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Mysterious drones seen in Colorado now spotted in southwest Nebraska, too

LINCOLN — Perkins County Sheriff Jim Brueggeman called it one of the strangest things he’s ever seen in 27 years in law enforcement.

Hovering in the distance south of Grant, Nebraska, on Monday evening was a group of eight to 10 drones, with red and green lights on their wings and white landing lights on their noses.

Unusual sightings of formations of drones, first reported in northeast Colorado two weeks ago, appear to be spreading into southwest Nebraska, according to Brueggeman and the sheriff in nearby Dundy County.

What they’re up to is a good question, Brueggeman said.

“We’re investigating it as we speak,” he said Tuesday. “We’re trying to get to the bottom of who they belong to and what the purpose of these flights is.”

Sightings of squadrons of large drones, with 6-foot wingspans and flying in formations of six to 10, were first reported in northeast Colorado in mid-December. The drones are described as much larger than “hobby” drones.

There’s been speculation that the drones are operated by companies surveying the area for natural gas or oil, or someone practicing for an air show.

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The Associated Press reported that the U.S. military has denied that the drones belong to them. The Federal Aviation Administration said that it is “in contact with local law enforcement but we don’t have any concrete information to act on at this time.”

Sheriffs in Nebraska and Colorado have said that though they don’t suspect any nefarious intent behind the drone flights, they are seeking more information.

Dundy County Sheriff Justin Nichols said he’s working with FAA officials and sheriffs agencies in Colorado after one of his deputy emergency managers spotted six or seven drones on Monday night just outside Benkelman. It was one of two drone reports fielded by his office on Monday night.

Brueggeman said that one of his former dispatchers was able to capture one group of drones on video on Monday night south of Brandon, Nebraska, which is about 7 miles from the Colorado border. Some local people were using Facebook to indicate where the drones could be seen, he said, adding that deputies could not confirm a report Tuesday morning that a drone had landed near Grant.

“I think they’re legitimately being reported and being sighted,” the sheriff said.

The drone story caught fire on Dec. 20, when the Sheriff’s Office in Phillips County, Colorado — which is just southwest of Perkins County, Nebraska — posted on Facebook that it was investigating multiple reports of drone sightings in the county over the previous week.

Phillips County “deputies were out all night this evening along with Yuma County (deputies) tracking these drones. Tonight we tracked over 16 drones between the two counties. We believe that the drones, though startling, are not malicious in nature,” the post read.

The drone mania has spawned some false reports.

Initial news reports that the drone clusters had been spotted in Deuel County, Nebraska, were untrue, according to Deuel County Sheriff Scott DeCoste.

“I’ve spent yesterday and today on the phone,” DeCoste said on Tuesday, talking with reporters seeking information about the sightings.

He said that one of his deputies, who lives in Julesburg, Colorado, did see some drones there, which might have spawned the false reports that they were also seen in his county, which is where Interstates 80 and 76 intersect.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing them,” DeCoste said. “(But) we’ve got nothing cool to report.”

Our best photos of December 2019

Weather, fireworks give Omaha a beautiful night to say goodbye to 2019

An inky black sky on a still winter night proved the perfect backdrop Tuesday evening in Omaha for the explosion of fireworks that bade farewell to the old and hello to the new.

Some 1,200 shells in 40 to 80 combinations wowed the crowd that gathered in parking lots, along sidewalks and atop downtown buildings for the New Year’s Eve show.

While the show could be seen from both sides of the Missouri River, those who trekked to the epicenter, near the CHI Health Center and TD Ameritrade Park, also heard the boom-ba-boom as the fireworks reverberated and echoed against surrounding buildings.

“It was one of the best fireworks shows I’ve ever seen,” said 9-year-old Camden Pearson of Kennard, Nebraska, who came with his parents and sister, Kaitlyn. He would “definitely” like to come back next year, he said, not just for the fireworks, but for the nearby ice skating that is part of the Holiday Lights Festival.

The annual fireworks display took place in perfect conditions, a cold, clear, nearly windless night. Winter’s lack of humidity allowed the colors to pop more vividly. A light wind carried spidery wisps of smoke away to the east. Last year’s show was delayed because of high winds.

People came from around the region for a mix of reasons.

Libby Schere and two friends drove in from Fremont, drawn by the opportunity to do something fun and different — and free.

“This is exciting,” she said. “It’s fun that they do something like this for the community.”

Anyia Watson and Zion Seymour of Omaha attended the show for the first time on the recommendation of his grandmother.

“It’s pretty cool,” he said. They liked the colors and the “boom,” they said, plus the chance for a safe time out.

The fireworks were shot off from Lot D of the CHI Health Center, having been moved there because of renovations at Gene Leahy Mall. The relocation is temporary, city officials say.

The show, which lasted about 13 minutes, was sponsored by Wells Fargo and produced by J&M displays. It is part of the Holiday Lights Festival, which runs through Sunday.

Photos: New Year's Eve fireworks show in downtown Omaha

Grace: 'No.' Why my New Year's resolution for 2020 is to use that magic word more

A powerful little word exists in the English language: No.

