Bird’s-Eye Extreme

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Look, Ma, I’ m Flying!

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I could say that today’s piece is about a project. It is. It’s also about a documentary. That too. In some ways, it’s about a movement, of sorts. All well and good.

But what most attracted me to this organization?

I’ll admit it:  energy and attitude. Lord, and how.

The organization is The Bird’s Eye View Project.

Get ready.

Ryan Parrott is a former US Navy SEAL, a veteran of three combat tours to Iraq, and survivor of a devastating IED blast in 2005.

And “Birdman,” as he’s called, has a mission: to use “extreme sports to connect people to the extreme needs of veterans and first-responders,” thereby helping “veterans and first-responders heal and lead fulfilling and productive lives.”

And when this man says extreme, he means it. Jumping off cliffs. Big cliffs. Snowboarding down mountains. Big mountains. As best as I can tell, his goal is eventually to do both at the same time. Big-ly.

And why? To promote fundraising for a variety of smaller charities that are committed to helping veterans and first-responders. His logic is straightforward: many groups are doing big things for veterans and first-responders, but with somewhat of a small voice. By pushing himself to extremes that play big, he can attract attention for them, through himself and not for himself.

He’s set up a project that is sort of like pay-per-view: by making donations that get distributed to the charities, you get a front-row cyber-seat to the ongoing documentary that follows Parrott’s efforts at training and then performing stunts that are guaranteed to leave you shaking your head, smiling, and, well, glad it’s him and not you.

Talk about a man putting all his excess energy to good use. The film on the website didn’t even make four minutes, and I was ready to take a breather.

Through the years I’ve had the honor of working with several former members of Special Operations forces. To a man, each has had an energy and an internal fire that has impressed me, challenged me, even, at times, exhausted me. They have seen War up close and personal. Their energy has been both their salvation and their curse. Where does one put all that energy after a career such as that?

Well, Birdman apparently has decided that he’s going to answer that question on a big stage, in a big way, for a big purpose. But he does so, of course, because he knows that the “small” things in life, the quiet things such as perseverance and courage and faithfulness are ultimately what make life worthwhile.

Still, a few steps off a cliff do get the old blood flowing in the morning. So much for coffee.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Guilt, Smiles, and In-Between

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Living the Past’s Futures

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Today is about a video clip. I first saw it courtesy of the Task & Purpose website, in an article entitled “Vargas and Best of Article 15 Talk Survivor’s Guilt, Loss.” It is also available on a Facebook page.

I strongly urge you to check it out.

“Article 15” is shorthand for major disciplinary action taken against an active-duty, United States service member, a reference to a particular section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It also, though, is the name of an online clothing store, veteran-run, specializing in military-related apparel that appears meant to be, shall we say, worn in-your-face and with-a-smile.

See for yourself. You won’t forget it any time soon, I promise.

Just as you won’t forget the Facebook film.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best are closely associated with both.

Having now worked for several years with combat vets, I have, admittedly, often guffawed at the outrageous tall-tales and snappy one-liners that some young (and not-so-young) service members have shot my way, even if the more civilianly-correct part of me (forget politically-correct, for we’re not even in the general vicinity) might have advised said service members to be, let’s say, circumspect in how widely they might advertise their particular brand of humor.

Yet with every irreverence comes also a corresponding reverence: for decisions made under pressure, for risks taken, for lives gained, for lives lost.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best, the makers of T-shirts with such logos as “Keep Calm and Freedom On,” have also put together the short film. “Live for Those Who Can’t,” a memorial to US Army Staff Sergeant Richard Barrazo and Sergeant Dale Behm, both of whom were killed in Ramadi, Iraq on March 18, 2006.

I suspect both SSG Barrazo and SGT Behm would have loved the T-shirt. They also loved the men under their command. Some of those men are alive today precisely because the two of them are not. Vargas and Best have sworn not only never to forget them. They have sworn never to stop living in honor of them.

It takes bravery to laugh after War, really laugh, not just with rage-filled laughter, but with irony-filled, foible-filled laughter. Many service members whom I’ve served have come to me fearing that to laugh again would be to betray. “How can the world smile after the Sergeant is gone?” they wonder

How can it? Vargas and Best make that clear: in the same way the world smiled when Sergeant was around, sometimes with bravado, sometimes with subtlety, always with an edge that only a service member can truly appreciate.

