No matter which side of the ideological fence you identify yourself as being aligned with (unless you have just crawled out from underneath a rock), the current state Humanity finds itself in can only be described as a complete and utter shit show. People are angry, frustrated, bitter, and vindictive and have become more hostile and aggressive toward each other than at any other time over the course of my 65 years.
I could commit 5,000 words worth of examples to prove my point, and not a damn one of them would bring us any closer to finding a solution that would bring the human race back from the edge of the abyss. But I’m not going to do that in this essay; rather, I choose to bring forward a story that, by the grace of God, I had the great fortune of being personally involved in.
A number of years ago, in a so-called past life (before I lost my eyesight and became a hermit), I worked (unpaid) for a nationally recognized conservative website as a contributing editor. It was an amazing job and one I will probably miss doing for the rest of my days; I interviewed a number of famous people, traveled to several States to attend events where I got to pretend I was a journalist (what we called back then a ” citizen journalist”), and got a chance to meet amazing people, of no fame or notoriety, but otherwise deeply committed to their respective ways of life that they were so graciously willing to share with me and allow me the opportunity to ask them questions and report back to the general reading population of the website.
Across the span of my work, from presidential (or House and Senate) candidates to famous published authors and up-and-coming filmmakers, I will tell you that none of these people came close to my love, respect, and admiration for the young men and women in our military.
Looking back on those days now, it was really dumb luck that I even got the access that I did. I got a random phone call from a lady named Julie, who had been given my contact information by a blogger with whom she had done some promotional work regarding her work on base at Fort Hood in Texas. My pseudonym back in those days was Haystack, and I had made a bit of a name for myself because of my work reporting on events unfolding in Iraq in the days before Hussein was finally captured.
She invited me to visit what she called “Mom’s Place,” which she had been trying to patch together for quite some time to provide soldiers that had rotated back from deployment a place to go to get away from the chaos in the barracks, get some R&R and a little peace and quiet while they awaited their next deployment orders. She told me in that first call that there was a specific protocol I would need to follow in order to enter the base (Ft. Hood). She told me that she would notify the front gate I was coming and that I would have to present all the necessary paperwork and identification about myself and my vehicle but that she would meet me on the other side of the gate once I got through.
For those of you that have never entered a secure military base, I can assure you that it is an awe-inspiring scene; like it is with many of the military movies, I saw platoons of soldiers marching (or running) in formation and chanting in unison whatever flavor of inspirational wisdom their particular drill sergeant might have taught them. Taking all of that in, while trying to keep up with Julie as she flew across the base toward our ultimate destination, I remember thinking how humbled I felt knowing that these young men and women were working their way toward a war zone as they readied themselves to fight and potentially die for their country.
We pulled up to a regular-looking house, and the first thing I saw was a gaggle of kids in their late teens and early twenties filling up lawn chairs on an everyday-looking front porch. It occurred to me at that moment that I could just as easily have been looking at a group of “kids” sitting on the porch of their house, in the shade, on a hot Texas afternoon, but every single one of them had already served at least one tour in an active war zone and had found their way back to “Mom’s Place” more or less in one piece… physically at least.
It was the first time Julie and I had met face to face, but we had spoken on the phone many times before. We exchanged warm hugs, and she immediately started the tour, introducing me as Haystack to the soldiers, exchanging firm handshakes all around as we walked through the various areas she had set up. She began explaining what it was she was trying to accomplish.
She told me she had been fundraising, negotiating with base command over real estate and resources, and advocating for her “kids” with the VA and the on-base Medical and Psychological Services teams. She had secured donations of furniture, computers, supplies, and food and beverages. She had done extensive Outreach to the local news and the larger internet community such as the one I was affiliated with. And, as impressed as I was by all of this, I was especially struck by one thing I saw that you couldn’t appreciate unless you see it in person; there were quiet spaces all around the property where soldiers would go to read, listen to music through their headphones, or otherwise self-isolate while still feeling the need to be near other people without being bothered or hassled or interrupted from their “quiet” time. She explained to me at one point that many sufferers of PTSD still want to be physically near other people but don’t want to interact with them directly… Comforted in the knowledge, they were safe with others nearby while, at the same time, being able to relax and not have to engage if they didn’t feel like it.
