News, July 30th

China stresses stabilizing foreign trade and investment

The State Council on Wednesday (July 29) stressed efforts to further open up and keep foreign trade and investment stable, as well as to facilitate employment and ensure people’s livelihood amid epidemic control.

It decided to expand the pilot program on the innovative development of trade in services and unveil new measures to help migrant workers find jobs or start businesses, according to a statement released after a State Council executive meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang.

To promote a higher level of opening-up, the pilot program on the innovative development of trade in services will be expanded to cover parts of 21 provincial regions and explore widening the field of opening-up and improving trade facilitation, the statement said.

Meanwhile, the meeting urged efforts to enhance foreign trade firms’ capabilities to withstand risks, encourage the central, western, and northeastern regions to take over labor-intensive foreign trade industries, and improve the policy environment to attract foreign investment.

Work will be done to stabilize the employment of migrant workers in urban areas, while supporting them to find jobs in or near their hometowns, such as promoting projects for new urbanization, rural water conservancies, and post-disaster reconstruction in townships to create more jobs.

Migrant workers will receive better financial support to start their own businesses, while poor laborers will enjoy further protection such as temporary allowances, it said.

The meeting also called for efforts to boost COVID-19 virus testing capabilities, which was regarded as a key method in coordinating epidemic control and economic and social development.

COVID-19: UN chief outlines path to sustainable, inclusive recovery in Southeast Asia

Tackling inequality, bridging the digital divide, greening the economy, and upholding human rights and good governance will be critical for Southeast Asia to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Secretary-General said on Thursday.

António Guterres has released his latest policy brief on the crisis, which examines impacts on the 11 countries in the subregion and recommendations for the way forward that put gender equality at the center of response efforts.

“As in other parts of the world, the health, economic and political impact of COVID-19 has been significant across Southeast Asia – hitting the most vulnerable the hardest”, he said in a video accompanying the launch.

Southeast Asia comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste and Viet Nam.

Prior to the pandemic, countries were lagging behind in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.

Despite strong economic growth, the policy brief reveals that the subregion was beset by numerous challenges including high inequality, low social protection, a large informal sector, and a regression in peace, justice, and robust institutions.

Furthermore, ecosystem damage, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality were at “worrying” levels.

“The pandemic has highlighted deep inequalities, shortfalls in governance and the imperative for a sustainable development pathway. And it has revealed new challenges, including to peace and security”, the Secretary-General said.

The current situation is leading to recession and social tensions, while several long-running conflicts have stagnated due to stalled political processes.

“All governments in the subregion have supported my appeal for a global ceasefire – and I count on all countries in Southeast Asia to translate that commitment into meaningful change on the ground”, he added.

The new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, and the pandemic was declared in March. Globally, there have been more than 16.5 million cases, with nearly 657,000 deaths, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Wednesday.

While the disease arrived in Southeast Asia earlier than in the rest of the globe, the UN chief commended governments for acting swiftly to battle the pandemic.

On average, they took 17 days to declare a state of emergency or lockdown after 50 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed, according to the policy brief.

“Containment measures have spared Southeast Asia the degree of suffering and upheaval seen elsewhere,” said Mr. Guterres, who also praised cooperation among the countries.

The Secretary-General underlined four areas that will be critical to ensuring recovery from the pandemic leads to a more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive future for Southeast Asia.

The first – tackling inequality in income, health care and social protection – will require short-term stimulus measures as well as long-term policy changes, he said.

Mr. Guterres also advised countries to bridge the digital divide so that no one is left behind in an ever-more-connected world.

Due to the over dependence on coal and other industries of the past, he encouraged “greening” the economy, including to create future jobs.

Upholding human rights, protecting civic space, and promoting transparency are all intrinsic to an effective response, he concluded.

“Central to these efforts is the need to advance gender equality, address upsurges in gender-based violence, and target women in all aspects of economic recovery and stimulus plans,” the UN chief said.

“This will mitigate the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on women and is also one of the surest avenues to sustainable, rapid, and inclusive recovery for all.”

Though the challenge is formidable, the Secretary-General underlined the UN’s strong commitment to helping Southeast Asian countries achieve the SDGs and a peaceful future for all.

