Veterans Affairs Officials Defend Plans To Strip Benefits From Elderly Veterans To Save VA Money

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE ‘MILITARY TIMES’)

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials on Wednesday defended plans to strip tens of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits from elderly veterans as responsible reforms to the department’s growing budget, but opponents promised to fight the idea.

Included in President Donald Trump’s $186.5 billion VA budget for fiscal 2018 — a nearly 6 percent boost in discretionary spending from this year — are plans to dramatically cut the department’s Individual Unemployability program.

Up to 225,000 veterans over the age of 60, at least 7,000 of whom are over 80, could be impacted by the change.

Under current rules, the IU program awards payouts at the 100 percent disabled rate to veterans who cannot find work due to service-connected injuries, even if actual rating is less than that.

Administration officials want to stop those payouts once veterans are eligible for Social Security retirement benefits, arguing those individuals should no longer qualify for unemployment benefits. Veterans who cannot collect Social Security would be exempt.

“There are always hard decisions that have to be made,” VA Secretary David Shulkin said following a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee budget hearing on Wednesday. “Sometimes that means you have to adjust current programs to support the growth of other benefits. That’s what we’re seeing here.

“I don’t think we can continue to only expand services and not look at the ones we are delivering … I think people can understand paying veterans who are above age 80 unemployment benefits isn’t what makes sense to the average American.”

For veterans who aren’t already retirement age, the change could largely be offset by their new Social Security payouts.

But for veterans already receiving both, it will mean a sudden loss of a significant income source. The IU payouts can total more than $22,000 a year.

Shulkin said the move, which is expected to save $3.2 billion next year alone, is proof that “we’re trying to refine our approaches to use our resources efficiently.”

Military Times

Trump’s 2018 military pay raise is smaller than expected

But advocates called it an unconscionable attack on older veterans.

“The budget plan unveiled yesterday completely abandons many of the most severely disabled veterans of the Vietnam generation and could make thousands of elderly veterans homeless,” said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America.

“We’re extremely alarmed by this budget proposal, because this is the opposite of what President Trump promised veterans.”

VVA officials said they spent have spent the last day since the budget announcement fielding panicked calls from veterans dependent on the program, wondering how they’ll make ends meet.

VFW National Commander Brian Duffy said his membership likes many parts of the budget “we are absolutely against forcing wounded, ill and injured veterans to pay for improvements elsewhere within the VA.” AMVETS released a statement Wednesday demanding the IU provision be dropped, labeling it “stealing” benefits from veterans.

Administration officials have also proposed rounding down cost-of-living adjustments to veterans benefits next year, a practice that would take no more than $12 from an individual vet in annual payouts but could save the government $20 million next year.

White House officials said those changes and other benefits trims are needed to offset the cost of other program expansions, in particular plans to expand and revamp the VA Choice Card program, which allows veterans to more easily receive private-sector medical care at the government’s expense.

Republican lawmakers on the House committee did not mention the benefits proposals in their budget questions for Shulkin, but several Democrats blasted the ideas. Ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., said called the plans “a pretty strong repudiation of what (veterans) have earned.”

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the idea risks “plunging them into poverty.”

Shulkin said he is open to alternatives, but also wary of increasing VA spending without “making sure our current programs are being utilized in the appropriate way.”

Lawmakers will use the White House budget plan as a baseline to offer their own funding proposals in coming weeks, with the goal of finalizing a department budget before the end of the current fiscal year in September.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at [email protected]

Philippines President Duterte Declares Martial Law On ISIS Held Island Of Mindanao

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao on Tuesday after a fierce bout of fighting between the army and militants linked to Islamic State in the city of Marawi.

Three members of the security forces were killed and 12 wounded, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a news conference, as clashes erupted in the wake of what the military said was a raid on a flat where about 15 rebels were hiding.

Lorenzana was speaking in Moscow, where he was accompanying Duterte on an official visit.

Duterte canceled a meeting set for Wednesday with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and planned to cut short his trip, during which he was also due to meet Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Putin will meet Duterte later Tuesday, rather than Thursday, his press secretary Dmitry Peskov was quoted as TASS news agency.

The government urged civilians on Mindanao to stay in their homes or flee if it was safe, and the military said reinforcements of an initial 500 soldiers were on the way, but were being hamstrung by rebels blocking roads.

The militants belong to the Maute group, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State in the Middle East. Previous military offensives against the Maute, based in Lanao del Sur province, have lasted several days.

“There are Maute snipers all around, so the troops are still holding and elements have already joined,” Lorenzana.

Fires raged in Marawi but the military and the city’s mayor said the situation was now under control.

Witnesses told local television that gunfire was clattering sporadically around the city. Several buildings were on fire, including a church, officials said.

“(Duterte) has already declared martial law for the entire island of Mindanao,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters in Moscow.

“This is on the grounds of resistance and rebellion based on what is happening,” he said, adding that martial law would last for 60 days, as stipulated in the constitution.

Brigadier General Rolando Bautista, commander of the Philippines’ First Infantry Division, said security forces were trying to locate the militants.

“Based on our assessment right now there are more or less 100 divided into groups of 10 in different locations,” he told news channel ANC.

“Since they are advocating ISIS ideology they have to show ISIS that they are a force to be reckoned with,” he said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato and; Martin Petty; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Copyright 2017 Thomson Reuters.

Deported To Mexico, US Veterans Are Pressed Into Service By Drug Cartels

 

Deported To Mexico, US Veterans Are Pressed Into Service By Drug Cartels
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It had only been a few weeks, maybe a month, since Jose Camacho had been relieved of his prison shackles and stepped off a U.S. immigration bus into the dusty streets of Ciudad Juárez to set about building a new life south of the border. That’s when an old friend showed up. Not a friend, really — someone he knew. A guy he’d met on the inside. “Let’s get a beer,” he suggested. Camacho didn’t drink anymore, and he told the guy so. But the guy was persistent. Squinting over the guy’s shoulder, Camacho could see someone else in the car, a man he didn’t know, but he recognized the tattoos. This wasn’t an invitation.

Entra,” the stranger said. Get in. Then Camacho made yet another mistake in a life that had no shortage of them.

“I should’ve never got in the car,” Camacho tells me, recalling the story several years later between drags on an off-brand cigarette, a poor man’s substitute for the Marlboro Reds he can no longer afford.

It’s a hot afternoon in late April, and Camacho and I are at the home of Jose Francisco Lopez, a 73-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who is tending to a wok full of taco meat while a handful of men — mostly ex-military, plus a reservist from El Paso — swap stories about their time in uniform. Spools of concertina wire run along the wrought iron bars that flank the small, square courtyard. All of the houses in this part of Juárez are like this. Every street looks like a row of jail cells. But Camacho isn’t referring to the local architecture when he describes Juárez as being “like prison.” He’s talking about the gang culture, which is deeply rooted on both sides of the border. Here, there’s no escaping your past.

The friend was working for a drug cartel, and he was approaching Camacho with a proposition. Work with us. Camacho, a former Army cavalry scout, had a skill set that was very much in demand. “They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive,” he continues, explaining that he had also done a stint behind bars in California for home invasions. He gestures toward the rest of the guests. “Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”

At 61, Camacho would be a top contender for the World’s Scariest Grandpa award. He resembles a Danny Trejo character, but with a longer rap sheet and more prison tattoos. Like many career criminals, his resume is inscribed in permanent ink on his body, in a constellation of words and symbols that people who’ve lived the sort of life Camacho has can readily interpret. There are a lot of those people in Juárez. At least one tattoo identifies him as having once been affiliated with a Mexican-American gang aligned with La Linea, the armed wing of the Juárez cartel. On his forearm, there’s an image of an American GI accompanied by the words Vietnam Veteran Recondo.

Camacho didn’t fight in Vietnam, but he did serve in the U.S. military between 1974 and 1980, first in the Army and then the Navy, and was honorably discharged from both. His DD214 lists his military occupational specialty in the Army as armor reconnaissance specialist (hence the tattoo). He never got a chance to put his combat skills to work in the jungles of Southeast Asia,  but he’s spent most of his life after the service applying those skills elsewhere. “Military experience is money in Mexico,” he says.

