Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Repeal of DADT

On September 20, 2011, the United States military officially ended its policy of Don't Ask Don't Tell, aka DADT.  Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta hailed the change, declaring "Thanks to this change, we move closer to achieving the goal that is at the foundation of American values -- equality and dignity for all.”

Needless to say, not everyone in the United States shared Pannetta's positive viewpoint.

The "Family" Research Council  (yes, the quotes are deliberate on my part) decried the policy change, concluding that President Obama "is more interested in appeasing sexual revolutionaries than in fighting America's enemies." Yes, the same President Obama who ordered the raid on the compound in Pakistan that ended the life of Osama bin Laden and who has overseen a policy of increased drone strikes in the mountains of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that has killed so many Taliban is really not interested in fighting America's enemies.  Right.

Hopeless Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, in a recent Republican candidates debate that saw several audience members boo a gay soldier serving in Iraq, stated in response to the soldier's question that he would reinstate DADT if elected.  Santorum affirmed his belief that "Any type of sexual activity has no place in the military."

I wonder if Ricky boy ever read Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, which is about the raid carried out in Mogadishu, Somalia that saw two Black Hawk helicopters shot down and the US Army Rangers and members of Delta Force who found themselves surrounded and under fire for the better part of a day.  Bowden describes what life was like for the servicemen stationed in Somalia prior to the raid. 

"The worst thing about hangar life, of course, was the lack of women...There was plenty of porn around, of course, and many of the Rangers were humorously casual about masturbation.  Most were discreet about it, but some had adopted a sort of crude defiance, standing up next to their cot to announce 'I'm going to the port-o-pot to fuckin' jack off!'  Specialist John Collett, a SAW gunner with absolutely no shame about such matters...claimed to have gotten a 'harness jack,' that is, to have masturbated hanging from a parachute harness."

Given the Catholic Church's position on masturbation, and Ricky being a good Catholic boy and all, I'm sure he would be mortified to know that some of our elite soldiers engaged in a form of sexual activity in a combat area.  Maybe the mission in Somalia went awry because God was punishing our soldiers for jacking off.

My favorite over-the-top wailing about the repeal of DADT comes from Washington state's resident Christian wingnut Ron Boehme, who I've mentioned before in this blog here and here.

Boehme rants:

"December 18, 2010 was a sad day for the cause of liberty. The United States Senate voted 65-31 to rescind the seventeen-year "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy in the American forces. On the heels of a 250-175 vote in the House of Representatives, largely along party lines, homosexuality is now "free" to openly flourish in the barracks or foxhole.

By this infamous vote, The United States government now openly condones and encourages homosexual behavior among our fighting men and women. The last bastion of discipline and moral order in the United States has been breached, not by an invading army, but by a destructive Lame Duck Congress."

He adds, with typical hyperbole, "This is a sad day for real liberty--which is freedom from sin." (Italics in the original).

The reason why I used the picture of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H at the top of this post is because when it comes to gays serving in the military, I think that is exactly what the homophobe opponents of DADT repeal picture when they claim that homosexuality will "flourish in the barracks."  It seems beyond their realm of comprehension that a gay man can serve in the military without walking around with a boner and grabbing the asses of the manly heterosexual and devout Christian men in his barracks. 

Boehme, Santorum and their ilk are full of shit because it was not what gay soldiers were doing in the barracks or in combat or other service that caused them to be discharged from the military but because of what they did or were thought to do in their private life.

And it is disingenous of Boehme to invoke "freedom from sin" in opposing the repeal of DADT, because the last time I checked, one of the tenets of Christianity is that everyone is a sinner.  That includes every heterosexual man or woman serving in the military.  Yes, for some reason, sexual orientation, not behavior, mind you, but orientation, is the one sin that should disqualify a person from serving in the United States armed forces, regardless of that person's talents or abilities.

While the supposedly Gawd fearin' people like Santorum and Boehme are all hot and bothered about the sin of gayness being inserted into the military, there is some actual sinning going on being perpetrated by heterosexuals in the military.

