I am a Racist

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You can’t fight racism with racism, the best way to fight racism is with solidarity. – Bobby Seale

Recently a Facebook acquaintance called me a racist on the basis of a statement I made regarding Michael Brown, whose death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson, sparked riots in Ferguson, MO and created controversy across the world. A grand jury and the Department of Justice ruled the shooting justified based on the testimony of Wilson and eyewitnesses and also the findings of several expert witnesses based on autopsy findings. I was responding to her statement that he was a child who didn’t deserve to be shot. The comment I made that caused her so much angst was, “Just because a person is black does not mean they are always good.” She responded with one word “Racist”.

For a little background this woman is white who is married to a man from India and she is constantly accusing anyone who she perceives to be other than dark-skinned a “racist”. She justifies this as “reverse racism”. Well, racism is ugly and wrong. Period. There is no “reverse” in racism. Racism is racism and no one race is better or worse than another.

I spent my whole Federal career helping minorities and women to ensure they had equal rights and services. I taught Civil Rights and EEO nationally for my agency and I was honored many times for my dedication to making sure USDA services were offered to everyone equally. I say this not to pat myself on the back. It was a labor of love. I grew up in the South during the 60’s and I saw inequality. In 1991, I was living in South Georgia when I got the welcome news that I was being offered a job with the Federal government. One of the pre-requirements was a doctor’s exam. I duly reported to the doctor they told me to use and sat in the reception area to wait my turn. My fellow waiters and I had bonded in our forced boredom as we waited to be called in to see the doctor. A nurse put her head out of the door and motioned me up. She asked me, “Don’t you want to sit in the other waiting room?” Other waiting room? She cocked her head at the other patients and I understood that she meant the white waiting room. I looked at her in disbelief and went and sat back down with the other people who up until that moment I had not noticed were all black. I was outraged.

I have seen racism is every place I have lived. Racism against blacks and whites in the South and racism against Native Americans in Maine and Wyoming. I saw racism in Afghanistan among Muslims. No one race, color, religion or any other factor has clean hands as far as racism is concerned.

Am I a racist? I can emphatically say “No.” Am I prejudiced? Yes. And so are you. Prejudice is to be human. Every one of us judges others on first contact. It is our family tapes that we filter our judgement through based on our own life experiences. We all have gut feelings, instincts, emotions and they affect our judgements and our actions for good and for evil. But we are also capable of acting deliberately and analyzing our emotions, then making rational decisions despite our prejudices. And while the word “prejudice” has been used synonymously with “racism” by race baiters and the uninformed, prejudice is neither right nor wrong. It is an emotion like any other emotion. To be prejudiced does not necessarily translate into racism. Prejudices can be overcome with time, exposure and education. When our prejudices become biases and we treat people differently, then racism occurs. Racism is a deep-rooted superiority complex based purely on race or genetic feature and it is always wrong.

Prejudices can encompass not liking people based on mental illness, homosexuality, being short, being tall, being red-haired, freckles, gender, age, weight, and the list goes on and on. Can anyone truthfully exclude themselves of being prejudiced against something or someone? Many prejudices are socially acceptable and sometimes even encouraged. “She’s a vegetarian. I hate having to cook for her.” As I child I was taught certain behaviors to keep me safe in an area that has poisonous snakes. Even though I love snakes, to this day when I first see one I freeze and a frisson of fear runs through me. It only lasts a second then reason kicks in and I usually try to catch the snake so I can admire its beauty before I let it go.

To be called a racist was upsetting until I realized the true racist was the woman who called me that. She judged me based on my color. Her prejudice has turned into bias thus she reviled me with hate. It makes me sad. Until we as a society learn to appreciate all races we will never be free from the blackness of racism. It takes more than hurling insults at one another. It takes work and it takes looking into our hearts and looking at our own motivations.

Prejudice

Person 1: I’ve only known that person for 30 seconds, but I don’t like him.

Person 2: Why do you dislike him? Did he do something wrong?

Person 1: No, he didn’t do anything wrong, I just don’t like him.

Racism

KKK: We hate blacks.

Black Panthers: We hate whites

Sunni Muslims: We hate Shia Muslims

Blue Lives Matter

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A broad brush has been used to unfairly malign the reputation of the profession of policing in the United States. –  Sheriff David Clarke

Lately liberal news media, uninformed celebrities and race baiters would have you believe that every police officer has an itchy trigger finger looking for any excuse to gun down unarmed people. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, just as in any profession, there are bad employees and I’ll admit a rogue cop with a gun is terrifying, but the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers are dedicated public servants who put their lives on the line every day in order to serve and protect.

This week two police officers were wounded in an ambush style shooting in racially charged Ferguson, Missouri. Such types of attacks are the leading circumstance in the surging number of shooting deaths of law enforcement officers, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. They also state that over 1,500 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty during the last ten years, an average of one death every 58 hours. There are over 58,000 assaults against law enforcement officers every year. Ambush attacks, such as the shooting of New York Police Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn, were the number one cause of felonious officer deaths for the fifth year in a row. Ambush killings accounted for 23.2% of police officers killed in the line of duty 2002-2011.

Attorney General Eric Holder has stated, “These troubling statistics underscore the very real dangers that America’s brave law enforcement officers face every time they put on their uniforms. Each loss is unacceptable—a beloved father, mother, son or daughter who never came home to their loved ones.”

Holder’s words ring hollow to many who credit his recent anti-government, anti-police rhetoric with fanning the flames of violence toward police across the country. Likewise, President Obama’s initial response to the shooting in Ferguson was to tweet “Violence against police is unacceptable. Our prayers are with the officers in MO. Path to justice is one all of us must travel together.” Only a week earlier he called for “collective mobilization” against police.