Foes to sue feds for undermining environmental protections

Grassroots organizations vowed to take the federal government to court over U.S. President Donald Trump’s July 15 announcement here of rules changes shattering the bedrock environmental law that tribes and constituents have used to fend off fracking, oil pipelines and mining in treaty territory.

Hailing the finalization of comprehensive changes to rules under the National Environmental Protection Act, NEPA, Trump said, “Today’s action is part of my Administration’s fierce commitment to slashing the web of needless bureaucracy that is holding back our citizens. I’ve been wanting to do this from day one.”

Damning the reforms’ implications for native nations, Lisa DeVille, vice-chair of Indian reservation-based grassroots Ft. Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights (POWER), from Mandaree, North Dakota, replied:

“Black, indigenous, and people of color’s communities bear the disproportionate burden of toxic pollution in their neighborhoods, and as a result, are dying from Covid-19 at higher rates,” she said.

An enrolled member of the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara (MHA) Nation, aka the Three Confederated Tribes, she represented native sentiment in a joint statement issued by foes of the rule’s changes from across the United States.

“My family and I live on my ancestral land in the center of the Bakken oil field, and the last thing my family needs right now is even less protection from the dangerous impacts of this development,” she said.

“NEPA is one of the few laws that require environmental analysis on the reservation and consideration of the disproportionate impacts of development on indigenous people,” she noted.

“We all deserve to breathe clean air, but the Trump Administration is proposing to eliminate protections against environmental racism that occurs from oil and gas development near my home.”

At a time when people across the country “are focused on a global health crisis, the injustices of Covid-19, and systemic racism that disproportionately harms Black and brown communities, this action is putting Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and multiracial communities at greater risk,” Greenlatinos national network declared.

Concurring with Ft. Berthold Power and Greenlatinos were grassroots constituents of the umbrella network Western Organization of Resource Councils. Barbara Vasquez, Oil and Gas Team chair complained, “The Administration’s priorities are crystal clear–rubber stamp polluting projects and pump toxins into the air and water while a crisis rages unchecked. We need the protection of thorough environmental and public health review now more than ever,” she said.

“We will sue,” said Brian Sweeney, communications director for the Western Environmental Law Center.

“We have consistently defeated this Administration’s relentless, vicious dismantling of safeguards for people and the environment, and we will do so again with this final rule,” said the center’s Susan Jane Brown. “A thriving economy is not at odds with worker protections and a healthy environment – it depends on both.”

The White House cast the reform as “modernization”, saying, “For the first time in 40 years, President Donald J. Trump is acting to right-size the federal government’s environmental review process.”

The industry-backed move constitutes a remake of the regulations under the National Environmental Policy Act, sometimes called the “magna carta” of environmental protections. Congress passed the act nearly unanimously, and former U.S. President Richard Nixon signed it into law on Jan. 1, 1970.

The Trump version is a product of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the president’s inner circle of advisors on NEPA.

“By streamlining infrastructure approvals, we’ll further expand America’s unprecedented economic boom,” Trump said.

Major companies and executives, including Chevron and Exxon Mobil, which contributed more than $1.4 million to Trump’s campaigns and inauguration have heavily lobbied his administration on NEPA reform. Many have projects pending review under the law that would be accelerated through the new changes, according to the non-partisan watchdog group Accountable U.S.

The reform reduces public participation by establishing time limits of two years for completing environmental impact statements and one year for environmental assessments. The new language rolls back requirements for considering cumulative and climate effects of projects that need federal permit approval. It also shrinks the pool of projects subject to public review.

The new rules appear “to be an attempt to narrow the scope of NEPA analysis and potentially eliminates the need to assess climate change in NEPA reviews,” said environmental law specialist Thaddeus Lightfoot, a partner at the international law firm Dorsey & Whitney, who analyzed the CEQ’s final changes.

The changes include holding impact statements’ size down to 300 pages and minimizing the allowable scope of lawsuits over them. The new rules also explicitly allow a project applicant to prepare its own environmental impact statement, and they remove the prohibition on hiring contractors that have conflicts of interest, such as financial ties to the applicant.

“Together, these commonsense reforms will slash unnecessary government bureaucracy and accelerate important infrastructure projects all across the nation,” a White House Fact Sheet said.

