Research Links PTSD to Blasts in Comba



Posted in New York Times, June 10, Pg. A19 | Alan Schwarz


They are among war’s invisible wounds: the emotional and cognitive problems that many troops experience years after combat explosions sent huge shock waves through their brains. Whereas the link between concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder has become clearer in recent years, a specific connection between PTSD and blast waves has remained elusive.


Now, a prominent neuropathologist who researches brain injuries among military personnel says his team has identified evidence of tissue damage caused by blasts alone, not by concussions or other injuries. The team’s study was published on Thursday in The Lancet Neurology.


The discovery could eventually lead to better treatments and to improved head and body protection for troops exposed to high-energy blasts, some experts said. Other researchers advised that these initial findings should be bolstered by more studies before veterans and their families read too much into them.


”We talk about PTSD being a psychiatric problem — how people responded to the horror of warfare,” said Dr. Daniel P. Perl, the neuropathologist who led the study. ”But at least in some cases, no — their brain has been damaged.”


”The real black box is to figure out who has this,” added Dr. Perl, who works at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., the medical school run by the Department of Defense.


Even the tentative results provided some solace to Jennifer Collins, who was married to one of the five male military veterans whose damaged brains were examined in the study. Her husband, David, served 17 years in the Navy SEALs, enduring countless explosions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired in 2012, and steadily developed significant depression, sleeplessness and memory loss. He killed himself in March 2014.


”This is proof that this man died in combat,” Ms. Collins said in a telephone interview, sobbing and struggling to find words. ”It took several years to kill him, but he died in combat. This finding is further validation about what I know about my husband.”


It is unclear how many of the 2.5 million United States service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to blasts. A 2008 report by the RAND Corporation suggested that the number could be about 500,000. But some estimates suggest the problem could be greater: For example, a 2014 study of 34 living veterans from those conflicts found that a majority had experienced at least five blasts.


Explosions from roadside bombs, grenades and other devices produce a wide spectrum of injuries. Beyond the shrapnel and other objects that impale the head and body, the hurricane-force wind can blow troops off their feet, causing fatal head injuries and concussions on impact.


Less understood is how the blast wave — the pulse of compressed air that shoots in all directions faster than the speed of sound and arrives before the wind — affects brain tissue after crashing through the helmet and skull. Blasts are also believed to compress the sternum and send shock waves through the body’s blood vessels and up into the brain.


[Video: VBIED Attack Watch on YouTube.]


The researchers examined the brains of the five veterans who had been exposed to blasts, and compared samples with those of 16 other veterans and civilians with and without brain injuries from military service or other activities. Scar tissue in specific locations of the cerebral cortex, which regulates emotional and cognitive functioning, was found only in the blast-injury cases.


All five of those men also suffered from the symptoms of PTSD, which, given the location of the scarring, suggests that a physical combat injury could have led to or exacerbated their psychological troubles, Dr. Perl said. Any such connection, now only speculative and needing further research, could lead to a better understanding of a link between combat and PTSD, said Dr. Ibolja Cernak, the chairwoman of military rehabilitation research at the University of Alberta.


Dr. Cernak likened the blast-injury study published in The Lancet Neurology to the first reports of chronic traumatic encephalopathy among professional football players, whose disease was linked to repetitive on-field brain trauma and helped explain some of their cognitive and emotional problems decades later. As with C.T.E., the damage connected to blasts does not appear on any magnetic resonance imaging test or brain scan and can be located only after death.


”This could be for the military population what C.T.E. was for football players — enormous,” Dr. Cernak said of the research.


Beyond treatment options, the findings raise the possibility that better head protection for active soldiers could ameliorate a blast wave’s damage. Dr. Ralph G. DePalma, a special operations officer in the office of research and development at the Department of Veterans Affairs, called that prospect ”probably the most important aspect of this paper.”


”Looking at the mechanism of how the injury occurs and possible interventions immediately, that’s something that the Department of Defense is very interested in,” Dr. DePalma said. ”We know that certain blast exposures, the angles at which the blast encounters the face and helmet matters. So you can look at protection.”


Some experts are concerned that as significant as identifying blast-related damage in the brain can be, linking it to PTSD is premature. For example, Mr. Collins’s brain also showed signs of C.T.E., which has been found in previous autopsies of military veterans and could have contributed to his psychiatric condition. One of the other four subjects in the study had very small signs of C.T.E., but the other three showed none.


”We have to be very certain — it’s about not jumping the gun, not jumping to conclusions about the significance of the changes we find in the brain in terms of a person’s prognosis or their symptoms,” said Dr. Ann McKee, the chief of neuropathology at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System. She and others at Boston University have identified C.T.E. in the brains of about 100 former N.F.L. players and some military veterans.


”Until we really understand how those changes come about and what the changes really mean,” she added, ”we won’t understand the clinical factors that lead to disability from these diseases.”


Dr. DePalma added that even if no treatments could be developed for years, soldiers should not assume that they would emerge from combat with damage from blast waves. Genetics are believed to influence whether a football player will develop C.T.E., so military combat may pose different risks to different people.


”It’s not, ‘Oh my God, if I’m exposed to blasts I’m going to go crazy,”’ Dr. DePalma said.

Meet the College Women Who Are Starting a Revolution Against Campus Sexual Assault

Vanessa Grigoriadis

“Want to meet at my dorm? Less carrying for me.”

Emma Sulkowicz, a.k.a. the international sensation “mattress girl,” is emailing from her phone in her Columbia University dorm high up over Morningside Heights, where she lives in a single room within a six-person suite. “My friends and I got the first place in the housing lottery for seniors last year,” she says non­chalantly, leading the way through a concrete-block hallway, in purple flip-flops the same color as her painted toes, as well as a light-blue cropped tee featuring a moose with sunglasses over the words FEARLESS LEADER, commemorating a river-rafting trip for freshmen. As you may already know, given how viral Sulkowicz’s image has gone in the past few weeks, that’s the outdoor-­orientation program that preceded Sulkowicz’s alleged rape by another orientation leader, which was followed by a Columbia-adjudicated hearing during which the university found her assailant not guilty—a verdict she began protesting, this September, by carry­ing a mattress around campus until Columbia expels her assailant.

A few years ago, an Ivy League student going public about her rape, telling the world her real name—let alone trying to attract attention by lugging around a mattress—would have been a rare bird. In America, after all, we still assume rape survivors want, and need, their identities protected by the press. But shattering silence, in 2014, means not just coming out with an atrocity tale about your assault but offering what Danielle Dirks, a sociologist at Occidental, calls “an atrocity tale about how poorly you were treated by the people you pay $62,500 a year to protect you.” By owning those accusations, and pointing a finger not only at assailants but also the American university, the ivory tower of privilege, these survivors have built the most effective, organized anti-rape movement since the late ’70s. Rape activists now don’t talk much about women’s self-care and protection like they did in the ’90s with Take Back the Night marches, self-defense classes, and cans of Mace. Today, the militant cry is aimed at the university: Kick the bastards out.

