the Highway Trust Fund shortfall before money runs out in little over a month’s time.

“It’s time for the country to take some bolda steps forward,” said Foxx, during a panel discussion at Bloomberg Government.

The federal government currently raises money for highway construction and transit programs through the Highway Trust Fund, which collects money from gasoline and diesel fuel taxes and is set to run out of money on May 31.

The gasoline tax and the diesel tax have been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon and 24.4 cent per gallon, separately, since 1993.

“Businesses are wasting resources because our infrastructure is falling behind,” said Lew, who pointed out the U.S. was ranked 12th in global competitiveness by the World Economic Forum due to insufficient infrastructure investment.

“Look at the things we need to build a stronger future, infrastructure is right at the top of these,” Lew said.

The Transportation Department has unveiled a six-year Grow America Act plan that would spur infrastructure investment by raising the repatriation tax, but Republicans in Congress have not widely embraced the initiative.

“The best way to fund infrastructure for the long term is to tie it to something that is broadly popular,” said Lew. “That’s why we tie it to business tax reform.”

American multinational firms often keep overseas earnings abroad because they would otherwise have to pay as much as 40% in U.S taxes, according to KPMG, the accounting and tax firm.

In the administration’s proposal, firms would pay about 14% in repatriation, with proceeds from the tax going to fund domestic infrastructure projects.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress want to have a long-term bill,” said lobbyist Cliff Madison, president of Government Relations, Inc. “However, they haven’t agreed on the sources for funding, whether it is going to be an increase on the gas tax or the repatriation of U.S. money from overseas.”

Foxx also said he is willing to listen to other solutions from Congress.

Published in conjunction with MarketWatch Logo

DEA quotas called into question


WASHINGTON — The embattled Drug Enforcement Administration came under fire Tuesday as senators dug into the agency’s controlled substances quota program, questioning whether it contributes to shortages of certain medications.

A Government Accountability Office report stops short of explicitly linking DEA mismanagement to the shortages, but that caution has not stopped some on Capitol Hill from assigning blame.

The DEA, long criticized for internal dysfunction by the GAO and some lawmakers, is still reeling from a sex scandal involving several agents. A Justice Department report in March alleged that DEA officers in Colombia attended parties with prostitutes paid for with drug cartel money.

The charges have not improved the agency’s stock in Congress, where members of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control grilled the DEA’s Joseph Rannazzisi, a 28-year veteran of the agency who serves as deputy assistant administrator for drug diversion.

“DEA refused to comply with GAO’s requests for information from a particular DEA database for over a year,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the caucus’s chairman as well as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I had to get personally involved in the process to make sure GAO had the information it needed,” Grassley said.

Some caucus members worried that DEA delays in processing supplier applications and setting quotas have contributed to the problem.

Between January 2001 and June 2013, 168 drug shortages —instances where needed drugs were unavailable to patients— were reported, according to the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress. Many were controlled prescription medications, including pain relievers, anxiolytics and stimulants.

Rannazzisi and Capt. Valerie Jensen, associate director of the Food and Drug Administration’s drug shortages program, insisted that drug manufacturers bear most of the responsibility.

“Shortages are usually preceded by a production disruption,” Jensen said, referring to the quality control issues that sometimes force drug companies to recall certain medications.

GAO Health Care Team Director Marcia Crosse however, painted a different picture. According to Crosse, the GAO’s ultimate inability to establish a relationship between shortages and quotas stems from inaccurate and incomplete data provided by the DEA.

“[DEA] did not have performance measures related to setting quotas or insuring an adequate and uninterrupted supply of controlled substances,” Crosse said.

The shortages issue has come to light at a time when the DEA is facing criticism on multiple fronts. Liberal activists have faulted the agency for holding fast to marijuana scheduling regulations that they say are outdated. Attempted collaborations with and investigations by other government agencies, like the FDA and GAO, routinely expose an agency where dysfunction and secrecy are the norm, some lawmakers say.

One of the most damning indictments however, has come from the DEA’s detention of UC San Diego student Daniel Chung.

In 2012, Chung was arrested by DEA agents after going over a friend’s house to smoke marijuana. Despite promises that he would be processed and released, Chung was left in a holding cell for five days without food or water with his hands cuffed behind his back. When he was discovered, Chung was suffering from dehydration and kidney failure. He was later paid a $4.1 million settlement.

Sen. Grassley, asked Rannazzisi why Grassley had not received an answer from the DEA after sending a letter asking about Chung’s ordeal.

“It’s been eight months and I still don’t have a response,” said Grassley. “There’s no ongoing investigation to hide behind now.”

Rannazzisi said that he could not guarantee a response before the end of the month.

Referring specifically to the Chung case, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that the reputation of the DEA has taken a huge blow.

“I hope this is not the DEA of today, because if it is, you won’t have any support up here,” Feinstein said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said he had reached the point “where it’s starting to look to me like DEA is an agency that cannot manage administrative and regulatory responsibilities, and maybe they should be moved elsewhere and it should just purely become an investigative agency with no more administrative responsibilities.”