Extraordinarily Ordinary

Posted by Doug White under Personal

I enjoy being around kids. Not always of course, they can be trying at times, but generally speaking I like spending time with them. My own daughters have been one of the best things that have ever happened in my life. I’ve loved watching them grow up and even though the teenage years have had their share of turmoil, I am not looking forward to the day where they each walk out that door on whatever path God puts them on.

Between my wife’s family and mine, I have eleven nieces and nephews, ranging in age from five to twenty-three, each of them unique and brimming with their own personalities. I have different relationships with each of them, but I care for them all very deeply.

I try very hard not to have a “favorite”. I love each of these kids and any time I spend with any of them is very special to me. But, I’m human and I have to admit, I do have one that I just seem to have a closer relationship to than the others. It’s my nephew Kyle.

I know that many will think that they know why I have a closer relationship with Kyle after the next four words. Kyle has Down’s Syndrome. “Well, of course, he’s your favorite, he’s handicapped.” you might think. And you may be right. Regardless, he and I are pretty close and I hope we always will be.

Kyle has been on my mind a lot in the last few weeks, specifically because the subject of Down’s Syndrome became a focus of a controversy recently. Richard Dawkins, scientist and author of a book disgustingly titled, “The God Delusion” came under fire for telling a woman – via Twitter – that the moral thing to do if she found out she was pregnant with a baby that had Down’s would be to abort it.

After being the receiver of quite a bit of understandable anger from people after this happened, he tried to justify his comments by arguing that he was talking about a fetus and not a person who is alive. Which even if I bought the argument that a fetus is not a person – and I don’t – his argument misses the point entirely.

Taking his argument at face value – if the “moral” thing to do is to abort a Down’s Syndrome baby, then the “immoral” thing to do is to allow it to be born. This indicates that he believes that all woman who don’t abort their Down’s Syndrome babies are by his definition, immoral. This isn’t just twisted logic, it’s flat out evil.

I remember when Kyle was born, in the spring of 2000. He was the second grand-kid on my side of the family, my oldest daughter being the first. My wife, daughter and I lived in Marshall, Minnesota at the time and drove to Lincoln, Nebraska so we could see this new baby that entered into our lives.

I remember going to my sister and her husband’s house that weekend and spending time holding Kyle and doing the traditional “oohing” and “aahing” everyone does over a newborn. Then, they sat us down, with my Mother, and shared the news. Kyle had Down’s Syndrome. I remember being in shock as I heard my brother-in-laws voice break. I’d never seen him that emotional before.

That night, I went to bed sad. I was sad for my sister. I was sad for her husband. But most of all, I was sad for Kyle. I had worked with mentally handicapped adults while in college. I saw the struggles they went through. I laid on my pillow and wondered what kind of life Kyle was going to have.

Not long after Kyle was born, he had to undergo heart surgery. Down’s Syndrome kids tend to have some issues with their hearts and Kyle was no exception. Fortunately, he pulled through that surgery very well and to this date, has not had any further serious health issues.

As the years went by, we’d come to Lincoln regularly and I quickly stopped worrying about what kind of life Kyle was going to have and started marveling at what a fantastic nephew I had. Incredibly outgoing, loving and so full of energy, he never stopped making me smile when I saw him. It’s an ongoing joke in the family, that although it’s been said that Down’s Syndrome people are very laid back and relaxed, that someone forgot to tell Kyle this! He is as energetic and playful as any of the other kids in the family.

Kyle is a very athletic young man. He’s played soccer, baseball and basketball and has held his own with kids very close to his age. He’s played in his school band for years and this year is a part of their marching band. He struggles to speak coherently, but he can read and write and academically is doing very well in school.

Kyle is not perfect. Having Down’s has not made Kyle faultless. He is at heart, a very typical boy. A perfect example happened recently. He took a picture of his sister, got onto his mother’s Facebook account and posted it, saying, “This is a picture of my stupid sister”. I bring this up, not to indicate that I think he did something awesome. I bring it up because it was sort of obnoxious, and if I would have had Facebook as a young boy, I probably would have done the exact same thing at some point. Because kids are wonderful and they can also be wonderfully obnoxious. Kyle is no exception to this. (For the record, his sister is far from stupid. But that’s a story for another day.)