Taking a seat in a wood-and-wool chair of the blend shared by dorms and doctors’ waiting rooms, Sulkowicz starts to tell her tale. At 21, in barely detectable Invisalign braces, she’s the type of hipster-nerd who rules the world these days, with the mellow demeanor and direct way of speaking of an Apple genius-bar clerk, except she giggles nervously when worried she’s said the wrong thing. The Japanese-Chinese-Jewish daughter of Manhattan psychiatrists, she was a club fencer and an A student at Dalton on the Upper East Side. At Columbia, Sulkowicz thought she’d focus on mechanical physics—she liked the way you could draw a diagram to solve a problem, see the answer—but wound up drawn to visual arts instead. She also joined Alpha Delta Phi, Columbia’s co-ed “hipster frat.” As she puts it dryly, “Only the most hipster of the hipster kids can get in.” That’s where she met Paul, a film fanatic and rower. “He was a nice person,” she says matter-of-factly, “a cool person who was secretly really crazy.”

Toward the end of freshman year, the two students signed up to help lead the next year’s outdoor-orientation program, taking a training trip down the Delaware River. There were an odd number of students on the trip, so everyone sat two to a canoe except Paul, who was in a kayak. “He would paddle way out ahead of everyone so that he didn’t have to talk to anyone,” she says. They had sex twice. He went to Europe for the summer.

When he returned, at the beginning of sophomore year, Sulkowicz was a committee head for orientation. “Paul was really needy,” she says. “He asked me to help carry his bags, and I was like, ‘I’m organizing food for 400 freshmen.’ ” One night there was a party for the orientation leaders. In the ivy-covered courtyard outside Wien Hall, Paul kissed Sulkowicz, who says that she was sober except for a sip of gin-and-Sprite. He was buzzed and carrying a handle of vodka. While they were having consensual sex in her dorm room, she alleges that he suddenly pushed her legs against her chest, choked her, slapped her, and anally penetrated her as she struggled and clearly repeated “No.”

Sulkowicz didn’t report the incident at first. But when two classmates told her that Paul had been abusive to them too—one who had been in a long-term relationship with him, the other alleging he groped her—she pressed charges with the administration. Students tend to be uncomfortable going to the cops, who, despite what plots of Law & Order suggest, aren’t always great with rape. The preference suits the universities, too, which prefer to handle issues quietly in-house. Under Title IX, a gender-parity law from 1972, universities are required to adjudicate sexual-assault claims to ensure gender equality on campus as a civil right. The Obama White House, taking a strong position on combating campus assault, has reinforced a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in these cases, meaning campus courts need only find it’s 51 percent likely the assault occurred to punish the accused. To students like Sulkowicz—who are, after all, putting their good word on the line as well as risking stigma, humiliation, possible retribution from the guy’s friends, and diminishment of respect from their own friends—that lower standard can feel like a relief.

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Sulkowicz, though, claims that Columbia administrators made errors and acted, frankly, idiotically during the hearing process. One took incomplete notes of her story, writing that she was tipsy that night. Adjudicators “kept asking me to explain the position I was in,” she says. “At one point, I was like, ‘Should I just draw you a picture?’ So I drew a stick drawing.” She says one of the three judges even asked whether Paul used lubricant, commenting, “I don’t know how it’s possible to have anal sex without lubrication first.”

Paul denied the charges. If Sulkowicz is a fencer, she alleges he told the panel, her legs are the strongest part of her body, and he was only a lightweight rower—how could he have pinned her legs down? The anal sex was consensual, he said. He went into detail about how he came on Sulkowicz, and then she grabbed a tissue, wiped the ejaculate off, and “ ‘threw the tissue away,’ ” she says. “None of which is true—he never came that night. He just stopped and ran away.”

Columbia didn’t hear Sulkowicz’s charges for six months, then found in favor of Paul. “There’s three women accusing the same guy here,” she says. “Like, we don’t have any other motivation other than he assaulted us.” When she appealed, a dean refused to overturn the verdict. By Columbia’s bylaws, his decision was final.

Today, Paul is still at Columbia, though he’s lying low, even keeping his email out of the campus Facebook. The mattress protest is a way for Sulkowicz to both refuse him that anonymity and turn the situation on its head. She’ll take the punishment, it says. This is a heavy mattress—an extra-long twin covered with shiny blue bedbug-proof material, bought from a clearinghouse called Tall Paul’s Tall Mall, which stocks the same mattresses Columbia orders for its dorms for growing boys. For now, she’s not using any hooks or belt loops to carry it—only her hands, or other students’ hands (her friends call those “collective carries”). It’s a weight Columbia can lift together. “For the record, the best arrangement is four people carrying the mattress, because they each take a corner,” says Sulkowicz, smiling. “Then it’s really light.”

Sulkowicz’s mattress project is powerful, indelible; as Hillary Clinton said last week, “That image should haunt all of us.” But it is also maybe a little youthful. This is the ethical purview of college students. Strict attention not only to learning and knowledge but also to morality, to right and wrong, when to stand up and when to stay silent, is a large part of why American colleges exist.

“One cannot help but feel terrible about this,” Columbia president Lee Bollinger says about Sulkowicz and her mattress in his first interview on the subject. “This is a person who is one of my students, and I care about all of my students. And when one of them feels that she has been a victim of mistreatment, I am affected by that. This is all very painful.” Bollinger says that he has spent “as much time on this issue”—meaning sexual assault on campus—“as any issue” over the past year, which includes ­Columbia’s largest expansion in nearly a century, a $6.3 billion, 17-acre satellite campus in West Harlem. In August, he created a new sexual-assault policy, taking a much harder line. Students are now required to have “unambiguous communication and mutual agreement”—that’s verbal consent—before sexual acts, or risk ­consequences. Though an improvement, this hasn’t been enough to quell unrest.

Activists of Sulkowicz’s generation have long retired the word victim, preferring survivor. But Sulkowicz calls carrying the mattress “performance art,” and we might as well take her at her word. Her daily thoughts, including how the hell she’s getting the mattress to class, are about the integrity of her art piece; when this magazine asked to photograph her in a studio in Chelsea, she worried about violating the “rules” for the performance by taking the mattress to a location off-campus.

