Memorial Day

As Memorial Day approaches, we are all reminded of the sacrifice that so many of the men and women of our armed forces make and the real cost of the freedom that we enjoy. Well, at least I hope that is the message being received. Unfortunately, too much emphasis is placed on consumerism and having a day off from work (unless you work in the retail or food service industry, among others).

In my humble opinion, I think Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Armed Forces Day, and Independence Day should be celebrated every day. I don’t mean with sales and fireworks, rather in the fact that we cherish the freedom that we often take for granted. We should truly support our troops and veterans and by support I mean beyond putting a sticker on your car and pressing like on facebook. Make a difference in the lives of those who sacrifice so much. Thank them for their service and sincerely mean it. Our military are not looking for charity or celebration rather they deserve the just gratitude from those who are unable or choose not to fight and defend our country.  Let them know that their sacrifice matters, that they are not simply a number in a uniform, a faceless soldier.

So as politicians, news media talking heads, and others contemplate and support a rush to violent action, remember the cost that moving forward with that decision has. It is not only a financial consideration although that seems to be the main point that is brought up when the debate arises. It is the human cost: the loss of life, the loss of peace of mind, the loss of sobriety, the loss of family unity, the loss of national pride, and the loss of innocence. When we send our soldiers to war or any violent conflict, remember that the cost is so high. Regardless of your thoughts of the reasons our soldiers are sent to battle, they do one of the most difficult jobs there is and pay a price that so many are unwilling to pay.

We must never forget the sacrifice that our troops offer and that our veterans, alive and dead have given.

I feel like I can never thank our troops and veterans enough. My thanks whether in terms of volunteerism, monetary, or verbal seem insufficient. I appreciate my freedom ever single moment of every day. I take time every day to think of the human cost of war. I just wish our politicians, news media talking heads, and others did as well.

Thank you to our troops and veterans. Thank you to the families that support and have sacrificed their loved ones in the protection of our freedom and pursuit of human rights and justice. Thank you to the many organizations out there that support our troops, veterans, and military families.

For those who have given the ultimate sacrifice, if you monitor from beyond, please know that your sacrifice was not in vain, that your courage is to be revered. You are not forgotten and will never be forgotten.

 

Lt. Michael P. Murphy and Other Role Models

Today, I traveled 80 miles to see the film “Murph the Protector” and it was well worth the commute. This film is a documentary about the life and death of US Navy SEAL Lt. Michael P. Murphy who was also awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. After listening to family, friends, and fellow military personnel discuss this young man’s truly inspirational life, as I drove home, I found myself becoming increasingly embittered. I’m bitter because if you stop a child or teen and ask who their role models are, the likely answer would be Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Snookie, Lindsey Lohan, Justin Bieber, and Barry Bonds among other celebrities and professional athletes. However, what is the reason for their fame? Definitely not their personal behavior nor the example they set for others. Who are the heroes of our children? The rich, spoiled, bullying, cheating, and self-involved individual. Altruism, teamwork, sacrifice, loyalty, honesty, tolerance, and community-building are all foreign notions to so many of our young people. Our society is not improving or progressing in a positive direction.

We need to hear more about true role models, individuals who embody the ideas of teamwork, sacrifice, tolerance, loyalty, justice, community-building and hard work. We should be hearing more about true heroes, our first responders who risk their lives every day for a yearly salary equal to a monthly mortgage payment for many celebrities. We should be hearing about nurses who work long hours with little support in an effort to keep patients comfortable. We should hear about our soldiers who sacrifice not only their physical existence but their emotional well-being. Our heroes are not the ones that we see on television, in movies, and online, they are not the ones earning even a middle class wage much less the exorbitant earnings of the celebrities. They are the bystanders that step in to protect the bullied and victimized. They are the educators that keep our children grounded in the reality that while we live with freedom, the cost was mighty.