A week or two before Independence Day that year, Julie invited me back to the house to spend some time with the “kids,” do a couple of interviews, and discuss plans to join her and a platoon of Blackhawk helicopter mechanics that would be participating in a parade through a small suburb of Houston.
The first interview was with an officer who requested anonymity so he could speak freely about how the army was handling the all-but-impossible mission of building trust and relationships with the Iraqi people. All these years later, it’s quite obvious that we failed in that mission, and wherever that officer is now is not the least bit surprised by where things stand today.
The second, much more intense interview was with a young lady who had lost her brother to an IED a few months earlier. She had reached out to Julie, who had invited her to visit the base and brought the two of us together because Julie felt strongly that this young lady’s brother deserved much more than a one-liner in an obituary in their local town’s newspaper. She wasn’t wrong; by the time our interview had ended, with most of a box of Kleenex emptied, I was as pained by the loss of this young man’s life almost as much as his flesh and blood and will be for the rest of their lives. I had taken pages of notes, and she had given me a stack of papers – copies of what her family had put together to commemorate his short Young Life – and asked me if I would consider sharing his story so that his name, his goals, and aspirations, and his sacrifice for this nation would never be forgotten. I was every bit as overwhelmed by the weight of what she was asking for as I was by the courage and strength she showed and her determination that her brother never be forgotten. And I told her with every ounce of sincerity I had that I was honored and humbled that she would trust me to do his name and sacrifice justice.
After gathering all my stuff and saying all my goodbyes, I walked out the door and into the parking lot. And, if ever there is a moment in life where the expression “icing on the cake” could bring you to your emotional knees, what I saw when I went out the front door was certainly that moment in my own life.
Several vehicles were backed into parking spaces, doors were open, windows were rolled down, and music played almost as loudly as if I had just walked into a concert arena. With temperatures well into the 90s, the “kids” – shirtless boys and sports bra girls – were singing, dancing, and having the time of their lives. The beer was plain to see (technically not allowed on base, but closely monitored). No sooner did I light my cigarette than the song” Sweet Home Alabama” kicked off screaming, howling, hooting, and hollering as you’ve never seen in your life? Hell… Even Julie ran into the gaggle of bodies and started dancing right along with them… And from that scene, you would never have thought you were looking at a bunch of “kids” that had lost all remnants of their innocence the second they stepped onto an Iraqi battlefield and instantaneously became American warfighters.
Reliving that moment in my mind as I re-tell this story, I am reminded of the strength, wisdom, and resilience gifted to us by God and reinforced amongst and between all of us as human beings wherever and whenever we are willing to make an effort to lift up and strengthen each other in service to shared goals and aspirations. At that moment, I witnessed a group of men and women that had gone to war together, risking life and limb each for the other, and made it back home together to share any moments of safety and happiness they could find.
When the time of the Independence Day Parade finally arrived, Julie had arranged a block of rooms in a hotel near where the parade would take place. I met her at the hotel the night before, checked in, and was swept away to a Banquet Hall where soldiers were gathering with commanding officers to share an amazing meal, listen to a few speeches, watch a number of awards being given to members of the Platoon, and to go over Logistics for the parade that would take place the following day.
Once the”grown-ups” ended the gathering and dismissed the soldiers, Julie gathered up the”kids” and me and shuffled us off to the patio area just outside of the Hotel bar, where copious amounts of alcohol began to flow. I don’t remember who anymore, but as we stepped onto the patio, I remember one of them saying, “What the CO doesn’t see, the CO doesn’t know,” and we all howled as the first round of Padron shots were brought to the table. I Had the time of my life, watching the banter and the bad jokes and everyone taking turns poking fun at the other or just reminiscing about this or that fun experience they had had… Even “In Country” when there were no active engagements… and they were just fucking around with each other about this or that Blackhawk repair that was especially difficult or that one of these guys had screwed up and had to redo. The whole experience was one of the best times I have ever had.