Camacho kept his mouth shut as the car left the city limits. “I had to agree right away,” he says, “because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.”  Eventually, the men dropped him off at a compound in the middle of the desert. There, he says, he was paid to teach members of one well-known cartel the weapons skills and small-unit tactics he’d learned in the Army. He tells me he wasn’t the only U.S. military veteran who worked on the compound. (Although Task & Purpose was unable to confirm this claim, more than one source described it as an open secret.)

“Over there, we were wetbacks. Here, we’re gringos.”

Camacho eventually fled the compound and made his way “across the goddamn sierra” back to Juárez. Last year, he heard about a safe house for deported U.S. military veterans in Tijuana called The Bunker and contacted the group that runs it to see if they could help him secure his military benefits, and possibly get him back over the border, where he hopes to spend the remainder of his days in peace. They put him in touch with Lopez, whose house will soon double as the official Bunker in Juárez. Not long ago, the house was, more or less, an actual bunker. Lopez recalls waking up many nights to pitched gun battles being fought in the neighborhood. Sometimes he’d think he was back in Vietnam.

“I wanted to move to Tijuana, but then I heard the Gulf Cartel is there,” Camacho says. “They’d just kill me on the spot if they saw my tattoos.”

Camacho graciously accepts a plate of tacos from our host and then sets it aside, noting that he’s trying to eat healthy. He doesn’t strike me as the clean-living type, but staying physically fit, he explains, is important when you’re a debt collector in Juárez. That’s what Camacho does for work now — he’s a strongman for local businessmen in a city with a notoriously corrupt police force. It’s not a complete departure from his former life, but it’s certainly an upgrade. He lifts up his shirt to reveal a back brace and sighs. “My bones are getting dry,” he says. “There will come a time when I can no longer make money.” It’s hard to rough people up when you have dry bones. It’s also hard to run.

“I stay in one house for three or four months, and then I move. If I see something I don’t like, I boogie,” Camacho says, explaining that he’s biding his time, waiting for the people who still know him from his prison days to die off. “Eventually, they will. I just have to survive that long.”

That evening, Camacho and several other deported veterans gather around a table to discuss their predicament — the first of many such meetings that will happen here. The conversation eventually turns to President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration and his calls to seal up the border. Everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do.

“What if you invited me into your house, and I start fucking your wife, and spit in your food, and rob you?” one guys asks. “What are you going to tell me? You’re going to say, ‘Fuck you, homey. Get the fuck out of my house.’” But by virtue of their service, he adds, veterans merit a different sort of treatment. He compares the military to a street gang that works together to defend its turf from rivals. “Then I fuck up and you tell me I’m no longer welcome on this turf? Hold on, ese, I fought for this turf. My mom lives on this turf.”

I bring up The Wall. Will the migration stop if it gets built? The question is met with laughter. Camacho answers first: “Can they build it miles underground? Can they build it into the sea? Nothing can stop people from getting over. Nothing.” Behind us, Lopez and a few other deportees have begun arranging legal documents on a table for the men to fill out. There’s not a single person in this group who hasn’t broken the law. Some have committed crimes much worse than crossing the border illegally. But they’ve come to The Bunker to try a new approach, and, in many ways, it’s the path of most resistance. Nobody in their situation has ever been allowed to return to the United States.

+++

There are currently three ways for an immigrant veteran who’s been deported following a conviction for an aggravated felony to return to the United States legally.

One option is to appeal the case, but it has to be done quickly. “From a practical point of view, if someone has already been deported and is now in their home country, this is no longer an option,”says Sophia Gregg, an immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

Another option is for the deported veteran to secure a pardon, either from the president or the governor of the state they were convicted in. This doesn’t guarantee re-entry into the United States, but it is a necessary step before one reapplies for legal resident status. Only three deported veterans have received such pardons. So far, none have returned to the States.

The other option, statistically more feasible, is to die; all veterans discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, even if they’ve been deported, are entitled to a military funeral and burial with full honors.

In that scenario, the VA will pay $300 toward the cost of returning the body to the United States. Federal law mandates that the ceremony must be performed by an honor guard detail consisting of no fewer than two active members of the armed forces. The casket remains draped in the American flag until “Taps” is played (by a bugler if one is available), and then the flag is meticulously folded into a triangle and presented to the deceased’s next of kin.

Under Trump, those are likely to remain the only options. After all, guys like Camacho are exactly the type of immigrants to whom the president was referring when he said, “We have some bad hombres and we’re going to get them out.” Why would he want them back? Still, Camacho and a growing cadre of deported veterans living Mexico believe they can find sympathy among even the staunchest conservatives in Washington. Because it was also Trump who vowed to “take care of our veterans like they’ve never been taken care of before.”

As a country, we go to great lengths to ensure that military veterans are cared for. We shower them with praise and free meals at Applebee’s. We pay for their college and give them access to free health care. When they get in trouble for minor crimes, we send them to special courts that take into account the hardships they endured in the service. We even spare them the death penalty when they’ve massacred innocent civilians. But for veterans who are non-U.S. citizens, the support stops the moment they’re convicted of an aggravated felony.

The biggest challenge for deported veterans wanting to return to the United States legally is persuading people — specifically, American policymakers — to view them as former U.S. service members who made mistakes (and paid for them), rather than run-of-the-mill undocumented criminals.

It doesn’t help that many have settled in the dangerous border towns of Mexico, where jobs are scarce and crime pays. They have done so not because they enjoy the scenery but because many have family just across the border, and their occasional trips south represent the veterans’ only remaining connection to the lives they once lived. To leave the border towns would mean to give up on the dream of return.

Ironically, however, their proximity to the border has placed them in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans I met in Juárez told me they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.

Lopez is the director of the recently established Juárez chapter of Deported Veterans Support House, a Tijuana-based nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries.

Through grassroots activism and social media, Deported Veterans Support House has managed to bring together a small network of nonprofit groups, veterans organizations, and individual volunteers to help deported veterans secure military pensions and benefits, and perhaps one day return to the United States. To date, their efforts have yielded only one notable success story: In 2016, an Iraq War veteran named Daniel Torres was allowed to return to the United States five years after he was deported to Mexico from France. (After the Marine Corps had discharged Torres upon discovering that he had used a fake birth certificate to enlist, he’d tried to join the French Foreign Legion.) But his situation was unique: he had never been convicted of an aggravated felony.

Aggravated felony is a term of art used in U.S. immigration law to describe a broad category of criminal offenses, from violent crimes like murder and sexual assault, to drug possession and theft. A host of petty offenses — filing false tax returns, for example — can also be labeled an aggravated felony if immigration authorities deem the circumstances around it to be evidence of “bad moral character.”

“Sometimes it is simply a misdemeanor plus another petty charge,” Gregg explains. “For example, it can be a petty drug charge plus a petty trafficking charge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you were moving cocaine in from Guatemala to sell it in Texas. It can be as simple as, you got caught taking a joint of marijuana from one county to another. That could be called ‘trafficking.’”

Meet The Men Of Deported Veterans Support House
Deported Veterans Support House is a nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries. Task & Purpose’s Adam Linehan went to Juarez to hear their stories in person.

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02:49

The deported veterans who have banded together in Juárez include criminals of all stripes. But they rarely discuss their pasts. Their focus now is on the future — “getting back home” — and helping each other survive in the meantime. The mission binds them like soldiers at war. A brotherhood with few allies on either side of the border, they are men without a country.

“Over there, we were wetbacks,” one tells me. “Here, we’re gringos.”

+++

On March 16, 1966, a U.S. Army reconnaissance platoon was moving down a narrow jungle trail in Vietnam’s Long Khánh Province to reinforce a battalion of paratroopers engaged in a massive firefight, when it inadvertently walked into the rear of an attacking North Vietnamese Army formation. The pointman spotted the enemy first and motioned for a grenadier to come forward and initiate a hasty ambush. He didn’t have time to get off a single shot before a barrage of enemy grenades and machine-gun fire began pummeling the platoon from all directions. They were pinned down.

The platoon medic was a man named Spc. Alfred Rascon. Over the course of the engagement, which lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, he was wounded four separate times, beginning with a bullet that entered his hip, rode up his spine, and exited through his shoulder. But that’s not why there’s a school for Army combat medics named after him.

“You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”

Rascon earned the Medal of Honor that day. His medal citation is one of the more exhaustive on record, owing to the fact that Rascon used his own body to shield his comrades from enemy grenades — not once, but a total of three times. One explosion Rascon absorbed was so close it blew his helmet off. But he never stopped fighting. In fact, he refused to be airlifted out of the jungle until he had treated everyone else in the platoon who’d been wounded. He barely survived.

