Thursday, December 10, 2009

Supporting Soldiers

No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation - General Douglas MacArthur

When I first met the man who would become my husband, he was a student at United States Military Academy at West Point. I didn't know much about the military. All of my impressions of Army life came second hand. I read the "Red Badge of Courage" in Junior High School, and knew the Army ranks, just as random facts. I had no idea that the military would play a defining role in my life as an adult. I remember watching "The Sands of Iwo Jima", "The Alamo" and "The Great Escape" with my father, curled up on the couch. Growing up, soldiers felt brave, strong, intelligent...and far away. Little did I know that one week after my 21st birthday, I'd be married to an Army Ranger Lieutenant and living in another country. Thus, my education in military life began.

My first impression of Army life was overwhelming. I learned that there were acronyms for everything from housing to my own status as an Army wife. I discovered that there were specific ways of doing everything, and took classes in the appropriate protocol. Despite the amount of information thrown at me, I also came to see the Army as an extended family. When the soldiers were out in the field, as they often were, we spouses clung together. We were there for one another. We nursed each other through trauma, through ordeals and through fear.We had the support of our entire community, and, during Desert Storm, we became an oasis of security when our cars were searched, when protests were marched in nearby German towns and husbands would leave without the ability to call home on satellite phones or Skype. We knew we had an effective support system in place.

When I first heard the story about the three Navy Seals being prosecuted for allegedly abusing an Iraqi prisoner and then covering up the offense, I was disgusted. Having read almost everything I can about this case, I can only come away shaking my head at the injustice being done to these three men: Petty Officer Second Class Matthew McCabe, Petty Officer 1st class Julio Huertas and Petty Officer 2nd class Jonathan Keefe. Petty Officer McCabe is charged with punching a terrorist in the midsection. The other two SEALS are charged with aiding and lying. Have the circumstances regarding this terrorist been released? Do we know what this terrorist may have said or done to military forces in the past? Have we been informed of his record? Were these highly trained men just acting like schoolyard bullies, out to beat up whomever they could find?

Hardly. We know a great deal about this terrorist. "The supposed victim, Ahmed Hashim Abed, was the mastermind behind killing, burning and mutilating four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. His followers hung the desiccated corpses high on a box-girder bridge over the Euphrates River. Mr. Abed was run down by the SEALs on a covert mission in September 2009." The fact that he was captured by the SEALS at all is an exceptional accomplishment. This criminal had been evading US Forces for at least five years. For five years, he'd been working to murder and slaughter civilians and military personnel. For five years, families mourned their loved ones without justice in sight. These SEALS are heroes, who captured a sociopath. Did they show anger? Absolutely. But, was it out of control and tortuous? Absolutely not.

Many people do not understand what it is that SEALS do in the Navy. SEALS "are employed in direct action and special reconnaissance operations. SEALs are also capable of undertaking unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, hostage rescue, counter-terrorism, and other missions." As an Army Ranger's wife, I know quite a bit about the intense training a Ranger undergoes before graduation. Less than half of all Ranger trainees make it to that ceremony.The Naval SEAL program is 5 times longer, and with an even lower, more competitive and tougher graduation profile. Navy SEALS are among the most disciplined, the most courageous and the most Spartan of all soldiers in any branch of the US military. They do not become SEALS lightly and they are not bestowed with the title easily. It's a hard won honor...and with that distinction comes the knowledge that upon graduation, he may well be on his way to a mission from which he will not return. For those who do come back from missions successful, there is always the understanding that there will be another "mission impossible" to carry out...during which they may lose their own lives, or watch their teammates suffer. SEALS believe in Honor above all, and one of their closest credos is to never leave a man behind. SEALS will risk danger to themselves to retrieve and rescue a fallen comrade.

So, where is the support for the Petty Officers McCabe, Huertas and Keefe? Where are the branches of government to stand up for them? The military, particularly during time of war, is meant to pull together and create a cohesive team. But, when our own government is prosecuting heroes for during their jobs, when brave men save the lives of others for capturing a known terrorist, how we can trust that they will take care of any soldier? The ramifications of this prosecution can be taken outside the military, as well. Who can say that a District Attorney won't file charges against a police officer for taking out a bank robber? Or an overzealous government to prosecute Special Forces operatives for going after Pirates in the Mediterranean? What about firefighters who aren't able to save every single person from a burning apartment building? Will they be tried for negligence? The fact remains that brave men and women put their lives at risk every single day to keep us, the civilian population, safe. If these heroes are second guessing their actions every moment, in fear of prosecution, will any of us be truly secure?

