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Excerpts from recent Wisconsin editorials

November 20, 2018

Wisconsin State Journal, Nov. 18

Get to the bottom of Baraboo photo flap

In the controversial photograph that’s now been shared around the world, it looks like Baraboo High School boys are raising their arms in a Nazi salute.

How obnoxious and wrong.

That was the strong reaction when someone anonymously posted the picture to social media last weekend, presenting it as an offensive gesture. Outrage spread fast and far. Even the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland criticized the image.

The picture is from a Baraboo photographer’s website. It was one of many pictures he said he made last spring during an informal pre-prom photo shoot of boys dressed in suits and ties, standing on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse about 45 miles northwest of Madison.

If any of the boys in the picture were intending to flash a sign of Nazi hate, even as a bad joke, they must apologize. They should undergo a thorough review of the Holocaust, when Hitler ordered the murder of millions of Jews during World War II.

Unfortunately, hate speech and related violence appear on the rise today and attract more attention because of the internet, where anyone can post anything. So the swift and harsh reaction was understandable.

Look closer, though, at the Baraboo picture and you’ll see that some of the more than 50 boys don’t have their arms raised. They’re just smiling at the camera. Others appear to be waving, with arms bent — not straight and extended forward like a Nazi salute.

The photographer, Peter Gust, denies the picture is anything but young people waving to the camera — as he says he asked them to do — just before they left for prom. Gust told the Baraboo News Republic he was taking pictures of his son when other people asked him to take pictures for them because he is a professional photographer with a nice camera. Gust says he took a lot of pictures and asked the boys to “raise your hands and say goodbye.” Gust says the photo was based on pictures he’s taken at weddings of groomsmen waving.

Gust loaded the pictures to his photography website, where they appeared for months before someone downloaded one and posted it to social media — identifying it as a Nazi salute and setting off a firestorm.

The Baraboo School District says it’s investigating, which it definitely should. School officials must get to the bottom of what happened, and whether any of the boys had bad intentions, as one student who didn’t raise his arm has suggested. Baraboo police also are investigating threats to the safety of students and the school.

The good news is many people in Baraboo have responded to the troubling incident in positive ways. About 30 residents posed for a picture expressing love and peace on the steps of the courthouse. The district and community also have scheduled forums for “healing and learning.”

The public deserves to know the truth. And the sooner the school district concludes and releases its findings, the better.

Baraboo Area Chamber of Commerce President Nancy Caflisch is right that, regardless of the boys’ intentions, the city needs to “own what happened” and “take this seriously.” She’s also right that Baraboo’s reaction to the controversy will say more about her community than the photograph can.

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The Journal Times of Racine, Nov. 18

Promise to veterans going unfulfilled

If you’re old enough, you remember the television commercials that encouraged young people to enlist in the military as a way to help pay for college through the G.I. Bill. A promise was made by the federal government to veterans who completed their terms of enlistment, thus earning their benefits.

Lately, the federal government has been failing to fulfill that promise.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is suffering from a series of information technology glitches that has caused G.I. Bill benefit payments covering education and housing to be delayed or — in the case of Shelley Roundtree — to never be delivered, NBCNews.com reported on Veterans Day.

Roundtree departed the U.S. Army in 2013 after a combat tour in Afghanistan. He enrolled in college with tuition and housing benefits he’d earned under the G.I. Bill. Roundtree, 29, began studying marketing at Berkeley College in Midtown Manhattan. He’s close to graduating, but now “I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless. I don’t want to be that veteran on the street begging for change because I haven’t received what I was promised.”

Without the G.I. Bill’s housing stipend, Roundtree was kicked out of his apartment and is now living on his sister’s couch, miles from school, where he feels like a burden on his family. All of his belongings are now in a storage container which he can no longer afford, and are in danger of being auctioned off by the storage facility.

Roundtree said he is forced to choose between spending money on public transportation to get to his marketing classes or buying food. At the end of the day, he said he often makes himself go to sleep hungry.