The Fact Sheet takes cues from a 2015 report by the non-partisan non-profit Common Good, founded and chaired by Philip K. Howard, a self-declared “radical centrist”, lawyer and author of Try Common Sense.

“The regulations restore the original goal of NEPA as an informational tool for policy choices, not an action-forcing mechanism allowing judges to overrule executive choices that comply with underlying statutes,” Common Good said.

The national non-profit Center for Biological Diversity argued however, “Data collected by federal agencies show that NEPA works well and as intended, despite unproven rhetoric by right-wing industry groups regarding project delays.”

The NEPA process “has been vital in raising concerns about environmentally destructive projects, including the Keystone XL Pipeline,” it said.

“NEPA’s dismantling is a win for corruption, a win for polluters, and a win for those that profit off the destruction of our planet,” said the center’s Government Affairs Director Brett Hartl. “Everyone else loses.”

According to Accountable U.S. its research led Bloomberg news media to reveal that “a top official in Trump’s Council on Environmental Quality who has been a key player in the effort to overhaul NEPA, is married to an industry lobbyist who lobbied CEQ on NEPA.”

The Oglala Sioux Tribe has been using NEPA’s environmental impact statement process for more than a decade to challenge Canadian corporations’ plans to expand uranium mining in the underground water tables at Crow Butte in Nebraska and at Dewey-Burdock in the Black Hills, upstream from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in unceded 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory.

Muslims to scale Mount Arafat for peak of hajj

MUSLIM pilgrims converged Thursday on Saudi Arabia’s Mount Arafat for the climax of this year’s hajj, the smallest in modern times and a sharp contrast to the massive crowds of previous years.

A tight security cordon has been erected all around the foot of the rocky hill outside Mecca, also known as Jabal al-Rahma or Mount of Mercy.

Pilgrims, donning masks and observing social distancing, were brought in buses from neighboring Mina, state television showed, as Saudi authorities impose measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak.

They were subject to temperature checks and attended a sermon — which state media said was translated into 10 languages — before they set off on the climb to the summit for hours of Koran recitals and prayers to atone for their sins.

The scene was strikingly different to last year’s ritual when a sea of pilgrims ascended Mount Arafat, marshalled by tens of thousands of stewards in a bid to prevent any crushes.

After sunset prayers, pilgrims will make their way down Mount Arafat to Muzdalifah, another holy site where they will sleep under the stars to prepare for the final stage of hajj, the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.

It takes place on Friday and also marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, is usually one of the world’s largest religious gatherings.

But only up to 10,000 people already residing in the kingdom will participate in this year’s ritual, compared with 2019’s gathering of some 2.5 million from around the world.

“You are not our guests but those of God, the custodian of the two holy mosques (Saudi Arabia’s King Salman) and the nation,” Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten said in a video released by the media ministry on Wednesday.

A security cordon has been thrown around the holy sites to prevent any security breaches, an interior ministry spokesman said.

Riyadh faced strong criticism in 2015 when some 2,300 worshippers were killed in the deadliest stampede in the gathering’s history.

But this year, those risks are greatly reduced by the much smaller crowd.

The pilgrims have all been tested for the virus, and foreign journalists were barred from this year’s hajj, usually a huge global media event.

As part of the rites completed over five days in the holy city of Mecca and its surroundings, the pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat after spending the night in Mina.

A district of Mecca, Mina sits in a narrow valley surrounded by rocky mountains, and is transformed each year into a vast encampment for pilgrims.

They began the hajj on Wednesday with their first “tawaf”, the circumambulation of the Kaaba, a large structure in Mecca’s Grand Mosque towards which Muslims around the world pray.

The Kaaba is draped in a black cloth embroidered in gold with Koranic verses and known as the kiswa, which is changed each year during the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims were brought inside the mosque in small batches, walking along paths marked on the floor, in sharp contrast to the normal sea of humanity that swirls around the Kaaba during hajj.