The next morning we all gathered for breakfast-preceded by an amazing prayer from the chaplain-and we headed outside to load up what they call the “deuce and a half” (basically a two-and-a-half ton vehicle that would be used, in this case, to carry the men and women through the parade). I can’t remember now, for the life of me, what it was… But they had a nickname for that vehicle, and it was absolutely one they could not repeat in front of their commanding officers or even in front of Julie, but whatever it was, it was sinfully hilarious.
I had a 3/4 ton Dodge diesel pickup truck, and they had me follow the deuce and a half, something I was incredibly honored to be asked to do, and they loaded up a couple of cinder blocks in the bed of my truck into which they inserted an American flag and A P.O.W. flag, and we all headed off to the parade staging area where the organizers busied themselves with getting us all positioned in the right order. Before too long, the procession began, and once we turned the corner, thousands of people were lined up on either side of the road… Some in lawn chairs and others with little kids on their shoulders… And I couldn’t have been more proud and humbled to be a welcomed member of an amazing group of people as I watched them waving to the crowd who clearly loved, admired, and respected their service and their sacrifice. Although my extended family served in the military going as far back as the revolution and as recently as Vietnam, I never served and didn’t feel that I was Worthy of being part of this parade. I had mentioned that to Julie at one point, and she looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “You are an American and a patriot, and you have just as much right to be here as anyone else. And besides, you were showing your respect for these soldiers every bit as much as the people on either side of the street, so get in your truck and start driving”.
A mile or two into the procession, Julie jumped out of her car, ran in front of mine, and told me to stop. No sooner had I done what she told me to do than she was in the middle of the crowd on the left side of the street talking to someone I couldn’t see, hugging her tightly, and digging in her pockets for Kleenex. A few seconds later, the young lady in tow ran to the back of the deuce and a half and had them open the back gate and lift this young lady up into the vehicle. It took me a couple of seconds to figure it out, but it was the same young lady I had interviewed several weeks earlier and who had given me all that information about her brother that she had lost. I was stunned.
Once they got her up in the truck and closed the tailgate, she disappeared into the crowd of soldiers, each hugging her, her visibly sobbing, and then I couldn’t see her anymore because she was tiny compared to the other big bodies that surrounded her. The parade continued for quite a while, but once we had gotten back to the rallying point from which we had started, she ran over to me and started sobbing again. After the new round of hugging began… The soldiers and Julie and I locked in… We stood there taking that moment in, knowing it would be one none of us would ever forget.
This essay began with my inarguable observation that, in today’s America, “People are angry, frustrated, bitter, and vindictive and have become more hostile and aggressive toward each other than at any other time over the course of my 65 years.” yet I know, from my own personal observations over the years- and especially with all the times I have visited with, drank with, and completely enjoyed the company of our men and women in uniform- I have seen first hand that this does not have to be the case. Our country is filled with good, honest, selfless people willing to sacrifice themselves to improve the lives, safety, and Security of others, even if they have never met. And, as I wind down this essay to a close the night Before Easter Sunday, I am reminded of Matthew 5:5, in particular, and the whole of the Beatitudes in general.
Matthew 5:5, in particular, says, “Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth.” In this essay’s context, it is quite clear that those among us willing to sacrifice the most humbly are those least likely to ask for anything in return. With every fiber of my being, I believe the bulk of American society is made up of such people but our faith in ourselves and each other… And the good Lord above… Is tested every day by the minority of people trying to destroy that faith. We cannot let them succeed. We owe it to all of the men and women who have come before us and sacrificed life and limb to protect and defend us to ensure they don’t.
All things come from God, not the government, and when the Easter sun rises tomorrow, I pray our faith in ourselves and each other is resurrected and renewed.