That she has become the poster girl for the anti-rape movement is an accident of a viral world—she doesn’t have a background in activism, and she is not really at the center of this crusade. To find the godmothers, you have to travel to Los Angeles, where Annie Clark, 25, and Andrea Pino, 22, two political-science majors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are hard at work in a one-bedroom in Silver Lake, rented off Craigslist, that has become an anti-assault Death Star. Both of them were violently raped as students, and in responding to both cases, UNC seemed to be lax verging on cruel—Clark claims an administrator even said to her, “Rape is like football. If you look back on the game, and you’re the quarterback … is there anything you would have done differently?” Working with a network of activists, they’ve helped survivors learn about their Title IX rights and file complaints about violations across the country. Today, 78 American colleges, including Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Amherst, Swarthmore, Brandeis, Emerson, and a slew of West Coast schools from UC Berkeley to USC to UCLA, are under investigation by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Though they’re at the heart of a national movement now, Pino and Clark were on the sidelines when things started to shake out a few years ago. Online—especially on powerful mainstream blogs like Jezebel—young writers were brewing a cauldron of pop-culture ­coverage and feminist theory, resuscitating feminism from its post–Monica Lewinksy, Girls Gone Wild–era doldrums by coaxing horror stories out of dark crannies and crucifying pop-culture villains. Between Woody Allen, Terry Richardson, Chris Brown, Elliot Rodger, the “legitimate rape” dude, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and Ray Rice knocking his fiancée out cold in the elevator, they haven’t needed to look far. Pop culture was “rape culture,” they said, borrowing a term from second-wave feminism as a catchall for America’s stew of degradation, objectification, and male entitlement. “Rape culture is an attitude toward women in particular, but not even just to women—to treating all people as sexual objects, nothing more than an opportunity for sex,” says Anna Bahr, a Columbia graduate and former editor of Blue and White, the school magazine.

Slowly, public discussion of rape among college women began to be normalized, and they started to share. Amherst student Angie Epifano published the first major, non-pseudonymous “atrocity tale” in 2012, writing about how her rape allegations were denied by her college’s sexual-assault counselor; how she became suicidal and was locked up in a psychiatric ward, after which, she alleged, Amherst tried to deny her readmittance; how, when the school agreed to take her back, her dean prevented her from studying abroad (“Africa is quite traumatizing, what with those horrible Third World conditions: disease … huts … lions!”); how they made her feel like a “broken, polluted piece of shit.” She wrote that she did not want to be ashamed anymore. It occurred to her that she had no reason to be ashamed. “Silence has the rusty taste of shame,” she repeated to herself. “I will not be quiet.”

Emma Sulkowicz, a senior, she says she’ll lug her mattress around campus all year in protest.
Pino studied policy-framing at school, and she thought about combining Epifano’s narrative with developments at Yale, where students had filed a complaint alleging that the school was mishandling rape accusations amid a female-unfriendly atmosphere where frat pledges felt okay yelling things like “No means yes, yes means anal” and “My name is Jack, I’m a necrophiliac, I fuck dead women and fill them with my semen.” A mix of the personal and the political, Pino thought, can make a movement. Pino and Clark also had a genius rhetorical idea—they’d take a lesson from the military anti-rape movement, which had beaten a drum about kicking serial, violent rapists out of the armed forces. No one should talk the way activists did in the ’90s—no more date rape. Focus on college men as serial predators, and cite a study that claimed that 6 percent commit three or more undetected rapes and attempted rapes each.

On a staggeringly sunny morning in Los Angeles, Pino and Clark are at their apartment, working away. Best friends, they even dress the same: Today, they’re in purple tops, black eyeliner, a surfeit of teeny-tiny diamond-stud earrings, each with a pendant around her neck, plus Clark has slung on her Phi Beta Kappa key—and small ankle tattoos reading ix. This crusade is exciting but not lucrative. Without money to pay rent, they slept in a tent for a little while. Pino became ill and thought she had mono, though Clark didn’t have mono and they spent all their time together. Maybe it was the old hummus she’d eaten? At the ER, with her laptop to keep plugging away on activist issues, the doctors gave her prednisone, a no-no because she has PTSD from her rape. “It gave me violent hallucinations, which made me suicidal,” she says.

In the end, Pino was diagnosed with a staph infection in her blood, though she looks fine today, doing what she does every day—talking to survivors, advising them on Title IX complaints, and polishing media sound bites about necrophiliacs and the taste of silence and every dirty, repulsive thing. “I got a good one today,” says Pino. “My Rapist Was Only Fined $25.” On a wall, a whiteboard is filled with the names of schools they’re about to target, and a map of the U.S. has tiny colored pins stuck in each state where a college has an investigation. Says Clark, “Like at Penn State, when things aren’t connected, it’s so easy to say, ‘Okay, here are four people doing things wrong. We’ll fire them, and the issue goes away.’ We reframed the debate as, ‘What’s happening at one school is a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere.’ ”

Taking a seat at a cardboard box, which functions as their desk, they whip out a laptop. “I wouldn’t say we control the media, but we have a good grasp of how the media works,” says Pino, shrugging her shoulders.

Drawing bright lines over gray areas is one of the things college students do best—you pay money to learn, among ­like-minded souls, the contours of the world and your place in it. Over the past couple of decades, the college campus has acquired some aspects of a utopia, too, namely, the free-floating myth of itself as a utopia. But different students have different ideas of what this constitutes. It might be a place to go wild, to do the things you won’t get to do as a full-fledged adult; it might be a place to search for a political point of view and dedicate yourself to a cause. It’s also seen, primarily by boys, as a sexual utopia, where all you have to do is open the door of a frat party to have mind-blowing sex that catapults you into the pantheon of manhood—as opposed to what college sex is often really like, which on its best nights (after emoji flirting, hits off a five-foot bong from a top bunk, and elegant overtures like “Um-want-to-watch-a-movie-in-my-room”) still resembles rutting pubescent chimpanzees.

Is there a rampant hook-up culture on campus today? Of course there is. Does the promiscuity that third-wave feminists heralded as empowerment look a little less attractive when practiced by teenagers with little experience and less maturity? You bet. And frustration with hook-up culture is undeniably a part of the anti-rape movement. In some ­activists’ ideal world, there might be no trial, on campus or elsewhere, but instead a simple ­presumption of guilt.

In all of the allegations, I’m sure there are a few women who are crying wolf, who are vengeful and looking to punish ex-­boyfriends—just a few. A ­ercentage may be misunderstandings—confusing signals, something she wanted and then didn’t. Drunken­ness doesn’t clarify these things, even when they should be clear. The way that college girls, for instance, taught from early life to be polite and well behaved, might say “No” during sex with someone they know isn’t the same as with a stranger. It’s “No, it’s not a good idea,” “No, please get off me,” and then, often, a numb acceptance.

Survivor-activists like Pino and Clark don’t accept this worldview—to them, efforts to understand the problem are nearly useless because, they insist, only a small number of college sex offenders can be rehabilitated. “There are people out there who want to say that survivors today are feminism gone wild, railroading men for power,” says Dirks, the Occidental sociologist. “And they can rely on talking about kids and alcohol, saying what happened was just drunk sex—and, you know, we’ve all had great drunk sex!” Research, she says, shows that only a small percentage of college guys truly don’t know where the line is—“and, for them, if you tell them to get verbal consent, they don’t push so hard.” She pauses. “But the rest of them—and I know it’s hard to think of our brothers, our sons, like this—are calculated predators. They seem like nice guys, but they’re not nice guys. In society, we don’t like sex offenders in any other area, but for some reason, if you’re in ­college, we love you and want to protect your rights.”

