The Problem with Paul Tash is that he thinks
the Vietnam War Ended on Jan 27, 1973:
The Case to tell the Straight Story
An editorial by Wes Fager © Aug. 8, 2003
I remember the night several years ago that I called Virginia state Senator Linda T. "Toddy" Puller about the Straight legacy. I had called her because she was from the Mount Vernon Congressional district, the same district that former state Delegate Gerald A. Fill had been from. It was Delegate Fill, a former DEA agent, who broke the story of Straight's nine years of abuse in northern Virginia to the state's House of Delegates and to the Washington Post. Delegate Fill had made the same comment about Straight from the floor of the House, that Stanton Peele would make 10 years later at the First International Conference on Adolescent Treatment Abuse when he said, "I was appalled by the allegations of misconduct and abuse and harassment of children who are already in a bad way or they wouldn't be there in the first place." Stanton Peele simply said, "I never understood why anyone would want to take a kid that obviously feels bad about himself and make him feel worse." It ended with Virginia throwing Straight out for criminal child abuse just like California, Ohio, Texas, Massachusetts, and Sarasota County, Florida had done. And Mel Sembler, Straight's founder, now US Ambassador to Italy? He had found a way to get himself on Straight Foundation, Inc., the so-called education arm of Straight, Inc. His name never even came up. In fact for 17 years whenever allegations of abuse surfaced it was Jim Hartz, Miller Newton, Joy Margolis, Helen Gowanny, or Bill Oliver who caught the heat from the press. But whenever Nancy Reagan, George and Barbara Bush, Princess DI, or Senator Michael Bilirikis were in town to see Straight, it was Mel and Betty Sembler who were there to show off Straight. Just like when Melvin Sembler told the US Senate that it was he and Betty who had helped found and operate Straight for 17 years.
Anyway I had called Senator Toddy Puller, really hoping that I could speak to her husband Lewis as well. I got half my wish as she was not at home but Lewis answered the phone. I had been a military intelligence officer during the Vietnam War area and though I had volunteered for the Army, I was never ordered to Vietnam. But I knew Lewis Puller had gone. I knew that he had been a Captain in the Marines and had lost both legs and had gotten his hands badly mangled. He told me that he was then an attorney at the Pentagon. I invited him to come to the American Legion to which I belong and I would get him in a good poker game. He took a rain check. But mostly we talked about his dad, Lewis B. Puller. You know--Chesty Puller! The most decorated soldier in the history of the U.S. Marine Corps! I don't have many heroes outside of Winston Churchill, Arnold Trebach and Richard Bradbury, but Chesty Puller is one. Did you know that the last thing Marine boots say in unison before going to sleep on Paris Island or Camp Pendleton is "Good night Chesty Puller where ever you are!" Chesty made it through God knows how many wars receiving only shrapnel in his buttocks, but his son Capt. Lewis B. Puller, Jr., the man I was talking to on the telephone, stepped off a helicopter in Vietnam only to get both legs blown off. Like so many other Vietnam veterans Lewis, Jr. suffered from PTSS, became an alcoholic and even became suicidal. And then he wrote a book about his tragic life for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.
I never got to play cards with my hero's son. Lewis committed suicide shortly after we spoke. Officially the Vietnam War ended on January 27, 1973 with the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement. But the war had not ended for Lewis Puller in 1973. The war still haunted this great man a quarter of a century later when I met him, but briefly. The war will never be over for his widow and children. There are 50,000 names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, but Capt. Lewis B. Puller, Jr., United States Marine Corps, is not among them. And yet Capt. Puller died 25 years after the war officially ended from physical and mental injuries sustained in action in Vietnam prior to January 27, 1973. You try telling the widows and orphans and grieving mothers that the Vietnam War is over. I won't because it is not over for them. It will never be over. Nor will it ever end for my brother Spec 4 Wayne Fager, the only living survivor of a squad of communications specialists ambushed by the North Vietnamese.