While searching the Department of Defense web site for the press release I linked to above about the repeal of DADT, I came across this interesting press release about addressing domestic violence in the military. 

The restricted reporting option has been in place since 2006, and is intended to offer domestic violence victims a chance to seek help despite fears they might feel based on their situation, Robertson said.

“A lot of times, victims don’t want to come forward -- they’re afraid to come forward,” she added.

Often in such cases, Robertson said, abuse has escalated over time, and victims –- especially military spouses -- may fear loss of finances, housing and family security. Restricted reporting offers them a safe avenue to help, she added.

This article from the July/August 2005 issue of Mother Jones shines a spotlight on the military's domestic violence problem up to that time.

The article begins with the story of John Corcoran, who "arrived at his wife’s house and went after 30-year-old Michele with a gun, firing at her as she fled to a neighbor’s. (She was wounded but survived.) He shot and wounded another Fort Bragg soldier who was in the house and then shot and killed himself—all while his seven-month-old daughter lay in another room."

"He joins a band of brothers. Corcoran’s is the 10th fatality in a slew of domestic violence homicides involving Fort Bragg soldiers since 2002; in one six-week spree four Army wives were murdered by their husbands or ex-husbands. Including nonfatal incidents, there were 832 victims of domestic violence between 2002 and 2004 at Fort Bragg alone, according to Army figures."

Maybe Boehme doesn't consider domestic violence to be a sin, because the wife is supposed to submit to the husband, right?  How does he feel about sexual assault then?  From the CBS article in the foregoing link:

"Wendy’s experience is not unusual. Since 2002, the Miles Foundation, a private non-profit that tracks sexual assault within the armed forces, has received nearly 1,200 confidential reports of sexual assaults in the Central Command Area of Responsibility, which includes Iraq and Afghanistan. Those reports have increased as much as 30 percent a year.

Part of the problem for the increase, critics say, is the quality of today's recruit.

The military is increasingly issuing something called "moral waivers," so they can enlist military personnel with felony convictions for crimes like rape and sexual assault.

“We don’t enlist convicted rapists in the armed forces of the United States,” said Michael Dominguez, the principal under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. “If there’s a consensus 'that kid needs a second chance, I think he’s got it in him to be a solider,’ then they’ll let him into the armed forces.”

In fact, CBS News has learned that both the Army and Marine Corps did issue a number of "moral waivers" to enlistees with felony convictions for rape and sexual assault - something not acknowledged in a follow-up letter from Dominguez."

The Religious Right likes to bellow about the immorality of allowing gays to serve in the military, while being eerily quiet about the problems of domestic violence, sexual harrassment of female service members and the issuing of "moral waivers" to enlistees and recruits.  It seems plainly apparent that for these Christian culture warriors, some sins are more equal than others.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Ignatius the Weeper

For about six months now I have been reading many written works from the 16th century, including Praise of Folly by Erasmus, Utopia by Thomas More, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, and The Discourses by Machiavelli. 

I have also made it a point to read explicitly religious works written during the period and at present I am reading the Penguin Classics edition of the Personal Writings of Ignatius of Loyola.  Ignatius founded The Society of Jesus, better known to us today as The Jesuits.  The Jesuits played an important role in the Catholic Church's Counter-Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century.

But back to Ignatius himself.  At present, I have only read about 84 pages in a book that is some 360 pages.  Even so, from what I have read so far, Ignatius cried a lot.  He cried more than Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner.  He may have cried more than any other person in history.  The tears of Ignatius could have filled buckets.

To get an idea of the frequency of Ignatius' weeping, one need only read his Spiritual Diary.  To provide some context, the Spiritual Diary was written during a period when Ignatius was agonizing over whether or not The Society of Jesus should have a fixed income for its churches.  The issue must have caused him a tremendous amount of grief and turmoil, because his eyes became a veritable Niagara Falls of tears.  Let the crying begin:

February 5, 1544: "Great devotion before, during and after mass, with tears so abundant that my eyes ached."