U.S. Economy Remains Resilient Despite Historic Contraction in Second Quarter

Today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) released its advance estimate of U.S. GDP for the second quarter of 2020 reflecting the months of April, May, and June. Real GDP contracted at an unprecedented annualized rate of -32.9 percent—the largest quarterly decline since the series began in 1947—slightly better than what market and official estimates had expected.  Despite this massive contraction, the resiliency of the U.S. economy and the swift fiscal response of the Federal Government can aid in a strong recovery.

The U.S. economy entered this contraction on a healthier and more resilient footing than it did both prior to the Financial Crisis of 2008-09 and relative to other advanced economies. Thanks, in part, to the longest expansion in U.S. history, American households had a smaller overall debt burden prior to this pandemic than prior to the Financial Crisis. Household liabilities as a percent of personal disposable income were 136 percent leading into the Financial Crisis but were below 100 percent prior to this pandemic. Additionally, thanks in part to growth-focused policy, the United States had the highest growth rate among the G7 countries prior to the pandemic, with growth roughly double the non-U.S. G7 average from when President Trump took office through to the end of 2019.

The second quarter decline in GDP was widespread, touching nearly every facet of the economy (figure 1). Consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. economy, contributed to most of the decline, accounting for 25.05 percentage points of the -32.9 percent decline. The report also showed sharp contractions in business fixed investment, residential investment, inventory investment, and state & local government spending which contributed to the decline. A massive but uneven decline in consumer spending (-34.6 percent at an annualized rate) revealed how quarantines have driven spending patterns. Individuals increased consumption of recreational goods & vehicles and housing & utilities, but lessened consumption of gasoline & other energy goods, health care, transportation services, recreational services, and food services & accommodation. The decline in business fixed investment was also widely spread, though it was particularly sharp in transportation equipment investment and mining structures investment, the latter reflecting subdued oil and gas production activity responding to extraordinarily low prices.

This pandemic caused a sharp drop in real personal income as many workers faced lower wages, fewer hours, or job severance. However, the scale and speed of the initial Federal fiscal response, including expanding unemployment insurance, economic recovery rebates and emergency loans enacted as a part of the CARES Act, caused post-transfer real disposable personal income to increase. In early estimates from the University of Pennsylvania, the CARES Act reduced the GDP contraction in the second quarter by 7 percentage points.

Recent measures indicate that some economic activity has already resumed. Utilizing monthly retail sales and industrial production data, both important gauges of growth, it is clear that the declines in March and April—the most acute period of nationwide lockdowns—were the motive force driving this historic contraction (figure 2). As the country reopened, both indicators experienced a rebound in May and June. The forecast is for strong real GDP growth in the third quarter. The current Blue-Chip consensus forecast of 17.7 percent annualized growth in the third quarter would be the largest recorded quarterly growth rate and a 36 percent recovery of the second quarter contraction.

The pace of the recovery so far has exceeded expectations, providing a source of optimism as we look ahead. In fact, the majority of major economic data releases over the past month—reflecting May and June data—have surpassed market outlooks. Most notably, the record-breaking number of jobs added in both May and June beat market expectations by a combined 11.7 million. Furthermore, high-frequency data indicate that 80 percent of America’s small businesses are now open, up from a low in April of just 52 percent. Consumer credit & debit card spending has recovered roughly 80 percent from the pandemic low, with spending in low-income zip codes rebounding the furthest, now just 2 percent below pre-pandemic spending levels.

The magnitude of this contraction reflects the gravity of the economic sacrifice Americans made to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prevent greater tragic loss of life and health. The country mitigated pressures on hospital capacity and allowed medical professionals the time to learn how to treat this disease more effectively. The Trump Administration will continue to support America as we build a bridge to the other side of this crisis.

US announces plans to remove 12,000 troops from Germany, with half coming home

The U.S. announced plans Wednesday to shift 12,000 troops out of Germany as part of a multibillion-dollar effort to deter Russian influence and reassure European allies in the region.

The moves, which will bring 6,400 American troops home and shift 5,600 elsewhere on the continent, are set to begin “within weeks,” according to Defense Secretary Mark Esper. It also fulfills President Trump’s previously announced desire to withdraw troops from Germany, largely due to its failure to spend enough on defense.

“These changes will achieve the core principles of enhancing U.S. and NATO deterrence of Russia, strengthening NATO, reassuring allies, and improving U.S. strategic flexibility,” Esper said.

