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Archive for December, 2010

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.

— War hawk Winston Churchill

(IN THE DEBORAH AMOS PHOTO: Retired Army Sgt. Alexander Reyes (right), from Miami, responds to applause at Camp Liberty in Baghdad after sharing the story of how he was wounded by an IED in 2007. He is one of seven wounded veterans who recently returned to Iraq as part of Operation Proper Exit, a program aimed at helping soldiers heal from traumatic injuries.)

Below is a transcript of a report from Iraq by National Public Radio reporter Deborah Amos.

Whether you were for or against the invasion of Iraq, please just remember the next time someone starts pounding the drums for another war that scores of young men and women and their families will be living with it for the rest of their lives. Not to mention the scores of innocent men, women and children who get killed, maimed or displaced wherever bombs are dropped.

Merry Christmas to all, and a big Merry Christmas and blessing to the military families with empty seats at home this year.

Retired Marine Cpl. Michael Campbell’s voice wavers, each word is stuttered out with difficulty, but his intentions are clear.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, if I could,” he tells soldiers at Camp Liberty, the massive U.S. military base south of Baghdad.

It is the first time the 28-year-old from Pineville, La., has been back to Iraq since he sustained traumatic injuries that left him mute for two years. He and six other wounded vets are revisiting the battlefield in an unprecedented experimental program called Operation Proper Exit.

When soldiers sustain traumatic injuries, the psychological damage may be the hardest to repair. This program is designed to heal the deepest wounds by providing veterans with a week in Iraq, which includes a visit to the place where they sustained the injuries that dramatically changed their lives

Soldiers Sharing Their Stories
The welcome begins in the halls of an Iraqi palace — one of Saddam’s headquarters, now Camp Liberty. The guests arrive in VIP style, business class for the long flight over, then black SUVs deliver them to the palace curbside. It is a short walk to the thundering applause of hundreds of men and women in uniform who have come to honor them.

“It’s weird,” says Campbell, as he forces the words out one by one. “No gun with me. I kind of feel naked without a rifle.”

The wounded vets walk on stage under their own power, the prosthetic limbs unseen under baggy uniforms and desert boots. Even in their short time together, these men help to steady those who are still learning to walk again.

Retired Marine Cpl. Michael Campbell’s voice wavers, each word is stuttered out with difficulty, but his intentions are clear.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat, if I could,” he tells soldiers at Camp Liberty, the massive U.S. military base south of Baghdad.

It is the first time the 28-year-old from Pineville, La., has been back to Iraq since he sustained traumatic injuries that left him mute for two years. He and six other wounded vets are revisiting the battlefield in an unprecedented experimental program called Operation Proper Exit.

When soldiers sustain traumatic injuries, the psychological damage may be the hardest to repair. This program is designed to heal the deepest wounds by providing veterans with a week in Iraq, which includes a visit to the place where they sustained the injuries that dramatically changed their lives

Retired Army Spc. Derek Bradshaw has a deep scar across his skull from ear to ear. He explains that the scar comes from operations after his injuries in Iraq, when doctors fitted plates to hold his face together.

“It was a vehicle accident,” he explains, a military vehicle that overturned after an attack. “Traumatic brain injury, broke my left arm pretty bad, a few facial fractures, unconscious,” says Bradshaw, describing his condition in 2004 when he left Iraq. He is in the process of trying to re-enlist.

“The acceptance has been phenomenal,” he says of wounded vets who still want to serve.

Joseph James, a 28-year-old retired Army sergeant first class, was anxious at first to be in a place he left in agony after he was injured by an IED on April 8, 2008. This week, he will return to the place where he was hit — the hardest duty, but the one that could bring the most relief.

“I can go to the site where I almost died, and I can say, you know what, this is the start of a new life,” says Joseph. “I can close that old chapter out and not hold the baggage of the past. I can take my retirement with a lighter heart.”

They tell their stories, one by one, to a crowded room of active duty soldiers. Afterward, the troops line up for handshakes and emotional backslaps.

Helping The Healing

The idea for the program came from wounded veterans themselves. Rick Kell, who volunteers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and runs a foundation called Troops First, helped make it happen. He won approval from the military command and the Army’s surgeon general.

“I’ve seen 49 men change in front of my eyes, the week that they were here,” says Kell. “I’ve received letters from wives thanking me for bringing their husbands back from Iraq after they had already been home for two years.”

Kell takes part in every trip and helps pick the participants. He chooses those who have already made progress in coming to terms with the change in their lives, both physical and psychological.

“A warrior who is thriving, who can move past their injury with school, family, career — that is primary,” he says.

There are no medical studies on the healing properties of revisiting battlegrounds, but veterans have been organizing trips for generations, from World War I to Vietnam. Iraq is different because it is still a conflict zone, and Kell can’t say for certain if the program can continue after U.S. troops withdraw next year.

Getting A Second Chance
Alexander Reyes, 25, a retired Army sergeant from Miami, recalls his war story.

“The IED was buried right underneath my feet where I was walking. When they detonated, I thought I was dead. But thank God, I survived, and I have a second chance in life,” Reyes says.

His “second chance” is underlined by a reunion with his younger brother, now stationed in Iraq.

“I can finally move on,” Reyes says. “The first step is to accept your new way of life.”

For him, the bigger surprise is the dramatic changes in a country at war when he left.

“We could see that it’s not in vain, because back in 2006 and 2007, you have to live with the high security level, the uneasiness. Now, I could finally relax,” Reyes says.