As compelling as this rallying cry about unrehabilitatable ­offenders is, it’s not an assessment of the problem that everyone shares. In the center of this philosophical, and administrative, debate are the universities, which need to protect students, including innocent boys who may not look innocent, as in the Duke lacrosse case. There are good people here who have dedicated their lives to helping young people, and one of the mysteries of this issue is how they created a system that devastates so many of the students who come to them desperate for help. At some universities, it’s administrative bloat, middle-management laziness, a habit of shoving assault cases under the rug so they don’t become nuisances. At others, too much attention has perhaps been paid to the letter of Title IX and not its spirit, with a sluggishness about giving rape survivors what they want—the accused student out of their dorms, classes, and their lives.

A progressive, politically aware school in Manhattan but also apart from it, Columbia, to my knowledge, isn’t accused of covering up sadistic gang rapes that have been exposed at other schools. Most of the cases that I learned about, though each horrid in its own way, involves a female student, perhaps engaged in a hook-up session, being forced into an act against her will. A freshman was raped by a junior who taught her Consent 101 class. A student’s rapist was moved back into her dorm by mistake. In one case, an assistant athletic coach whom a student confided in about her assault told the head coach, unbidden, and he berated her for three hours. Camila Quarta says she woke up in the middle of the night and the male platonic friend she had invited to sleep over was fingering her. He begged her not to report him, leaving a letter and David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water at her door. “He wanted me to have it because I’d shared so many of my political views on the world with him,” and he said Wallace’s speech was important to his Weltanschauung, says Quarta, a die-hard leftist. “I didn’t read it.” (Citing privacy laws, Bollinger won’t comment on the accuracy of these allegations—it would not only be illegal, he says, but immoral.

Columbia doesn’t have an overt Animal House atmosphere—though excessive drinking, often at city bars, has always been part of its social life. Here, the issue around assault built slowly. In 2013, as national headlines sprang up, the university’s College Democrats thought it was worth inquiring into Columbia’s sexual-assault ­statistics. They asked Bollinger for data beyond what was mandated by federal requirements—they wanted aggregated, anonymous data about punishments meted out when the accused were found guilty. Otherwise, how could they know if the system was working? As “Prezbo,” as Bollinger is called, seemed to ignore their requests, students became suspicious, circulating a petition that gathered over 1,500 names.

Still, this was a relatively quiet collegiate tussle—but Sulkowicz, whose father consulted with a high-profile attorney who knows how to work the press, began to grant interviews. And then Bahr, the magazine editor, published an 8,000-word, two-part article about the three women who had accused Paul of assault. The Columbia campus went nuts—was this what had been going on behind closed doors?

Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, a brunette with a fringe of bangs and a clipped way of speaking that resembles Tracy Flick’s, took up the question. The daughter of the two female co-founders of the Northern California Innocence Project— “My favorite baby picture is at my first pro-choice rally, wearing a hat with a pin on it that says ABORTION WITHOUT APOLOGY”—she was an Obama organizer in Nevada at 15, president of her class in San Jose, and then a congressional page with plans to run for public office one day.

But after her first year at Columbia, Ridolfi-Starr was at a fraternity party with two men, one of whom was a student and one who wasn’t, when they began assaulting her. “It was dirty and confusing and made me feel sick,” she said. Then, at the Democratic National Convention, with the “son of a very important person,” it happened again. “I was pretty violently assaulted,” says Ridolfi-Starr, audibly drawing in a breath. “I was stranded in North Carolina with no one I knew and no way to get home. The scene at the DNC struck me as extremely grimy, extremely exploitative, with people grabbing power sexually, personally, politically—everything. And then the guy lied about what happened and everybody was laughing about it.”

Ridolfi-Starr never brought her assaulters to justice. She studied abroad in Argentina, got away for a while. But now she was back at Columbia. And she was ready to channel her fury over her rapes, along with considerable political expertise, into helping students avoid the same fate. If Pino and Clark are national leaders, Ridolfi-Starr is a star organizer of the Columbia branch of the movement. “Columbia is my home, and I deserve to be safe in my home,” she says. “I moved across the country to come to my dream school, and then the institution betrays us. It’s hideous.”

In general, students were outraged by the unethical ways that the guys and Columbia’s administration had acted. But some of them thought survivor accounts were difficult to believe: “They’re pigeonholing these guys as autistic, predatory rapist dudes who only think about sex,” says a sophomore. And, problematically, no one seemed to understand or agree on what rape means or what qualifies. “I had a friend who was like, ‘I had sex with this guy and I was really uncomfortable—I wish I’d said something,’ ” says Trina Bills, a student who graduated last year. “But she didn’t, and so he didn’t know. When she finally told him, he said, ‘You should’ve told me. It would’ve been fine—we just wouldn’t have done anything.’ The communication aspect of this is real. And everyone communicates differently.”

Sulkowicz and Ridolfi-Starr shared a hall as freshmen, but the hipster fencer-artist and the earnest political organizer weren’t close back then. “I remember Zoe carried around lollipops in her purse, taking them out to suck on like they were accessories,” says Sulkowicz. Ridolfi-Starr laughs. “I always have my little thing,” she says. “This year, I’m really into headbands.”

Now they had a strong bond. At first, they tried to work with Bollinger and the administration. But, Ridolfi-Starr claims, the school refused to put out a place setting for them, choosing instead to work with ­student-government leaders. “They don’t like us. They don’t trust us. They don’t want to work with this. Their attitude isn’t ‘Let us address your needs as students.’ It’s ‘How do we mitigate this situation to protect our reputation?’ ” She sighs. “Going through the experience in your own life is not a qualification they take seriously.”

It was time for direct, nonhierarchical, gyno-friendly, partially anonymous, fuck-Prezbo-up action. Ridolfi-Starr and others founded a radical group called No Red Tape—the mantra is “Red tape won’t cover up rape”—and put tape over their mouths at a student-activity fair when they were told to stand 20 feet away. (“It’s our student center!” says Ridolfi-Starr.) She claims that a dean told another student she was “disruptive” and a “liar”—“Can you imagine, a 50-year-old saying that about a 21-year-old?”—and that on Valentine’s Day this year, the same dean kicked No Red Tape out of his office when the group asked about funding for the rape crisis center. “Emma said, ‘You mean to tell us that as the dean of our school you don’t know how anything is funded?’ ” says Ridolfi-Starr. “We were sharing some of the worst experiences of our lives with him, and he was in a suit, smirking at us. Then he said, “This meeting is over.” She shakes her head. “It was so unacceptable.”

The administration may not have wanted to listen—but Pino and Clark did. At the time, Clark was advising Hobart on a Title IX investigation, and the two of them were coaching a survivor on talking to the Times. It wasn’t a long way to New York. Ridolfi-Starr burned the midnight oil, and soon 28 students signed a federal Title IX complaint against Columbia that runs about 400 pages, they estimate. (Columbia has yet to hear whether it will be investigated, and added to that list of 78 schools.)