Reaction from Johns Hopkins University’s Wendy Osefu and American Conservative Union chair Matt Schlapp.

A number of the forces will go to Italy, while the headquarters of the U.S. European Command and Special Operations Command Europe will be relocated from Stuttgart, Germany, to Belgium.

Esper told reporters Wednesday that the movements – which will cost in the “single-digit” billions of dollars – will keep about 24,000 troops in Germany and shift other forces further east into the Black Sea and Baltic regions.

Some of the troops returning stateside will later conduct rotational deployments “back to Europe,” he added.

Germany is a hub for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Africa. The decision to keep nearly half of the 12,000 affected troops in Europe, the Associated Press says, is a clear move by the Pentagon to assuage allies by avoiding their complete withdrawal from the region.

And by spreading forces into the east, it sends a message to Russia that the U.S. is not reducing its commitment to the region and remains ready to protect Eastern Europe from any Moscow aggression.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has voiced support for the plan while also acknowledging it will take “months to plan and years to execute.” He was briefed on the issue last week, and he issued a statement saying the “concept for realigning U.S. military posture in Europe” is sound.

But members of Trump’s own political party have criticized the troop move as a gift to Russia and a threat to U.S. national security. Twenty-two Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee recently wrote a letter to Trump saying a reduced U.S. commitment to Europe’s defense would encourage Russian aggression and opportunism.

Trump announced last month that he wanted to cut the number of active-duty U.S. troops in Germany from roughly 36,000 to fewer than 25,000. Shifting forces out of the country had long been rumored and is in line with the Pentagon’s efforts to put more troops in the Indo-Pacific.

The president on Wednesday indicated the move was tied more directly to his anger over Germany’s failure to meet NATO defense spending goals.

“We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills. It’s very simple. They’re delinquent,” the president told reporters outside the White House, adding that he might rethink the decision to pull troops out of Germany “if they start paying their bills.”

Trump has branded Germany “delinquent” for failing to meet a NATO goal set in 2014 for members to halt budget cuts and move toward spending at least 2 percent of their gross national product on defense by 2024.

He asserted that the Germans had long shortchanged the United States on trade and defense, declaring that “until they pay” more for their own defense, he will reduce U.S. troops.

Overall, the U.S. has about 47,000 troops and civilian personnel in Germany, spread out across a number of bases, headquarters and smaller installations. Most of the 36,000 on active duty are in a handful of larger Army and Air Force bases, including Ramstein Air Base, a hub in the region. There also are 2,600 National Guard and Reserve forces in Germany and almost 12,000 civilians working for the services or the Defense Department.

Vehicles burned in Mexico to protest US water payment

Demonstrators in northern Mexico have burned several government vehicles, blocked railway tracks, and set afire a government office and highway tollbooths to protest water payments to the United States.

Mexico has fallen behind in the amount of water it must send north from its dams under a 1944 treaty, but farmers in the northern state of Chihuahua want the water for their own crops.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said Thursday that the protests were being fanned by opposition politicians for their own motives. He said there was enough water to comply with the treaty and support local crops.

“Some people are taking advantage now for their own benefit … opposition politicians, in this case,” López Obrador said.

The president criticized “the attitude of confrontation” and the burning of federal property, and promised “the farmers, the inhabitants will not lack water.” And he noted that further west along the border — notably in the Colorado River basin — Mexico receives four times more water from the United States than it gives under the treaty.

The protests appeared to be centered in the town of Delicias, Chihuahua, near one of the dams where water is being released to flow northward. Federal forces guarding the dam gates have clashed with protesters in recent weeks.

Photos from Delicias showed that demonstrators used heavy equipment to drag pickup trucks belonging to the national water commission to nearby train tracks where they were flipped over and set afire. Someone, apparently demonstrators, also set fire to a building where the commission has its offices, and flames ravaged a series of toll booths on a nearby highway.

Under the 1944 treaty, Mexico owes the United States about 405,000 acre-feet (500 million cubic meters) this year that must be paid by Oct. 24. Payment is made by releasing water from dams in Mexico. Mexico has fallen badly behind in payments from previous years and now has to quickly catch up on water transfers.