I love this kid and although I don’t see him near often enough, I enjoy every minute I do with him. After the Richard Dawkins story, I had a strong urge to go visit my family in Lincoln and I hoped to get some quality time with Kyle. His brother was celebrating his birthday and wanted to go see a football movie. I’m not a big sports fan but I like movies so I went with them, their parents and another nephew of mine. Kyle sat next to me and I watched him, watching the movie. Which probably seems silly. But I watched him as the movie showed something he liked and how he would smile and silently clap. He got more out of that movie than anyone else in that theater. I’m sure of it.

Kyle is never going to be President. He’s not going to be super famous or become a neurosurgeon or something equally significant. However, neither am I. Kyle is going to be ordinary. Just like pretty much every one else I know and care about. This is not only ok, it’s absolutely wonderful. I hope I get to spend a lot of years watching him be ordinary. This would make me very happy. Kyle’s existence was not an “immoral” choice. It was the most moral thing that could have ever been done.

This is not an easy piece for me to write. My mind has gone back and forth over all aspects of this and I’m pretty sure there is no way I can put my words down in a way that will not upset someone. But, it’s eating at me. It’s like that creature in the movie Aliens. It’s deep in my gut and if I don’t do something, if I don’t write something, it’s going to come bursting out of me at a time when I least expect it, in an equally gross and gory way as it did in the movies.

 Last Saturday, which interestingly enough was also my birthday, an 18 year old black boy was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s what we know specifically about this incident, without a doubt.

      1. A boy was killed.

      2. A police officer shot and killed him.

We know absolutely nothing else for a fact.

Not one other thing can be proven.

Yet.

There have been allegations made against the police officer. There have been allegations made against the boy. Some claim the police officer shot him unjustifiably, more than once, and after the boy put his hands up and surrendered. Some claim the boy attacked the police officer and the officer acted in defense of his own life.

One of these is most likely true. They definitely can’t both be.

We don’t know without a shadow of a doubt what happened, because an investigation never got the chance to take place. A trial – if one is warranted – has not happened. An autopsy has not been performed.

We have a justice system in place in this country for a reason. Is it flawed? Absolutely. Is there room to improve it? You bet there is. Is it a tragedy that Mike Brown, the boy who was killed, can’t testify to his own defense? Yes.

But it is the justice system we have and for all it’s flaws, it is one of the best out there. Unfortunately, it is now permanently muddled by what happened next. A group of individuals in Ferguson decided that they wanted to protest Mike Brown’s death by destroying various businesses in the town and stealing stuff. Or rather they exploited his death to break the law.

What surprised me was the response I started to see. People were surprisingly in support of those who destroyed the livelihood of others. This is something that is complete anathema to me. I believe in the right of protest. I really, truly do. I believe even in the act of non-violent, civil disobedience. I will never, ever support the right of violent, destructive behavior as a form of protest though.

So, there I was, mid-week in the middle of this story, fully against what was happening in this town as a response to this tragedy. And then my world view flipped on it’s head. I watched horrifically as the police in this town went from being a police force to a military one. I watched as they arrested reporters and threw tear gas on them. Two of the most fundamental Constitutional rights were being taken away from people. One was the right to be heard. The second was a right to a free press being able to report on what was happening.

At that moment, if I lived close enough by, I would have been sorely tempted to be a part of the protest. We are no longer America if we are not allowed to speak our mind or protest if we feel called to do so. We are no longer America if our police have that much intense firepower to force a group to bow to their will as they were attempting to do. Similarly to the fact that I believe in the right to protest, I believe in law and order. But the police stepped way over the line. They are not above the law either. It’s one thing to deal with people who are breaking the law, it’s another to bend people into a submissive state.

Finally, after days of this, the Governor of Missouri and the President of the United States finally decide to get involved. The Governor removes the city police from the situation and puts the State Highway patrol in charge. I wasn’t sure exactly how that would work, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that protests, legal and non-violent, continued to happen and the night was relatively peaceful.