I am thankful for the dedicated men and women who protect me and the society I live in. While I was in Afghanistan I saw firsthand what living in a culture where there is no law enforcement to call upon is like. In areas that do have the Afghan National Police (ANP), many of the officers are the ones you need to fear. Once when I visited the Kapisa Province Agricultural Director at a research farm, three unkempt ANP wearing ill-fitting, grey uniforms and carrying rifles, followed us around the field all day. The Director, who was usually very friendly and smiling, seemed subdued and uncomfortable. I later learned that the ANP had forced him to put them on the payroll for the irrigation project the U.S. was funding at the farm. They followed us around to intimidate the Director to comply with their demands. Non-compliance in Afghanistan can mean death to you or your family.

I have always had positive interactions with police and when I have been stopped for an occasional traffic violation I have always been treated with courtesy, mainly because I, too, am courteous. If you don’t want to be hurt or killed by a police officer, then comply with what they say. If they tell you to “Stop” then stop. If you want to be treated with respect, then be respectful. Law enforcement officers work in very stressful situations and they must make life and death decisions in a split second. Acting stupid is going to increase the probability that the outcome won’t be good for anybody.

I want to close with a remembrance for the law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty in March 2015:

Special Agent William Sheldon, 9//11 related illness, March 2

Police Officer Terence Avery Green, ambush attack, gunfire, March 4 (His partner was shot, but survived.)

Police Officer Robert Wilson, III, gunfire, March 5

Lieutenant C. Scott Travis, heart attack, March 5

Police Officer Brennan Rabain, Auto accident, March 7

Deputy Marshall Josie Wells, gunfire, March 10

Deputy Sheriff Johnny Gatson, auto accident, March 10

Police Officer Burke Rhoads, auto accident, March 11

Patrolman George Nissen, assault, March 12

Trooper Donald Fredenburg, collapse on job, March13

Police Officer Darryl Wallace, auto accident, March 15

Lieutenant Richard Woods, heart attack, March 17

Police Officer Adrian Arellano,  motorcycle accident,March 18

Police Officer Alex Yazzie, gunfire,March 19

Police Officer Michael Johnson, gunfire, March 24

Trooper Trevor Casper, gunfire, March 24

Rest in peace, good and faithful servants.

Grand Old Flag

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The American flag is the most recognized symbol of freedom and democracy in the world. – Virginia Foxx

Last week the Student Association of University of California at Irvine voted to ban the U.S. flag from the association’s lobby wall. The resolution passed with a 6-4 vote, with two abstentions in a misguided effort to make their school “more inclusive”.

“Designing a culturally inclusive space aims to remove barriers that create undue effort and separation by planning and designing spaces that enable everyone to participate equally and confidentially”, read the resolution authored by Matthew Guevara. The resolution included language such as “paradigms of conformity” and “homogenized standards”. It stated, “The American flag has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism. Flags not only serve as symbols of patriotism or weapons or nationalism, but also construct cultural mythologies and narratives that in turn charge nationalistic sentiments.” Sounds like someone has too much time on their hands and likes to look up big words in the dictionary.

Response, not only at UCI, but all over the country was swift. Protests sprang up on campus and the threat of violence loomed. Pictures of the students on the association board were plastered across social media and labeled traitors. The following day the Executive Cabinet of the student government vetoed the ban on the display of flags saying, “We fundamentally disagree with the actions taken by the Legislative Council and their ban is counter to the ideals that allow us to operate as an autonomous student government organization with the freedoms of speech and expression associated with it.

I am not ashamed to say I am patriotic. When televisions used to sign off at midnight by playing the National Anthem I always stood up and placed my hand over my heart if I happened to be up that late. On my first day as a Federal USDA employee the first thing my supervisor did was to take me out to stand under the American flag and recite this oath:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I continued that tradition with the employees I had the honor to swear in. I believed it was important for them to understand the sacred trust that public servants hold when they work for the government.

At the age of 57 I volunteered to go to Afghanistan to assist with reconstruction and stabilization efforts. I did it because I love my country. I wanted to give back some of the many blessings that I have enjoyed living in the land of the free and the home of the brave. At the Embassy I was a member of the Star Spangled Singers. We sang patriotic songs at events and for visiting dignitaries. Each time we sang the “Star Spangled Banner” it thrilled me to look out over the crowd and see people singing along, their hand over their heart. One of the most touching things I saw was a young Afghan National Army soldier standing at attention in his neatly pressed uniform at the changing of troops at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier. The ceremony involves playing the Afghanistan National anthem and raising the Afghan flag. Next the French anthem is played and the French flag is raised. Then the American anthem and flag follow suit. This young soldier, with a ramrod straight back, maintained his crisp salute through all three anthems and flag raisings. Now that is respect.

Embassies throughout the world are considered to be on the soil of their home country. At the U.S. Embassy in Kabul I walked by the American flag every day. It meant I was on American soil and that comforted me through the hardest and scariest of times. It made me proud to see it flying because it represents the best of America – pride, honor, sacrifice and most importantly, freedom. The flag stands on a patch of grass that has granite plaques to honor civilians who have been killed in Afghanistan, including one from USDA. I have seen it lowered to half-mast on more than one ceremony for fallen comrades. On July 4th, 2011 hundreds of small American flags were placed around the Embassy grounds. This is the day our locally employed Afghan staff could bring their families to the Embassy for a celebration. At the end of the day, every flag had been taken as treasured memento. To them it represented hope.