It's all very well and good to bake cookies to send to the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for Christmas. It is thoughtful to create care packages to mail overseas. It's positive to hold potluck suppers to benefit those wounded in action and through their rehabilitation. It's important to support those spouses left behind when a soldier or sailor deploys. But, unless we can create an atmosphere in which soldiers are allowed to do their jobs, and can risk their lives without worrying about prosecution for every action, we are not supporting our troops. The current political climate of 'trying to be understanding to terrorists' is an abomination. Our soldiers can't risk their lives while politicians see opportunity to throw a monkey wrench into the war's progress. War is ugly. War isn't cheap, in money or lives. War isn't the desired state of world affairs. But, like it or not, we are in the midst of a two front war, and if those who wish us harm see that our brave troops can be sent to prison for doing their jobs, it will only increase the terrorist violence....knowing that retaliation will bring impunity to those who commit the crimes, and jail for the soldiers fighting.

As far as the punch in the stomach goes, it was a regrettable action. But, ask yourself this question: what would have happened if Petty Officer McCabe had been captured by Ahmed Hashim Abed? Would Ahmed Hashim Abed get in trouble for one belt to the midsection by his superiors? He would have been applauded by them for publicly executing Petty Officer McCabe, and allowing McCabe's relatives to watch the public horror on television.

I respectfully suggest that the prosecutors attend an NHL game at some point. They clearly need a lesson in what one punch means.

In the meantime, I also suggest joining our team on Facebook, to help support these three brave SEALS:

In Defense of Libraries

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy. ~Edward P. Morgan

I once read that Laura Bush, wife of former President George W. Bush, describes herself as a "Reader", above all other labels she could possess. I found myself smiling at that description. Of the many "hats" I wear, as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a volunteer, a foil, an animal lover, a Yogini or a klutz, "Reader" is the most accurate definition of what makes me, me. I am never without a book. I carry one with me at all times. If you ask any of my close friends or family, they will say I'm happiest, curled up, cup of tea by my side, reading. It's an image that encompasses the way I feel about myself; learning, peaceful, traveling in spirit and engrossed. I read to my babies from birth, and some of my favorite memories of the early years of motherhood, are those curled up with two toddlers, snuggled in close, rapt attention at what would happen next in the Narnia series.

Because my love of reading has been such a critical part of my life, libraries have naturally been my sanctuary. I learned to read long before I began Kindergarten. My mother taught me when I showed an interest around age 3. My Kindergarten teacher, a sadist of a woman who should not have been allowed to talk to children, let alone teach them, shrieked at my mother that I "wasn't ready to read before Kindergarten". My mother calmly informed "Mrs. Amie" that, had I not been ready, I wouldn't be reading. So, when the other children were learning their alphabet, I was 'banished' to the library, where I couldn't corrupt the innocent non-readers. As time went on, and I changed both states of residence and schools multiple times, I made friends with every librarian. My librarians were not the ridiculously stereotyped 'shushing' old spinsters, but loving, gentle book admirers who welcomed me into their sisterhood without question. Librarians would pull books for me, give me a hug, or a piece of peppermint, when I was being bullied. They would eagerly discuss the books I loved with me, and share insights of their own. Often several would gather with me, and allow me into their inner sanctum, behind the desk, where we could discuss biographies, novels and classics. These women gave me a sense of community when I felt little elsewhere in my life. I found myself rushing through my lessons in class, so that I could be excused to go to the library. It became my safe haven, my other home and my catechism of true learning. I only needed to step inside a library, smell the aroma of books, pens and antiseptic cleaner, and I could know I was home. Throughout 12 years of traditional school and 4 years of college, I knew that, even if I was the 'new kid' in school, the library would be the one place I could feel peacefully welcome. The first place I visited, once my new husband and I moved to Army posts in the States, and abroad, was the library on post. Every library contained hundreds, even thousands, of new friends....the books. I might have been thousands of miles from home, from each library welcomed me in like a devotee on a pilgrimage.