But then the police throw a bit of a bombshell. Mike Brown had apparently robbed a store right before he was shot. How is this relevant? My personal opinion is that it is relevant only to his state of mind as he and the police officer had their confrontation. But it is not primarily relevant to the police officer’s state of mind, because he didn’t know Brown had committed the robbery. This is something that has been reported many times, the police officer got into this altercation with Brown over jaywalking, he was not aware of what Brown had done previously.

You know what’s interesting though? Even this information should have waited to be made known until a full investigation is done of the shooting. I actually didn’t feel that way at first, but I’ve become convinced of it now. Mike Brown is also innocent until proven guilty, despite his no longer being alive. That’s a fundamental piece of our justice system, we are all innocent until we have a trial of our crime and are proven guilty. Does it seem pretty obvious that Brown committed the crime? Sure it does. But it hasn’t been proven. That’s what courts are for.

It had the intended effect though. It ticked off a whole bunch of people. And then the scariest thing in my mind happened Friday night. More rioting began and stores began to be destroyed again as people intended to steal and destroy more things. Well, now that we effectively handcuffed the police – mostly in part to their own over the top actions – we left a city that was unprotected by law enforcement.

That was until groups of people started standing in front of buildings preventing them from being looted. I find this both heroic and scary as hell. These people were heroic because they could have very easily been hurt by those wanting to destroy things. It’s scary as hell, because of the reaction I started hearing. “Good for them! We don’t need a police force! We can police ourselves!”

Uh, what?

We can police ourselves? Who manages that? Who controls that? At what point are those that stepped up to “police ourselves” no longer one of us and become someone who has power over us? And since there is no law for them to be bound by, at what point do they become our masters?

You can argue that the police are in that same state, having power over us and I won’t argue with you completely. But I will argue that they are bound by the law and we do have ways to deal with them if they don’t abide by it. Not perfect, but we are imperfect people in an imperfect society. But they are there. I’m sorry but the other way is pure anarchy and it frightens me in ways that I’ve never been frightened before for this country.

So where do we stand now? I honestly don’t know. I see so much that is wrong on every side of the equation here. No one is trying to handle the very basic facts:

                    1. A boy was killed.

    1. A police officer shot and killed him.

People want to make this about many other things. Some of those things I readily agree with. We have a very large race problem in this country. There are things that are better today than they were 50 years ago. There are things that are not. I know white people that are racists. This saddens me greatly. I know black people that are racists. This too, saddens me greatly.

So, we want to make this about race, and it may definitely be, but we don’t want to have true, genuine conversations about race. We want to be mad, we want to protest, which is all good and fine. But where do you want to go from there? What do you effectively want to see changed? That no black person will every be arrested, shot or killed again? Or that people, regardless of race, are treated the same in a given situation? I hope it’s the latter. I assume it’s the latter. But this week has given me pause. I’m not sure that’s what everyone thinks anymore.

I’m not a perfect person, therefore I can’t assure you I’ve never acted racist. I don’t think I have, but it’s possible I’ve done so and that bothers me too. What bothers me even more though is that now, as a middle-aged white man, there is a growing idea that I can’t even speak about these issues. I can’t be a voice in the discussion. People even call it by a name…”white-splainin” (or “man-splainin” if you’re talking about gender issues), not even realizing themselves that adding “splainin” to a word is inherently racist as well (don’t believe me? Ask yourself where the word “splainin” comes from?)

I don’t know what the right answer is in Ferguson. I don’t know if there is a right answer anymore. This last week has muddied things so badly that I don’t think we can get easily get them back on track again.

I know this though. We have to respect each other. We’ve got to learn to appreciate each other. We need to obey the rule of law. We need to respect authority. We need to let people’s voices be heard. All of them. We need to pause a moment, take a collective breath as a nation, and try to figure out where we go from here. This is the greatest country this world has ever known and this is a difficult issue to resolve. We’ve resolved worse. We can do it again.

I have great faith in our nation’s ideals. The most important one in mind is the following, from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are LIFE, LIBERTY, and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. (emphasis is mine).

