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In the season of gratitude, is “thank you” enough?

This is the season for gratitude. From Veteran’s Day through the many faith-based celebrations clustered around the turning of the year, it is a time when we at least try to look beyond the glitter and find a reason to be grateful, a reason to have hope. In that spirit, now and through the year, we find ourselves wanting to thank those we feel helped to make this life possible. I often hear a brief conversation, a sentence or two at an event, that acknowledges the service of a veteran. Each time such brief moments make my heart hurt. I’m sorry, but “thank you” is not enough.

Photo by Mike Hashisaki, Plains, MT

My teen years were spent in the Vietnam era. I lived in a city that was surrounded by military bases and the cost of that commitment contributed much to how I perceive the world. There are those that will tell you it is mere urban legend that if our troops wore their uniforms when returning from active duty, they risked ridicule and abuse. No, no legend. I was there. Whatever my thoughts were on why we were there and how the “military action” was executed, I wept when I saw those who had suffered so much, who came home broken in ways not always obvious, abused in their own country. This is the root of my issue with “thank you for your service.” Even for today’s vets, it is not enough.

I like to find ways to actively pursue solutions, ways to help. I am a fixer, but I also like to be effective. Growing up with veterans, I learned a great deal of what went on in their heads, and I wanted to help. That sometimes requires finding out from the source of your compassion just what it is that is needed. Sometimes we get it right.

Veterans in this country face horrific statistics. According to the NIH in a report published on the Department of Veteran Affairs website, 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a VA mental health specialty program in fiscal 2018. Programs included treatment for PTSS, substance use disorders, behavioral problems and a host of other issues. This number includes only those that accessed VA resources.

The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report published by the Department of Veteran Affairs notes that 6,000 vets commit suicide each year. This crosses gender and age boundaries. That is an average of 16 men and women each and every day.

While you are saying “thank you” to the spiffy looking fellow in a uniform at the local restaurant, are you thinking of the scruffy fellow on the sidewalk that hasn’t had a bath in who knows when? According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 9% of the homeless population in this country is made up of vets. Some 37,878 broken spirits; men and women who just don’t see a way to cope in society. Some, of course, choose to separate themselves from a society and a culture that cannot comprehend the places they’ve been and the things they have seen.

Doing what I do, even after years of accumulated stories and nights sitting up with friends dealing with things that would not leave their heads, I still felt it necessary to do the research. I asked a friend of mine if I could visit one evening and grill her husband on what he saw as the greatest need for vets today. His answer might surprise you; education and job placement support.

The GI Bill, established to provide help for education in trades or professions is an elusive benefit that changes with when you served, how long, and where. Vietnam was a battle ground between the president and congress and the legal status of Vets in the conflict was ambiguous at best. This impacted many of the benefits which may have been available to men and women who served in that theater.

The other issue he noted was job placement assistance. He felt that the least the military branches could do was to help veterans transition into civilian life. Knowing how to blow things up is not always a useful civilian skill. Leadership skills, logistics, technology, mechanics, construction, and a myriad of other skills most certainly are. During my interview he expressed his frustration when he returned home after his first term of service. He thought he was only suited for jobs in the security sector. Never really finding the right fit, he finally elected to re-enlist in a different branch. His second time home he was lucky. His mother-in-law pointed out that all of his time as a leader in the military had trained him as a manager. He applied to a position and found a new career. Even if a veteran had a solid career before serving, that job may no longer be a fit.

I don’t think it is important to find the perfect job. However, it is important to find a place that reconnects a person to society and gives them some sense of being of use, some sense of belonging. Part of transitioning to civilian life is adjusting to a less intense more loosely associated culture than the intense life or death relationships of foreign service. Success occurs in degrees; failure can be deadly.

Above all, we spend millions training our military personnel to do damage to others. That is what war is. Although we deploy to a few “nation building” exercises, such deployment often occurs in hostile environments. Even when stationed with allies, our military people are usually not culturally assimilated by the host nation. Military service is an intense training course on how NOT to deal with the society in which you find yourself. Then you come home, and there is no one there that can begin to understand that separation from the wider world while becoming ever more dependent on highly disciplined, insular core group.

Where does one go to help with such things? Not everyone has time (but some do), not everyone has money to donate (but some do). Sometimes it is a matter of letting someone know that there is a resource out there, they just need to reach out. Such as we have, we give – that’s why “thank you” is never quite enough.

With a little research, I found several organizations that specialize in job assessment and placement. Remember, the local VFW and American Legion posts are always willing to help sort things out. Both the VFW and American Legion often have counselors and staff to help a vet find the help needed. Local posts can be found on the websites (https://www.vfw.org/ and https://www.legion.org/).