Straight closed on July 1 - 2, 1993. How do we know? Because the Saint Petersburg Times told us so. Straight opened for business on September 1, 1976. How do we know, because the Saint Petersburg Times told us so. In fact, much of what we know about Straight and its reputation for criminal child abuse comes from 17 years of hard-hitting reporting by writers from the Saint Petersburg Times. And how could it be any other way for a local newspaper that won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for its in depth reporting on the Church of Scientology--another major cult that popped open in Pinellas County just six months before Straight.
The problem is that Paul Tash, the Times new editor, thinks that Straight ended on July 2, 1993, case closed, PERIOD. He seems to think that kids spat on and made to wallow in their own vomit and urine, made to scrape shit out of the toilet with their bare hands, made to confess to having sex with a parent, kids beaten and tortured can just go on with their lives like shell shocked veterans from Vietnam. The Internet is buzzing with discussion forums for former Straight students; but Paul Tash, whose paper started the story, won't finish the story. There have been two international conferences in Saint Petersburg on rehabilitation programs that abuse our children but Tash won't send a reporter. Over 20 people from all over America assembled at Ambassador Sembler's house to stage a protest for his involvement with Straight. A Times reporter did not get the word, showed up, took names and several photos of this remarkable event, but his editors squashed the story and Sembler gave the Times a sweetheart deal. Last month Miller Newton, Straight's former national clinical director, settled with a client for $6.5 million but the Times won't cover the story even though Miller Newton is back in Saint Petersburg at the residence he never gave up, and even though he's operating there under a new name--Father Cassian. (All told, since 1999 Newton has settled for $11 million with former abused clients.) There is even some reason to wonder whether Miller Newton actually really left Straight back in the 1980s. Much of that work is already spelled out for the Times here, but they are not interested. Former Pinellas County states attorney James T. Russell has long retired now, but how is it he never prosecuted Miller Newton for the crimes he committed in Florida as shown here. Miller Newton is threatening to sue former Straight client Marty Heath. Calvina Fay, executive director of Drug Free America Foundation (formerly Straight, Inc.), is threatening to sue former Straight client Ginger Warbis. Melvin and Betty Sembler are suing Richard Bradbury--the man who closed Straight. What the hell is the matter with you people down there. Can't you find a story in any of this. Is JR Ewing's approval that valuable? You want more?
There are two former members on death row, one in Florida. They are Buddy's Kids too. We have to tell the judges they were severely abused at theStraights. Michael Daniels, Bill Fager and Dylon are still insane but that's not Pinellas County's problem. Chris Weiss, Duane Rholfs and Matt Hunter along with at least least 37 other former clients have killed themselves. Who's going to tell their story? The research has been done for you. All you have to do, Mr. Tash, is order one of your reporters to click here. It's just that simple.
Perhaps thousands of people are suffering from Straight-induced PTSS and depression; try telling them not to worry because Straight closed on July 2, 1993. There are Straight legacy programs all over America, three right down there in Florida, isn't that newsworthy. Here they are. Straight was allowed to perpetuate its criminal activity because the cops and the judges were in Straight's corner, and because the Republican politicians are in JR's pockets. I was in Saint Petersburg recently to attend the conference that you refused to cover when one of the survivors from one of the programs currently in the news told me that where the Straight crowd is today is where her crowd will be 10 years from now. How is it she has the wisdom to see this when you don't. Didn't George Santayama say "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Today 20/20 and The New York Times are ablaze with articles about the new juvenile treatment programs. Author Maia Szalavitz says the Straight story is a "hard sell"; attorney Phil Elberg says interest appears to lie only in the survivors' crowd. A video producer recently told me that he had contacted a Times editor who had told him that he doubted if the Times would ever mention Straight again. Straight is a hard sale to the New York Times and to Sixty Minutes, because it didn't happen yesterday and it didn't happen in New York City. But Straight started and ended (Or has it ended?) in Saint Petersburg. The Saint Petersburg Times has an obligation to follow this story to its conclusion. The people need to know why it is that Mel and Betty Sembler continue to be at the forefront of American and international drug policy citing Straight as their experience to be in that position. That's a story Mr. Tash. The people need to know why Straight, now calling itself the Drug Free America Foundation, was behind the Amicus Curae Brief to the US Supreme Court to allow for kids to be drug tested without suspicion for their own good, when many of the signers are Mel Sembler cronies who have a conflict of interest because they are in the drug testing industry. That's newsworthy. Mel Sembler recently told the US Senate that it was he and Betty who were responsible for Straight. Why didn't the Times step up to the plate then and tell the Senators what Straight was. You knew. The survivors want something to happen. They want some recompense from the state of Florida, the federal government, Mel Sembler. There's statue of limitations and so maybe this will never happen, but we're talking 50,000 abused kids. It is certainly newsworthy they are talking on the Internet, talking on radio shows, writing to Congressmen, meeting in Saint Petersburg. That they are trying to make something happen.