Lengthy as it is, Rascon’s citation does not mention that he had immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was a child. Nor does it mention that he didn’t become a naturalized citizen until after he returned home from Vietnam. And why would it? Those details aren’t relevant to the story. “The men I served with did not even know that I was not a citizen, nor did they care,” he later recalled in an interview. “They just called me ‘Doc.’”

Rascon’s actions in Vietnam won him a spot in America’s pantheon of war heroes, but they also place him among a long overlooked subclass of warriors that has been vital to the military since its inception. Like millions of immigrants before him, Rascon chose to enlist in the Army; however, many others were drafted during Vietnam, as they had been during all of the major wars before that (approximately 18% of GIs who served in World War I were foreign-born). Which is to say, countless immigrants — whether enlistees or conscripts — have bled and died fighting on behalf of the United States.

Even in the all-volunteer era, immigrants have continued to serve in high numbers. In fact, one of the first U.S. service members killed in action in the Iraq War was Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an orphan from Guatemala who smuggled himself into the United States and was only naturalized after his death. He was one of approximately 3,000 non-citizens who participated in the invasion of Iraq, and one of 10 who were killed within the first month of the war. To some extent, those numbers were by design.

By 2002, with the war in Afghanistan underway and the march to Baghdad on the horizon, it became clear in Washington that special measures would be required to fill the ranks of an all-volunteer military tasked with a massive mission. On July 3 of that year, President W. Bush signed an executive order to provide expedited naturalization for “aliens and non-citizen nationals serving in an active-duty status.”

Previously, non-citizens serving in peacetime were required either to have lived legally in the United States for five years or to have served three years on active duty before they were eligible to apply for citizenship. Bush’s order cut the wait time for post-9/11 immigrant service members down to one day.

Bush was doing what presidents before him have done during virtually every major conflict since the Civil War: Entice immigrants into the military by dangling the promise of U.S. citizenship. Of course, not all immigrants enlist for citizenship. Many are drawn to service for the same reasons citizens are — money and other benefits, job stability, a sense of patriotism, the desire to fight for a cause greater than themselves. Still, the executive order appears to have had an impact. Between December 2000 and February 2003, the number of non-citizens on active duty jumped from 23,000 to 37,000, with thousands more in the reserves.

In the years that followed, a series of additional laws and programs, including one that made it possible for foreign-born recruits to take the Oath of United States Allegiance upon graduating basic training, were implemented. Between September 2001 and 2015, roughly 102,000 immigrant service members and veterans from all generations were sworn in as U.S. citizens.

Given the unprecedented access to citizenship through military service, why have so many veterans been deported? That question was the focus of a July 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Entitled “Discharged, Then Discarded,” it blamed the issue on “bureaucratic bungling” and “government indifference.”

“The federal government’s failure to help naturalize immigrants serving in the U.S. military has led to the deportation of untold numbers of veterans, all of whom were entitled to become citizens because of their service,” read a statement from the ACLU that accompanied the report.

“Deported veterans were in the United States legally and sustained physical wounds and emotional trauma in conflicts as far back as the war in Vietnam,” the statement continued. “Once they returned from service, however, they were subject to draconian immigration laws that reclassified many minor offenses as deportable crimes, and were effectively banished from the country.”

The “draconian immigration laws” the ACLU was referring to are the result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which among other things greatly expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to encompass a range of offenses, including some misdemeanors that previously would not have led to deportation.

Life as an immigrant in the United States only got more precarious from there. By 2013, Obama had deported more people than any other U.S. president in history, at a rate of about 400,000 a year, and so far under Trump, ICE arrests are up nearly 40 percent. Still, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists that it takes military service into account when determining whether or not an immigrant’s crimes should qualify as a deportable offense.

ICE “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service,” agency spokesman Thomas Byrd said in a statement to Task & Purpose, adding that such cases are  “authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel.”

He also noted that ICE views military service as “a positive factor that should be considered … when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.” Nonetheless, he said, “applicable law requires ICE to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals who have been convicted of aggravated felonies.”

“They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive. … Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”

The ACLU report sparked widespread media interest in deported veterans. Soon, American journalists were flocking to Tijuana. Veteran motorcycle clubs arrived from the States with food and supplies to stock The Bunker. Volunteers, including off-duty employees from the Department of Veterans Affairs, began caravanning in on the weekends to help the veterans file for pensions and other benefits remotely. The ACLU even agreed to provide free legal assistance to deported vets who it thought stood a fighting chance of securing appeals or government pardons.

Meanwhile, in March of this year, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona introduced a bill, The Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2017, that would prevent noncitizen service members and veterans from being removed from the United States unless they were convicted of a violent crime. The bill would also require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to permit eligible deported veterans (ones who have not been convicted of violent crimes) to return to the United States.

“They made a mistake, and many citizen veterans have made those same mistakes upon their return,” Grijalva tells Task & Purpose. “Are we setting up a special status for a group of deportees that no other deportee has? Yes, because they do have that special status. Serving in the military is special.”

To date, the bill has been co-sponsored by 48 members of the House, all Democrats.

“The majority of these guys were deported because of crimes related to addiction,” says Alexander Heaton, director of the Veteran Action Coordination Committee, which is lobbying members of Congress to sign the bill. “So, really, this is a veterans health issue. Many got in trouble while self-medicating because of things that had happened to them in the service. But getting that through to Congress has been really difficult, because a lot of them just see it as another immigration issue.”

All of the congressmen Heaton approaches want to know why the deported veterans didn’t get their citizenship in the military. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and one that Heaton is uniquely qualified to answer. Born in the United Kingdom, Heaton became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008 while serving the Marine Corps.

“I only found out that I could be naturalized through the military by my interpreter in Iraq,” he says.“It’s not something that is mentioned to you, because once you get to the fleet, everyone assumes you’re American. You have to initiate it yourself and you have to follow up on it yourself. You know how military paperwork is — if you want it done right once, you have to submit it three times.”

Efforts on both sides of the border to draw attention to deported veterans appear to be paying off, albeit slowly. Last month, Barajas and two other veterans living in Mexico received full pardons from California Gov. Jerry Brown, making it possible for them to re-apply for legal resident status.

Several days after he received word of his pardon, Barajas flew to Juárez for the official opening of a second Bunker — the one at Lopez’s house. Additional Bunkers are planned for Monterey and Jamaica. Barajas has every intention of returning to the States if he’s allowed to — he was raised in Los Angeles, and his daughter still lives there — and the decision could be made within the next several months. Still, he says, he won’t stop “fighting for his brothers” until all of them come home.

+++

Once a week, Ivan Ocon, a 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran, takes a bus ride into downtown Juárez to buy sheets of cured leather from the only shop in town that will sell them to him. He’s not sure why the others won’t. Maybe it’s his gringo accent, or the prison tattoos, or the baggy plaid shirts he likes to wear buttoned all the way up to the top.

Ocon grew up just north of the border, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He has broad shoulders and a slight paunch, the sort of physique men develop when they lift a lot of weights in prison.

Ocon became a craftsman during his time behind bars: Nine consecutive years in federal penitentiaries in Colorado and Texas, followed by a 10-month stint in an immigration detention center on the outskirts of Houston. He specializes in handmade leather wallets and belts, which he adorns with intricate designs. Leatherwork is how Ocon made his commissary money in prison. He honed his skills as an illustrator by drawing pictures for his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was 3 years old. She’s 15 now.

“The cartels are waiting for you. They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. … if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”

These days, Ocon’s workshop is a converted storage closet in his grandmother’s house, a tiny, one-bedroom concrete dwelling behind a spike-tipped wrought-iron gate on a sun-bleached street in Juárez. Ocon moved in a year ago, after he was deported from the United States. The neighborhood is safe, he says — “There have only been a few killings.” At night, he sleeps on the couch.

But he doesn’t sleep much — not since he began receiving threatening Facebook messages. They came from an account he thought belonged to a woman interested in hooking up, but that later turned out to be a fake profile run by gang members. They had seen Ocon on the local news talking about the plight of deported veterans, and pegged him as a rich man. The messages demanded money — a lot more than Ocon could afford — and included photos of his family. He deleted his Facebook account and tried not to think about it.