On their first day back in the country, they are beginning to relax. After the fanfare in the palace hall, these seven men sit down with Lt. Gen. Robert W. Cone, commanding general for U.S. operations in Iraq, III Corps commander. He has seen his share of veterans who will need care for the rest of their lives.

“A warrior who is thriving, who can move past their injury with school, family, career — that is primary,” he says.

There are no medical studies on the healing properties of revisiting battlegrounds, but veterans have been organizing trips for generations, from World War I to Vietnam. Iraq is different because it is still a conflict zone, and Kell can’t say for certain if the program can continue after U.S. troops withdraw next year.

“It is a lifetime responsibility that we have taken on,” Cone says. “They trust us, and we don’t want to let them down.”

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(ART: El Greco’s “The Holy Family,” c.1590. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)

A character in a short story by Bobbie Ann Mason says to another character, “You got so many wants, you don’t know what you want.”

That’s a rather profound commentary on the way we live, wanting ever more of things we may or may not really want, much less need, at all. We’re all just quieter versions of the restless kid who sits in front of the TV during Christmas. Every time a toy comes on in another seductive commercial, the kid shouts out, “I want that for Christmas, mom!”

In this culture, where we’re bombarded with what-we-wants in commercials and billboards all day long, our hearts are as restless as those of our children before Christmas, even though we don’t scream out what we want when a commercial comes on.

Then again, I’m sure some people probably do, come to think of it.

At the proverbial end of the day, though, all that anybody wants is to be loved. To be understood. To be listened to. I find that people are exactly alike anywhere I travel to. People just want to be loved, cared for and cared about.

The less love and acceptance and understanding we feel coming our way–the less we feel listened to and deeply and genuinely cared about, the more stuff we want. The more we try to fill all those empty pockets within us with food or alcohol or anything and everything money can buy, and then some.

Small wonder that Christmas is a time of such over-consumption. It’s supposed to be all about love, and yet it brings out conflict, especially in families whose members love each other, or are supposed to love each other. In compensating for the insufficient love we feel we have at Christmas, we over-consume. We want so much, but really just want to feel loved, and unconditionally so.

People will disappoint us–even, and maybe especially, those closest to us. It’s only in surrendering ourselves and all our wants and needs to God that we find the peace within us to love ourselves, in a healthy self-love, of course, so that we can love others.

Jesus was, and remains, loved and adored because he was Love in the fullest measure. He was Love in the flesh, God incarnate. He showed us what being made in the image of God means because he was the image of God personified.

Imagine what being born in the image of God means for you and for me.

Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all you need will be added to you. (Matt. 6)

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Never mind that we don’t really know what time of year Jesus was born. Christmas is a December event–when snow falls on snow–and that’s that.

“A Christmas Carol”
by Christina Rossetti
In The bleak mid-winter
Frosty winds made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
Jesus Christ.

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Sound policy seems to have prevailed over hawkish demagoguery.”

— conservative Daniel Larison on
today’s nuclear disarmament pact
that got bipartisan support in Congress.

Ronald Reagan, who was all about nuclear disarmament in spite of his “trust but verify” clause–would be pleased about the great news out of D.C. today.

Sometimes even the blind hogs in Washington find the acorn.

Here’s the take on today’s nuclear disarmament legislation–which was demagogued to no end by the political fearmongers who work overtime to take us back to the inglorious and paranoid 1950s–from the very conservative Daniel Larison at the very conservative The American Conservative.
And for the record, grownups who were for this nuclear disarmament treaty included: the nation’s uniformed military leaders and of a host of Republican national security veterans, including former President George H. W. Bush and five former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice.

Those who pandered to the paranoia fringe in opposition included: Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John Thune, and the two top Republican leaders in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Arizona Senator Kyl, the lead Republican negotiator.

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Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
— Isaiah 58:66

“Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys.”

— Luke 12:33

However proud we might be of ourselves in terms of giving our money and time and prayers for the poor and the marginalized in this season of uncommon generosity, we might want to ask ourselves if we’ve really done enough, if we’ve really done or given much at all.

The standard for giving and caring for the poor and the outcasts was already high when God broke into this broken world in the form of a vulnerable child born to humble parents.

But then this child grew up and raised the bar for giving way higher. Are we measuring up?

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Speaking of total lunar eclipses. . . .

Stevie Nicks is the original moonlight widow and a mystic who rings like a bell through the night and Don Henley’s “witchy woman” and all that and aren’t you glad you’re here at this blog today where there is no sappy Christmas music.

(For Ames, of course, Stevie’s No. 1 fanatic)

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Love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

— from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen’s beautiful, biblical classic “Hallelujah” gets some in-depth treatment in a wonderful article in the wonderful Catholic mag “America.” The song, like Cohen himself, has had sort of an ever-widening cult following for lo these many decades.

Cohen has been widely recognized as a musical and literary phenom since the sixties, and yet he’s been content to remain largely obscure while the Dylans and Lennons got all the ink. He’s been so content that Cohen, an ordained Buddhist monk (Canadian Jew Div.), withdrew to a monastery for five years before emerging and taking to the road to rave reviews.

Leonard Cohen is a fascinating, original music maker–an artist who makes full-grown adult music for full-grown adults–and “Hallelujah” is a hauntingly beautiful and original song. It’s been covered by more than 200 musicians, everyone from Justin Timberlake (we once posted that video of Justin’s excellent version done for the Haiti Relief telethon) and K.D. Lang to Lord knows who.

And yet Cohen can wax romantic too. Songs like “Dance Me to the End of Love” are fit for couples who like to warm up at the fireplace with a glass of wine.

Click here for the article.

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