Now that the Title IX complaint had been filed, media and high-level politicians were ready to give the students a platform. Could Sulkowicz be on the front page of the Times? Done. And ­Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, stung by disappointment about her military-rape bill, was crafting a strong campus-rape bill, asking for more protection for students and higher penalties for colleges, slated to come to the floor in late 2014 or 2015. For certain violations, she wants fines of up to one percent of the universities’ operating budget, which can run into the billions.

After a press conference at Gillibrand’s office, Ridolfi-Starr talked to her parents. “Right before, I sent them an email like, ‘Heads up, you may see something,’ because they have, um, a Google Alert for my name. How embarrassing.” Her moms were very upset. “You know, they’re smart people, feminists, and yet one of the first things they said was, ‘This happened in Argentina, didn’t it? You’ve always been too adventurous.’ ” A “mom response,” granted, but “so victim-blaming,” she says. “Even if I was assaulted in Argentina, it’s not my fault for going to Argentina. And also, like, ‘No, I was here, doing the same thing I do every weekend—bar, party, apartment; bar, party, dorm.’ ” She laughs a little bitterly. “Mom, you probably walked by him when you moved me in.”

There was still more courage to summon. One day in May, several people crept into the bathrooms of student buildings and wrote the names of the alleged rapists on the wall—not only Paul but prominent guys like a big campus DJ, an athlete training for the Olympics, and a male student who worked at the Blue and White’s news blog. Columbia immediately dispatched janitors to wash the graffiti away. The anonymous offenders did it again, two times, and Columbia finally barricaded the third bathroom.

Other students started to ask questions—what was this? This was not taking the university to task in a responsible way—this was vigilantism. Ridolfi-Starr was upset by the blowback: Students were saying it was possible these guys weren’t even rapists. She couldn’t believe it—she, the daughter of Innocence Project moms, making false accusations? A new flyer appeared from an unknown source, this time explaining which students on the list were found guilty and calling Paul a “serial rapist.” The accused student was forced to resign from the blog.

Though some students thought social ostracism made sense, the survivor-activist group lost a little bit of support over Bathroomgate. You can’t just disappear a student. Some of these guys had been disciplined—who was to say the punishment was too lenient? To Quarta, whose assaulter was only given a semester off, it wasn’t enough. “His family sent him to Europe, and meanwhile I was here working my ass off,” she says.

Over the summer, accused male students around the country began to organize, too. They’re aware of the political brilliance of the anti-rape movement, the way activists have liberated themselves from litigating individual he-said-she-said cases and moved the burden to universities to foster a safe campus environment, to insist they live up to their own ideals as liberal utopias, where nobody ever has to debate semantics.

At Columbia, a suspended varsity rower from Florida is suing the school, and several others are considering suits as well, alleging their own civil rights are being violated: They wouldn’t be coming under fire if they weren’t men. (No accused students agreed to speak with New York, and a message left for Paul was not returned.) Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney for the rower, says there aren’t big settlements in the offing, but the kid’s academic record should be expunged of a sexual offense, so he can go to medical or law school, ­proceed with his life.

On the survivor side, activist lawyer Gloria Allred and others are settling civil cases with ­universities—at the University of Connecticut, awards ranged from $25,000 and $125,000, though one student received $900,000—but no one at Columbia has signed up with an attorney yet, says Ridolfi-Starr. If you take money from the university, you generally sign a confidentiality clause, and that isn’t great for the movement.

Erik Campano, a Columbia student and member of No Red Tape who identifies as a survivor of sexual assault.
On a recent afternoon, I went to see Suzanne Goldberg, Columbia’s new head liaison on sexual assault and a law professor best known as co-counsel on the Supreme Court case reversing Texas’s sodomy law. Her office, which is hung with a LAMBDA poster featuring Lady Liberty, faces Wien Hall, where Paul and Sulkowicz were kissing that night. Columbia’s new policy, says Goldberg, is a good one—“one of the best in the country, with more resources dedicated to supporting survivors and other students affected by gender-based misconduct than most.” She pauses. “It’s hard for most people to navigate sexual relationships and particularly challenging for young adults.” She clicks on a computer to show me a poster hanging in undergraduate dorms, with red, yellow, and green lights. Red means stop: You’re drunk, asleep, or passed out, or one person doesn’t want to have sex. Yellow is pause: mixed signals. Green: A mutual decision has been made about how far to go and “all partners are excited and enthusiastic!” She looks pleased. “A traffic light is useful. It gives people a vocabulary for having what can be an awkward conversation in a congenial way.”

Sitting here, with this distinguished woman in pearls and a black suit, it strikes me how hard it is to talk about sex, rape prevention, any of this, in a way that fixes what’s wrong—this is America, after all, where we’re supposed to think about sex constantly, but never talk about it. Shifting our standard of consent from “No means no” to “Yes means yes”—a change being considered on many campuses and recently passed for colleges in the California state legislature—could happen in ten years, like seat belts and laws around secondhand smoke. Or it may be much harder in practice than ­theory, especially if Pino, Clark, and Dirks are right, that the problem has less to do with communication than with serial ­predators. Memory is fungible, and especially without the guys’ perspective, I can’t say whether the survivors’ accounts are truthful on every point. A woman who doesn’t support other women’s rape accusations is an ugly thing. And I can definitely report that whatever happened to them was deeply traumatizing. When Sulkowicz ran into Paul earlier this fall, she says, “I turned around and went the other way. Then I started to cry.”

Columbia’s new policy still leaves appeals in the hands of undergraduate deans, which No Red Tape finds disagreeable. “My view is the deans are ultimately responsible for the protection and caring of our students, and they should be making the decisions,” says Bollinger. “But I’m open to talking about that, just like any other question.” In mid-September, at a rally on the steps of Low Memorial Library, where President Bollinger’s office is located, as they covered Alma Mater’s mouth with red tape and dragged dozens of mattresses onto the steps, this issue was front and center, with students holding signs reading FUCK THE DEANS—plus FUCK RAPE CULTURE, FUCK YOUR COMMITTEE, and FUCK YOUR FAKE CONCERN.

For nearly three hours, survivors—females and males, straight and LGBTQ—talked about their experiences, as observers and a scrum of media bore witness. It started with a Barnard student spitting a poem about howling at the moon, and then calling Columbia out as a place where “future leaders may rape and come back.” There was the student assaulted the first day of her freshman year 22 years ago, and a freshman with a red X over her bellybutton who said she had been assaulted six days ago. There was a beautiful blonde from Barnard who screamed, “Fuck the administration!” and a heavyset student with magenta hair who described campus response to stories of sexual assault as, “When a pretty girl is raped, it’s a tragedy, and when a fat woman is raped, she should be grateful.” She pleaded with the crowd not to forget about her.

There were students from Union Theological Seminary, who led the crowd in a civil-rights-era song and talked about Sulkowicz, praising the “courage of a young lady on this campus who cracked shame not only for herself but cracked shame in all of us.” There was the male former Amherst student-body president, in his salmon polo shirt, khaki shorts, and duck shoes, who talked about his best friend who was expelled for rape last year. When the speaker didn’t defend him, he was ostracized and had to move out of his dorm. “I literally lost all of my friends,” he says. “For something about which we’re right and they’re wrong. Rape culture is what’s wrong.”