“All I can do is try to be more careful,” Ocon says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a soldier, and I’m going to have to do what I have to do.”

How Mexican Cartels Target Deported Veterans
Living in Juárez, Mexico, places deported veterans in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans Task & Purpose met in Juárez said they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.

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03:22

Between 1997 and December 2003, Ocon was, in fact, a soldier. He served as a generator mechanic in the U.S. Army. His workshop is crowded with mementos of his time in uniform: A wooden box he bought in Japan filled with regimental coins, pictures from his deployment to Jordan in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a plaque mounted with a pair of crossed tomahawks that was given to him at the end of his tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division.

“For a job well done,” it reads. “We wish you well in pursuing your future. Hope you can make it without your soju. Good luck from the motorpool.”

Also on the wall is a framed photograph of Ocon’s cousin, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Cruces in the early 90s. He was 15, a gangbanger. His killers belonged to a rival crew. Ocon turns somber telling the story. They were best friends, he explains — just a couple of Mexican kids growing up poor in a small American town.

Like many kids from crime-infested neighborhoods, Ocon didn’t need to join the Army to learn how to shoot a gun, and he didn’t need to go to war to see combat. But the military offered a noble departure from the streets. And there was another bonus, as the recruiter pointed out: Serving his adopted country could be a fast track to citizenship. Although it didn’t quite work out that way, Ocon knows he’s partly to blame.

“I started asking about citizenship after I got back from Korea,” he says. “I went to JAG and they were like, ‘We don’t know nothing about that.’ They couldn’t even tell me where I needed to go, or what I needed to do. So I just went back to doing my job, just being a soldier, not really thinking about it.”

In 2006, Ocon was involved in a kidnapping in El Paso. The details are hazy, but somehow the 16-year-old nephew of a certain drug dealer wound up on the other side of the border, and the kid’s family got a series of calls requesting money. One of those calls was traced to Ocon’s phone. While he denies playing a role in the abduction, a jury convicted Ocon of aiding and abetting in a kidnapping — “because I didn’t report my brother” — and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.

A decade later, in early 2016, Ocon stepped off a U.S. immigration bus in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, with $80 to his name. His skin was paler than it had ever been. His muscles were soft. For the previous 10 months, he had been confined to a cell in an ICE detention center 23 hours a day. Sometimes weeks would go by before the guards would let him outside. It was worse than prison, he says. Much worse. He arrived in Mexico  with shoes but no shoelaces, which worried him because he knew that his first few minutes on the ground were crucial, and that he’d have to act fast.

Ocon isn’t the only deported veteran who told me that stepping off the immigration bus was one of the most terrifying moments of his life.

“The cartels are waiting for you,” one told me. “They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. So you’ve got a small window of time to get out of town and get where you’re going. Because if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”

Ocon managed to squeeze on to the first bus bound for Juárez. Not all of the deportees were so lucky.

+++

On the morning before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of The Bunker in Juárez, three rows of neatly stacked papers sit atop a plastic table in Lopez’s backyard. These are the first of many forms that will need to be filled out as the deported veterans begin the process of trying to secure medical benefits, pensions, and, ultimately, permission to return to the United States. For now, Lopez’s home is serving as the local headquarters for the operation. Lopez settled here in 2004 after serving nine years in a Texas prison for the crime of possessing “five hundred grams or more” of cocaine, according to court documents.

“We need to be together and be a group,” he says as he folds pamphlets that will be given to guests at tomorrow’s ceremony. His hands move slowly, as if underwater. “We need to fight for our rights. That’s the only way we’re going to get it done.”

Lopez’s family immigrated to Wichita Falls, a small town in north Texas, when he was a teenager, and he was drafted into the U.S. military in 1967 at the age of 23. According to his military records, Lopez served with the Army’s 15th Transportation Battalion for a year in Vietnam, from 1968 to 1969. He hardly spoke English. “I done everything,” he says. “Sometimes I did rescue missions in the helicopters. Sometimes I was a driver. Sometimes I went with the infantry. Whatever they tell me to do.” He thought his honorable discharge from the Army made him a U.S. citizen until he found out he was being deported back to Mexico. Because he didn’t have money to fight his case, ICE agents took Lopez straight from prison to Juárez, the nearest border town.

Lopez left behind five children in Texas, all U.S. citizens. Some of them he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years, and he doesn’t know how many grandchildren he has. “I want to get back so I can find my family,” he says. “I want to see them and hug them.” The walls of his house are decorated with pictures he’s painted, of birds, of desert landscapes, of the Virgin Mary. He’s talented enough to make a meager living as a painter, but art is also his therapy. There’s no VA facility in Mexico; no monthly disability checks in the mail. He tells me he’s still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam.

One of the two bedrooms in Lopez’s house has been converted into a shelter with bunk beds and cots for vets down on their luck. Before The Bunker in Tijuana was moved to a building donated by the city, Barajas ran a similar shelter out of his apartment. This is one of the more vital services the organization provides. Few deported veterans are able to find jobs when they arrive in Mexico. Some, like Marine Corps veteran Mike Evans, didn’t even speak Spanish when they stepped off the immigration bus.

Which helps explain why I confuse Evans for a volunteer from the States when he strolls into the Bunker. “What’s up, man,” he says, pulling me in for a bro hug. “Mike.”

Ocon introduces Evans as his neighbor. They first met several days ago on the street, by chance. Evans was stunned to discover that there were other U.S. military veterans living in Juárez. For the past eight years, he thought it was just him. “You guys have plans tonight?” he says. “I’m DJing at La Bodeguita. Come by. It’s gonna be sick.”

Sporting a shirt too small for his musclebound torso and a generous amount of hair gel, Evans, 39, looks, acts, and sounds like a cast member on the “Jersey Shore,” albeit with a slight Southern accent. There’s an explanation for this: He was adopted by an American university professor and spent his childhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Which makes him a citizen, right? Nope. Not in 1984. Instead, Evans, who had the rare privilege of choosing his own first name when he was 6 years old, was granted resident status through amnesty. “Later, when I applied for citizenship,” he says, “it fucked me.”

Evans served four years in the Marine Corps and was discharged honorably in 2000 without citizenship. “I just got so frustrated with the process, I stopped trying,” he says. In 2005, after a period “of fucking off and getting into trouble in El Paso,” he completed and filed all the naturalization paperwork and was approved. Two weeks before he was scheduled to take the Oath of United States Allegiance, Evans was named as an accomplice by a drug dealer who’d been arrested for selling ecstasy several years before. There was evidence. Evans was sent to prison for four years. In 2009, while in the midst of fighting his case, he was abruptly deported. His sister rushed to the immigration detention center and arrived just in time to give him an English-Spanish dictionary before he got on the bus.

At the height of the turf wars between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels, Juárez was just as kinetic as anything American troops have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battles waged daily in the city’s streets featured all of the familiar tools of carnage: sniper rifles, grenades, car bombs, machine-gun fire. Gunmen would slice through weddings and birthday parties just to send a message or mark turf. Many mornings revealed headless and mutilated bodies strung from bridges and light posts. Twenty-six hundred people were murdered in the city the year Evans arrived, barely enough money in his pockets for a tiny room downtown, which he furnished with an air mattress and two milk crates (one for a chair, the other for a table). In 2010, Juárez ranked as the murder capital of the world. That same year, El Paso, which sits just beyond a narrow sliver of the Rio Grande — walking distance, if you have an American passport or a visa — boasted the lowest crime rate of all major cities in the United States. Evans could see El Paso from his window.

The turf wars have subsided, but the cartels still exert varying degrees of control over nearly every facet of the city. Extortion is rampant. People are still wary of hanging out in groups. Most of the bars and clubs remain off-limits to “civilians” after dark. There’s still no shortage of violence — Mexico is currently second only to Syria on the list of world’s deadliest conflict zones — but the killings in Juárez have become more focused, less indiscriminate. One former cartel member, a U.S. Army veteran, tells me the war now is over what drugs are being sold. The Sinaloa cartel recently introduced crystal meth into the local market, triggering retaliation from the more “old school” factions that see the highly addictive drug as disruptive.

“Meth is not a good business model,” says the veteran, whom I’ll call John (he asked not to be named). “If you get someone hooked on coke, you’ll have a customer for life. But with meth, they’ll probably be dead in five years. So now they’re going after the meth heads, shooting up the places they hang out to send a message.”