And in the new year, people are resolving to use it more.

When I asked on social media what people will be saying no to in 2020, I heard: No to anxiety, said @FastMan85. No to caring what others think, said @SisterAsphalt. No to political polarization and “vilifying anyone who doesn’t fit in one box over another,” said @KingsSeth.

No to weight gain, said @crankymomofsix, who lost 68 pounds in 2019.

No to plastic, said World-Herald reporter Marjie Ducey.

No to the Facebook app, said my tech-loving brother.

No to alcohol, said a friend who marked 55 days alcohol-free today.

No to the dollar bins at Target, said a friend from college.

No to smoking, said my Aunt Rita.

Erin Grace

I am going to try to say no to more distraction.

As a new year begins, once again we are trying to Marie Kondo our lives by turning down the good (seconds on dessert), the bad (social media rabbit holes) and the ugly (toxic relationships).

The new year offers a joy in tidying up bad habits and full calendars, a thrill in the possibility of doing neglected housekeeping that our current culture of acceleration and overload makes more difficult.

Yes, this is a full-time newspaper columnist and mother of three swatting at soccer season sign-up in the middle of basketball season and a million other requests for time and energy (#holidays #all3kidbirthdays). I said no this year to sending Christmas cards. I felt guilty and missed it for five minutes, then felt hugely relieved. I said yes to every remaining vacation day in 2019 and a couple in 2020 already. I said yes to the prospect of downtime.

But ask anyone regardless of age or stage what they need most in the new year and the answer is less, not more. Less work. Less worry. Less stress. Less being pressed. The calculation is that by subtraction, there is addition. A less-busy life can equate to a more-fulfilling one.

It sounds like a contradiction, but not if you ask Sister Kathleen Hawkins, who belongs to the Poor Clares, a Catholic religious order that takes “no” to the extreme because of religious vows. No to self-preoccupation. No bopping about town. No eating what you want, when you want. No slumping on the couch for TV. No talking during evening meals. Their call is to silence and prayer.

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Sister Kathleen and the Poor Clare nuns are cloistered in a monastery near Elkhorn where distractions are kept to a minimum.

She said it’s a freeing experience, one that gives her great peace.

“To say ‘no’ is to be free and open to more in life: more aware of the signs of the times; more receptive to God’s presence and activity in situations,” she said. “A lot of blessings and graces come to us in our ‘yes.’ It is not as difficult as people would think.”

It’s difficult enough that most of us wouldn’t consider that lifestyle. But saying “no” is not revolutionary thinking. Some of the big thinkers have thunk it from the Buddha to St. Ignatius to Thoreau to Hemingway to the Dutch, whose practice of niksen, or doing nothing, made headlines this past year because THAT. IS. SO. RARE.

We always have to be doing something. Exhibit A, the phone. Just step into an elevator and look at other people. Look out the car window at the driver in the next lane over. Walk down the sidewalk. Push a grocery cart. It doesn’t matter where you are, everyone is face-in-phone, doing something on a screen while they do something else in actuality.

This multitasking is so pervasive that we are in a national state of Distractionitis. We have forgotten to look out windows. We have lost the ability to daydream. We are too busy to be bored.

This comes with a cost. Focus is in short supply. Anxiety is on the rise. We cannot say no. Yet we’re dying to.

Dr. Steve Wengel, the assistant vice chancellor for campus wellness at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and University of Nebraska at Omaha, invoked Kondo, the decluttering expert. He said our lives need to be decluttered because never-ending to-do lists “provoke anxiety and stress.”

“It’s a real thing. Less is, in fact, more,” he said, drawing a parallel between unfinished tasks and contentment. He said happiness is too fleeting, but we could strive to be content. To get there, the magic word is often “no.”

This, of course, goes against our cultural grain of squeezing in more because we fear missing out. And because we don’t want to disappoint. We’re “Nebraska nice,” after all. And because we think we can add in one more to-do item on our growing list.

Mindfulness practices are taking root because there is such a hunger to slow down. In January, Wengel will undergo mindfulness training to improve focus and presence. The med center is handing out plaques that say three words: Be here now. The idea is to be present.

He likened it to “the sterile cockpit rule” for pilots. This is a Federal Aviation Administration regulation to block distractions for pilots during takeoffs and landings. It was added almost 40 years ago after a review of accidents concluded that even idle chatter among pilots and flight crews led to enough distraction as to be disastrous.

It’s a useful idea when approaching this 2020 resolution to say no. Saying yes too often clutters our brains and, well, we risk crashing.

Like any resolution to change a practiced behavior, that two-letter word will be hard to say. Of course we want to say no to dreaded tasks and uncomfortable situations. Yes, it would be easy to resolve to work less and vacation more. Sure, there are situations in which no is not the answer for the moment. And saying no can be a privilege of social class and income.

But like any wish to reset, whether it’s resetting diet or exercise or our outlook on life, behavior change happens one step at a time.

That happened to a young man who said no to feeling blue about a series of events that left him jobless, school-less and partner-less in Omaha after his May graduation from Creighton University.