It went on and on, and the sun was hot. Ridolfi-Starr tried to cut things short but then dialed her suggestion back when she realized that the crowd was still swelling. Some were thoughtful: Erik Campano, in gold horn-rims, called for a “compassionate campus,” where “my guy friends, who are otherwise men of conscience and intelligence, will not come up to me at a party and ask me who at the party might respond to their advances?” And some were out there: “I had a dream last night,” said a Barnard student in black leggings, “that President Bollinger and the deans were in a conference room with naked women on their laps, watching our protest on a screen and ­laughing at us.”

It was like an old-time teach-in, with the survivors teaching the people who hadn’t been touched in a nasty, formerly unmentionable way by anyone in their lives what it felt like, but at some point everyone realized something had happened to them that they didn’t like, in bed, on a mattress, at least once or twice, and their empathy lifted the survivors’ resolve even more. Soon, there wasn’t a dry eye. The speeches got angrier, and then they got softer, and the crowd pulled in close, as a third-year student at the engineering school began to speak. “I’m not going to give you the list of assaults, and I’m not going to give you the list of rapes, and I’m not going to give you the names. It’s a lot of years.” She scanned the group, looking as many people as she could in the eye. “I know what it feels like to be the person in these crowds who doesn’t know how to hold this bullhorn yet, and I want to say something for those who are not going to come up here. We believe you. I believe you. So stay.” She gripped the bullhorn, demanding their commitment. “Just stay.”

“This article was first published in the NY Magazine.”





Independence Day! One of my favorite holidays. Last year we drove out to the lake on the golf cart, where thousands of people gather every year with, blanket, food and kids in hand. Last year though, Maiya was getting ready to turn 3. So I dug in the range bag and took along a few pairs of ear muffs. Well, everyone of course thought it was hilarious, until Maiya was really enjoying the action, and their kids, well… Not so much. I went to research the noise level a few days ago to write something about it. When I did, I ran across one of my favorite writers, Tactical Dad. He pretty much summed it up. So I thought I share his story with you, as well.

Originally posted by Guns And Tactics


Independence Day is one of my favorite holidays. I love the sense of patriotism and community it brings as friends, family and neighbors come together to observe the day. Like any red-blooded American, I also love to celebrate by blowing things up once the sun sets.

A few years ago, as we were beginning our annual fireworks display, my young son started fussing and made it clear that he was not interested in sticking around for the show. I realized that it was the noise from the explosions that was making him uncomfortable. I went inside to grab my range bag and pulled out a set of range muffs to put over his ears. Almost immediately he stopped being upset and everyone was able to enjoy the fireworks.

The next day I did some research and learned that the explosions from the fireworks are just as loud or even louder than the rounds we fire at the range, often exceeding 150 decibels (db) and even reaching up as far as around 200 db. The limit for sound exposure where immediate nerve damage can occur is only 140 db for adults and 120 db for children, so there is a pretty good case for everyone to consider wearing ear protection during your 4th of July fireworks display… including you! There are several youth-sized ear muffs available. My kids like the pink and blue Peltor Junior muffs made by 3M.

This year, thinking about it from the perspective of range safety, I considered the need for eye protection as well. Simply put, a firearm is far less likely to send something flying into your eye than fireworks – which explode in all directions and have questionable quality-control at best. Thus, since we wear eye protection at the range, it only makes sense to do the same while setting off fireworks as well. As I wrote in another Tactical Parent article, Tiny Ears & Eyes, I have found the SoundVision eye protection to work particularly well for children in terms of both coverage and comfort.

So this year dig out your extra range gear and make sure everyone has appropriate eye and ear protection. Even if your kids aren’t yet old enough to join you at the gun range they will still benefit from having their own gear and, I have to admit, it’s cute to see them wearing it. Adding these key pieces of safety equipment not only allows you to model good habits for your kids but it also dramatically reduces the likelihood of an injury. It will also, hopefully, ensure that even the littlest ones enjoy the show along with everyone else.

Doug Marcoux

Doug has a diverse background, both professionally and privately, in firearms, self-defense, and tactics… but most importantly, he’s a parent. He writes from the unique perspective of someone whose life involves combining concealment clothing, tactics training, and “everyday carry gear,” with car seats, exploding diapers, and questions like “why did you paint the dog with yogurt?” In our Tactical Parent series, Doug shares his perspective on gear, tricks and tips, defensive tactics, and best practices for parents who take an active role in protecting their family.



Facebook Alters 689,000 Users News Feeds’ For Psychology Experiment

Previously written by Russell Brandom for The Verge

According to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Facebook altered the News Feeds for hundreds of thousands of users as part of a psychology experiment devised by the company’s on-staff data scientist. By scientifically altering News Feeds, the experiment sought to learn about the way positive and negative effect travels through social networks, ultimately concluding that “in-person interaction and nonverbal cues are not strictly necessary for emotional contagion.”


To test the hypothesis, the researchers identified 689,003 different English-language Facebook users, and began removing emotionally negative posts for one group and positive posts for another. According to the paper, “when a person loaded their News Feed, posts that contained emotional content of the relevant emotional valence, each emotional post had between a 10 percent and 90 percent chance (based on their User ID) of being omitted from their News Feed for that specific viewing.” The posts were still available by visiting a friend’s timeline directly or reloading the News Feed. The researchers also state that they did not alter any direct messages sent between users.

As the researchers point out, this kind of data manipulation is written into Facebook’s Terms of Use. When users sign up for Facebook, they agree that their information may be used “for internal operations, including troubleshooting, data analysis, testing, research and service improvement.” While there’s nothing in the policy about altering products like the News Feed, it’s unlikely Facebook stepped outside the bounds of the Terms of Use in conducting the experiment. Still, for users confused by the whims of the News Feed, the experiment stands as a reminder: there may be more than just metrics determining which posts make it onto your feed.

New Markets To Tap

As a licensed real estate agent in Peachtree City, GA. and soon to be Miami, FL. I’m always trying to stay on top of the latest trends. I ran across a great article written by Richard Westlund, a freelance writer in Miami for
Florida Realtor Magazine. I think he really nailed this one. Needless to say, I think we have been seeing this trend coming. I know I’m really excited to soon be hitting the Miami market wide open, specializing in the affluent and international clientele.

New Markets to Tap

We scoured the latest studies to find the demographics that will mean the most to your business. While retooling your marketing program, consider these groups of prospective buyers and sellers.

For decades, Florida buyers could typically be sorted into well-defined categories: families, retirees from “up North” and affluent second-home buyers from around the world, to name a few. While those buying patterns are still in place, the Florida market has changed significantly in recent years, creating new opportunities for real estate professionals seeking to enhance an overall marketing program.

Here is a closer look at three fast-evolving demographic groups that are already reshaping Florida’s buyer landscape.