“I had to agree right away, because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.”

John had served with the 3rd Infantry Division in Ramadi with a colleague of mine, who put us in touch. We meet for dinner in Juárez one night. When I ask him if he’s ever seen other U.S. military veterans working for the cartels, he tells me the same thing Camacho did: He had, and that some of them — “White guys, black guys, Mexicans” — commuted in from the other side of the border. John, a U.S. citizen, used to be one of those guys. He lives in El Paso. “After I got out of the Army, I started coming to Juárez on the weekends to party, do coke,” he says. “And I just got sucked into that life. It was dark.” He recalls an internal feud that nearly resulted in his execution, late night convoys through the desert, and the brutal beating he was forced to undergo before being allowed to leave the cartel. I ask him how long it’s been since he quit. He pauses to do the math. “Six months,” he says. “November.”

Most of the deported veterans I meet in Juárez refuse to speak on the record about the cartels for fear of being labeled a “snitch,” but many have stories that go something like this: Someone they had met in prison or in an immigration detention center looked them up after they’d arrived in Juárez and asked if they’d like to put their military experience to work for a cartel. A few, like Camacho, weren’t given a choice. Interestingly, their specific military backgrounds — whether they had been, say, an infantryman or an admin clerk — were irrelevant. It was the fact that they had been trained by the U.S. military that made them appealing as potential recruits. That and the assumption that they were desperate.

“I was approached one time by a guy, since he knew that I’d been in the military, to purchase weapons for the mafia,” Juan Salazar, a 50-year-old former Army medic, tells me, volunteering that he had been deported in the 90s after getting busted with 50 pounds of marijuana in Texas. “I definitely denied, because once I had made a mistake and got deported, I realized that I had failed to protect the country from all enemies foreign and domestic. I still feel that is my duty even if I’m here. Because all of my friends and family are still over there. It’s still my duty to defend them.”

Cesar Orihuela, 33, echoes a similar sentiment in his truck as we drive through downtown Juárez en route to La Bodeguita for Evans’ DJ show. “Yeah, I’ve been approached,” he says, his eyes fixed on the road. There’s a giant tattoo of an American flag on his forearm. He continues: “But doing that is like turning your back on your country. Nobody put a gun to your head and told you to join the military. Then after you make a mistake and you get sent to Mexico, once you get here, doing something like that is like siding with the enemy. It’s just something you don’t do. Personally, I don’t like it here.”

Orihuela’s family moved to El Paso from Juárez when he was 8. He was an all-star pitcher in high school — with a 96 mph fastball — but he put aside his dreams of going pro to join the Air Force in 2002, “because of what happened on 9/11.” He deployed to Pakistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom early on in the war. Later, I come across a 2004 story about Orihuela published in Airman Magazine, which compares him to a “juggler in a circus,” juggling military service, college, and baseball. The article explains that Orihuela had made it to the last round of tryouts for the Chicago White Sox the year before. It also notes that he had just applied for U.S. citizenship.

Orihuela was deported three years ago. “I got an assault charge,” he says. “My brother had just been killed by a gang on this side of the border, and I had anger issues. The police over here wouldn’t help us. It destroyed my whole family. That’s when my sister got in trouble, too.” He tells me he was arrested for beating up a member of the gang outside a bar in El Paso; however, Task & Purpose found court documents listing the aggravated felony conviction that resulted in his deportation as a sexual assault. Orihuela served three years in prison, and was still fighting his case when they put him on an immigration bus and drove him to Juárez. In 2014, his appeal of the sexual assault conviction was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in Texas.

Now, Orihuela works as a barber. A few of the guys he served with in the Air Force occasionally visit from Texas for a haircut, but otherwise he’s on his own. The barbershop is located downtown, on gang turf. He says he hands over 30% of his wages in extortion payments, and that he has to cover up his American flag tattoo when he works — not because he’s afraid of being targeted as a tourist, but because stars are the symbol of a rival crew. “The older people in the neighborhood know it’s a U.S. flag, and assume I’m probably just visiting from Texas or whatever,” he says. “But the younger kids, man, that’s who you’ve got be worried about. They don’t think like that. They just react.”

Close your eyes and imagine a bar in Juárez. Now, imagine the opposite: this is La Bodeguita. Tucked into a shopping center on the edge of one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, the bar draws a decidedly hipster crowd. It’s packed when we arrive just before sundown. Evans is manning the turntables — tongue out, one hand on his headphones, the other tinkering with a techno version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” His eyes light up when we walk through the door, a group of U.S. military veterans. Just a few days ago he thought he was the only one. Barajas is sporting his old red beret from the 82nd Airborne. A Vietnam War service ribbon sits front and center on Lopez’s hat. Everyone, including Ocon, is wearing the Deported Veterans Support House t-shirt, which is emblazoned with a small American flag. It’s clear the other patrons don’t know what to make of this strange militia.

Evans selects his last song and jogs over to the bar. There are bro hugs all around. Beers and tequila shots are ordered. Everyone seems to dig the music. It’s a house mashup of Edwin Starr’s “War.” The chorus lands like a karate chop: War, huh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing. I seem to be the only person who notices the irony. “I told you this place was sick,” Evans says, throwing an arm over my shoulder. It dawns on me that I’d never even bothered to ask him if he even wanted to return to the States, so I do now. “When I first got here, it felt like a life sentence. But this” — he nods towards the crowd — “this is my home. I had to fight really, really hard to be happy here. You just don’t let that kind of happiness go.”

+++

On the morning of April 22, the Bunker is a hive of activity. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to begin at noon. Local reporters make their rounds, pulling the deported veterans aside one at a time for interviews. A pack of bikers in black leather jackets covered in military patches roll in from New Mexico. Three volunteers, all veterans and employees of a VA facility in Arizona, pull up with a carload of bottled water, hygiene kits, and sleeping bags, which they unload into the living room. Several women tend to a spread of chicken and rice. Ice-cold Fantas are distributed. Everyone is intensely focused on their tasks, as if worried that the months of preparation that went into this day could be completely undone by one wrong move.

By this point, I’ve come to realize that the members of this group are bound not just by their military service but also by a desire to prove to themselves, their families, and the country they served that they’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the point of this whole operation. Until jobs and security are restored to Mexico, nothing, not even a giant wall, will keep droves of Mexicans from crossing the border illegally. That option has always been available to these men, too. But they’re done breaking the law. If and when they return to the States, it will be not as criminals, but as U.S. military veterans who embody the qualities, good and bad, implied by that distinction. Or at least that’s the hope. “I’ll wait eight years, nine years, 10 years,” Ocon tells me.

Ocon’s mother, nephew, and sister arrive from Las Cruces just before the ceremony begins. His daughter refused to come. It’s been 12 years since he’s seen her.

“They keep in contact a lot, but she has a really negative opinion of Mexico,” says Ocon’s sister, Claudia Ocon. “She’s afraid that she’d come down here and not make it out alive.”

Claudia, a behavioral health treatment coordinator for children in foster care, gets emotional talking about her brother’s situation. She talks about growing up poor, one of five siblings raised by a single mother, and describes Ocon’s decision to join the Army as an attempt to make a better life for himself. It’s clear that she looks up to her older brother. “It’s heartbreaking to see him living in these conditions,” she says, her eyes glassing over. “You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”

A row of news cameras focus on Barajas, adorned in his signature red beret and old dress blues, as he addresses the small crowd that’s gathered in the courtyard. He points to a folded American flag that he brought from Tijuana for the ceremony. “Until the last man comes home, this flag will not leave this place,” he says, pausing to fight back tears. “Thank you for being here.” To his side, Ocon and Lopez stand rigid like soldiers in formation. A table behind them displays photos of the guys from their days in uniform. There’s also a shrine to all of the deported veterans who have died or gone missing “in exile.” Barajas’ wife says a prayer, in both Spanish and English. Then Barajas presents the folded flag to Lopez and Ocon and the men exchange slow salutes, just as they would if they were conducting a military funeral.

When I got out of the Army, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of those veterans who always talks about their military service like it was the best time of their life. Which meant that whatever I did next had to be an upgrade. The day I left Fort Campbell for good, I packed all of my old uniforms, medals, and souvenirs from overseas into a box and haven’t opened it since.