Until we all feel that way about everyone, none of us are truly free. We will continue to be bound by the ugliness of what we’ve seen this last week in a little town in Missouri. My personal, American dream, naive though it may be, is to live in a country where this ugliness is one day permanently put behind us. Sadly, I’m not sure that dream will ever come true.

From Fear To Pride

Posted by Doug White under Military, Personal

After I completed boot camp, I was sent to Camp Johnson, North Carolina for admin school training and upon completion of that I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina which is literally in the same city as Camp Johnson was.  It was not much of an event for me to move to one base from the other.

My first job was as an orders clerk for the Headquarters Battalion of the 2nd Marine Division.  I remember having what was probably a silly feeling of excitement when I was given my own desk in the office where I was to work.  I’d never worked in an office before and something about that desk made me feel … grown up.

About three months later, I took Christmas off to visit my family in Rapid City and when I came back to Camp Lejeune I was pulled aside and told I was no longer an orders clerk.  Fortunately it wasn’t because I had done anything wrong, rather they needed a Marine to serve as a Chaplain’s assistant for the Division Chaplain.

There I was again, just a few months after arriving at my first adult job now starting my second one.  I worked with a Navy enlisted man and the Division Chaplain – a Naval Captain – and his assistant chaplain – a Lieutenant Commander.

I enjoyed the job quite a bit; it was much more informal than I’d been used to since becoming a Marine.  This could be the reason I made the error I did not long afterwards.

One day I was asked to go over to the Headquarters Battalion and get some signatures from the new First Sergeant there.  I walked up to his office and knocked at the door and introduced myself, “Good morning, First Sergeant, I’m PFC White and…”

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing!!??” a voice bellowed from the office.

“Um, uh…”  I looked in and saw one of the biggest men I’d ever seen in my life.  The Marine Corps mascot is a bulldog and I swear that day I saw that mascot come to life – at a good six and a half feet or so, snarling and ready to tear me from limb to limb.

“Marine, is that how you enter a First Sergeant’s office?  Like we’re some kind of buddies or something?!!”

“Uh, no sir…I mean, no First Sergeant….”

“Get out of my office and come back when you learn how to present yourself like a Marine!” the man bellowed.

I did exactly what he said.  I left.  However, what he said was not exactly how I interpreted it.  Apparently, he had meant for me to stay outside his office and eventually present myself properly.  I made no friends that day by leaving.

By the time I made it back to the Chaplain’s office, a call had been made and I had been ordered back to the First Sergeant’s office.  With a distinguishable gulp, I knocked on his door and when told to do so I walked in at attention and presented myself to him.

As one can imagine, several of the next minutes were filled with various profanities and loud yells to intimidate me and put me in my place.  Both objectives were accomplished.  I feared this man more than I probably ever feared my drill instructors at Boot Camp.

Which taking that into account made my next mistake even more stupid.  Several months later, we had a Chaplain from Great Britain come to Camp Lejeune on an exchange program.  Because I was the Division Chaplain’s assistant this meant I drove him around the base, I was there when this Chaplain arrived and I got to meet him, his wife and their two girls.

Not long after that I got the nerve up to ask this Chaplain’s daughter to go out with me and we began dating.  One day I decided I wanted to buy her some flowers from the local PX.  I drove there at lunch to do so – but I did this in the Division Chaplain van.  When I came out a few minutes later, the van was gone.

It turns out that using military vehicles for personal use is a big no-no.  Granted, this should have been something I understood but looking back at it now, I’m going to cut my nineteen year old self some slack.

The First Sergeant was not as kind.  It wasn’t long before I was once again standing in front of his door.  Fortunately, by this point, I was well aware of how he wished me to present myself and did so accordingly.

There was no pleasure to be found in the fact I remembered our earlier lesson together.  More profanities and loud yelling ensued.  The First Sergeant decided I needed to be taught a lesson.  I had requested time off as I had planned to take my girlfriend to visit a good friend of mine in Washington D.C.  That leave of absence was revoked and I spent that time on duty.

As reprimands go, despite how unfair I thought it was at that time, it was a rather tame punishment.  In fact, I was able to get time off later on and was able to take my girlfriend to Washington D.C. after all.  I was pretty lucky to be honest that more hadn’t been done.