You had what it took to laugh before death. Even after it, you still have what it takes to laugh again, perhaps now with a different edge, true, but nevertheless an edge that can be nothing more than just a buckle in the carpet, one you might trip over for a good sight gag, not an edge that you fall over, never to rise again.

Both Vargas and Best have sworn never to forget. Both have sworn to live in remembrance.

I suspect that both have sworn to laugh in remembrance as well.

I suspect both the Sergeants would have been pleased. And owned a couple shirts as well.

Until tomorrow, be well,


A Labyrinth for Healing

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Winding in the Right Direction

Today I want to tell you about a place. For those of you who might someday find yourselves in the Toronto, Ontario, Canada area, head about thirty minutes east of town, if you get a chance, and check out the town of Whitby, Ontario. Look around, and you should be able to find a park, the Park of Reflection.

Go to it, and meander.

Great word, meander, “poking around,” derived from the name of a wandering river in modern-day Turkey. Greek in origin it is, like labyrinth, the maze that ancient myth said housed the monster in Crete, the place where the young people of Athens went to be devoured every seven years or so.

The Park of Reflection is a labyrinth built to honor those Canadian service members who have become ill or injured in the line of duty. It’s not one of those fun-house kind of mazes, like the ones carved out of American cornfields around Halloween to spook middle-schoolers. It is rather a complex pattern in the ground of curves and straightaways, meant not to be rushed through, but meditated through.

Fancy ideas for a veterans’ memorial park, some might say.

Yet labyrinths, no matter how exotic they may look, have a very simple story that can be told about them. The average person of the Middle Ages could not make pilgrimages to holy sites. By slowly, thoughtfully moving along the paths of labyrinths that were in some churches, these people could spiritually accomplish what was physically impossible.

That is what makes the park so interesting. By slowly making one’s way along the path of the labyrinth-maze, a visitor is challenged to, in a way, take time with War, time that Canadian service members had no choice but to give. There is no physical danger in doing so. Only a peace-filled invitation to reflection.

Sponsored by Wounded Warriors Canada, an organization that itself grew out of a need to bring some normalcy to the lives of wounded Canadian service members, the park tries to make the abnormality of War into something that, through the abnormality (at least these days) of quiet reflection, reminds all of us of the normal lives of normal men and women who made a commitment to their society and who must now make a new normal for themselves.

If meandering through the park means nothing more than wandering, then the word accomplishes little. Another “thank you for your service” with some nice benches and some pretty, big flowers here and there, that’s all.

Yet if, like its river namesake, meandering means winding one’s way around curves that are metaphors for the complex decisions made and lives lived by service members, then the park is a place worth visiting indeed.

Kudos to Wounded Warriors Canada

Even more, thanks to Canada’s wounded warriors.

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about Wounded Warriors Canada

click here.

Following the Blasts

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New Directions, New Possibilities

Today we remember that the trauma after War is in no way easy to define and, even more, to locate. Neurons in the brain just don’t go around playing games of telephone, like two kids listening to tomato cans on opposite ends of a string. Our sensations (sight, sound, touch), our movements, and our emotions (automatic responses to push us toward or pull us away from something): all these experiences come together in complex ways inside our skulls. And when those skulls get rattled, they get rattled complexly. From Scientific American, today’s it’s “Veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan Show Brain Changes Related to Explosion Exposure.

A group of researchers associated with the Veterans Administration Hospital (Puget Sound) in Seattle, Washington, USA, asked the question: if we look at the brain scans of service members who have been exposed to blasts such as those caused by improvised explosive devices (IED), will we see differences in how those scans appear when compared to those of similar individuals who have not experienced such blasts?

No surprise, the answer was yes. More of a surprise was the area that located the differences: the cerebellum.


The cerebellum (highlighted above) is a part of the brain that has long been associated with coordination of physical movement. In a way, it’s the home of your “muscle memory.”  Muscle memory, however, is not just about knowing how to pedal a bike after not having been on one for ten years. Many different functions come together in the cerebellum to allow responses to events to be as smooth and as correct as possible.

Even though service members are now, because of advanced protective coverings, far less likely to die from blasts, they are certainly still quite susceptible to the highly-pressurized air from those blasts. By affecting areas like the cerebellum, these blasts, especially when many in number, can pummel the brain enough to cause far-ranging changes.