In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that being able to do that was a luxury. Not everyone can just do a few years in the military and then ride their honorable discharge to a more comfortable life. Not everyone comes home to a safe and loving community, as I did. Sometimes they go home to the opposite, or nothing. Old habits resume. Bad influences resurface. Brothers get arrested. Brothers die. Citizenship paperwork gets neglected. I finished my bachelor’s degree on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been in handcuffs, but I’m no more of a veteran than those guys. All of us served the same nation, one that proudly supports the people who defend it with their lives. But as a society we also recognize that those people aren’t perfect. They fuck up. And when they do, they go to prison like everyone else. Unless they have a green card. In that case, we’ve decided prison isn’t enough. Why?

Orihuela takes his lunch break and the three of us walk to the edge of the Rio Grande. Barajas and several other deported veterans are there waiting for us. Each of us pays four pesos to get through the turnstiles and onto the bridge, which arcs high over the empty river. At the top, we pause for a minute to take photos at the line separating Mexico and the United States, and then proceed down toward Texas. The bridge terminates at a set of doors that only I c

Big guns: Two modern 155 mm artillery guns land in India after the Bofors scandal of 1980’s

(THIS STORY IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF INDIA)

Big guns:

Big guns: Two modern 155 mm artillery guns land in India after the Bofors scandal of 1980s

Rajat Pandit| TNN | Updated: May 18, 2017, 02.14 PM IST 

HIGHLIGHTS

  • This will be the first induction of modern 155mm artillery guns by the Army since the 1980s.
  • The howitzers will be taken to the Pokhran ranges for testing
  • The M-777 guns are primarily meant for the front with China

Big guns: Two modern 155 mm artillery guns land in India after the Bofors scandal of 1980s

NEW DELHI: India has now exorcised the ominous Bofors ghost haunting its artillery modernization plans for the last 30 years. In the first modern 155mm artillery guns to be inducted by the Army since the 1980s, two of the 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers ordered from the US touched down here on Thursday morning.

Defence sources on Wednesday said the two howitzers, which came in a chartered aircraft from the UK, will be taken to the Pokhran ranges for testing and “compilation of the firing tables” for subsequent use. “The firing tables, with the guns being tested for different kinds of Indian ammunition with bi-modular charges, will take some time to be formulated,” said a source.

The delivery schedule for the air-mobile howitzers, being acquired under the $737 million deal inked with the US in a government-to-government deal, will quicken from March 2019 onwards. “Five guns will then be delivered every month till all 145 are inducted by June 2021. While the first 25 guns will be imported, the rest 120 will be assembled in India with artillery-manufacturer BAE Systems selecting Mahindra as its business partner here,” he added.

Read this story in Gujarati

The arrival of the M-777 guns, which are primarily meant for the front with China, comes soon after the government also inked a Rs 4,366 crore contract with engineering conglomerate L&T for the supply of 100 self-propelled howitzers in collaboration with its South Korean technology partner Hanwha Tech Win. These 155mm/52-calibre tracked guns called K-9 Vajra-T, in turn, are to be delivered within 42 months, as was earlier reported by TOI.

The 13-lakh strong Army has not inducted a single 155mm artillery gun since the Bofors scandal brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government, and derailed all plans for technology transfer and indigenous manufacture.

Subsequent scandals revolving around other global artillery manufacturers, like South African Denel and Singapore Technology Kinetic‘s, further punched gaping holes in the Army’s long-range, high-volume firepower. Interestingly, the original Swedish Bofors company is now owned by BAE Systems.

Read this story in Marathi

The Army has been demanding 155mm/39-calibre ultra-light howitzers like the M-777s, with a strike range from 24 to 40-km depending on the kind of ammunition used, for almost 15 years now as part of the overall plan to build robust conventional deterrence against China.

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  • INDIABe vigilant along China border: Rajnath Singh to forces
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Weighing just over 4-tonne due to the use of titanium, the M-777 can swiftly be airlifted to high-altitudes areas up to 16,000-feet in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control with China.

Top Comment

If the Congress Government could not induct a single artillery 155 mm Gun in our Armoury for 30 years of its rule,despite enemies like Pakistan and China breathing down heavily below our neck,it mea… Read MoreAshok Prabhu

The M-777 howitzers will equip the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which the Army is raising by cannibalizing its existing reserves, for the China front. With two infantry divisions geared for mountain warfare, and associated artillery, air defence and armoured brigades, the 17 Corps will be fully in place with 90,274 troops by 2021.

Read this story in Bengali

Rajat Pandit| TNN | Updated: May 18, 2017, 02.14 PM IST

HIGHLIGHTS

  • This will be the first induction of modern 155mm artillery guns by the Army since the 1980s.
  • The howitzers will be taken to the Pokhran ranges for testing
  • The M-777 guns are primarily meant for the front with China

Big guns: Two modern 155 mm artillery guns land in India after the Bofors scandal of 1980s

NEW DELHI: India has now exorcised the ominous Bofors ghost haunting its artillery modernization plans for the last 30 years. In the first modern 155mm artillery guns to be inducted by the Army since the 1980s, two of the 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers ordered from the US touched down here on Thursday morning.

Defence sources on Wednesday said the two howitzers, which came in a chartered aircraft from the UK, will be taken to the Pokhran ranges for testing and “compilation of the firing tables” for subsequent use. “The firing tables, with the guns being tested for different kinds of Indian ammunition with bi-modular charges, will take some time to be formulated,” said a source.

The delivery schedule for the air-mobile howitzers, being acquired under the $737 million deal inked with the US in a government-to-government deal, will quicken from March 2019 onwards. “Five guns will then be delivered every month till all 145 are inducted by June 2021. While the first 25 guns will be imported, the rest 120 will be assembled in India with artillery-manufacturer BAE Systems selecting Mahindra as its business partner here,” he added.

Read this story in Gujarati

The arrival of the M-777 guns, which are primarily meant for the front with China, comes soon after the government also inked a Rs 4,366 crore contract with engineering conglomerate L&T for the supply of 100 self-propelled howitzers in collaboration with its South Korean technology partner Hanwha Tech Win. These 155mm/52-calibre tracked guns called K-9 Vajra-T, in turn, are to be delivered within 42 months, as was earlier reported by TOI.

The 13-lakh strong Army has not inducted a single 155mm artillery gun since the Bofors scandal brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government, and derailed all plans for technology transfer and indigenous manufacture.

Subsequent scandals revolving around other global artillery manufacturers, like South African Denel and Singapore Technology Kinetic‘s, further punched gaping holes in the Army’s long-range, high-volume firepower. Interestingly, the original Swedish Bofors company is now owned by BAE Systems.

Read this story in Marathi

The Army has been demanding 155mm/39-calibre ultra-light howitzers like the M-777s, with a strike range from 24 to 40-km depending on the kind of ammunition used, for almost 15 years now as part of the overall plan to build robust conventional deterrence against China.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
  • INDIABe vigilant along China border: Rajnath Singh to forces
  • INDIABelow normal monsoon in some regions this year

Weighing just over 4-tonne due to the use of titanium, the M-777 can swiftly be airlifted to high-altitudes areas up to 16,000-feet in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control with China.

Top Comment

If the Congress Government could not induct a single artillery 155 mm Gun in our Armoury for 30 years of its rule,despite enemies like Pakistan and China breathing down heavily below our neck,it mea… Read MoreAshok Prabhu

The M-777 howitzers will equip the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps, which the Army is raising by cannibalizing its existing reserves, for the China front. With two infantry divisions geared for mountain warfare, and associated artillery, air defence and armoured brigades, the 17 Corps will be fully in place with 90,274 troops by 2021.

Read this story in Bengali

North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the northwestern part of the country early Sunday, the South Korean Joints Chief of Staff said.

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

(CNN) North Korea launched a ballistic missile from the northwestern part of the country early Sunday, the South Korean Joints Chief of Staff said.

“Our military is closely monitoring for provocative movements by North Korea and is maintaining all readiness postures,” a statement from the military said.
The missile, launched near the city of Kusong, flew 700 kilometers (435 miles), the South Korean military said. A US defense official confirmed that it flew that far, but said the US is still assessing what type of missile it was.
This is the first provocative move from North Korea since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office. Moon has advocated dialogue with North Korea to denuclearize.
The firing of the missile could also be seen as an insult to Beijing. China remains one of North Korea’s only allies and is responsible for much of the heavily-sanctioned nation’s economy.
On Saturday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping launched a major trade and infrastructure project with multiple world leaders in Beijing. A North Korean delegation attended the conference.