Febrary 6: "Devotion, not without tears, before and during mass, and more inclined toward complete poverty."

February 7: "Very great devotion and tears before mass."

February 8: "After experiencing remarkable devotion and tears while I prayed, from preparing for mass and during mass very great devotion, also tears; only at times could I retain the power of speech."

February 10: "On reconsidering the choices, and on making the offering of complete poverty, I felt great devotion, not without tears."  Apparently Ignatius didn't cry on February 9, because he makes no mention of it in his entry for that day.  Or maybe he had just exhausted his supply of tears.

February 11: Lots of crying on this day, of which I quote only a portion: "Then receiving greater devotion and losing all desire to consider the question any longer, with tears and sobs I made, on my knees, the offering of complete poverty to the Father; and so many were the tears running down my face, and such the sobs that I could hardly get up, so great was the devotion and grace that I was receiving.  Finally I did rise though even then the devotion and the sobs continued."

February 13: "Then I experienced very great devotion, and many most intense tears, not only during prayer but while I vested; I sobbed and as I could feel the Mother and Son to be interceding for me, I felt a complete security that the Eternal Father would restore me to my former state.  Later, before, during and after mass, greatly increased devotion and a great abundance of tears."

February 14: "When I prepared to leave the room, not without tears and interior impulses.  Then before, during and after mass, very copious tears, devotion, great sobs - so great that I often could not keep the power of speech for long before losing it again."

And on it goes, day after day after day.  I can only imagine some of the people in the pews during his masses rolling their eyes and muttering "Oh for fuck's sake, there he goes again!"

There's a great line from the television series House, "Isn't it interesting that religious behavior is so close to being crazy we can't tell it apart?"  Outside of the context of intense religious devotion, profuse crying on an almost daily basis would be considered crazy or bizarre by most people.  So, why should intense religious devotion get a pass?

From the Reminisces, I offer this last excerpt:

"He used to have great devotion to the Most Holy Trinity, and so used to pray each day to the three persons separately.  And as he was also praying to the Most Holy Trinity as such, a thought used to occur to him: how was he making four prayers to the Trinity?  But this thought troubled him little or not at all, as something of little importance.  And, one day, while praying the office of Our Lady on the steps of the above-mentioned monastery, his understanding began to be raised up, in that he was seeing the Most Holy Trinity in the form of three keys on a keyboard, and this with so many tears and so many sobs that he could not control himself.  And on walking that morning in a procession which was leaving from there, at no point could he restrain his tears until the mealtime, nor after the meal could he stop talking, only about the Most Holty Trinity, and this with many comparisons, a great variety of them, as well as much relish and consolation, in such a way that the impression remained with him for the whole of his life, and he feels great devotion when praying to the Most Holy Trinity."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Bahamas Trip - Day 4 - July 27, 2011 - An Atheist In Shark Infested Waters

Wednesday started off on a rather frustrating note.  We were diving at a site called Shroud Wall located off of Shroud Cay at the northern end of the Exumas Land and Sea Park.  As usual, I buddied up with Craig.

After making our entry, we proceeded along the port side of the Aqua Cat to make for the mooring line.  I was ahead of Craig, keeping a look out for the mooring line.  The visibility at this site was very poor, so I ascended close to the surface so that I would have a better chance of spotting the mooring line.  At one point, I looked behind me and saw Craig about 20 feet below and behind me.  Moments later I could see the mooring line and headed towards it to guide my way down to the mooring block.  When I reached the line, I looked behind and below me but did not see Craig, who was usually easy to spot with his yellow shirt.

As I began my descent, I looked down in the direction of where the mooring block was and in the cloudy water could make out several divers nearing the block, though I could not determine who they were.  I thought one of them might be Craig and figured he would wait for me.  But as I descended towards the block, there were no divers there. 