The Forever G.I. Bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, greatly expanded benefits for veterans and their families, but it did not upgrade the VA’s technical capabilities to account for those changes.

This summer, issues with the VA’s antiquated computer system meant that it waited until July 16 to tell schools to begin enrolling students, according to veteran advocacy groups. Many colleges and universities waited, however, because the VA told them that they would need to re-enter their student veterans’ certifying information either way.

While it is unclear how many GI Bill recipients were affected by the delays, as of Nov. 8, more than 82,000 were still waiting for their housing payments with only weeks remaining in the school semester, according to the VA. Hundreds of thousands are believed to have been affected.

“This is — to be kind — a train wreck,” said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “It’s really frustrating the amount of money that Congress has appropriated for veterans, and this is the way VA has rolled it out. This discussion started over a year ago.”

Roe’s office recently visited the VA’s regional processing office in Muskogee, Oklahoma, along with Democratic and Senate committee staffers and Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma.

In a Nov. 5 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, Roe said that employees at the processing center told the group that IT systems at the office froze and crashed so often that tasks that once took five minutes now required 45 minutes. Computers often suffered a “blue screen of death,” which required restarting machines, and “managers had to write off 16,890 man hours due to system crashes or latency issues.”

“While Committee staff never witnessed a ‘blue screen of death,’ ” the letter said, “they did witness the system crash no fewer than five times in a 10 minute period.”

Those of us who aren’t dependent on benefits from the VA could make the usual wisecracks about government bureaucracy, or think of our own experiences with the “blue screen of death” on our home or work computers. We have that luxury.

But an underfunded, understaffed Veterans Administration, with its antiquated computer system, is not fulfilling its duty to veterans such as Shelley Roundtree, who was promised money to help pay for college if he enlisted.

Roundtree, and thousands of young men and women like him, have been deployed to combat zones in service to this nation. Even those who weren’t sent to Afghanistan or Iraq held up their end of the bargain.

A promise was made. The VA, Congress and the White House owe it to our veterans to make every effort to ensure that the promise is kept.

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Kenosha News, Nov. 16

State lawmakers should listen to voters, legalize medical marijuana

This past Election Day, Wisconsin went green ... just not in the environmentally friendly way commonly associated with the phrase.

According to a report by the Wisconsin State Journal, nearly 1 million voters cast “yes” votes on advisory referendums in 16 counties and two cities on the legalization of medical and recreational marijuana.

Concerning recreational use, 644,000 voted in favor of legalization for use by adults, while 375,000 voters said marijuana should be available for medical use, the State Journal reported.

Of the 16 counties that had advisory referendums, voters in Kenosha County led the charge for medical marijuana legalization, with 88.5 percent voting in favor of legalization.

Other area municipalities were also overwhelmingly in favor of legalization, with 87.7 percent voting in favor in the city of Racine and 84.8 percent voting in favor of legalization in Racine County.

In other words, in the fall election, marijuana was more popular and more favorably supported than elected officials of either party.

And this is something that our state lawmakers should take notice of.

For years, marijuana has been a dirty word and listed as a Schedule I drug — alongside heroin, LSD and bath salts.

This is a category, by the way, that states that the drug has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Something that —as you can tell from the term “medical marijuana” even existing and it being prescribed by doctors throughout the U.S. — is completely false.

In fact, medical marijuana can help in the treatment of a plethora of medical ailments, including chronic pain.

Recently, this benefit was highlighted by former Kenosha County Board supervisor and former Kenosha alderman Mark Modory, who suffers from chronic pain due to a rare form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis.

For Modory, medical marijuana in edible form could alleviate the pain he feels each and every day.

Should we, as a state, continue to deny people like Modory relief based on decades of falsehoods that have been fed to us by people who have ignored the benefits that the drug could have?

The people of Wisconsin have answered this question with a resounding, deafening “no” through their votes on Nov. 6.

And state lawmakers should listen to them.

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