Last Saturday IVAW, PDX Peace and many many more groups dedicated to ending the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, hosted Winter Soldier Northwest (Portland). I went in early to help with set up with the AFSCs real cost of war display "Eyes Wide Open". We placed boots belonging to many dead Oregon soldiers in the social hall of the downtown Unitarian church. As I placed the boots in alphabetical order on the floor my eyes wandered over the names, ages, pictures and sometimes even a personal letter that accompanied the boots. At one point I had to excuse myself from the work to regain my focus and composure. It's hard to fathom the complexity of emotion. Most of these young people joined the military for the benefits, seeing it as an option to move them forward in life, not realizing the full impact that killing another human being would have on their souls. I even wondered if these weren't the lucky ones in comparison to the tortured men whose testimony I was about to witness upstairs. I thought of the years of nightmares, failed marriages, drug dependency and bouts of violence that plagued my Uncle after returning from his Marine duty in Vietnam. He went AWOL - and I'm proud of him for it. He and his first wife hid on a house boat in the Gulf of Mexico. But our government tapped the phones of family members and ultimately caught him. He has survived his experiences and is now a loving husband, father and grandfather of a multi-cultural family. It's hard to know what the owners of these boots might have done if war and violence had not played into their lives.
It didn't end with the empty boots of GIs, but went on to include shoes of dead Iraqi civilians - children included. A young girl of "almost 10" helped me put the Iraqi shoes out around signs on the sidewalks. I saw shoes that would fit my four year old daughter. If it were my child... I can't help but insert myself into the heartache that a mother feels and then I have to multiply it for all those lost in these mindless battles between men. When I read stories from Darfur, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Mindanao, Sri Lanka and on and on, I don't shut it out, but I grieve with them, a witness to their hell. When I watch my daughter play, laugh, smile I feel such joy and I wish that for all parents. No one should have to live in a battlefield - and it's up to the citizens of this world to stand up and protect each other. I guess that's why I continue to educate people on nonviolence and the work of unarmed civilian peackeeping. It's only one small piece of what will make this world a better place for us all.
When I listened to the testimony of our vets, I realized how important the storytelling is. It reminded me of my own journey through ptsd. I was sexually abused and it took years to get over the nightmares, the manic depression, self-loathing and all that great stuff that accompanies trauma. But what helped me more than any one thing was being able to tell my story. The first time nearly killed me, but now I can talk about it easily. It no longer controls me but has rather become my tool for helping others. Our vets need to tell their stories - over and over again, until they also become tools for healing and helping us all to change our views on violence and war. I think every town in America should welcome their vets home by giving them a venue to speak in. For some it may need to be an anonymous space out in the cyber world - for others a loud speaker will only begin to do justice to the inner voice.
Humans have an enormous capacity for compassion and love. We do not tolerate discomfort easily and most of us try to shut out these painful stories, but to shut them out is to make them stronger. Some people worry that they will be overwhelmed with the sadness - it is overwhelming if you think you can fix it. We can't fix it as individuals, but each of us can bear witness and cry with each other. We can also share our joys. Let's open our eyes and hearts and help each other heal from all this pain.