With the media’s continual obsession with negative images and stories about our military, our first responders, our teachers, our nurses, and whistleblowers, the message to all is clear: be individualistic and keep to yourself, those who need help are undeserving. This is not a message I want the next generation believing. I want to see a new generation of courageous individuals who will sacrifice individual interests for the benefit of the group, who will work as a team, who will stand up against injustice and intolerance. I want to see a generation of accountability. People being aware that their choices have consequences and even if you are wealthy, if you break the law, you should expect to receive the same punishment as those who are not wealthy. Instead of ignoring or assaulting the homeless and poor, embrace our social contract and offer help even if it is simply to give the individual  a pair of clean socks.

We must support our heroes. We must make them visible even if they themselves shy away from the spotlight (in fact, many true heroes do). We must remember them, their lives, their accomplishments, their determination, their heart, and their legacy along with their sacrifice.

Thank you to our soldiers, our veterans, our first responders, our nurses, our educators, our whistleblowers, and other heroes. I am humbled by your sacrifice. I owe my freedom and security to you. You will never be forgotten.

I would also like to extend a special thank you to the filmmakers, family, friends, and fellow military personnel who participated in the creation and distribution of the film “Murph the Protector.” Thank you for sharing the life story of a truly inspirational and remarkable young man whose bravery and sacrifice should never be forgotten.

For more information including a list of Medal of Honor recipients and their stories, visit the US Army Center of Military History

Too Much Emphasis on Credentials?

Something that really bothers me about society today is its emphasis on having the correct credentials as a requirement for employment. We push and push and push for people to go to college to get that college degree and then go on to graduate school if you want to do more. Particular trades also require certificates before someone can be employed. This may sound acceptable in terms of protecting the consumer and ensuring that for example, the person working on your car has some general clue about how to fix your car, however, there is a problem with this. Not everyone can afford to acquire the appropriate credentials. Additionally, not everyone is suited for college. There is no shame in pursuing your dream and not attending college although in terms of the media machine in US society, that is the path to poverty. The fact is that there are many people with college degrees and even graduate degrees who are homeless and/or living below the poverty line. Student loan debt, lack of opportunity, outsourcing, changing technology, etc. have led to a large group of individuals who are over-educated and under-employed or even unemployed. Employers are able to be very selective about who they hire and for how long. Employers may weed out those with too much education so that they can hire someone at a cheaper wage because with all of that education comes the accompanying debt and desire for higher salary. Therefore, individuals who are considered over-qualified are just as likely as those who are considered under-qualified to be hired, and that likelihood is low. Temporary positions are created to set up the framework for employees in other countries to perform the work on a more long-term basis for a much cheaper wage. And that pulls me back to the notion of credentials. One of the difficult aspects of people who are displaced from their homes and neighborhoods due to natural and man-made disasters (super storms, hurricanes, war) may have had gainful employment along a sliding scale among neighbors but now, in a new setting cannot get the job because they do not have the appropriate certification. But this is not only the plight of the displaced, it is a growing problem for our returning veterans. We are finding that veterans who have been trained to serve as medics, helicopter pilots, mechanics, etc. are required to go through schooling about things they already know in order to attain the piece of paper saying they are certified and thus employable outside of the military. That is a ridiculous waste of time and resources. Yes, it is profitable for schools, but at what price is this profit? If our veterans are unable to afford further schooling or if such certification programs are not available in the area, what opportunities do they have? [The Daily Show had a segment regarding the specific issue of employing veterans on October 24, 2012, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-october-24-2012/exclusive—economic-reintegration-for-veterans ]

For those who know me and follow me on Twitter in particular are well aware that I am a passionate supporter of our troops and veterans. I admire those who bravely served our country, sacrificing their own physical safety, emotional well-being, and family connections to do what too many of us are unwilling or unable to do. And that is why I become enraged when I see the statistics about homeless veterans, veterans living in poverty, unemployed veterans, etc. We ask these amazing men and women to offer the ultimate sacrifice and if they are fortunate enough to return from conflict, we turn our backs on them? Why should businesses be celebrated for offering jobs to veterans when that should be something that goes without question? Being a veteran should not be a reason NOT to hire someone, yet in reality it is. So much negative attention is placed on our military from the various scandals to emphasis on violent manifestations of PTSD. We rarely celebrate the heroes, those who risk their lives for their fellow soldiers and have made it home. So why is it that someone who was trained in the military and served as a medic in Iraq is considered to be not qualified to serve as a paramedic in the US? It is all due to a piece of paper, a piece of paper that society has determined to have weight above and beyond the actual knowledge, skills, and abilities of the individual.