The expansion of water-hungry crops has meant that Mexico has used 71% of the northward-flowing Conchos River, while under the treaty it should use only 62% of the water, letting the rest of it flow into the Rio Bravo, also known as the Rio Grande, on the border.

In the past, Mexico has delayed payments, hoping that periodic tropical storms from the Gulf would create occasional windfalls of water. But while Hanna made landfall in Texas earlier this month, the storm’s rains did not reach far enough inland to fill dams in Chihuahua.

The water commission noted ruefully that, “Even though Tropical Storm Hanna recently reached the northeast of the country, the international dams (those involved in the treaty) did not recover the desired volume, as the increased flow occurred downstream.”

The issue has resulted in clashes before.

In March, protesters burned pickup trucks, blocked roads, and demonstrated at the La Boquilla dam, also in Chihuahua.

Earlier this year, López Obrador said there was enough water both for local farmers and payments to the United States.

“We do not want an international conflict,” the president said. “Treaties have to be lived up to. If we have signed a treaty, we have to comply with it.”

Woman reflects on her child’s short life and ex-fiancé charged in his death

On the 13th of each month, Caitlynn Merhoff takes the day off from work to remember her baby boy and treat herself to something special, like a manicure or fancy dinner.

Zachariah Cunningham was born Sept. 13, 2019 and died one day before turning six months old.

“This is his day and I want him to know that I’m happy on his day,” Caitlynn said Wednesday at her Box Elder home. “I don’t want to sit and be upset, so I’m thinking about him all day long. I talk about him. That’s what I want to do that day. I want to talk about him in a happy way.”

“It’s not a distraction, it’s more so doing it in his honor,” the 21-year-old added.

Zachariah died in Caitlynn’s arms on March 12, nine days after he was rushed to the Rapid City hospital and later flown to Sioux Falls for a brain bleed.

Prosecutors say James Cunningham, Zachariah’s father, and Caitlynn’s ex-fiancé, admitted to becoming angry and punching Zachariah that day.

The Pennington County State’s Attorney Office charged James — a 26-year-old airman at Ellsworth Air Force Base — with aggravated child abuse and then second-degree murder after Zachariah died. The case was later transferred to the Air Force’s court system, which charged him with murder, punishable by up to life in military prison.

Air Force prosecutors outlined their evidence against James at a June 22 hearing. A judge later found there was probable cause to continue the case, according to an Ellsworth spokesman. Motions will likely be heard in mid-December before a February trial.

James has been released from Ellsworth’s jail but is not allowed to leave the base, Caitlynn said. She said he’s been working in cleaning and maintenance.

Caitlynn said she had a difficult childhood in Alabama, but she was close with her mother and Caitlynn realized she wanted to have children at a young age, just like her mother did.

“All I ever wanted to be was a mom,” Caitlynn said.

Caitlynn moved to the Rapid City area in March 2017 to be with her high-school sweetheart who was stationed at Ellsworth. They broke up and Caitlynn later met James. They were close friends until they started dating in November 2018.

Caitlynn said they had a strong bond and seemed to skip the dating period and go right into living like a married couple.

They decided to have a baby a month after they began dating. Caitlynn learned she was pregnant on Jan. 8, 2019, seven days before James had to deploy. James returned 32 weeks into Caitlynn’s pregnancy.

“Obviously, I’m biased because he was my son, but he was the best baby,” Caitlynn said. He was the “happiest baby you’ve ever seen in your life.”

She said Zachariah had a “bubbly” personality, he screeched when he was happy and played bashful by hiding his face when he saw her. Zachariah loved bath time, being in his jumper, and playing with the family dog.

James was “the epitome of a perfect father, he was everything that I wished I had in a dad,” Caitlynn said. “Zachariah was his favorite thing in the whole world.”

Caitlynn said James never abused Zachariah or her, that they never even argued.

She and James volunteered at a soup kitchen on March 2 and worked on planning their wedding after putting Zachariah to bed that night. The next morning, she kissed them goodbye as James left to take Zachariah to day care before heading to the base.

Caitlynn said she spoke with James later that day and he was “super upset” after learning he had to leave for a training since it would mean being away from her and Zachariah. James left work to pick up Zachariah and sent Caitlynn a Snapchat of them smiling together.