"No problem," I thought to myself.  "I'll just wait here for a couple of minutes and I'm sure he'll show up."  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited, wondering what I should do next.

Since the reef wall was just a few feet further away, I thought maybe Craig had gone ahead to the wall.  So I decided to make my way over to the reef wall and take a peek.  When I got there, I could make out a couple of divers headed away from me along the wall.  While I couldn't tell who they were, I knew Craig wouldn't have just gone off without me, so I decided to head back to the mooring block.  But when I got there, there was still no sign of him.  For a moment, I considered aborting the dive and surfacing to see if anything might have happened to him.  I decided against it and thought I would head back to the wall and do some sightseeing.

Because I was alone, I didn't venture far along the wall.  I tried to make a careful note of useful landmarks so that I could find my way back to the mooring block.  Before I got there, to my surprise and relief I encountered Craig, along with another diver, Tagi.  Tagi seemed to be making gestures towards me that I interpreted as "What the hell happened to you?"  I didn't reply, but if I could talk, I would have said "You know how long I waited at the mooring block by myself!"  I signalled to Craig and Tagi that I was returning to the boat.  I was still puzzled at that point what had happened to Craig, but was glad that at least he was not alone. 

They headed for the reef wall while I continued on to look for the mooring block.  Seconds turned into minutes, and to my growing concern, I could not find it, hampered as I was by the poor visibility.  Still, I took comfort in knowing that I could not be far away from it and decided to make a slow ascent to the surface.  If I couldn't find the line, I figured I would break the water not far from the Aqua Cat.  Then, to my relief, I saw the mooring line at about 30' and headed straight towards it.

After Craig came back on board, he explained to me that he must have missed both me and the mooring line and that he had ended up surfacing at one point before finally finding the line and meeting up with Tagi.  With the water as cloudy as it was, I could completely understand.
Rather than participating in the next dive, I decided to take my kids on a beach excursion.  We landed near a quiet lagoon and I decided that it was a perfect place for them to try out their snorkel gear.  The sand sloped gently into the water, enabling them to sit and put their gear on and then slowly ease into it by leaning forward and sticking their masked faces into the water.  Andrew had some trouble at first getting water into his mask and snorkel, but I helped him adjust and then the next thing I know, he was off swimming around on his own.  My daughter Kellyanne, on the other hand, was scared to go in and thought she saw urchins, so she stayed at the edge for the most part.  I told her not to worry and to take her time getting used to breathing with her snorkel in the water.  She started to gain some confidence and swam along the shallow edge when it was time to return to the Aqua Cat.

The next site, further south in the Exumas, was Amberjack Reef.  Andy, the dive master for this dive, told us that this was the site where they used to do their shark feeding dives.  And sure enough, as I was putting on my dive gear, I spotted a reef shark break the water alongside the boat.  I teamed up with Craig again and as before, the plan was to head for the mooring block and do some exploring.

When we began our ascent, I saw that there was plenty of life to observe right under the boat.  There were several reef sharks as well as a few Nassau Groupers lurking around.  The water, in contrast to the Shroud Wall, was very clear.

After Craig and I reached the mooring block, we started making our way through the grooves between the coral formations, heading generally away from the bow of the Aqua Cat.  As usual, I took point and would bang my tank or make hand gestures if I saw something that I thought Craig would want to take a picture of with his camera.  With each formation, I tried to make note of some landmark that would help distinguish it from the others.  For instance, the coral patch where the mooring block was had a barrel sponge on top of it.

In our previous dives, there would come a point where I felt Craig and I would go no further and I would gradually lead us back to our starting point.  After one dive, Craig proclaimed that I was "an awesome navigator!"  With this dive, after making a few twists and turns, crossing over an area of mostly sand and then hitting another coral formation, I got that feeling again that we should begin to head back to the mooring line.  I looked at my gauge, which read around 1700 psi.