We need to bring this nonsense to an end. We need to evaluate people based on their actual attributes and abilities and not on whether or not they were able to get a degree or complete a certification program. We need to make sure that employers actually take the time to properly train new employees. That makes a huge difference not only in employee satisfaction but in productivity and thus, profitability (to speak to the for-profit camp). This is not a new or revolutionary idea. It is common sense.

Aftermath of Tragedy

In the typical reaction to such unfathomable tragedies, our society seems to follow the same formula every time and every time, we end up nowhere closer to a solution. If anything, we end up with more problems. This is not about just gun violence at schools, but a wide range of tragedy from terrorist attacks to domestic violence.

We always start with the media’s constant recap of events, showing footage of victims, interviews with survivors and victims’ families, and then maybe several days later, actually address how to help children deal with the knowledge of such tragedy. The media machine is in such a rush to be the first to report, that so much misinformation gets sent out into the world and at times, this misinformation gets perpetuated and morphs into justification for further violence and intolerance.

The next step comes to trying to understand the motives of the perpetrator or perpetrators and identifying what precise thing led to the violence. It is rarely this cut and dry. After Columbine, it was an attack on trench coats. After 9/11, it was Islam. After Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown, we see an attack on mental illness. All of this scapegoating does is increase fear and intolerance in our society. Hate crimes against anyone fitting the description of the latest scapegoat rises after these events, even against those who are not truly connected. Look at the tragedy in Oak Creek, WI at the Sikh temple. It highlights our fundamental misunderstanding of the core values of our society.

Our society thrives on a quick fix mentality. Need to lose weight? Take a pill or have surgery, don’t waste your time on diet and exercise even though that is the best and healthiest way to lose weight in the absence of other medical problems. Feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious? Take a pill, don’t spend time in therapy or in self-reflection to try to understand what in your life is making you feel the way you are feeling. Child won’t sit still in class? Diagnose the child with ADHD and give the child pills, rather than have a teacher alter their classroom management and lesson plan approach to accommodate the needs of the individual student. Ignoring the issues of gender in our society, it was the prescription of minor tranquilizers to middle class, white women in the 1950s and 1960s to deal with what Betty Friedan identified as The Problem that Has No Name as depicted in her book, “The Feminine Mystique” and found within the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “Mommy’s Little Helper.”

In specific regards to the issues of mental illness, we need to tread very carefully. What constitutes your definition of mental illness? If you take mild tranquilizers for a week after you parent has died, does that mean you are mentally ill? It does in the eyes of health insurance companies which then use these prescriptions and diagnoses to deny coverage (but that is an issue for a different post). If you are a victim of rape and suffer from excessive fear and night terrors, does that mean you are mentally ill? What about those who get depressed during the winter months either due to the holidays or lack of sunlight? Are they mentally ill? Limiting a person’s civil rights due to a vague definition of what it means to be mentally ill is wrong. All of this coverage on mental illness and its links to violence further stigmatize members of society. We want people to seek help if they need it and understand that there is nothing wrong with needing some help. Because of the stigma of mental illness, so many people exposed to trauma including first responders and soldiers do not seek the help they need. Humans are social animals and we cannot bear everything on our own. No one is actually normal and if we want to talk about what is normal in society, violence is the normal of our society not a form of deviance. Its pervasiveness is evident.