Not long ago, on my way back from Massachusetts, a radio news program pronounced that "libraries are dead". The story went on to discuss the fact that, in light of book sellers like Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble, library use was at an all time low and could cease to exist in 20 years. I was both shocked and horrified. On the one hand, these stores, both online and brick and mortar, do make shopping for purchased books much easier. Yet, for a voracious reader like myself, the idea of buying every single book I read was staggering. How could I possibly afford to pay for three or four books a week? Not to mention, where would I put all of these books that I might read once, but not again? I'd be bankrupt and drowning in both debt and hardbacks!

My personal book journey begins at my local library. I find a book I'd like to read. This is an almost alchemical process. I peruse, I wander, I pick up, I research. If our library does not have the Holy Grail of the Moment, they are able to order it for me through inter-library loan. This exceptional program allows me to receive almost any book imaginable, that's available in any Maine library, at no cost to me. When I receive a phone call that my ordered book is in...which I receive almost's Christmas morning. It is walking down the stairs to see a shiny new bike under the tree. It's a wedding day, feeling like a bride in her beautiful gown for the first time. It's the excitement of discovering a kindred soul in a person you have not yet met. Finding a new book in this way is falling head over heels in love again...and again...and again.

But my library is more than just a place to procure books to 'feed my habit'; it's an important part of my community. I have met some of my closest friends at the library. We met with our very young children at story hour. We became bonded conspirators over keeping little ones in place, as we helped them glue together projects for "Dr. Seuss" week or learning to dance the Hora at the library's Hanukkah celebration. We sat and talked about grown up things beyond laundry, pediatricians and coupons. We were able to share ideas that didn't involve Sesame Street. At that time, the library became our haven, during the long, cold Maine winters, where our children could safely play and read, and we could be surrounded by intellectual thought. Now that my children are older, my library is still essential to my well being; I help out where I can, and I am thrilled to discuss books with staff and patrons alike.

A library is more than bricks and mortar. As Aristotle wrote, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts". The books are essential, but it's the people who make a library a sanctum. Kindles and bookstores are wonderful. They provide a way to own the books we have come to love, and wish to add to our collection. But a library is the collection and the wealth of knowledge that every single patron adds to. A library is a school, a hospital, a harbor and a neighborhood. Reading can happen in other places, but a library brings health to that pursuit.

To those who insist that "libraries are dead", I ask them to visit any one, during a Thursday morning story hour, and rethink their position.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Seven Deadly Sins

"Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful." --Benjamin Franklin

Wrath. Sloth. Greed. Lust. Gluttony. Pride. Envy. The Seven Deadly Sins are those traits that each human being, no matter how upright, must still fight against. The Catholic Church, as the only church of its time, began circulating these flaws as early as the 11th century. By the 14th century, they'd become a popular topic of artists, the most common theme for homilies, and the subject of endless debate over which of the sins was the worst. For a Catholic, to die with one of these sins un-confessed would be fatal to one's soul, hence the moniker. Dante Alighieri's "Divine Comedy", an allegorical journey through Purgatory, Hell, and finally Paradise, gave a lasting impression to the way these vices were viewed by the public...even by those, centuries later, who had never read Dante's work. Each vice had its own particular form of punishment in Dante's imagination, and in his own way, he created the expression to come of "Let the punishment fit the crime."

Although I don't share Dante's vision of Hell or Purgatory, I do believe that we create a mess for ourselves, in the lives we're living right now, by allowing these sins---or poor behavior patterns---into our lives and into our hearts. When we behave badly, the one person we hurt the most is ourselves. Regardless of the larger spiritual ramifications, if we are jealous, hateful, quick to anger or terribly lazy, the real loser in the situation is not the person we're feeling negatively about; the real loser is our self. We damage our hearts, our minds, our thoughts, our spirits, our bodies and our life choices when we allow ourselves to be dragged through the muck of disgusting our own selfish impulses. It's very difficult not to pin blame on our shortcomings onto someone else. This is how the term "scapegoat" first came to be: in the ancient cultures in Mesopotamia, the priests sacrificed a sheep, or goat, every year to contain symbolically the sins of all the people. By sacrificing this goat, the 'sinners' were able to shift all of their blame onto another source, and feel forgiven at the end of its life. But, did they really "feel better" by doing so?