Michael Pappas, president of The Keyes Co./Realtors® in Miami, remembers when it was difficult for an unmarried woman to get a mortgage loan. “Nowadays, things are much better, and there’s no question that single women—and men—are an increasingly important part of Florida’s market,” he says.

According to the 2006 National Association of Realtors® (NAR) Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers, 22 percent of homes sold in the United States during 2006 were to single females and 9 percent were to single males. In the same study, NAR reported that the average female first-time homebuyer was 34 with an annual household income of $43,300.

“Clearly, single women help drive real estate sales in this country,” says Charlie Young, senior vice president for marketing of Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corp. in Parsippany, N.J. “This group has demonstrated its clout in the real estate market and has the economic capability to gain the American dream of homeownership.”

In a recent study, “Buying For Themselves: An Analysis of Unmarried Female Home Buyers,” the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University found that about 45 percent of single women who bought homes (in all age groups from divorcees to single moms to seniors) live alone and 30 percent are single parents without another adult in the home. In contrast, 55 percent of single male buyers live alone and 20 percent with an unrelated adult. In the study, only 15 percent of men who own homes are single parents.

Why are there so many single buyers—especially women? Lewis Goodkin, president of Goodkin Consulting in Miami, says that nationwide, higher salaries, delayed marriages, relationship breakups and longer lifespans are all contributing to the growth in single female buyers.

“A lot of singles
—both women and men—are making good money and find that real estate is very appealing to them because of the tax savings,” he says. “Single buyers are an important factor in Florida’s second-home and investment markets, as well as in primary housing.”

And it’s important to note that single men are also buying homes in Florida, says Pam Picard, career counselor for Watson Realty in Orlando. “We’re seeing a growing trend where the single head of household is a male,” she says. “Finally, these single guys are realizing the advantages of homeownership. Rather than waiting until marriage to buy that first home, they’re buying now.”

As for selecting a home to meet their lifestyle, the singles market is highly diverse. A newly divorced mother with two young children might want an inexpensive single-family house, while a 25-year-old single man might be content with a one-bedroom condo.

In general, singles of both sexes usually prefer a smaller home that requires less maintenance, says Pappas. That could be a condominium in an urban setting, a suburban town home or a luxurious second home on the beach. “There’s no question that convenience and security are big factors,” he adds, “making a low-maintenance lifestyle in a condominium residence very appealing to many buyers.”

For decades, many retirement-age buyers came to Florida seeking a quiet lifestyle: walking on the beach, a round of golf and shopping at the mall. Today, buyers are looking for a more active lifestyle—especially the baby boomers in their late 50s and early 60s.

“We’re seeing a larger percentage of baby boomer second-home buyers versus the standard retiree,” says Phil Wood, president and CEO of John R. Wood, Realtors in Naples. “These new buyers often have a fair amount of wealth from their own careers or significant inheritances. They’re buying upscale homes for eventual retirement, but they’ve definitely not retired yet.”

Instead, many retirees age 55 and up are launching new careers as consultants, volunteering in the community, traveling frequently and cultivating new recreational activities, from rock climbing to sky diving. Ideally, their Florida home would have the latest technology, space for a personal fitness center and lots of choices in daily activities.

“Buyers want fitness centers and seminars that provide intellectual stimulation,” says Arlene Stiepleman, a sales associate with The Keys Co./Realtors in Coral Springs. “And it’s a plus if shopping centers are close to home, so there’s less need for a car,” she says.

While some older buyers will choose communities where most residents are 55 or over, others want to live in neighborhoods filled with families and young children. “Many buyers with a dog or cat will rule out communities that have restrictions on pets,” she says.

And as with all age segments, price and value are key components of the buying decision. “Florida will continue to be the No. 1 state in the second-home/preretirement market,” says Goodkin. “But with higher land prices [and property insurance costs], especially in the coastal areas, the real depth of this market will be in Central and Northern Florida.”

Goodkin points out that baby boom buyers fall into three distinct categories, based on their income and savings patterns. About 20 percent are affluent buyers who can afford luxury homes in prime locations. Another 20 percent are financially comfortable, but aren’t looking to upgrade their current lifestyle. “Some buyers in this category will actually be ‘down-buying,’ purchasing a smaller home than they can afford, with the expectation that they will be living longer and need to stretch their savings.”

The largest group of boomers, though, will face financial challenges in their retirement years, Goodkin says. In general, they have limited savings and their current home is usually their largest asset. “Cost factors are the most important consideration to this segment,” he says. “Some will be moving from high-cost to lower-cost areas in Florida; others will be downsizing from their current home. For the most part, these boomers will be looking to get the most bang for the buck.”

Young Adults
Tired of living with parents or sharing an apartment with roommates, more Floridians in their late 20s and early 30s are buying their first homes. These “Generation Y,” or “Millennial,” adults make up a fast-growing segment of the Florida market.

“We’re seeing a new wave of young adult buyers,” says Pappas. “In many ways, they’re better equipped than any other generation. They use technology to research homes and neighborhoods and understand the value of ownership.”

Across the country, recent college graduates and young professionals are buying houses and condominiums. Data from the 2006 U.S. Census Bureau indicate that 42 percent of people ages 25–29 are already homeowners. And buyers in their 20s and 30s account for more than 50 percent of new-home purchases, according to the American Housing Survey conducted by the U.S. Commerce Department.

However, Goodkin cautions that many of those buyers were able to take advantage of flexible mortgage loans as well as parental financial support when making their purchases—two factors that have changed in the past year.

“Many graduates were able to take advantage of what I call ‘GI’ financing from ‘generous in-laws,’” says Goodkin. “Many parents took out loans on their own homes to help their kids get into a condo. That source of funding will be more limited because of today’s more restrictive credit climate.”

As for lifestyle, the Gen Y buyers often want to be in an urban setting that offers camaraderie and opportunities for socializing with other young adults. “They don’t mind the hubbub of a downtown, beachfront or college community,” Goodkin says.

Pam Picard, a career counselor for Watson Realty in Orlando, says Gen Y buyers are usually interested in smaller homes or condos, compared with their baby boomer parents. “They tend not to be homebodies,” she says. “They would rather be sitting on a sofa in the local coffee bar working on their laptop, where it’s easy for friends to stop by. And, generally, they’re more interested in condos and town homes, because they don’t want the maintenance responsibilities, like mowing the lawn, that come with a single-family home.”

By knowing the demographic trends, you can gear your marketing to reach a wide variety of prospective home buyers and sellers.

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Feet on the ground in Bagdad

Authors name is kept anonymous. This came from a very reliable source.

Gents, thought you might want to hear from the front. Just returned from Baghdad day before yesterday checking on my folks. This is as current and objective as I have seen to date.

The current situation in Baghdad is best described as tense. Mass media coverage over the last few days of unfolding events has seen a run on supplies/fuel/at banks by civilians who are preparing in the event the worst does happen. It is not yet to the point of a panic but locals are nervous. The airport is extremely busy and flights elsewhere (especially to the Kurdish Region) are far overbooked. The overall situation in the country can only be described as very serious and with yesterday’s ‘call to arms’ by Ayatollah Sistani, the prospect of a sectarian civil war is the highest it has ever been – and has the potential to even be worse than the 2006/2007 era.