I believe in free speech and the students at UCI certainly have the right to say the U.S. flag offends them, but they do not have the right to remove the flag from a publically funded school. When I look at the flag I see the blood of thousands of men and women who have died to defend the principles it stands for. I see immigrants pledging their allegiance as they gain their citizenship. I see grief in a mother’s face as she is given the flag from her child’s coffin before he or she is laid to rest having been killed in the line of duty as a police officer. The flag is a powerful reminder of the high price of freedom and I will always be proud to display and honor it. The flag that some despise are given the privilege to do so by the great country over which it flies.

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

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The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. – Wendell Berry

Excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”

Young Farmer with Old Eyes

 Most of the farmers I deal with in Afghanistan are children. The first farmer I meet is twelve years old. We have completed a market walk in the town of Nijrab where tables of vegetables, fruits and pungent spices are for sale. In a market walk we talk to vendors and shoppers and gather information to see if people perceive they are better off than a year ago. We ask them what they feel they need to make their lives better; jobs and education are the two most frequent responses.

For this mission I have requested a stop at an agricultural field. Just outside of town the convoy stops at a wheat field alongside the road. I climb out of the MRAP as the SECFOR (Security Force) takes up strategic places around the field, their arms at ready in case of an attack. An ag person needs to feel soil like a junkie needs a fix. Soil is the drug of our choice. And don’t ever call soil “dirt” in front of a soil person. Dirt is soil out-of-place, not the stuff you grow things in. I eagerly scoop up a handful of soil. It is lacking organic material but looks pretty good. As I am mentally determining the sand-silt-clay ratio I notice a young boy coming out to the field. He comes up to my interpreter and me and holds out his hand. He looks to be about 12 and he is the farmer of this wheat field and he has come to see what we are doing. I ask him if I can ask him some questions about his field and he agrees.

Afghanistan is a country that largely depends on snow and rain runoff to water their crops. The steep grey mountains do not show an abundance of snow clinging to their sharp peaks or nestling in deep ravines.

“Are you concerned that you won’t have enough rain or snow to water your crops this year?” I ask.

He gravely looks at the mountains for a moment. “If this year isn’t good, then we hope next year will be better.” Now, every farmer I have ever talked to has said this. Farmers are eternal optimists in spite of drought, crop failure, high expenses and low profits.

“What do you use to fertilize your crops?” I ask, poking the soil around in my hand.

“We use animal and human feces.” I look down at the soil in my hand with a different viewpoint. What is that little brown clump next to my thumb?

I ask him a few more agronomy questions. He is as knowledgeable as any farmer I have ever talked to. I notice a small crowd of children have come out to the field, some are leading babies by the hand. They lift up rocks from a pile as they work on a stone wall around an orchard of newly planted fruit trees. I ask the farmer if I can look at the orchard and he leads me over. He says the children are building the wall to keep animals out. Even the babies are working on the wall, lifting up stones that look too heavy for their diminutive size. Irrigation channels have been dug around the perimeter of the orchard. I ask him what kind of trees he has planted.

“Peaches, apricot and apples.”

“When your fruit matures will you sell it in the market?” I ask.

“No, I have a big family. I grow food to feed my family.” I look down into his dark brown eyes and my heart breaks. At twelve, children in America are attending school and playing video games. He is so young but his eyes are world-weary from shouldering the responsibilities of an adult. I thank him for talking with me and I shake his hand. I also commend him for taking care of his family. He lifts a shoulder as if to say, “It is all in a day’s work.”

This encounter will become poignant to me in the future when I hear about a rogue group of Army infantrymen under the leadership of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs. For weeks the men who refer to themselves as the “Kill Team” debate if they can kill a “Haji”, a disrespectful term for an Afghan man, without getting caught. In the winter of 2010 the Kill Team crosses the line from fantasy into grim reality.

On January 15 the platoon carries out a mission to a small rural village in the Maywand district in Kandahar province. Upon reaching the village, soldiers provide a perimeter the same way my security forces do for me when I am on a mission. But this day the perimeter is to provide a clear path for members of the Kill Team to carry out their plan to execute an innocent Afghan civilian. As the soldiers walk through the alleys of the village, they see no armed fighters nor find any evidence of enemy activity. Instead, they see an all too familiar sight in rural Afghanistan, farmers living without electricity or running water, bearded men with bad teeth in tattered traditional clothes, women clad in royal blue burkas and young children eager to talk to the Americans.

While the officers of the platoon talk to a village elder inside a compound, two soldiers break away from the unit and move to the far edge of the village. There, in a poppy field, they began looking for someone to kill. The soldiers see a young farmer, Gul Mudin, a smooth-faced boy of about 15 years old. Off in the distance, a few other soldiers stand sentry. The young man is the only Afghan in sight. With no one around to witness, they pick the young man for their first execution.

Mudin is wearing a little round cap called a kola and a Western-style green jacket. He holds nothing in his hand that can be used as a weapon. The expression on his face as he approaches them is welcoming. “He was not a threat,” one of the soldiers later confessed. The two men order him in Pashto to stop. The boy did as he was told. He stood still.

The soldiers knelt down behind a mud-brick wall and one tosses a grenade toward Mudin. As the grenade explodes, the soldiers open fire, shooting the boy repeatedly at close range with an M4 carbine and a machine gun. Mudin buckles and collapses face first onto the ground, his kola toppling off next to his bleeding head. A pool of blood runs from his wounds.

The gunfire alerts the other soldiers and they rush over. When they arrive at the scene they see the body of the young boy. The two soldiers are crouching by the wall, their eyes shining with excitement. When a staff sergeant asks them what happened, one of the soldiers says the boy had been about to attack them with a grenade. “We had to shoot the guy,” he says.

The sergeant believes the boy might still be alive, and possibly a threat, so he orders a soldier to make sure the boy is dead. A soldier raises his rifle and fires twice more into Mudin’s body.