Things seemed to be progressing rather smoothly.  We passed one formation that moments earlier I had dubbed "The Cactus" because it reminded me a little of a cactus.  Duh!  We crossed the sandy field again and started hitting the higher coral patches cut by grooves.  Then I saw a coral formation with a mooring line rising from it.  Then I saw Tagi, who was by himself avidly taking pictures with his camera.  What a relief, I thought. 

That feeling soon dissipated as I looked at the mooring line and saw that it came to an end about 15 or 20 feet above us.  Also, I did not see the barrel sponge on top of the coral formation that I had remembered earlier.  Something was wrong.  I gestured to Craig to indicate my confusion.  I remembered that Andy told us during his dive briefing that there was an old mooring block at the site.  I took my best guess as to which direction I thought the boat was and motioned for Craig to follow me.

I kept a nervous eye on my gauge, which was now nearing 1,000 psi.  We continued on for a few minutes and when the gauge was below 1,000 psi, I started to become very concerned.  I motioned to Craig that I was going to surface and take a look for the Aqua Cat.  When I surfaced, I saw it quite a distance away from us and wondered if my air supply would be sufficient to make it back.  I descended again and motioned to Craig the direction of the boat and then I started kicking my legs as hard as I could.  When my gauge got down to about 750 psi, I surfaced again.  While we were a bit closer to the Aqua Cat, we had been heading in a direction that would have put us well behind it. 

Again, I motioned to Craig, who was a few feet below the surface.  This time, I didn't descend but decided upon a surface swim so that I could maintain eye contact with the Aqua Cat.   Slowly, inexorably, I got closer to the boat, but the going was made difficult by the current.  I decided that our best bet was to head for the Magick and grab on to the yellow rope that tied it to the back of the Aqua Cat.  

I knew Craig was still behind me, but after a point, survival mode took over me, and I was more focused on myself.  My air supply was continuing to deplete rapidly as I struggled against the current.  My air had dropped to about 500 psi when I could finally see the yellow rope in the water.  I kicked furiously, grunting loudly with each kick as I inched my way towards the rope.  It started to feel like, in spite of my exertions, that I was stationary.  Then when it was just several feet from my grasp, I looked down and to my right and saw a Caribbean Reef Shark slowly heading in my direction.  While the picture at the top of this post was from a different dive, the angle of approach was about the same, only I was at the surface and the shark was about maybe at a depth of ten to twelve feet.

I didn't panic from the sight of the shark, because it appeared rather indifferent to my presence, but I remembered thinking, "It would really suck if he attacked me now, when I'm so close to the safety of the rope."  My real concern was my air supply, which was approaching the 400 psi point.  With a final effort, I reached out with my hands and grabbed the rope, which had seemed to tantalizingly beyond my grasp.

It was at that point that I thought about Craig again.  He was a few years older than me and I knew if I was struggling, then he must be too.  "What do I do know?" I asked myself.  Part of me wanted to let go of the rope and swim back to him to guide him to the rope.  Then I considered my own situation, exhausted and low on air.  One of things that is taught in the Rescue Diver course is that when considering whether to assist another diver, make sure that you don't end up needing to be rescued yourself.   Again, my desire for self-preservation kicked in, and I decided to get back to the Aqua Cat, where I could direct the crew to where Craig was.  So, like my first dive at Closemon Reef, hand over hand I pulled myself along the rope until I got to the ladder and climbed up to the dive platform.  I gasped to the crew member, can't remember which one it was, that we had gone to the wrong mooring line.  I looked back in the direction where Craig was and saw that two crew members were already in a dinghy and on there way to pick him up.  I felt doubly relieved, for Craig and for myself.

When I ascended the steps to the dive deck, I was greeted by my son Andrew, who told me excitedly, "Dad, I was snorkelling with the sharks!"  While I was off on the dive, Andrew had asked if he could go snorkelling and Stacey, the only female crewmember on the boat, went in with him.  I was very proud as well as very surprised at what my son had done.  Generally, he tends to be timid and afraid to try new things.  But for some reason he took to snorkelling in a big way.  Stacey told me that when a shark swam near him, Andrew even extended his arm out in the direction of the shark, only to retract it as the shark drew closer.