Condemnation from Japan

The missile landed in waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, according to a statement from the Japanese government.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the launch in a quick doorstep interview with reporters.
“Despite strong warning from the international community, North Korea launched a ballistic missile again,” Abe said. “This is totally unacceptable and we strongly protest it. North Korea’s missile launch is a serious threat to Japan and clearly violate against the UN resolution.”
The projectile launch comes two weeks after a ballistic missile test that South Korean and US officials said failed.
That missile, launched April 29, blew up over land in North Korean territory, according to a spokesman for the US Pacific Command.

Prior launches

North Korea has previously attempted at least nine missile launches on six occasions since US President Donald Trump was inaugurated in January. Some of those missiles reached the Sea of Japan, also known as the East Sea. Sunday’s launch, however, was near the west coast.
Though tensions between the United States and North Korea have been higher than usual over the past few months, a senior North Korean diplomat told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency on Saturday that Pyongyang is open to talks with Washington “under the right conditions.”
Earlier this month Trump said he would be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “under the right circumstances.”
No sitting US president has ever met with the leader of North Korea while in power, and the idea is extremely controversial.
Kim’s regime has sought to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The Trump administration has made a show of force in the region to deter those programs’ development.

On First Day In office, South Korean President Talks About Going To North

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

On first day in office, South Korean president talks about going to North

Will South Korea have a new approach toward North Korea, U.S.?
 
South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is wary of America’s role in his country and has signaled he is open to warmer ties with North Korea. This has raised concerns in Washington(The Washington Post)
May 10 at 10:13 AM
South Korea’s new president said Wednesday that he would be willing to hold talks in Washington and Pyongyang in efforts to ease the North Korean nuclear crisis, wasting no time in embarking on a new approach to dealing with Kim Jong Un’s regime.The offer of shuttle diplomacy by Moon Jae-in came shortly after he was sworn in as president after winning a snap election triggered by the impeachment of former conservative leader Park Geun-hye.Moon had vowed on the campaign trail to resume engagement with North Korea, a sharp change from the hard-line approach taken by South Korea’s past two governments — and by the international community — in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches.

“I will endeavor to address the security crisis promptly,” Moon said at the National Assembly in Seoul. “If needed, I will immediately fly to Washington. I will also visit Beijing and Tokyo and even Pyongyang under the right circumstances.”

Reinforcing his stance, Moon appointed two top aides with experience in dealing with North Korea.

He nominated Suh Hoon, a former intelligence official who arranged the two inter-Korean presidential summits held in the 2000s, to lead the National Intelligence Service.

Suh lived in North Korea for two years beginning in 1997 to run an energy project that was part of a 1994 denuclearization deal with North Korea. He met the North’s leader at the time, Kim Jong Il, during North-South summits in 2000 and 2007.

Moon also appointed as his chief of staff a former lawmaker who, as a student, went to North Korea to meet the state’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

Moon’s first words and actions as president show his determination to revive the South Korean “sunshine policy” of engaging North Korea rather than isolating it.

But this would put South Korea at odds with the United States, where President Trump has vowed to use “maximum pressure” to force the North to give up its nuclear weapons program, and with an international community that is largely supportive of tougher sanctions.

The sunshine policy was started in 1998 by Kim Dae-jung, a former pro-democracy activist who became South Korea’s first liberal president.

The policy got its name from an Aesop fable in which the wind and the sun compete to make a traveler take off his coat. The sun gently warms the traveler and succeeds, the moral of the fable being that gentle persuasion works better than force.

Kim Dae-jung engaged Pyongyang by laying the groundwork for a tourism project at mountain on the North Korean side of the border that South Koreans were allowed to visit. After his summit with Kim Jong Il, families separated when the peninsula was divided were allowed to meet for reunions. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts.

His successor, Roh Moo-hyun, continued the policy, opening a joint industrial park near the inter-Korean border where North Koreans would work in South Korean-owned factories, helping both sides. Roh went to Pyongyang for his own summit with Kim Jong Il near the end of his tenure in 2007.

Moon, who had started a law firm with Roh, served as his chief of staff in the presidential Blue House and was involved in North Korea policy during this time.

But the two conservative presidents who succeeded Kim and Roh abandoned the sunshine policy, instead promoting direct and multilateral sanctions to punish North Korea for its nuclear ambitions.

After North Korea’s fourth nuclear test last year, Park closed the joint industrial park, declaring that the money was going directly to the North Korean regime. In the 12 years that the complex was in operation, North Korea had made a total of about $560 million from the site, her government said.

During his campaign, Moon said he would seek to reopen the industrial park and tourism projects, and would be willing to met Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang if necessary.

Returning to an engagement approach would “increase of predictability and permanence of inter-Korean policies” and help the South Korean economy, Moon said.

But reviving such inter-Korean cooperation will be difficult, analysts say.

For starters, the world is a very different place now than it was in 1997.

Then, North Korea did not have a proven nuclear weapons program. Now, it has conducted five nuclear tests, and Kim Jong Un seems hellbent on developing missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads to the United States.

Plus, North Korean attacks on South Korea — including the sinking of the Cheonan naval corvette in 2010 and the shelling of a South Korean island, which together claimed 50 lives — have sapped South Korean goodwill toward North Korea.

Increasingly strict sanctions have been imposed through the United Nations in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches, and both the United States and South Korea have also imposed direct prohibitions on dealing with North Korea.

“The international community has moved decisively toward a more sanctions and less engagement approach with North Korea, and even South Korea’s own domestic laws will make grandiose unaccountable inter-Korean engagement more difficult,” Marcus Noland and Kent Boydston of the Peterson Institute for International Economics wrote in an analysis.

If South Korea were to say that special considerations apply on the peninsula, the Moon administration would “bring South Korea into immediate diplomatic conflict with the U.S. and undercut China’s already tepid willingness to implement sanctions,” they wrote.

Even raising the specter of a sunshine-policy approach will complicate the international community’s efforts to make North Korea give up its nuclear program, said David Straub, a former official in the State Department who worked on North Korea.

“It’s a real challenge to the American-led effort to put maximum pressure on North Korea,” said Straub, who is now at the Sejong Institute, a think tank devoted to North Korea, outside Seoul.

Moon’s policy is much closer to China’s than to the United States’ policy, he noted.

“South Korea has tremendous influence in the international community on this issue, and that in itself is a challenge for President Trump,” Straub said, noting that Kim Dae-jung and Roh both bad-mouthed President George W. Bush’s approach at that time.

But Lee Jong-seok, who served as unification minister during the Roh administration, said a decade of sanctions has not worked.

“It’s now time for the U.S. to review its policy of imposing pressure on North Korea over its nuclear program. Has North Korea recognized its wrongdoings as a result of this policy of applying strong pressure?” Lee asked.

Moon realizes that pressure alone is not sufficient for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and that the key is to pursue both dialogue and pressure, he said.

“President Moon will combine sanctions and dialogue, but which comes first will be decided after talking to relevant nations like the U.S. and China,” Lee said. “South Korea can’t unilaterally hold talks while everyone else is sanctioning North Korea.”

Yoonjung Seo contributed to this report.

Hannover evacuates 50,000 over World War Two bombs: (If This Type Of Event Were On An American City; It Would Be The Lead News; Not Silence!)

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE BBC)

Europe selected

  • 1 hour ago
  • From the section Europe
Elderly people from a senior care facility wait to board a bus as part of the evacuation of 50,000 people on 7 May, 2017 in Hannover, Germany.Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Elderly people are moved out of a care home in the evacuation zone

About 50,000 people in Hannover have been evacuated from their homes while experts defuse three British bombs dating from World War Two.

The operation is the second largest of its kind carried out in Germany, and has affected around a tenth of the city’s population.

The buildings evacuated included seven care homes, a clinic and a Continental tyre plant.

Officials hope those affected will be able to return home by the evening.

The evacuation deadline was 09:00 (07:00 GMT) and residents were advised to take necessary items like medication with them, as well as turning off gas and electrical appliances.

Local news outlet Hannoversche Allgemeine reported [in German] on Sunday afternoon that two unexploded bombs had been defused, and a third – which was severely damaged – might have to be made safe using a specialised cutting machine.