As the soldiers gather around Mudin, the atmosphere is charged with a manic excitement. A local village elder, who had been speaking to the soldiers that morning, is fetched to identify the body. The elder turns out to be the father of the slain boy. His grief and disbelief at the site of his son’s bullet riddled body was later recounted in an official Army report. “The father was very upset.”

In spite of the father’s grief, the soldiers are jubilant. The soldiers follow the routine Army procedure required after every battlefield death. Cutting off the dead boy’s clothes, they strip him naked to check for identifying tattoos or scars. Using a portable biometric scanner they scan his iris and fingerprints.

The Geneva Convention states, each Party to the conflict shall facilitate the steps taken … to protect [the killed] against … ill-treatment. The remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation or in detention resulting from occupation or hostilities … shall be respected”. In a direct violation of this protocol, the soldiers begin taking photographs of themselves with the body. One of the soldiers who killed the boy poses for the camera with Mudin’s bloody corpse, grabbing the boy’s head by the hair as if it is a trophy deer. The other soldier gets a similar photo.

Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the leader of the Kill Team is pleased. Gibbs later states he started “messing around with the kid,” moving his arms and mouth and “acting like the kid was talking.” Then, using a pair of razor-sharp medic’s shears, he slices off the dead boy’s little finger and gives it to one of the soldiers. A trophy for killing his first Afghan.

According to fellow soldiers, the man carried the finger with him in a zip-lock bag. “He wanted to keep the finger forever and wanted to dry it out,” one of his friends would later report. “He was proud of his finger.”

The soldiers, embolden by their success, go on a killing spree over the next four months that claims the lives of at least three more innocent civilians. One is a cleric and one is deaf, and possibly mentally handicapped. A part of his skull was taken as a trophy. When another soldier blows the whistle on the team in the summer of 2010, a military investigation results in the charging of five members of the platoon with the murder of three Afghan civilians in Kandahar province and collecting their body parts as trophies. In addition, seven soldiers are charged with crimes such as hashish use, impeding an investigation, and attacking the whistleblower. Eleven men are ultimately convicted, receiving sentences ranging from 60 days to life.  Anyone who creates terror is a terrorist. When the men of the Kill Team crossed the line from talking about killing to the actual executions of innocent civilians, they lost their humanity. The moment they killed Mudin, they became the bad guys.

When I read about the depraved actions of the Kill Team the face of my twelve year-old farmer superimposes itself on Mudin’s face in my mind’s eye. I can see him coming out to the field to meet me with a smile on his face, his hand outstretched. It took courage to walk into that field ringed with soldiers armed with assault rifles. I now realize, this is not a boy, this is a man. I know he will have a hard life and I pray his fields will never be stained with his blood as Gul Mudin’s was.

Angels Unaware

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For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. – Psalms 91:11

This weekend a tragic accident claimed the life of young Utah mother, Jennifer Groesbeck, after her car went into the Spanish Fork River. Miraculously, her 18 month-old daughter, Lily survived in freezing temperatures for almost 14 hours. The water was so cold that three police officers and four firefighters had to be treated for hypothermia after the rescue. Lily is expected to make a complete recovery.

Four police officers who rescued the toddler from the wreck said they all heard a woman’s desperate pleas for help coming from inside the overturned vehicle. They heroically used all their strength to right the car but when they got inside they found the mother dead and Lily alive, hanging upside down in her car seat. The mother had passed away the night before when she lost control of the car and could not possibly have called out to the men to save her child.

Officer Tyler Beddoes of the Spanish Fork Police said he laid awake for two nights trying to figure out exactly what it could be. “All I know is it was there, we all heard it,” he stated. As cries of “Help” came from the car, one of the officers said, “We’re trying. We’re trying our best to get in there.” Beddoes went on to say they just can’t grasp what we were hearing.” Christians have no trouble in saying baby Lily was saved by her guardian angel.

Christmas Eve, 1997 shaped up to be the bleakest day in my life. Almost a year before I had been hit head-on by a drunk driver who died in the accident. Later I found out it was her fifth drunk driving accident in seven years. I sustained physical injuries including a traumatic brain injury, but by far the worst trauma was emotional. I felt overwhelming guilt that the woman had died. Through physical therapy I recovered from my physical and mental injuries, but the guilt I felt could not be assuaged.

I tried for my family’s sake to take part in the Christmas festivities. I put a smile on my face, wrapped gifts and made special treats but inside I was so weighted down by the guilt I felt that all I really wanted to do was stay in bed and cry. I needed to make a run to the grocery store and I used the time alone in the car to let some tears flow and to release some of the emotion I had held in all day.

As I got close to the Catholic church in the small Maine town where I live I felt compelled to go in. It is not my church—I am not even Catholic, but the urge was so strong I pulled into the parking lot and went inside. Some people were decorating a Christmas tree in the foyer. A woman turned to me and I told her I wasn’t a member but I wondered if I could come in and pray. She told me “Of course.” and I entered the sanctuary. Knowing that I was close to breaking down I went midway down the aisle to distance myself from the others.

I sat down in a pew and shut my eyes. As I tried to pray I was overcome with wave of guilt that hurt to my core. I put my face into my hands and started to cry. Almost at once I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a woman standing next to me. She said, “You seem upset.” I told her about the accident and how I felt guilty that the woman had died. I told her, “I just need to be forgiven.”

She smiled and said, “I want to tell you a story.” Once, two monks lived in a monastery that required silence and also forbade talking or touching women. They were going to the village and as they came to a river they found a young woman crying on the riverbank. One of the monks asked her,”What is wrong, my child?” The young woman explained that she needed to cross the river to get home and she couldn’t get across. The monk told her to get up on his back and he would carry her across. He waded through the river and set her down on the other side. They walked along for about two miles when the other monk couldn’t stand it any longer. He said “You know we are not supposed to even talk to women and you picked her up and carried her,” he admonished.