But – before going any further – it is worth putting the overall situation into context, and describing the ISIS ‘advance to Baghdad’ thus far. The portrayal in the media since this situation broke five days ago has been one of a relentless advance by ISIS. According to CNN etc, ISIS began by capturing Mosul, then advanced in a Blitzkrieg movement south, routing the Iraqi Army and capturing vast swathes of terrain as they went. This continuous sensationalization by the mainstream western media is the number one driving factor for the tension in Baghdad rather than a true appreciation of fact.

While the reporting of the folding of the Iraqi Army in Mosul and areas north of Baghdad is accurate (and is the reason why this situation has developed as it has), the rest of it is far less simple than is widely portrayed in the western media, and the true facts need putting into context. Most of this has already been covered in the GW Daily Reports from Jun 10-14 inclusive, and summarized in the GW weekly released last night. It is recommended these documents are reviewed for a balanced understanding of what has transpired so far. But to put some key points down on paper:

The last week in May/first week in June saw a substantial increase in insurgent activity across the country. Bombings and spectacular attacks ranged across the country, from VBIEDs near Karbala and Najaf, an assassination of a senior Sahwa commander in Anbar, an assault on Sammara and finally the attack on Mosul which caused the rout of the Iraqi Army and everything that then subsequently unfolded over the course of the last five days. The key takeaways, however are:

The ‘advance’ from Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad has been blown out of proportion. What in actuality happened was ISIS were masterful in capitalizing on their success in Mosul and then gaining and achieving momentum. But rather than a straightforward advance to Baghdad, it is more realistic to consider that news of the Mosul success and fleeing Iraqi Army traveled fast throughout the Sunni dominated areas north of Baghdad. ISIS units already in situ in their traditional locations rallied behind their flag and mobilized in their local areas all at once. Similar news spread amongst the Iraqi Army, whose commanders were the first to flee, which caused the mass pullout/desertion/withdrawal. ISIS then moved into the Iraqi Army positions, taking the majority of them without a fight or meeting only mediocre resistance. What is extremely import to note is: ISIS have yet to move outside of areas where they have always been traditionally strong. In addition, ISIS have met no resistance from the predominantly Sunni population in these areas – who have been downtrodden and marginalized to the point where they are at least passively supporting ISIS, maintaining a laissez faire outlook. Some of this support though is no doubt through fear – ISIS will have presented them with a ‘You are either with us or against us’ ultimatum. In the total absence of official law and order, most Sunni locals will have little choice but to along with it – for now. It should also at this point be noted that ‘ISIS’ is not just ISIS. Other militant organizations and local Sunni tribes who are ‘going along with it for now’ are involved. These ultimately are not interested in the level of radicalism that true ISIS demands – so this is a fragile alliance at best, which will no doubt come to the fore once true resistance appears, or when ISIS start summarily executing peop0le for crimes and issuing strict laws on how to live etc (and we are already seeing evidence of this in Mosul and Tikrit).

Back to the ‘Advance on Baghdad’. Understanding the above – it should now be clear that ISIS have not yet set one foot outside areas where they have traditionally been strong. Which is why the ‘advance’ has stalled in the area of Samarra/Balad. In Diyala with its more mixed populace, they have not even ‘advanced’ that far south in parallel – Shia militia groups such as AAH are openly fighting them and the Iraqi Army is maintaining a presence there also. Not to mention in Northern Diyala, the ‘limits of control’ are tested between ISIS/Peshmerga – testing the Peshmerga are currently winning as they consolidate positions and expand their region (they will likely be the ultimate winners in all of this). The minute they step off their traditional turf into areas where they have no popular support (i.e. Shia parts of the country – northern Baghdad for instance….) we will see how well they do trying to fight conventionally….

The massive Shia mobilization that is currently occurring in Baghdad and the south means that the ‘advance’ in a conventional sense, is likely to remain stalled where it is if not beaten back some in the coming days.

So what’s the realistic prognosis of the situation for Taji and Baghdad?

Taji has become the main reception point for falling back troops and the point from where counter offensives will be planned and organized. On current available information, the massing troops there and the size of the facility means that ISIS as yet will have very little chance of attacking it in a conventional sense, so will get back to what they do best – car bombs, suicide attacks etc, along with IDF. The fact that the group has consolidated ground now with a ‘frontline’ behind which they have almost unrestrained freedom of movement means that supply lines will be extended so possibly we will see the frequency of these kind of attacks increasing. Not to mention the masses of military equipment (and cash) they have captured (although it appears much of it has gone to Syria – which is indicative that the campaign there may be of greater or least equal importance to the movement). Same goes for Balad airbase to the north of Taji – as yet the facility has not been directly attacked despite ISIS proximity, and both will be extremely well defended but no denying the facilities will be ISIS priority targets.

It also goes for Baghdad itself. In addition to the northern ‘axis’, we need to consider what is happening Anbar to the west (and the linked Jurf al-Sakhr district of Babil province to the southwest of Baghdad). There has been a noticeable drawing back of Iraqi Army units from Fallujah (presumably so properly battle hardened veterans can redeploy elsewhere). The has led to more freedom of movement for ISIS/anti govt elements – again with the implication of being able to stage closer to Baghdad. But again even from this axis – at this juncture we are talking increased unconventional guerilla attacks in the capital rather than the media ‘Lets all drive right into town’ sketch. I do see increased suicide attacks, car bombings – possibly even IDF on the BIAP and IZ (and maybe even increased conventional clashes in Abu Ghraib and therefore encroaching on the outer BIAP perimeter), but based on current info, not a conventional type assault as the press is talking. Baghdad is absolutely teeming with Iraqi Army troops and now, Shia milita of all kinds, including the now gloves-off Jaish al Mahdi (JAM) and Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH), and I don’t doubt (as with some other parts of the country) Iranian Quds force too. Iranian involvement is set to increase as this progresses.

So to conclude – for ISIS to just go strolling into Baghdad as they have in a similar fashion in the areas where they’ve always been strong is currently completely unrealistic (again, media to blame for it). However what is likely is an increase in car bombings, suicide bombings, IDF threat to BIAP and IZ. Short notice lockdowns throughout the city are also possible, as is the potential for short notice vehicle movement restrictions and curfews (already one in place from 10pm till 6am). The other major burning issue right now – is the mass Shia mobilization and the fighting that is to follow north of the capital: Once this begins, we are going to hear many reports of atrocities committed against both Sunni and Shia communities as such a mass, fast mobilization means that training will be poor as will discipline. And we already know what the other side is capable of. This has the very real potential to spark bitterness and a renewed civil war period. In Baghdad, this may well translate as mass sectarian killings on either side on the streets in capital in conjunction with attacks on Mosques etc (as happened in 2006/2007) depending as to what transpires over the coming days .

I hope that helps clarify the current situation.