Also, check out these links for information on how to get careers shifted back to a civilian focus.

http://www.veterans2work.org/veterans.html
https://www.militaryonesource.mil/military-life-cycle/separation-transition/employment-education/programs-that-hire-veterans
https://www.dav.org/veterans/employment-resources/

There are other ways to be proactive. There are many organizations that do amazing things such as providing companion dogs, offering financial assistance and counseling, and providing mental health services. There is also support such as Music Corp, Wounded Warrior Project, and Honor Flight. Final Salute is an organization that focuses on homeless women vets and their children. This season make it a point to find a better thank you.

https://www.finalsaluteinc.org/Home.html
https://www.honorflight.org/
https://www.operationhomefront.org/
https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/
https://www.co.thurston.wa.us/distcrt/services/mental-health-and-veterans-court/
http://nchv.org/index.php/getinvolved/getinvolved/how_you_can_help/
https://www.vetdogs.org/Default.aspx
https://veteransfamiliesunited.org/financial-assistance/
https://warriors1st.org/
http://www.musicorps.net/Home.html
https://www.workingdogsforvets.org/
https://tcvs.us/

 

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When things align…

Suffering

A reflective weekend wrapped up in the emotions of my agency’s annual fund-raising dinner and the process of formatting Job for advanced reader copies. This is all such an emotional roller coaster so I will do what I always do when I need to sort through things – share.

Let’s start with Friday night. I’ve been working for Behavioral Health Resources  for over a year now. I love the people, I love the work, and I feel I have sincerely found that spot I always wanted. Friday night was our annual dinner event. Since I work in the administrative offices, I was privy to some of the hard work that went into putting this event together. Our focus this year was our school-based programs.

We always have a silent auction. Baskets are contributed by staff, board members, sponsors, and other interested parties to put up for auction. Some truly creative ideas made their way to the table. There were so many interesting combinations that created festive themes including several which focused on our kids. We also have an auctioneer who comes with all sorts of fun ways to raise money, silly games to get folks involved, competitive games to draw out the best in us; and then there were raffles. This was all sprinkled throughout the evening that included live music, a catered dinner, and stuff about kids. Let me tell you a bit about that.

Folks at our agency put together a video to explain something of what we do. No real clients were involved, but through the narration/interview of one of our Program Managers, our guests were introduced to just how much BHR does for children in the three counties where we have offices. He told us that we were now represented in 29 schools within our service region. We are not just “on call.” We are there, addressing problems that include depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, and early diagnosis of mental disorders. Our clinicians work in high-intensity situations every day to help kids learn to cope and develop the skills to be successful, all while negotiating goals with teachers and administrators.

The video (using actors) described a case regarding a young man who was banned from school due to aggressive behavior. By working closely with him, our team was able to get him re-integrated with his classmates and to help him accomplish his school requirements. He is looking forward to college. During a talk given afterward, our Program Manager described several cases where being there mattered. One involved a young woman who had gotten out of bed that morning prepared to commit suicide. She made herself one promise. If anyone reached out to her that day, anyone that indicated they cared how she felt, she wouldn’t follow through. One of our clinicians had the privilege of being that one person. Our agency serves approximately 500 children throughout three counties. Although not always as dramatic, every single day our clinicians are working on giving the next generation tools to be mentally healthy, successful adults.

We were also entertained by the folks from Olympia Family Theater. This non-profit organization uses the tools of theater to teach, to encourage creativity, and to touch lives with joy. I can tell you they had a room full of adults roaring like lions, voting for the prettiest feather, and encouraging good choices as we watched Aesop’s Fables played out in adorable skits. It was an emotional and rewarding evening. So many people gathering together to have fun and support good things in their community. And I get to work there.

As much as we love our children, our focus is on mental health in many forms throughout our service region. We have programs that support Pregnant and Parenting Women. These programs do amazing things to help moms shake the stigma of mental health issues, break the chain of substance abuse, and learn to be good parents. We offer outpatient services and have recently opened our more intensive in-house program where mom’s come and stay – with baby – to get help to find productive solutions for their lives and the care of their children. And there is sooo, much more we do. We are involved in assertive community treatment programs, integrated programs, residential support, and community information programs designed to chip away at the stigma attached to mental health challenges. And I get to work there.

This brings me to the meme. I’ve seen the unclaimed quote before, and it is one that I have chosen as a guidepost in so many things I do. I no longer subscribe to some philosophical debate about why a God we have defined as X allows Y to occur. There are reasons for that, and I have worked through those reasons thoroughly in a manuscript soon to be on its way out into the world to see if it can find a home. Redefining Job and the Conundrum of Suffering is very much about what our responsibility is when it comes to dealing with those who face challenges of whatever nature.

I find it all a bit scary at times as the things that are so important to me find alignment between my “day job” and my love of writing. It is an amazing journey, and I hope you will join me.