So how do we respond to this tragedy? There are calls to arm teachers in our schools in the aftermath of Newtown. This is such a bad idea it is hard for me to fathom where to begin. Let me begin by saying that I am not opposed to gun ownership, rather I only support responsible gun ownership. The number one concern with arming our teachers is that we truly do not know how we would react to a situation until we are actually in that situation. We like to think that we would act heroically, but in the words of psychologist Philip Zimbardo, “Heroes are rare in our society.” This has been documented in psychological research over time (see Zimbardo’s Prison Study and Milgram’s Obedience Study). If a child is laying on the sidewalk asking for help, would you stop? You want to say yes. But in reality, how many of you walk past the multitude of homeless of all ages and turn a blind eye? You say you support your veterans, but how many of you actually stop and thank them for their service and ask them how they are, not what they did? Even trained professionals such as police and soldiers may experience panic in response to the rush of adrenaline in a situation. How can we effectively train teachers to not panic, to not think of saving themselves above the lives of others? We cannot. This being said, I am not opposed to having trained, armed security at schools, perhaps even employing our veterans who struggle with finding work after their military service.

Furthermore, while most teachers are honorable, there are still a few that are not and molest or assault students. If armed, how could a child fight back or ever feel safe enough to confide in someone to get help? The bottom line is that by putting guns in the hands of teachers would be exacerbating the situation and ignoring the fundamental problem.

On the other hand, in some cases teachers are also attacked by students. While most would fear students in the upper middle school and high school ranges, it is not unheard of for one or more elementary aged children to attack an adult. If that teacher is armed and the child gets the weapon, what happens then?

Perhaps instead of arming our teachers with guns, we should look at having our teachers and children learn self-defense. Some may argue that engaging in martial arts is further violence but those who teach and study martial arts no differently. Martial arts have many benefits beyond self-defense including increasing self-esteem, self-control, self-confidence, and in the development of setting and achieving goals. It also teaches respect for oneself and others, reduces stress, and improves concentration. These are core values that should exist in every society.

This tragedy was not caused by mental illness or guns. It was caused by the fundamental lack of tolerance in our society as well as the pervasiveness and acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems. We live in a society where hazing is considered acceptable because the victim volunteered to participate and it serves as a rite of passage for entry into a social group, sports team, and workplace, bullying is the way to get ahead in this country, and it is considered better to turn a blind eye or imprison those less fortunate than take a critical look at our own behavior. We need to teach the fundamentals of tolerance and conflict resolution independent of violence beginning at birth and continue to hit home these issues throughout all school years, as is currently done with reading and writing. We want our children to learn to read and write so for their entire school career, reading and writing is included in all subjects for all years. The same MUST be done with tolerance and non-violent conflict resolution. Ignorance is no longer an excuse. We need to engage in a path towards finding long-term solutions rather than scapegoating. Granted this will not solve our problems overnight but seldom do such complex problems have such a quick fix solution.

Veterans Day is November 11, 2012

I have always been a staunch supporter of our military. While I have personally never served, I have several family members who have and I cherish the fact that they were among the lucky ones to physically survive. I make sure I do all that I can to support our military, those who are currently serving as well as those who are veterans. It is disheartening that as Veterans Day approaches, so many fail to recognize the importance that our military plays in our lives.

In recent years, the latest trend in education has included the removal of Veterans Day as a holiday for Pre-K to 12 students. A local school district in Northern Illinois claimed that the removal of that day off from school was due to the fact that students did not seem to appreciate or understand why they were getting the day off. To this day, I find that the fact that Veterans Day is not celebrated as a day off in public schools to be highly disgraceful and abhorrent. If school officials feel that students are not appreciating the meaning behind the day off, then as educators, maybe they should spend less time on test prep for NCLB and more on substantive material, such as the importance of supporting our troops. Clearly those who make these decisions have no connection with the military and the sacrifices that our servicemen and servicewomen make. It is not simply the physical sacrifice of placing oneself in harm’s way but the psychological and family sacrifices as well. Military families suffer tremendously as their loved ones are deployed around the world. The separation takes its toll on the spousal relationship as well as the parental relationship. In addition, when our troops come home, their biggest challenge awaits in trying to return to “normal” whatever “normal” is. The expectation is that our servicemen and servicewomen will be able to handle the transition back without any difficulty but that is so far from the reality of what our brave soldiers experience. Our military sacrifice their souls for their country and in return they come home to often high unemployment, stigma over potential mental health issues such as depression and PTSD, among other challenges. Unless you have personally been in a battle zone, there is no possible way you could understand how that changes a person and with so much emphasis on our soldiers being strong and resilient, asking for help has become a major taboo.