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as traumatic brain injury (TBI) research. The cerebellum will almost certainly remain an important area of scientific interest, but likely other areas will also get their chances at the microphone. We’ll let the smart folks do what they do best.

What combat vets do best is, in a way, just as important.

Too many times we become fatalistic when we hear the letters “TBI,” as if it were something akin to Ebola infection.  Yes, for any service member who has been exposed to blast injuries, the longstanding effects of TBI must be investigated and documented. Yes, some challenges caused by TBI will not, at least with current medical technology, just disappear.

But that’s what combat vets do best: face challenges. Do what it takes, because they have what it takes. Short-term memory and attention might be affected. Mood shifts might have to be taken into account. But still there are missions and connections worth looking for, striving for, living for.

So you learn to avoid situations that only bring pain. You learn to apply skills in a new way.You don’t give up. That’s not what combat vets do. You didn’t then. You don’t and won’t now.

The investigators published their research in a journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science. That’s a big deal, a very big deal. People are taking this work seriously, and combat vets can count on that.

Living with TBI isn’t easy. Neither was coming back from War. That’s why the real healing will always be in the truth: combat vets still have what it takes to do what needs to be done.  We keep going, as we all keep learning, keep trying—and keep living.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Sitting With War

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As Long As It Takes

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Today I want to feature an organization. Organizations can, of course, become bureaucratic, impersonal, inefficient: the last to be able to do what needs to be done. Yet they can also pull together those who would otherwise not know where to turn, to give help, to receive it.

They have stories, just as each of us has a story. We arise out of our stories. We keep creating ourselves through them. Some stories come quickly to a point. Some require chapter after chapter to develop adequately. You go where the story takes you. Thankfully, an organization like The Soldiers Project has what it takes to do just that.

I have my own story with The Soldiers Project, for example. Once upon a time, you see, I learned of a meeting that was to take place at the Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute, about combat veterans, no less. Psychoanalysts and veterans? For most readers, such a pairing might not seem odd. “Psycho-something” and veterans seems all the rage now, isn’t it? Seen one mental health person, seen ‘em all?

Ah, my friend: for those in the know, the thought of sending anyone to a psychoanalyst, let alone a combat vet, is these days, in the minds of most mental health professionals, about as useful as trying to get from San Diego to Boston in a Model T: possible, perhaps, but for God’s sake, why?

Therapy wars may not be as ugly as their real counterparts, but T-ball games among preschoolers, they’re not. Trust me. You don’t want to know what happens.

So, intrigued as I was, I attended it, only to hear another story: this one about a Los Angeles psychoanalyst who happened to go to a play one night, a series of monologues that spoke War through the words of United States Marines who had lived it, survived it (in a manner of speaking), and somehow tried to comprehend it.

The analyst had, of course, already heard hours and hours of words from patients who had lain on her couch through the years, but words such as these, War words, had not been spoken there. Yet she heard them that night, from that stage, not only with her trained ear, but with her ready heart.

And she determined that combat vets should have the opportunities to speak those words to other trained ears and ready hearts, not from a public stage, but one-on-one, for as short or as long as they would need and wish.

Dr. Judith Broder founded The Soldiers Project to bring together therapists of all persuasions, short-term, long-term, and all types in-between, to offer free therapy to combat vets and their loved ones. With chapters spread throughout the United States, the Project encourages its volunteer therapists to be innovative, to be traditional, to be expressive, to be reserved—in short, to be whatever a particular combat vet or family member needs.

How often we civilians can think of “combat vets” as mix-and-match, like the old Garanimals of the 1970’s line of kids clothing in which you could pair blue-lion pants with blue-lion shirts and no one would be the wiser. Stick a vet in a therapist’s open slot, and as long as the therapist has both adequate training and temperament, all are good to go, right?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes anything but.

For some, War is a stumbling block that must be eradicated quickly. For some, it is a redefinition of life itself that must be pondered carefully.  So many in harried organizations find themselves forced to attempt the former even when those they serve crave the latter.

I applaud The Soldiers Project that its leaders and its volunteer therapists still live out Dr. Broder’s story: a willingness to take what could have been another night out on the town and instead stop, listen—and do what needs to be done.

For as short or as long as it takes.

Thank you all. May even more helpers join your ranks. Soon.

For as short or as long as it takes.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Writing War

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From Up Close, From Afar

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Today, some thoughtful reflections from a combat veteran, now author, who asks himself: why do I write about war? In doing so, he challenges all of us to think about not only what can be said about War, but what should be said as well. From the blog/information site Medium comes David Ervin’s “Why We Write About War.”