That makes the final thing I did the stupidest thing of all.  Another young female Marine had been moved into the Chaplain’s office.  I have to be honest; I didn’t like her at all.  She outranked me slightly – for most of the time we were the same rank but she was the senior of the two of us – and honestly I probably was threatened by that a bit.  Again, I was nineteen.

She and I had a lot of issues for the next year or so and I did not show her the respect she deserved.  It didn’t help though that she was pretty incompetent at our job.  That doesn’t excuse what I did however.

One day we were filling out performance reports for the Chaplain’s that worked under the Division Chaplain and she kept doing them incorrectly.  In the arrogance that comes so quickly to the young I made a big production of showing her how she was doing them wrong.

The assistant Chaplain at that time had finally seen enough.  He contacted Headquarters Battalion and asked to have me removed from the Division Chaplain’s office.  I had been, in essence, fired.

I was embarrassed and frustrated.  I knew I was good at what I did and I lost this job because of someone else’s incompetence.  That’s at least what I told myself at the time.  In truth, I lost it because I didn’t know how to work within the system.  I was trying too hard to fight it.

I expected to find myself before the First Sergeant again to be once more hit with more profanities and loud yelling.  Surprisingly that didn’t happen.  I was moved into the Logistics office for the Division and not much else was said of what happened.

I have to admit, I think being put into that job was a good thing and I actually enjoyed what I did.  We were responsible for keeping track of things the various units in the Division needed such as food, ammunition, etc.  I worked for a Gunnery Sergeant who was quiet and firm but pretty good to work with.

One day I was walking to my office when I saw the First Sergeant headed my way.  He was coming right towards me with a determined look in his eye.  I quickly thought back over the last few days and couldn’t think of anything I had done wrong!  What was he going to say to me?

He stopped right in front of me, “White!  I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together.”

“Uh, um…well, First Sergeant, I’m really not a football player,” I began.

“White!  Did you hear me?  I see you haven’t signed up for the football team we’ve put together!”

“Well, uh, First Sergeant would you like me to sign up for it?”

“That would be fantastic White!  I’ll see you at practice!” With that he turned and left.

I stood there dumbfounded.  What the heck just happened? I guess I had just joined a football team, a MARINE football team, having never played a day of football in my life.  “I’m going to die.” I whispered to myself.

The next several days were brutal.  I practiced with fellow Marines who took this game of football, one I never understood and never thought made any sense, very seriously.  I would go back to my barracks after practice bruised and in pain but feeling something I hadn’t in awhile.

What I felt was that I once again belonged to this group known as Marines.  I wasn’t an outsider, I wasn’t a failure, I was just like them.

Silly as that might sound it was confirmed one night after practice when the First Sergeant took me aside and complimented me.  What he told me was irrelevant.  This man had spent every one of our encounters together yelling at me for something or another.  This time he was telling me I was doing well.  I felt a swell of pride that I hadn’t felt in a really long time.

Unfortunately we never got a chance to play any football games.  Not long after that, a dictator in Iraq decided to invade Kuwait and the world changed for everyone I knew.  My unit was in preparation mode to go to the Gulf.

I didn’t go with them.  I had orders to go to Okinawa and so I watched as many people I knew began the steps to go to war.  No one knew how long we’d be there or how serious the war would be.  We just knew we were going.  That would include a certain First Sergeant who terrified me so.

I don’t know what happened to the First Sergeant.  Considering how the first Gulf War turned out, I’m sure he was fine and continued on in his career as a Marine.  But I wonder about him sometimes.  I wonder if he continued to first terrify and then essentially instill pride into other Marines such as he did to me so long ago.

As for myself, I can’t honestly say I am happy I experienced all that I did under him.  I can say that I see now, twenty-five years later, that it served a purpose.  I made silly, dumb mistakes as a young Marine and I deserved every consequence I received as a result.  But what I also needed, and I like to think he knew it those last few days before all changed, was to feel like I was still part of this group I had joined.  If that’s the case, he definitely accomplished his mission.