The other monk looked at his fellow traveler and calmly said, “I put her down two miles ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

When the woman said this I was overcome with a sense of relief. I realized I had been carrying this guilt and that I needed to let it go. I reached down to get a tissue from my purse at my side. I looked up to thank the woman only to discover she was gone. Stunned, I looked behind me down the aisle. No one could have walked out of my sight in the two seconds it took to get my tissue.

I gathered up my purse and made my way out of the church. No one was in the foyer and the parking lot was empty. I sat in my car for a few minutes. I couldn’t immediately process what had happened. I finally realized that I had seen an angel and that she had been sent to help rid me of my crushing survivor’s guilt. I had no other explanation for what had happened.

I have had people ask me what she looked like. All I can remember is that she had medium length brown hair and that she just looked “average”. Romans 8:26 says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” I truly believe the Holy Spirit intervened for me that day. I was so weighted down in misplaced grief that I could not see a way out.

I was able to go back home with a sense of peace. I had sought forgiveness from God, but what I had really needed was to forgive myself. Survivor’s guilt is real and is felt by many people who survive traumatic events. The fact that you had no personal responsiblity does not lessen the feeling. Thoughout the years when I start to beat myself up about something I have no control over, I smile and remember when God sent me an angel to comfort me and remind me that I am a child of God and that I deserve to be happy.

The Importance of Color

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I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for. – Georgia OKeefe

No this isn’t about race – it is about COLOR. There has been substantial research in the field of color and how it affects us. There are color consultants who help businesses choose the best colors to market their products. There are even international color expos that highlight the importance of colors in all aspects of our lives. Colors can calm, stimulate, encourage and inspire us. Colors pervade our conversation. He’s as green as grass. She’s red hot. I’m black and blue. We associate colors with emotion. We are green with envy. We see red when we are angry. We get blue when we’re sad.

About this time every year, when I get fatigued with the long, long northern Maine winter, I get an almost fanatical desire to wear bright yellow. Yellow is the color of the sun and daffodils, my favorite flower. Even on gray, snowy days I sport blinding yellow clothing so bright it is guaranteed to knock your eyes out.

Recently a certain dress caused heated arguments around the world over whether it was blue and black or white and gold. (It’s white and gold.) Not since a White House intern wore a blue dress has a garment caused such controversy. Experts explained the reason people can’t agree on the color of the dress is about primal biology and the way human eyes and brains have evolved to see color in the world. Light enters the eyes through the lens and hits the retina. The retina reacts with the different wavelengths and transmits the signals to the brain’s visual cortex. On the retina there are rods and cones. The cones see color and the rods see shades like black, white and grey and are used for night and peripheral vision. So I see the fabric as white and gold because my cones aren’t responding to the dim lighting. My eyes see it as a shade (white). So if you see blue and black your cones are more high functioning.

This makes sense to me. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly called SAD, which causes “winter depression”. Another receptor on the retina that was discovered in 2001 tells your brain whether it is light or dark outside. Interestingly, this receptor is tuned to only sense blue light. These receptors connect to the biological clock. Plain old light can be used to treat this depression but in many northern areas light is hard to come by in the winter. So researchers developed “light therapy” which entails sitting in front of a bank of lights for 30-60 minutes a day.

When I first moved to Maine from South Georgia I expected that my biggest adjustment would be to the cold weather, but in fact it was the marked difference in daylight and dark. Around the second week of September my energy level would start to go down, steadily decreasing throughout the winter months until I entered a dark depression. All I wanted to do was sleep and eat–hibernate. Every winter I would gain 20 pounds and the things I should have been doing to counteract the depression—exercising, eating properly, social interaction—just seemed to take too much effort. Around mid-April I would begin to perk up. Like a squirrel I started to feel frisky and anxious to be outside and active. After the second year my doctor diagnosed me with SAD and I got a light box to sit in front of every day. Although I was skeptical at first I was amazed at how much better I felt. I wasn’t as depressed, I slept better, my energy level never dropped to the level of a sloth every winter and I have been a believer ever since. It hasn’t eliminated 100% of my symptoms but it makes life manageable.

The controversy of “the dress” made me think of the reality of what we see every day. If I say “look at that blue sky” to my husband is he seeing the same sky I see? (He sees the dress as black and blue.) I guess colors are like truth, only accurate from one’s individual point of view.

I love color, especially bright primary colors. They lift me up and keep me alert. There is nothing as exciting as seeing the bright yellow dandelions spring up from the remains of the melting snow in northern Maine. And the beautiful green of newly emerging leaves, a green that is not seen again all year, fills me with the anticipation of a warm, albeit brief, summer. I love artists who flaunt colors across their canvases in defiance of the mundane like Georgia O’Keefe and Andy Warhol. So right now I am wearing a banana yellow blouse in defiance of the drab, snow-laden day outside my window. And I’ll continue to wear yellow until the day I see those matching dandelions burst out of the thawing ground, hopefully in May, but maybe June.

 

Lost Treasures

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The largest Buddha before it was destroyed.

A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. – Marcus Garvey

We are used to seeing horrifying images and video propaganda from ISIS and last week we saw new disturbing images showing the wanton destruction of ancient artifacts at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Jihadists can be seen toppling statues, smashing them to bits with sledgehammers and using power tools to grind off the faces of the Assyrian artifacts, many of which date back 3,000 years. Mercifully most of the artifacts are replicas after some 1500 objects from the museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad for safekeeping. However the larger statues that were destroyed are originals.