Two other suspected bombs had turned out to be harmless scrap metal, it said.

No firm deadline has been given for when the restricted zone will return to normal. Road blocks have been set up to prevent cars from re-entering the area.

Emergency shelters have been established at three schools, and tens of thousands of soup portions prepared.

Bomb disposal experts had initially checked as many as 13 suspicious objects, but only five were found to merit further attention – two on a building site at the city’s Wedelstaße, and three others nearby.

The city has set up a programme of museum tours, children’s films and sporting events to help evacuees spend the day as pleasantly as possible.

A view of the location where unexploded bombs from World War II might possibly lie underground on May 7, 2017 in Hanover, Germany.Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Experts believe unexploded bombs may be underground on this building site
Residents wait for the tram as part of the evacuation of 50,000 people on May 7, 2017 in Hanover, Germany.Image copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption Locals wait for the tram as the evacuation deadline approaches

Allied planes bombed Hannover heavily during World War Two, killing thousands and destroying much of the city.

On 9 October 1943, an especially deadly night, 1,245 people were killed and 250,000 left homeless by 261,000 bombs.

The largest bomb-related evacuation since the war happened on Christmas Day last year, in Augsburg.

Some 54,000 people had to be moved after a 1.8 tonne bomb was unearthed during building work.

Other WW2 bombs recently discovered in Germany


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The Vatican’s Swiss Guard Just Added 40 New Members

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF TIME.COM AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Pope Francis Delivers First 'Urbi Et Orbi' Blessing During Easter Mass In St. Peter's Square
Swiss guards perform ceremonial duties during Holy Easter Mass held by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s square on March 31, 2013 in Vatican City, Vatican. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

The Vatican’s Swiss Guard Just Added 40 New Members

2:55 PM ET

(VATICAN CITY) — The world’s oldest standing army has 40 new members after a Vatican Swiss Guard swearing-in ceremony.

Each man took a loyalty oath Saturday evening in a ritual-rich ceremony in the St. Damaso courtyard of the Apostolic Palace. The May 6 date commemorates the day in 1527 when 147 guardsmen died while protecting Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome.

Earlier Saturday, Pope Francis told the Guards they’re called to “another sacrifice no less arduous” — serving the power of faith.

The recruits, who enroll for at least two years, must be single, upstanding Swiss Catholic males younger than 30.

Wearing blue-and-gold uniforms and holding halberds — spear-like weapons — they are a tourist delight while standing guard at Vatican ceremonies. Their main duty is to protect the pope.

Trump’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Trump’s Visit to Saudi Arabia

The White House announcement that US President Donald Trump will carry out his first foreign visit and that Saudi Arabia will be a major stop is a message on a major shift in his foreign policy priorities.

Since Obama’s term came to an end in 2016, relations with Saudi Arabia have changed. During Obama’s last visit to Riyadh, ties were at their lowest in more than half a century. With Trump in power, we are witnessing changes in all aspects: Syria, Iran, Yemen and bilateral relations.

The televised interview of Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Defense clarified the stances from these issues that are expected to be part of the discussions in Riyadh.

Regarding Syria, Riyadh eased its stance to reach a political solution that satisfies Russia and doesn’t grant the regime and its allies a free hand. In the Astana talks, there were two prime developments – approval to differentiate national factions from terrorists and readiness to establish safe zones, two of Trump’s pledges while campaigning for the presidency.

On the Yemeni war, the deputy crown prince was persuasive when he boldly admitted that the rush in liberating Sana’a and other cities might cause huge losses on both sides of the conflict.

“Time is in our favor and we are not in a rush. We can liberate it in two days with a costly human price or liberate it slowly with fewer losses,” he said.

Iran is a mutual huge concern for Riyadh and the US as well as other governments in the region. The deputy crown prince specified the Saudi government’s vision and its current policy. He said the history of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran leaves no doubt that Tehran has been targeting it even in times of rapprochement.

He added that the kingdom will defend its existence and will not remain in a state of defense for long. Trump has already delivered clear messages against the policies of the Tehran regime in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf waters.

Talks on arranging regional relations meant mainly Egypt. In the televised interview, the deputy crown prince hinted to the Muslim Brotherhood’s media of standing behind growing Saudi-Egyptian differences. His statement put an end to speculations about the relations with Cairo, depicting them as a passing summer cloud.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not a problem restricted to one country. This is a political group using religion as a means to reach power and is similar to communism which puts it on collision course with the rest of the regimes in the region.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a unified group from Gulf, Egyptian, Sudanese, Tunisian and other nationalities waging collective wars. The group tried to besiege the government in Egypt through the media and by provoking the Egyptians against it as well as urging the region’s people to cut ties with it.

Though supported by dozens of TV channels, websites and social media, the group failed to achieve its objectives. The Egyptian government is now stronger than when Mohamed Morsi’s government was ousted more than three years ago.

The Muslim Brotherhood project in Egypt has failed. Its losses grew when Trump reversed the foreign policy of Obama who had boycotted the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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Is President Trump Bluffing Again? Or, Does He Actually Know Something?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

If Trump has a Strategy on Israeli-Palestinian Peace, it’s Remaining a Secret

If President Trump has a real strategy to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it’s such a tightly held secret that even the parties involved don’t seem to know what it is. When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visits the White House this week, that mystery will be on full display.

“I want to see peace with Israel and the Palestinians,” Trump said last week. “There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever.”

Setting aside the patent absurdity of that statement, what’s clear is that the White House is willing to devote time and attention to new Middle East negotiations and the president wants to be personally involved.

The problem is there’s a glaring gap between Trump’s high-flying rhetoric and his still-unexplained strategy. As the Abbas visit approaches, there’s no clarity in sight.

Last week, a high-level Palestinian delegation led by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat traveled to Washington to prepare for the visit. The group met with Trump’s envoy on Middle East peace, Jason Greenblatt, as well as with White House and State Department officials.

Both sides are keeping expectations for the Trump-Abbas meeting low. Palestinian officials tell me the Trump team doesn’t seem to know exactly what Trump wants to discuss or propose. White House staff declined to say anything at all about their goals for the meeting. Some experts think that’s because there’s no depth to Trump’s approach.

“How you deal with Abbas is directly related to a broader strategy, which unless they haven’t announced it, they simply don’t have,” said former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller. “It’s hard to see that this is going to turn out to be much more than a stage visit.”

In truth, there really isn’t much Trump and Abbas can agree to. There’s little hope that Abbas will give Trump what the US side wants, namely a promise to address the issue of incitement in the Palestinian territories or a pledge to curb the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s policy of paying families of terrorists who have attacked Israelis and Americans.

Likewise, there’s no prospect that Trump will deliver what Abbas wants — a commitment to press the Israelis into a freeze of settlement-building that would meet Palestinian standards. The United States has secured an informal agreement with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu to place some limits on building new settlements, a version of the “build up, not out” framework from the George W. Bush administration. But that falls short of what Abbas says is needed before negotiations can begin.

The meeting could be significant by itself, if Trump and Abbas can establish a personal rapport to build on in the future. But therein also lies a risk.

“The president has never met Abbas and that makes it an important meeting,” said former White House and State Department official Elliott Abrams. “But if he forms the opinion that Abbas is not strong enough to do a deal and then implement it, that will have a real impact on American policy.”

Sure to be present at the meeting is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is overseeing Greenblatt’s work. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, will reportedly join Donald Trump for a trip to Israel in late May.

Administration officials sometimes talk about an “outside-in” approach whereby a framework for peace negotiations would be arranged with Arab states and then folded into the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. Details of that plan are hazy, and the Trump team has yet to explain how it plans to incentivize Arab states to buy in.

Martin Indyk, who served as President Barack Obama’s special envoy on this issue, said Trump’s approach of trying to find avenues to pursue is positive but cannot overcome the inability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make the political compromises necessary for real progress.

“Based on experience, there’s one principle that I operate on. By American willpower alone, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved,” he said.

There are things the Trump team can do constructively, including bolstering Abbas by promoting economic development in the West Bank, Indyk said. Making small progress on the margins could improve the chances for peace down the line.

But by going for headlines, not trend lines, Trump is raising expectations and putting his administration’s already-thin credibility at risk. There can be dangerous consequences in the Middle East when high-stakes diplomacy fails. The new administration would be better off recognizing that peace is not in the offing.

The Washington Post

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