David Ervin is a graduate in history from the University of West Virginia—and in warfare from Operation Iraqi Freedom, courtesy of the United States Army.  The author of a memoir about war, Leaving the Wire: An Infantryman’s Iraq, he is currently President of Military Experience & the Arts, Inc., a volunteer organization that, according to its website, has a “primary mission…to work with veterans and their families to publish creative prose, poetry, and artwork.”

In his Medium article, Mr. Ervin reflects on why anyone would wish to remember War long enough and often enough to put it into words that can be read by others. He writes,

Holding our stories in our hands makes them more real and more disturbing than even the grimmest of memories can be. It will, without a doubt, invoke the exact same feelings that one experienced at the time. It hurts all over again. Yet confronting the memories in such a manner allows us a perspective that would otherwise be impossible to glean.


I’d venture to say that most war writers put pen to paper because we must simply do something with these awful memories. We must transform them into something that has a value or meaning outside of being simply bad memories. Writing is a constructive means of externalizing some potent internal emotions, and if engaging in it helps someone along the way of healing, then it’s all that much more meaningful.

Words well said, and ones that combat veterans are heeding in many forums, from creative writing classes in community colleges to the halls of publishers of works like Phil Klay’s National Book Award winner, Redeployment.  Great war literature in English didn’t stop with the British World War I poets or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  It’s being published in books and journals (and even classrooms) all the time.

For some men and women, their “doing what needs to be done” means refusing to let War have the last word. Ervin and Klay both demand that we not let War be unspeakable, that we make imperfect words somehow try to state the imperfect actions of imperfect service members, so that imperfect, yet real lives can be both chronicled and lived, made real not just on a page or a tablet screen, but in the very neurons of readers who dare to take up these writers’ invitations to let the words of War invade them.

Mr. Ervin opens up his article by describing his emotions as he held his published book in his hands, felt the reality of his experiences in the weight of the ink-stamped paper. He’d not only looked for a connection to the world and striven for it, he’d lived it, typing one word after another, backspacing, highlighting, deleting, typing again, again. He and his fellow combat vet writers write to feel alive, to demand that all the rest of us recognize their aliveness, their reality: of what they had, what they lost, what they found, and, as I always say, of what they still have as a result.

And what they still have is worth their writing. Even more, it’s worth our reading.

Thanks, Mr. Ervin. Write on.

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about Military Experience & the Arts

click here.

The Maharishi’s Back

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With Science to Boot

Today probably should go under the title of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” So, you might ask, combat trauma/PTSD and TM? That is, transcendental meditation? You bet, and there’s data to back it up. From the U.S. News & World Report, among other sources, comes today’s piece: “Transcendental Meditation May Help Relieve PTSD.”


"Maharishi Huntsville Jan 1978A" by Jdontfight - Template:Vernon Barnes PhD. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

“Maharishi Huntsville Jan 1978A” by Jdontfight – Template:Vernon Barnes PhD. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


Those of you of a certain age might associate the words “transcendental meditation” less with clinical psychological experiments and more with the bell-bottom jeans and granny dresses of the 1970’s.  It was introduced into the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi starting in the 1950’s, and the Maharishi made it to ninety years of age with the practice, so he must have been onto something, that’s all I can say.

I know: many of you might already be saying: an Indian yogi, repeating a mantra (syllable) for twenty minutes, and combat vets—you serious?

Yes, serious. And so serious in fact, researchers at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia, USA have just published some cases in the journal Military Medicine to prove it.

In short, soldiers served at the Traumatic Brain Injury clinic there were taught to use the standardized techniques of TM for twenty minutes a day, twice a day for two months. Their results?  Decreased use of medication and a markedly increased sense of well-being that persisted for several follow-up months. What’s even more telling? All those soldiers who were at first reluctant to try this “woo-woo treatment”?

They’re lining up for it now.

A few cases do not a major psychological research breakthrough make. But in this world where we’re all doing our best to relieve service members of combat trauma symptoms that are interfering not only with their own lives, but also with those of the ones they love, an idea that has a good start is one well worth pursuing. Please understand that I’m not for or against endorsing TM for combat vets. It’s nice to know, though, that there have been professionals taking the technique seriously—and willing to share the possibility of success not only to skeptical clinicians, but even more to the most hardened skeptics of all, combat vets.