However, even the news of my son's snorkelling feat failed to lift my spirits for long.  After greeting Craig upon his safe return to the boat, I went back to my dive station and sat down with my head in my hands.  I felt upset with myself for putting another diver, in addition to myself, in danger due to my failure to navigate properly back to the mooring line.  Perhaps my earlier successes had me feeling a little cocky and I had overestimated my abilities.  I sat there sulking for a few minutes and then went up to the sun deck, where Craig and his wife Sherri had gone to grab some refreshments.  I told him that I was sorry that I had gotten us lost and had put us in a potentially dangerous situation, but he brushed it off and told me not to worry about it.

Following the surface interval, the next dive was going to be at the same site.  Craig asked me if I would go back in with him again, and I decided that it would be best if I did.  We agreed this time that we would stay within site of the boat and in we went.   We spent the dive exploring the coral formations underneath the Aqua Cat.  As we swam beneath the stern of the boat, I looked up to the surface and saw that Andrew was snorkelling with Stacey again.   Then we came upon Nick and Bailey, the two teenagers on the boat, along with Bailey's dad, standing on the sand and taking turns doing backflips in their scuba gear.  I had never tried a backflip while scuba diving before and decided to give it a shot.  It was both easy and fun and I repeated it several times.  A short while earlier, I had experienced one of the worst dives of my life, and now I had learned from a couple of teenagers how to cut loose and have a good time underwater.  It was exactly the kind of dive I needed to have.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Bahamas Trip - Day 3 - July 26, 2011 - Underwater Photography

Though I brought an underwater camera with me on this trip, I only took it with me on three dives.  The pictures below are from the third dive.  If memory serves, they were taken at a dive site called Fire Coral Reef.  Below are among the better shots I managed to get of the marine life in the area.

First up is a Yellowtail Snapper.  There were a lot of these guys swimming around.

Next up is a French Angelfish.  These fish were a pain in the ass to photograph.  Every time I would focus on it, it would turn into the coral facing away from me.  Finally, after numerous attempts, this was the best side view I could get.  French Angelfish are very beautiful, and this photograph hardly does it justice.

I was the only one in our group to spot this small Nurse Shark.  It was swimming over a bed of coral a few feet away from me, so I had to swim really fast to get above it to get this shot.

The Bahamas contains a diverse population of angelfishes.  This next one is a Queen Angelfish.  It was much more cooperative than the French Angelfish. 

And yet another species of angelfish, the Gray Angelfish.

Here is a pair of Spotfin Butterflyfish.  My bad for not getting closer before I took the picture.

Next up is the dreaded Lionfish.  This is an invasive species that is indigenous to the Pacific.  When I dove in Belize in 2009, the only Lionfish I remember seeing was one caught by John, one of the crewmembers of the Sundancer II.  However, in the Bahamas, there were a lot of them.  You have to be careful with these guys, because they have poisonous spines.  It was really annoying for me, because some of the dive sites had very narrow grooves between the corals, and in some cases, small coral caves, that I liked to venture into and explore.  There were several occasions where I started to go into a narrow passage and then up ahead I would see a Lionfish just hovering there. 

I'm not quite sure what this last one is.  My copy of the National Audobon Society Field Guide to Tropical Marine Fishes does not show this specific fish.  However, the guide does contain about a half dozen fish with the same shape but different colors.  I am guessing this is some kind of Trunkfish or Cowfish.

Clearly, there's much room for improvement in my underwater photography skills, though it will probably have to wait until next summer when I go to the Caymans.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Back From Vacation

Hope everyone had a great Labor Day weekend.  Just back from visiting my wife's family in the Philippines and spending several nights in Taipei, Taiwan.  Hope to have some posts and pictures up after I've finished with the Bahamas trip.  And of course, I need to put in a few atheism related posts so that nobody thinks this site has morphed into a travel blog!