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Reflections ~ Interesting Insights on Years Gone By

There is something about spring that invigorates a person. Or maybe it’s the end of the tax return pile. Whatever the case may be, I have begun to attack the pile of papers in my garage – with a vengeance.

In the interest of time, I have started with my archives of financial records. You do not want to know how far back this stuff goes – really. It can’t just be thrown away, it must be sorted and shredded – everything with a number, name, or address, must be converted into parade confetti. I chose to start with the financial records because, quite frankly, I could quote the record retention rules in my sleep. There are a few extenuating circumstances in my history, but, for the most part, the general rules hold. This means I can whip through these boxes with relative abandon. Unlike my husband’s records, I do not have to spend time deciding if I keep, scan, or convert something to unrecognizable ash. Nor do I have to decide if a pile of documents should be sent off to some company archivist.

There is a point to this meandering and that point has to do with the shredding of a few decades of a person’s life. Watching things disappear into the blades of the shredder can be therapeutic, disheartening, and sometimes sad. Here are some of the things I am remembering/discovering about the person that was, and is, me.

Sometimes arguments cannot be resolved. No matter how hard you try, some people will never understand why you will or will not do or say some particular thing they feel so very important. Newsflash — it isn’t important anymore. Why was there so much hurt wrapped up in the struggle?

I never thought of myself as an activist; I’m discovering that when things touch me in some important way I am very much so, and have been for a long time. Among the debris of so many years was a record of how I responded to one of the worst fire seasons Western Montana has ever suffered. The photo with this post was taken during the August 2000 fire in the Bitterroot National Forest. I honestly don’t recall if that was the same year that so much of the forests in Sanders and Kootenai Counties were in flames. There were three things I undertook to change or to help alleviate the burden our fires imposed.

Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, August 6, 2000. Photo by John McColgan working for the Fairbanks, Alaska division of the Forest Service. The photo is public domain.

Bitterroot National Forest, Montana, August 6, 2000. Photo by John McColgan working for the Fairbanks, Alaska division of the Forest Service. The photo is public domain.

One was to find a way to help those that were accepting animals from areas burned or in danger of going up in flames. I contacted the Purina headquarters and they contacted their area distributors to mount a campaign to help reduce or eliminate the cost of feeding the four-legged refugees. One of the ranches accepting animals from all over the state called me personally to thank me.

Another thing I did was to contact Habitat for Humanity to ask them at the national level to look at the possibility of helping those who had lost their homes to the flames. Most people in Western Montana are pretty independent folks, and if helping someone raise a house or a barn was part of what was needed, then, well, let’s just get it done. I’m not sure if this initiative went very far. I think it was inherent in their policies that the person in need contact them.  They did make sure that the local chapter made their presence known.

Next I see that I wrote a long and impassioned letter to some government official, with FEMA, I believe. The letter was impassioned but it was also thoroughly researched. For whatever reason the federal agencies engaged in fighting the fires had decided that it was an actionable crime to assist in the firefighting unless you were certified and part of their crews. In Western Montana that meant that many logging and ranching families, with the appropriate equipment, and intimate knowledge of the lay of the land, were commanded to stand down. Even if their solution could stop another 1,000 acres or so igniting while they awaited “appropriate response.” This was a fire season so devastating that multiple agencies could provide no more help than 1 person per 100 acres in flames. I personally knew many families who, forced out of the field of battle, drew back, and simply fought for their own homes and acreage. Mandatory evacuation was not an option, it was a battle cry.

There are other bits and pieces. Things I volunteered for, people I contacted in hopes of matching up a need with a solution. For instance, finding a research program for a friend whose child had a rare form of epilepsy. All from my desk on the outskirts of a tiny town in Western Montana. No money, just a phone (on dial-up internet), some skill at putting thoughts together in a logical, impassioned order, and an apparent talent for finding people to talk to.

I guess I haven’t changed all that much. I may have better tools, better resources, a more mature sense of immediacy; but I still see my primary mission in life as finding a solution to problems. It’s not all that hard to give a bit of time here and there. We all have experiences that can help other folks. Very often we know of someone, somewhere who just might know how to fix a particular problem, or knows someone who can. Just make sure you know when to say “no” or nothing gets done. Believe me, I’ve been there, too.

Be a presence in the world that draws those who need you and your unique skills. Be the solution you want to see. Someday as you sit in front of a shredder, such things may give you hope that the fight is worth the effort.

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My Tree of Memories

The season is upon us. All of the celebrations that our species has come up with that center around the return of the sun are swirling around us. A carefully tracked and joyful expectation as the giver of life begins its slow journey back to warmth and longer days. Solstice this year is the 22nd of December, a few brief days before the sun will reach 1 degree along its return path, the mark of the ancient day of Saturnalia.  Many Christians do not realize that this time of year was chosen for the celebration of the birth of Christ because the Roman Saturnalia was an excellent cover for gift exchanges, celebration of the renewal of light—the return of the Son. It is, however, quite appropriate.