While I'd be hard pressed to understand the logic and reason of our ancestors from many centuries ago, I can attest to the fact that I feel lousy about myself when I'm in the wrong. There are times, no matter how much I would like to place the wrong doing onto another person, I have to take responsibility for my own part in misbehavior. For example, the two sins I struggle most with are Pride and Wrath. Most people think I'm a nice person. I don't carry a switchblade. I am pro-gun-control. I volunteer for several worthwhile charities. I'm kind to animals. I've tried to be a positive influence in my family, and in my community. I say "yes" more than I say "no". I am polite, friendly, outgoing and helpful. And yet, deep within me lies a well of rage that I constantly have to keep in check. I don't think I'm unusual in this way. I'm not about to hurt another soul, and even take spiders outside, rather than hurt them. Yet, when my pride is attacked, I become a Lioness on the hunt in the African bush. I take slights to my character, to my family and to my friends personally. I may not be lazy by nature, and I may have good control over my gastronomic desires, but I can hold a grudge longer than a Las Vegas poker player can keep a straight face when holding four aces. And yet, at the end of the day, do I feel any more satisfied with myself by thinking up methods of revenge worthy of The Count of Monte Christo?

Of course, the answer is no. I can keep myself up for nights on end replaying nasty comments said to me, snarky rumors spread by people I trusted and ways in which my children had been treated unfairly. I can hit my mental rewind button so many times that I have memorized the conversational details. Unfortunately, with every retelling I find myself exaggerating the wrongs done until a gesture of utter stupidity becomes a call for a duel of honor. The problem? The person who created this inner drama knows nothing of the effect she's had on me, and I, myself, am torn up by feelings of vengeance, dread and immobility. The sin may have started by the rude remark. But, I took it to the next level by refusing to acknowledge my own part in its inception and then releasing it. Which sin is bigger? The instigating one, or the retaliation...even if the retaliation is only in my anger? The answer, of course, is neither. Both are wrong. But, I only have the ability to control my own behavior and my own reactions. Life doesn't give us an abacus on which we add the wrongs done to us, and then subtract our own faults. Our character is made up of who we are *in spite of* the behavior of others.

In my Yoga classes, I try to stress balance over all the other skills I teach. I am completely honest with my students. I am not a perfect Yogini, nor am I a perfect human being. But, in working on balance in all areas of our lives, we can try to illuminate the path so we can see where we're going astray. When I'm practicing a balance pose, such as Pose of the Dancer, I can't look all over the room. I can't gaze at my reflection in the mirror, checking my posture. I can't keep track of what's going on outside the studio. I need to find an immovable gazing point at which to look firmly. I need to keep my eyes on that mark and not allow them to drift. If my gaze falters, I will not be able to hold the pose at all. It's the same way in life: if I allow my thoughts to drift over to my distractions of pride begetting wrath, I will not be able to remain calm, kind or focused in any other area.

The Seven Deadly Sins are a provocative and fascinating subject. Most of us have one or two real problem areas that we can focus our energies in solving.We need to examine these in our lives, not just for our spiritual souls, not just for the comfort of those around us, but the way we intend to live our lives into the future. Interestingly, there is another list that has never gained the fame and familiarity as the Seven Deadly Sins: these are the Seven Virtues. There were first publicized at the same time as their negative counterparts. They are Patience, Diligence, Generosity, Purity, Temperance, Humility and Kindness.

Perhaps by keeping our eyes firmly focused on these Seven Virtues, we can keep our gaze from shifting to their shadow side....and we can save ourselves a great deal of emotional devastation by doing so. We can never fully purge our weaknesses out of our lives. But, with time, patience and commitment, we can fix our eyes on the positive path. In doing so, we'll also be a whole lot happier.

And, I will finally be able to sleep without thinking of new ways to leave poop bombs on doorsteps.