The most devastating loss is the lamassu—large winged human-headed bulls– at the Nergal Gate. The beautiful and intricate gate was built during the expansion of Ninevah sometime between 704 and 690 BC. The images were destroyed with a jackkammer and it appears the damage is irreparable. The worst damage was done to the 2,000 year-old sculptures from Hatra and the damage is catastrophic. And this attempt to erase all culture other than Islamic didn’t stop there. In another appalling attack on Iraq’s heritage ISIS militants have bulldozed the Nimrud archaeological site in northern Iraq. “They are erasing our history,” said Iragi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani.

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ISIS destroying 2,000 year old Hatra sculptures.

In 2001 the Taliban, on orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited and destroyed the twin 6th century Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Bamyan in central Afghanistan. The larger Buddha was over 190 feet tall and the smaller was over 114 feet tall. The main bodies were hewn directly from the sandstone cliffs and details were modeled in mud mixed with straw, coated with stucco. They were painted to enhance the expressions of the faces, hands and folds of the robes; the larger one was painted carmine red and the smaller in multiple colors.

I was in my office on Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier when one of our Afghan interpreters, Dr. Najibullah came in to see me. Before the Taliban came to power he worked at the Kabul Museum and was responsible for hiding and saving many artifacts before the Taliban destroyed them just as ISIS is doing now. He held out a piece of gravel he had picked up from the road outside. It was stained with red. “This is from the Buddha,” he said with sadness in his voice. He wanted to give it to me, but I made him keep it. I simply could not take even a fragment of this ancient treasure. It would have broken my heart every time I looked at it.

From primitive to modern man humans have always used art to express what their lives are like. Whether it is a cave painting of animal hunts or sculptures of ancient Gods these legacies tell us where we came from and that is something every society has the right to know. I recently had my DNA tested and when I got the results and saw my diverse ethnic heritage it was thrilling. It gave me a sense of place and belonging. Just as we marvel at our history when we visit Washington, DC and gaze upon all the monuments and memorials that celebrate our heritage, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan deserved the right to look upon their past and marvel at the artistry of their ancestors.

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The site of the large Buddha after being destroyed by the Taliban.

Any religion or culture that destroys the past has no future. While Japan and Switzerland have pledged money to restore the Bamyan Buddhas, it just won’t be the same. The tranquil giants that looked benignly down on the valley, as travelers from China made their way to the west on the Silk Road for almost 2,000 years, were destroyed by fanatic Islamic jihadists who are so narrow-minded they cannot tolerate music, art, books or secular education. When these historic legacies vanish a part of humanity vanishes and the treasures of ancient Assyrians in Iraq and the Buddhas in Afghanistan can now only be marveled at by looking at photographs.

It should come as no surprise that fanatic extremists who do not care for human life would have no respect or reverence for art. As an artist it is a loss that I take personally and I am thankful that dedicated individuals such as Dr. Najibullah preserved some of the heritage that belongs not only to Afghanistan, but to the world.

Footprints on the Heart

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Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France

The other night I was comforting my sobbing daughter as she was facing the possibility of having to put her beloved cat to sleep. My heart was breaking for her because I know the pain and guilt that comes from having to make that decision. When I worked as a veterinary technician we euthanized pets every day. It was humbling to see how everyone in the office treated each pet with such love and respect. I would sing to them as we prepared them for their eternal sleep. It was particularly hard to see the grief of the families. Without exception they all had a sense of guilt that they were “killing” their loved one. I told them that we love our pets and give them a good life and we have to love them enough to let them go when they are suffering.

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Scout, the comedian of the family. Rescued from a meth addict.

So many people have come into my life during my 60+ years and I have to admit I don’t remember most of them but I can honestly say I remember every pet I have ever had. My very first memory is of playing with our family dog, Minksy. One of her puppies, Penny Louise, was my companion from the time I was born until I turned 16. Each cat, dog, hamster, rat, etc. that I have been blessed to share my life with has left indelible footprints on my heart. To no one else in your life can you go and get such unconditional love and acceptance.

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away but how about a pet? A number of studies have shown that having a pet in the home helps ward off allergies for young children. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention and the National Health Institute both conclude that people who have pets exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and people who have had heart attacks have better recovery rates. Pets are better than antidepressants in some ways. They not only give us unconditional love but they give us a sense of purpose and combat loneliness, particularly among the sick and elderly. They help bring out feelings of love, give us companionship and make us laugh with their antics.

Animals provide support as service dogs for people with physical limitations and emotional traumas that make it difficult to function in social situations. Veterans and others traumatized by war can use service dogs to facilitate the difficult transition from the battlefield to the “normal” world. The dogs can draw out the most isolated personality and helps to assuage the emotional numbness and hypervigilance that are common with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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GG (Good Girl) is the watchdog and protector of the family. I brought her back from Afghanistan.

Animals have been used to assist the military throughout history. Dogs, horses, mules, camels and even elephants have been used for protection and transportation; as late as the Afghanistan war when the first Special Operations Forces rode horses through difficult terrain on dangerous secret missions. Some unconventional animals have been used as well to support troops. Sea lions have been trained by the Navy to find swimmers near piers and ships or objects that were considered suspicious or a threat. Dolphins are trained to sense mines in water and alert their handlers. Cats are present on many bases around the world to reduce disease-spreading rodents and poisonous snakes. When I was in Afghanistan the commander on our base ordered all the cats to be killed. Two weeks later a poisonous snake was found outside my tent. At ISAF, the facility that houses the international forces in Kabul, cats patrol the base and are kept healthy by military veterinarians. On the adjoining U.S. Embassy campus, cats have their own territories and provide a much needed touch of normalcy to a stressful working environment.

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Blu, the baby of the family. We rescued her from an abusive situation.