Timi Onafowokan found that in saying no, he found yes. No to loneliness and worry. Yes to a physical challenge — running every day for 60 days straight. No to giving up even when it was cold and he didn’t feel like it. Yes to the joy of completion. No to thinking about the end. Yes to thinking about the now, about the next step.

It is a trade-off: The no for the yes. I said no to a band I wanted to see and yes to sleep. No regrets. My first “no” of 2020 is this: No phone in bed. It’s a baby step toward the “yes” I want to make to books, that stack of dust-covered, unread ones on my nightstand.

I’d be curious to hear about your “no” for 2020 and what you hope it brings for a “yes.” Let me (apologies) know.

Photos: The Omaha World-Herald's best images of 2019

Trump says Iran will pay 'big price' for attack on U.S. Embassy in Iraq

WASHINGTON (AP) — The attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iran-supported militiamen Tuesday is a stark demonstration that Iran can still strike at American interests despite President Donald Trump's economic pressure campaign.

Trump said Iran would be held "fully responsible" for the attack. It was unclear whether that meant military retaliation.

"They will pay a very BIG PRICE! This is not a Warning, it is a Threat. Happy New Year!" Trump tweeted Tuesday afternoon. He also thanked top Iraqi government leaders for their "rapid response upon request."

A U.S. official said a brigade of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, has been ordered to prepare to deploy, likely to Kuwait, as a contingency force of as many as 4,000 troops.

That number is in addition to 14,000 U.S. troops who have deployed to the Gulf region since May in response to concerns about Iranian aggression.

The breach of the compound, which prompted the U.S. to send Marine reinforcements from Kuwait but caused no known U.S. casualties or evacuations, also revealed growing strains between Washington and Baghdad, raising questions about the future of the U.S. military mission there. The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq, mainly to train Iraqi forces and help them combat Islamic State extremists.

The breach followed American airstrikes on Sunday that killed 25 fighters of an Iran-backed militia in Iraq, the Kataib Hezbollah. The U.S. said those strikes were in retaliation against last week's killing of an American contractor and the wounding of American and Iraqi troops in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base that the U.S. blamed on the militia. The American strikes angered the Iraqi government, which called them an unjustified violation of its sovereignty.

Even as Trump has argued for removing U.S. troops from Mideast conflicts, he also has singled out Iran as a bad influence in the region. After withdrawing the U.S. in 2018 from an international agreement that exchanged an easing of sanctions for curbs on Iran's nuclear program, Trump ratcheted up sanctions.

Those economic penalties, including a virtual shut-off of Iranian oil exports, are aimed at forcing Iran to negotiate a broader nuclear deal. But critics say that pressure has pushed Iranian leaders into countering with a variety of military attacks in the Gulf region.

Until Sunday's U.S. airstrikes, Trump had been measured in his response to Iranian provocations. In June, he abruptly called off U.S. military strikes on Iranian targets in retaliation for the downing of an American drone.

Robert Ford, a retired U.S. diplomat who served five years in Baghdad and then became ambassador in Syria, said Iran's allies in the Iraqi Parliament may be able to harness any surge in anger among Iraqis toward the United States to force U.S. troops to leave the country. Ford said Trump miscalculated by approving Sunday's airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah positions in Iraq and Syria — strikes that drew a public rebuke from the Iraqi government and seem to have triggered Tuesday's embassy attack.

"The Americans fell into the Iranian trap," Ford said, with airstrikes that turned some Iraqi anger toward the U.S. and away from Iran and the increasingly unpopular Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Trump is under pressure from some in Congress to take a hard line approach to Iranian aggression, which the U.S. says included an unprecedented drone and missile attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil industry in September. More recently, Iran backed militias in Iraq have conducted numerous rocket attacks on bases hosting U.S. forces.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and supporter of Trump's Iran policy, called the embassy breach "yet another reckless escalation" by Iran.

In Tuesday's attack dozens of Kataib Hezbollah militiamen and their supporters smashed a main door to the compound and set fire to a reception area, but they did not enter the main buildings.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blamed Iran for the episode and faulted Trump for his "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

"The results so far have been more threats against international commerce, emboldened and more violent proxy attacks across the Middle East and, now, the death of an American citizen in Iraq," Menendez said, referring to American contractor who was killed the rocket attack on an Iraqi base near Kirkuk last week.

By early evening Tuesday, the mob had retreated from the compound but set up several tents outside for an intended sit-in. Dozens of yellow flags belonging to Iran-backed Shiite militias fluttered atop the reception area and were plastered along the embassy's concrete wall along with anti-U.S. graffiti. American Apache helicopters flew overhead and dropped flares over the area in what the U.S. military called a "show of force."

Trump's best weapon with Iran is the one he's already using — the sanctions, said Paul Salem, president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute. He and Ford said Trump would do best to keep resisting Iran's attempt to turn the Iran-U.S. conflict into a full-blown military one. The administration should also make a point of working with the Iraqi government to deal with the militias, Ford said.

For the president, Iran's attacks — directly and now through proxies in Iraq — have "been working that nerve," Salem said. "Now they really have Trump's attention."