Mel and Betty Sembler have profited more than any one else from Straight. He is the Honorable Ambassador to Italy; she flies around the world setting national and international drug policy. At the 2001 Florida Drug Summit, journalist Pete Brady asked Betty Sembler about critics of Straight and her other anti-drug activities. She responded that "They should get a life. I am proud of everything we have done. There's nothing to apologize for. The legalizers are the ones who should be apologizing." The Saint Petersburg Times will not cover the stories of continuing damage Straight has caused to so many lives, instead it opts to tell about Betty Sembler's birthday party attended to by the mayor and by Judge Irene Sullivan whose husband ran successfully for state Senate and became a member of the committee that oversees HRS, after an HRS IG report suggested that Mel Sembler probably interfered with an HRS investigation to close Straight in Saint Petersburg in 1989. Charles Sullivan had been the secretary for Straight Foundation. That's a story itself all the more interesting because Charles Sullivan is in the running for top GOP in Florida. Instead the Times opted to carry the story of Mel and Betty's 50th wedding anniversary, but what about the marriages that Straight broke up? That's newsworthy too.
Mr. Tash, do you know what is the most insidious thing that Straight did to these kids. The thing that they most have troubles with to this very day. Surely you've seen film clips of prisoner Navy Capt. John McCain (now Senator John McCain from Arizona) from the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. The one where he admitted that he was a war criminal and that America was involved in War Crimes. Do you remember him blinking from all those bright camera lights. His guards did not notice it, but one of my fellow military intelligence officers sure caught on. He was blinking in code-- Morse Code--over and over again the word TORTURE. In spite of the torture, do you know what kept him going during all those years of depravity and beatings? He was sustained by the thoughts that his wife and children, mother and father, brothers and sisters and other loved ones approved of what he was doing and that they cared. He knew they would be there for him when his torture was finally over. Could you imagine what would have happened to his morale if the International Red Cross flew his family to Hanoi, and his family members were given a microphone and started publicly ridiculing him. Telling him he could not come home until he submitted to his captors. Till he signed their confessions. Till he got honest. Mr. Tash, that's what makes Straight far worse than the North Vietnamese, the North Koreans and any other destructive, mind-control cult there is. Straight tricked parents and siblings to blast a child, over a microphone, to get honest. To get with the program. Straight made the captive kid feel his own parents were in on it, along with the the courts and the police. That they knew about the abuse and that they approved of the abuse. The child was completely and utterly hopeless. He could not turn to his own parents. He had no will to escape. Of course the parents did not know about the abuse any more than they knew that when the insisted that their child get honest they may be encouraging him to sign a confession that he had had sex wih his own mother!
Straight is indeed a hard sell to a novice. But the Saint Petersburg Times is the expert here on this story. Saint Petersburg is where it started. Saint Petersburg is where the saga continues to unfold. The story will not be told unless the Saint Petersburg Times detaches itself form Mel Sembler's pocketbook and from the approval of the Republican Party and gets back to reporting the news, the thing that made it once great.
Mr. Tash, you just don't seem to get it. Straight no more ended on July 2, 1993 for the kids who were tortured there than did the Vietnam War end on January 27, 1973 for Virginia state Senator Toddy Puller or for US Senator John McCain. Talk to the Veterans Administration and ask them if they staff doctors and counselors based on the current strength of the Army, or if they add to that the manpower needed to handle the case load of survivors from all the previous wars and from all the new wars yet to come. Somebody has to pick up the pieces after the armistice is declared.