During WWI and WWII, the U.S. military enlisted more than 200,000 pigeons to help relay messages. One pigeon, Cher Ami flew 12 important missions before being struck by enemy fire, although he was shot in the breast and leg he was able to deliver his message, which was found dangling from his battered leg. Because of his efforts 194 soldiers were rescued. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroic service. Sgt. Stubby, a pit bull stray smuggled by soldiers overseas, was the most decorated war dog of WWI and the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. He served in the trenches in France for 18 months and participated in four offensives and 17 battles. Rats are now being used to detect and report land mines in Afghanistan because their weight doesn’t set off the explosive device. While at the Embassy in Kabul bomb sniffing dogs protected me every day.

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Busta, the matriarch of the family at 16 years of age. She’s a grumpy kitty but we love her.

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Thomas who was rescued from a shelter is my sleeping buddy.

From war heroes to family pets, animals have had a longstanding communion with humans. We give them food, water, shelter, medical care and they give us love, companionship and acceptance. It is not surprising that we develop bonds that even death cannot break. Capitan, an Argentinian dog ran away from home after his master died and even though he had never been taken to the cemetery he was discovered laying on his master’s grave and he remained there for six years until his death, cared for by the cemetery staff. So it is no surprise that I can remember every pet I’ve ever had. They didn’t die; they just went to sleep in my heart.

The Woman With the Turquoise Eyes

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Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work. – Mother Teresa

This is another excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts from the Heart”.

As I make my way to meet a visitor at the front gate of forward operating base Morales Frazier in Kapisa Province, I notice an Afghan woman, dressed in black, sitting on the gravel and waiting with other villagers to see the French doctors on the base. Her eyes are closed and her face is etched with lines of pain as she adjusts her headscarf to shield herself from the scorching sun. On my way back I notice she is lying face down in the large, gray gravel, her face cradled in her hands. I ask my interpreter, Ibrahim, “Does she need help?”

Several young men are sitting on a bench in the shade, and he asks them about her. They dismissively say she has a head injury and a headache, I reach down and touch her shoulder. Squinting from the bright sun, she looks up at me and I put my arms around her and help her to stand. I notice that she is very weak and feeble. I motion for the young men to move over so that she can sit on the bench and ask the guards at the gate if they have any water for the people waiting. “Is she going to be seen soon?” I inquire.

They inform me that there are a lot of serious injuries today, including some children that the Taliban pulled from their homes, breaking their arms and legs as a warning to the parents, threatening to return and kill them if there is any cooperation with the Americans. I look down at a little boy who looks to be about 5, standing there with his broken arm in a red bandana sling, staring at me with his big brown eyes full of fear – because I am an American. I still have nightmares about those eyes.

“Let me see what I can find out,” I tell Ibrahim. I race to find our American medic to see if there is anything he can do. He tells me, “I can’t treat her, but let me see if I can free someone up at the clinic.” The French doctor tells us she knows the woman.

“She has a terminal brain tumor that has spread to her lungs. She is dying.” Anguished, I tell her the woman is very sick and weak and needs immediate attention. She tells me she will send a medic down to get her. On my way out I notice a young girl with a broken leg that is held together by a rod and screws inserted into her leg.. I look around at the people waiting to be seen and I am overwhelmed at the misery and sickness before me.

I hurry back to the gate and sit down next to the woman. “They are coming for her,” I tell Ibrahim, and he translates that message to her. She has the most startling blue eyes I have ever seen – the color of palest turquoise – and when she hears they are coming for her they fill with tears.

“I have been coming every day for a week, but no one cares,” she whispers. She leans weakly against my arm, and I ask her if she wants to lay her head down in my lap while she waits. As I hold her in my arms, I stroke her back and feel the thinness of her body; her bones are knobs and sticks bumping under my hand. I hear the raspiness of each labored breath as she struggles to breathe with lungs ravaged by cancer’s insidious fingers. She raises her withered hand to lift the scarf off her head, revealing a tumor so large that it has burst through her scalp. An open wound reaches from the crown of her head down to her neck where the tumor has split the skin. I can smell the stench of infection, and although the site and smell of the festering red wound edged with yellow flesh makes my stomach clinch, I am moved with pity. I cannot imagine her pain.

She says something to Ibrahim that so overcomes him, he is unable to speak. As he fights back tears, stomping his foot on the ground, he is visibly shaken. He finally looks at me with stricken eyes and says she has told him, “Now, if I just had someone who could feed me.” My eyes fill with tears and I angrily say, “This isn’t right.” A man in the crowd silently hands me a box of cookies, and I open them for her. Crumbs spill from the sides of her mouth as she shoves them in with a hunger that cannot be assuaged by such a meager ration. I have seen hungry people but never anyone starving, and the sight wounds me like a hot knife plunged into my core.

When the medics come, Ibrahim gently lifts the sick woman into the vehicle. We walk to the clinic to help her out and get her inside. As I start to walk away she stops me with a touch on my arm and holds me with her amazing eyes. A look passes between us that transcends spoken language. Though we will never meet again a bond has formed, and neither will forget the other. She touches her hand to her mouth in a gesture of farewell, and I turn and walk away.

The next day I go back to the clinic and ask the doctor if there is any place like a hospice for the woman to go, offering to pay for her care. She tells me that there is no such place, adding that because she is a widow with no family, there is no one to care for her. The reality is that the needs of families in the poor village are so great that compassion for others is a luxury that cannot be afforded. The doctor tells me that the woman does not have long to live, as if this will make me feel better. At that point I begin to pray that death will soon bring her freedom from her pain.

There are thousands more like this woman suffering through hunger and pain in Afghanistan. While the idea of the terminally ill dying alone is abhorrent to most of us, this is a modern aberration. For most of mankind’s existence this has been the norm. Much of Afghanistan is living in another century where poverty and sickness make obtaining day-to-day subsistence a grueling task at best. This is their life and they accept it. It is all they know.