Caitlynn later texted James to ask if he wanted to bring Zachariah to eat at the restaurant, she works at so her co-workers could meet them. She said James responded that he should stay home since Zachariah had a stomachache.

Three minutes later, Caitlynn said, James called to say Zachariah was on his way to the hospital. He said he put Zachariah to bed and Zachariah started gurgling before going limp and becoming unresponsive.

Caitlynn said she was “freaking out” and immediately went to the hospital where a police officer explained that Zachariah had a bruise on his head, a brain bleed and couldn’t breathe on his own.

“I had this weird gut feeling … I just couldn’t look at James,” Caitlynn said. “I didn’t know why because usually you lean on your person, but I couldn’t talk at him, I couldn’t look at him.”

An officer brought the parents to the police station in the same patrol car, but they were interviewed in separate rooms. Caitlynn said she was asked many questions before an officer said she could leave. Caitlynn said she was upset to learn James was going to be held for more questions and didn’t understand why they were treating him like a criminal.

Caitlynn flew with Zachariah to Sioux Falls on Sanford Children’s Hospital’s plane. They arrived and got in an ambulance, which is when a detective called to say James was going to be arrested because he admitted to hitting Zachariah in the head.

“I just lost it. I was in shock,” she said. “I took my ring off and threw it in my purse. There was no question about it. I could never be with somebody that did this.”

Caitlynn said she had no one to support her when the neurosurgeon said Zachariah wouldn’t make it through the night.

“That was the hardest, being alone, hearing that,” she said.

Zachariah ended up living through the night and Caitlynn was joined the next morning by a friend from Rapid City and her mother, who flew in from Alabama.

“He just kept beating all the odds” by starting to blink, react to pain, eat, and go to the bathroom, Caitlynn said.

But doctors said Zachariah had minimal brain activity and she needed to decide to take him off life support or have him undergo surgeries to prepare him for a life on machines.

“I’m not ready to make that decision, I’m 21 years old,” Caitlynn remembers thinking.

Caitlynn Merhoff, her friends, and family helped decorate her baby’s hospital rooms with photos and a banner reading “Zachariah Strong.”

Caitlynn said she prayed for Zachariah to get better but also for God to help her make a decision: “Please steer me in the correct way, please tell me what is the right thing to do, give me a sign.”

Caitlynn said she got that sign when doctors told her on March 11 that they believed Zachariah was brain dead but needed more tests to confirm it.

“I held him, and I just knew in my heart that this was it,” Caitlynn said. “Before that I was believing there were miracles and at this point I was just like, I know he’s gone.”

“My prayers were answered. I didn’t have to make a decision, but it’s just the outcome nobody would want,” she said.

Doctors confirmed at 6:19 a.m. on March 12 that Zachariah was brain dead, Caitlynn said. Friends and family members said goodbye as hospital staff printed Zachariah’s hands and feet onto pages filled with poems.

Caitlynn, her mother, and an uncle stayed in the room as doctors took off most of Zachariah’s medical equipment. Caitlynn cradled and sang “Jealous of the Angels” to Zachariah before doctors took him off life support. Caitlynn then put Zachariah over her shoulder, unable to look at his face, and repeated the song. By the time she stopped singing, he was gone.

Caitlynn said James is now saying his confession was forced and that what really happened is that he placed Zachariah on a counter and looked away for 30 seconds before Zachariah fell and hit his head.

Caitlynn said she can’t be sure what to believe unless she saw the confession video herself. But she said even if it were an accident, James would be guilty of another crime like child abuse or manslaughter.

“Whatever happened, you’re not innocent,” Caitlynn said she told James. “You still killed our son.”

Caitlynn said she tries not to think about James and what he did, but when she does, she gets angry.

“I felt enraged” when Ellsworth prosecutors described his confession, she said.

Caitlynn said she’s staying in Box Elder because she has wonderful friends. She said she will always be grieving for Zachariah and he’s already made her a different and better person.

“Anytime I’m doing anything, I’m like, what would Zachariah think of this. If he’s watching me right now, would he be proud of me? Anything I do, I’m pushing myself to make him proud.”

Published by jim

Curator of things...

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