I will never forget the first time that I visited Washington, D.C. I was 21 years old and attending a conference over Memorial Day weekend. I drove from Chicago to D.C. in one day and after checking into my hotel, I immediately took the metro to see the Vietnam Wall War Memorial. Seeing the war memorials was indeed my top priority outside of my conference responsibilities. I will never forget that evening as I walked to the Vietnam Wall. I passed so many veterans, clearly homeless and begging and my heart broke. In them, I saw the faces of the comrades that my relatives who had served spoke of. As I approached the wall and began looking at all of the names and looked around at others who were visiting, people dropping off flowers and stuffed animals. I began to cry, overwhelmed by how many made the sacrifice and for how many survived their sacrifice but were not listed and perhaps were sitting in the cold on the streets around the country. I watched others walk quickly by the homeless veterans, not even looking at them, as if they were not there. As if these veterans were not even human. My heart broke that day and I felt like I had aged years in a matter of hours. As night fell, I began my trek back to the hotel, only having spent time at the wall, too overwhelmed to see the other memorials.  The next day, after my presentation, I headed to Arlington National Cemetery and spent the afternoon walking around, taking in all of the tombstones, all decorated with flags for Memorial Day. As I watched the change of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I cried again. I walked back to the Vietnam Wall and as I crossed the Potomac, I saw how the wall really did appear to be a scar on the earth, a reminder of the wounds that our country suffered at the hands of war. I visited the Korean War Memorial and saw more homeless veterans. I gave them what I could afford and headed back to the hotel after thanking them for their service and sacrifice. I wondered how many people did such a thing. I visited Washington, D.C. frequently over the next decade depending upon how close I lived to the area and have always taken that walk to the war memorials. My last visit was after the World War II Memorial had been completed and I took so many pictures to share with my grandfather, a WWII veteran. I shared those photos with his friends at his local VFW post as well as the pictures I had taken from earlier visits. As hard as it is on me every time I visit those memorials, I feel like it is the very least I can do to honor those who have sacrificed so much.

I try to make sure I take time to speak to veterans, to know that I appreciate their sacrifices, to know that someone cares how they are currently doing and not just wanting the gory details of what they have seen and survived. I want them to know that they matter and I truly feel that it is imperative that we keep the Veterans Day holiday in the forefront as a way to show our veterans how much they matter to us, because they have done what we did not do, regardless of our reasons. They put their lives on the line for us and the least we can do is thank them for all they have done.

It breaks my heart that our education system cannot allow for time to discuss our brave military, have the students write cards or letters to our deployed and our recovering veterans. We distract ourselves with the latest television show, celebrity gossip, and technological advances while ignoring those that made all of this possible. It is because of the sacrifices of our military that we enjoy the freedom and security that we currently experience. So let’s take our heads out of our secure little bubbles and take some time to appreciate those who sacrifice so much for us. There are so many wonderful organizations out there that help support our troops, whether they are veterans or actively deployed. It does not take much to show our military that we care about them and thank them for the sacrifices that they make. See my favorite links page for some links to a few of the amazing organizations out there.

To our military who are currently enlisted and our veterans, thank you so very much for all that you have sacrificed for our freedom and security. You matter more than you may realize even to those who you have not met and may never meet. Stay safe and be well brave men and women of the armed forces.