I’ve said it before. I say it again: if you have tried some form of treatment before that you did not find that helpful, don’t give up. People continue to look for new ways to bring hope after war. Nobody wants to buy a modern version of “snake oil treatments,” but just because something might sound a little “oily,” don’t assume that it therefore must be so. I’ll keep my eye out for possibilities that at least have some track record to them and keep them in my blog/website’s Resources section.

As a combat vet or someone who loves one, your only job is to remember that you and/or your loved one still have what it takes to do what needs to be done. Whatever can reliably, safely bring periods of calm is a good thing. Keep at it. Please.

And remember: no long, gray beards are required for success.  Trust me. Ninety years or no.

Ninety years, though. Might make me reconsider the beard part.

Until tomorrow, be well,


Greatness for All

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Generations That Keep Going

Today is a day for reflection: what does “greatness” mean?

United States journalist Tom Brokaw, former anchor for the NBC Evening News, called those of the World War II era the “greatest generation.” Yet today, on the Task & Purpose website, author, former soldier, and Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher provocatively entitles his article, “The Greatest Generation Wasn’t Always That Great.”

Now let me say this: in no way does Mr. Gallagher cast doubt on the motivations and actions of those who served both this country and others during that war. His point is not that they were not the greatest generation.

Rather, his point was the even those service members, coming home after clear victory in a well-supported war, found that the world—the “generation”—they encountered upon their return was certainly not always the “greatest,” and certainly not unified in the views of what should happen to and for combat veterans.

Ultimately, his claim is one of both encouragement and challenge for modern service members returning from War. He encourages his fellow veterans not to assume that service members of the 1940’s were somehow immune to the pains and the pressures now faced by those of the 2010’s. When Gallagher recently read a war/post-war memoir by the famous newspaper cartoonist Bill Mauldin, for example, he found evidence that by no means was return to civilian life easy after all those ticker-tape parades of the newsreels were long past.

Yet he also wants to challenge veterans—including himself—never to forget what I also urge them (and you all) never to forget: the same drive, the same sense of mission that underlay their military service (that underlay your military service, for those of you who served) can still be used to forge an identity that includes both veteran and civilian within it. Being a veteran of combat is not just saying something about the past, about “back then”: it is also saying something about the future, about what can be brought into that future, about all those missions and connections that are still there to be looked for, striven for, lived for.

I think Mr. Gallagher and I would agree:  You, today’s combat vets, like those of the “greatest generation,” had what it took. But even more, you still have what it takes. And both he and I encourage each of you—each of us—therefore to do what needs to be done.

That’s a definition of greatness that all of us can affirm. And even better, live.

No matter what our generation.

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about Matt Gallagher’s work

click here.

It’s Supermom, Mate!

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Fasten Your Seat Belt

Podcast of Blog Entry


Today I want to travel halfway around the world from my home in Nashville, Tennessee, USA, to the southeastern coast of Australia and the state of New South Wales. From just south of Sydney, in the Illawarra area, in the town of Wollongong comes the story of a woman who exhausts me just by my reading her accomplishments. But then, with combat survival training under her belt, why shouldn’t she be a supermom?  From the Illawarra Mercury comes “Wind Beneath Many Wings: Sgt. Simone Campbell Is Helping Some of the Six Million Australians Who Suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

Simone Campbell is a personal trainer and small business owner who also commits time to promoting youth fitness, especially among underserved children in her area. She is the wife of a veteran of the conflicts both in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the mother of three sons under the age of twelve, one of whom has special needs. She is a recognized leader in her business community, and the article announces her receipt of an Illawarra Women in Business award.

So far, so good. She sounds like an average, high-achieving woman of the early twenty-first century.

But there’s one extra tidbit: she is a seventeen-year veteran of the Royal Australian Air Force, having served as combat support in countless air missions to East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, often helping to bring Australian special forces units into harrowing ground situations while under constant fire.

Not your average soccer mom, in other words, with a Pilates studio in the local strip mall.

Even more, Sergeant Campbell is herself not only a sufferer of combat trauma, but the child of one. Her father served with Australian forces in the Vietnam conflict, and she grew up in, shall we say, less-than-ideal circumstances, well-acquainted with the dangerously shifting moods of combat PTSD, as well as the dangerously uncertain streets of the less snazzy sections of town.