Many times in my two years in Afghanistan I wonder if any of us, military or civilian, are doing anything that matters. Then I think of this nameless woman and I know that any time or money we spend in Afghanistan that makes food, health care and education available is well spent. While America has struggled with our longest war in terms of loss of life and treasure, for me it is ultimately about humanity. I will never forget the woman with the turquoise eyes. I only knew her for an hour, but she changed my life forever.

The Road Less Taken

obama-looks-at-netanyahu-during-talks-at-oval-dataIsrael was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom. – John F. Kennedy

I was completely blown away today listening to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to a joint meeting of Congress. It has been a long time since I have heard such an eloquent speaker who has the credibility to back up his words. When Barack Obama was campaigning for president he talked of hope, change and transparency. Even though I didn’t vote for him I thought he might be what America needed. I was wrong. Anyone can speak eloquently. Hitler was a charismatic, eloquent speaker who spoke incessantly of change. I don’t compare our President to Hitler, although it has to be admitted that Hitler did institute change. Leadership has to be more than words. It has to be translated into actions that do create change and hopefully the changes will benefit all humanity, and I believe that was the point Netanyahu was trying to make in his address to Congress concerning Iran’s nuclear capability.

Netanyahu also spoke a day earlier at the AIPAC conference. The comment that struck a chord with me was, “America lives in one of the world’s safest neighborhoods. Israel lives in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. America is the strongest power in the world. Israel is strong, but it is more vulnerable. American leaders worry about the security of their country. Israeli leaders worry about the survival of their country.”

America’s 76 million baby boomers grew up during the Cold War, when a deep fear of nuclear weapons permeated American life. As children we were taught to “duck and cover” under our desks in case of a nuclear attack, an action that would have been totally ineffective. Bomb shelters were dug in backyards and stocked with provisions that would allow families to shelter in place and wait out the radioactive fallout. Looking back these actions seem foolish, but remember that Americans were only a few years from seeing what devastation an atomic bomb could wreak.

Not since the Cold War with Russia has the world been under such threat of nuclear war as it is now. Nine countries (United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) together currently have over 16,000 nuclear weapons. Five nations also host weapons and 23 nations are in nuclear alliances. The U.S. and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high alert status – ready to deploy within minutes. Most of them are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. If a single nuclear warhead was dropped on a large city it could kill millions of people and the effects would persist for decades.

Despite the fact that the President and over 50 Democratic elected officials brought politics into Netanyahu’s address before Congress, I believe his impassioned plea to not accept a bad deal with Iran springs from a sincere desire to protect his country and the world from a nuclear disaster. In the Middle East, Iran dominates four Arab capitals, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. In his words, “At a time when many hope that Iran will join the community of nations, Iran is busy gobbling up the nations.”

I do not trust Iranian leaders to make good decisions for humanity. Iran’s radical regime has a 36 year history of aggression. They hang gays, persecute Christians, subjugate women, suppress freedom of speech and imprison or kill anyone who disagrees with their ideology. While Iran is currently denouncing ISIS it is only because they themselves want the power in the region. As Netanyahu so aptly stated, “When it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.” He pointed out that while ISIS is armed with butcher knives, captured weapons and YouTube, Iran would be armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs.

The thought of radical Islamists armed with nuclear bombs makes cold chills run down my spine. And given the propensity of President Obama has for making monumental decisions without consulting Congress, I don’t trust him to make a deal with Iran that would guarantee they do not develop that capability. The President is an appeaser. He is viewed as weak and what I do know about the people of the Middle East is that they despise weakness in leaders. In Afghanistan they regarded our efforts to win their hearts and minds by showering them with billions of dollars with no accountability with derision and they do view us as weak. That is why I learned to haggle in the bazaars. If you pay what they ask they regard you as stupid. You always negotiate for a better deal. I recall at one meeting in Kapisa Province where members of five tribes were asked to a meeting. The Americans wanted them to all work together so we didn’t have to visit five different tribes. The men were saying “Yes. Yes. We’ll work together.” One man, who was one of the only truly honest men I met there finally said, “You know we will say whatever you want to hear while we are in this meeting because we want your money, but when we leave here today we will be trying to kill each other.” This is what I fear. If the President doesn’t show strength when dealing with Iran and lifts the sanctions against them, they will smile and say ‘Yes. Yes. We’ll work together.’, when in fact they will be trying to kill us when the President walks away with his deal.

As a footnote, the Nazis were very close to developing a nuclear bomb. The Norwegian resistance and Allied bombers eventually put a stop to the manufacture of heavy water, necessary for the production of atomic bombs. The truth is they ran out of time. If they had worked harder they would have succeeded and would not have hesitated to use it, and how would that have changed history? Nuclear weapons in responsible hands can serve as a deterrent to aggression but in the hands of the Iran regime headed by despots such as President Bashar al-Assad and the fanatic Ayatollah Khomeini is frightening. I am glad Prime Minister Netanyahu came to speak if nothing more than to be reminded what a strong leader looks and sounds like.

I’ll conclude with Netanyahu’s words, “History has placed us at a fateful crosswords. We must now choose between two paths. One path leads to a bad deal that will at best curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a while, but it will inexorably lead to a nuclear-armed Iran whose unbridled aggression will inevitably lead to war. The second path, however difficult, could lead to a much better deal, that would prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, a nuclearized Middle East and the horrific consequences of both to all of humanity. You don’t have to read Robert Frost to know that the difficult path is usually the one less traveled, but it will make all the differences for the future of my country, the security of the Middle East and the peace of the world, the peace, we all desire.”