Perhaps because of this, she also is a founder and member of the board of directors of the Australian-New Zealander organization, FearLess Outreach, a community-based organization dedicated to becoming a clearinghouse for PTSD services and support throughout both countries, established partially in honor of the Australian and New Zealander troops who returned from the battles of World War I, especially at Gallipoli. She does speaking, advocacy, youth outreach—who knows, she probably even tinkers with the furnace down at the main office when it breaks down.

If you’re not yourself exhausted by now, reading about all this, I’m sure you could hop the next flight to Sydney, and she’d have a few chores for you of your very own waiting upon your arrival.

“Super-mom,” of course, is a not always a compliment these days, but if we take it to mean not “super-human” or “more-capable-than-you,” but rather just human and doing what she can with the capabilities that she has to make her own life, her family’s lives, and her community’s lives as meaningful as possible?

That, I suspect, even she would agree to. Once she has the time.

At one point in the article, her Royal Air Force job was described as a “flight attendant.”  I think that we can all assume that when one is accompanying soldiers into a war zone with little or no runway in sight, guns a-blazing all around, one is doing a bit more than handing out ginger ale and peanuts.

Yet perhaps the name fits as well, no matter its military definition: attending to people, whether the Queen herself or some tough guy from down in Tasmania who is about to hop into the middle of a firefight, whether one of her own kids at bedtime or some poor kid from who-knows-where who’s trying to figure out if there’s any future worth having. No matter, she’s found and continues to find missions and connections worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

And how. Good for you, Sergeant.

I’d ask for some of your leftover energy, but I’m afraid even that might be a bit much for this old guy. If you have any peanuts, though: those I’ll take..

Until tomorrow, be well,


To learn more about FearLess Outreach

click here.

Shukraan for Your Service

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Never Forgetting the Words

Today I want to focus on an organization.

For some reasons languages come easily to me. While I’ve been too lazy to achieve the fluency I should attain, I do have a working knowledge of a few languages, with accents that, though not even close to perfect, are anything but embarrassing. Maybe that’s why I find the mission of this group so compelling: No One Left Behind, a US non-profit that brings Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters and their families to the United States.

Combat vet Matt Zeller, the organization’s founder, opens up his bio page on the website with a line that could just as easily have been the opening of the latest New York Times best-selling thriller: “I should have died on April 28, 2008.”

Yes, he should have.

Janis Shinwari, however, an Afghan interpreter, thwarted the two Taliban fighters who were planning to introduce Mr. Zeller to their weapons.

Mr. Zeller is clearly a man who does not forget a favor— and clearly a man who expects his fellow citizens to do the same. He worked three years to get Mr. Shinwari and his family safely to the United States, and he is determined to make sure that other interpreters have the same opportunity.

What I find so compelling about his organization’s mission, though: not only are they committed to getting these men and women out of their dangerous situations back home, they are equally committed to making sure the interpreters and their families can have a chance to build meaningful lives in the US, lives in which they can learn to navigate the complexities of American urban life, in which they can have access to a working car to get them to interviews and to jobs, in which spouses too can begin to communicate in a foreign tongue that once made their partners invaluable to strangers in their own country—and detestable to many of their fellow countrymen.

Politics aside, these interpreters and the service members they accompanied became connected not only in language, but in life itself, in the day-to-day of getting through blood-boiling summer days and bone-cracking winter nights, in the fires of engagement, in the surprise of sleep. Many of both did not survive, leaving families in Tikrit and in Peoria wondering, “What now?”

Both had what it took.

Mr. Zeller now reminds his fellow veterans—and his own countrymen—that having what it took still requires a commitment that didn’t end when that plane took off for stateside, carrying the fortunate ones to a quiet life that those with the talent for languages could only dream about. Dreams should become realities, whether in English, Arabic, or Persian, that are worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

Had I been a younger man who’d picked up English on the shortwave way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (i.e., the 1970s), would I have taken a chance on a Joe or Jane who happened by? If they had looked at me with eyes that had said to me, “Hey, kid: not only am I human, but so are you. Wanna talk?”

I don’t know. But if I had done so, I sure hope that the Joe would have been a Matt Zeller of another time, another place, who would have remembered my name, and even if he could have never pronounced shukraan correctly, would have not only said “thank you,” but lived it.

In 2016, may we all do so now.

Until tomorrow, be well,


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