 

It is also a time of reflection. My tree is a tree that hubby and I purchased in Canada. A great deal offered by Canadian Tire that served us well for a number of years. This is number seven, I believe. There were years when all he really wanted was the small white lights that glowed in our darkened living room; and years when he wanted us to hang everything we could load onto the poor thing. It is a tree of memories.

IMG_1629

Hanging from its branches this year is a hodgepodge of years past. There is even an angel from my very first Christmas, handmade ornaments, gifts from friends, bits from office parties, ornaments that I don’t even remember where they came from – souvenirs from sharing. That, I think, is what Christmas trees are all about. The excitement of Christmas mornings, the quiet of warm evenings with hot tea or cocoa and music—memories captured in the glow of Christmas lights.

This will be the last year for this tree. Somewhere along the line this year I made a non-decision to avoid additions. This is a year for memory. A year that has gone relatively well, all things considered, even though I still step on landmines; and find myself somewhere else, somewhen else.

I have learned, in this journey, that there are friends you never realized were there. There are families made of caring people who suddenly, without prompting, check to see how your day is going. There are people that smile at you for no particular reason. I try very hard to be one of those people. I know how much it means.

This is a time a year that I find both joyful, and sad. This part is nothing new. While we all run around and try to ensure that our version of the season is first and foremost in everyone’s mind, we need to remember that there are those that really don’t care what you call it; their days are the same, lost, hungry, cold, or afraid. On that scale, I am a very, very lucky lady.

So, I must ask my friends, my readers, to take this time of year to seek the magic moment, the moment of sharing. It doesn’t have to be much – it just needs to be human. When asked how to tell a child who God was I suggested this. When you see someone reaching out to help someone in need – when you see a smile that draws a smile from someone else – when you touch a heart that is aching – in that moment – when you see the connection – that is the face of God. (and not that breakfast sausage guy) Be a spark that creates that moment.

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Reflections ~ Holiday Haunts

I am always conflicted when it comes to holidays.  It may be in part due to the historian in me.  I’m always poking into closets and behind the curtains to see what there is to know about origins and metamorphosis.  Consequently, I often find the unpleasant aspects of things we have learned to cherish.  A few examples might be appropriate.

Turkey

Courtesy of WANA Commons & Patti O’Shea

Christmas is not about the birth of Christ.  The celebrations that the human species have established during the winter solstice are varied and have changed and morphed throughout the millennia.  These celebrations usually centered on the return of longer days, the change in seasons.  December 25th (or so) is the date that the sun has returned a full degree into the sky and all the priests knew it was “coming back,” although a long winter may still be in the offing.  Christians used a time of celebrations and gift giving to allow the open celebration of the coming of Christ.  Jesus, you see, was actually born in the spring.

Easter.  I think my awakening on this account came the year I realized I was celebrating a risen Savior nearly a full month before the Passover.  Ummm, wait a minute.  Isn’t it supposed to be, Last Supper, Night of Passing the Buck, Crucifixion, burial, missing body.  How could the calendar get so jumbled up this was all in reverse mode?  That would be because Easter, as it is celebrated in the Western World, has little to do with Passover.  It is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. It is the ancient fertility festival of planting, new life and the hearts of young men and women. Oh, and ham would have been the LAST thing on the mind of a cook for a Passover meal.

I try to ignore Columbus Day as much as I can, usually referring to it as Yellow-Fever Day.  Sorry, but Columbus did not discover America (lots of people were here already and Europeans and Asians had been making the trip for centuries).  His arrival was, however, the spark that led to centuries of slavery and systematic eradication of native culture and history.  And natives.

So, full circle and here we are at Thanksgiving.  Pilgrims and “Indians,” lots of food and wonderful harvest and all that.  Except that it wasn’t.  The very first Thanksgiving was the celebration of a massacre sparked by the death of one individual.  It’s not terribly clear what he died of.  In many ways the holiday is quite offensive to Native Americans.  By some twist of strange psychology I know this and accept this but still see great value in the focus of the holiday.  Perhaps it’s because for me the origins provide an even deeper reason to stop, contemplate and share.

The holidays are a very stressful season and usually open wide familial wounds and conflicts.  It is evidently not true that suicides and depression increase during this time of year, (NYU Langone Medical) If there are any issues it is with the “Winter Blues.” But there is still stress. I have, in years past, found my own way of seeking peace on this day of reflection. Perhaps, in part, because I know that good fortune is sometimes at the cost of another’s loss.

Some years ago I was one of the founders and operators of a private retreat property in Montana.  It was our practice to open our doors on major holidays to anyone and everyone that would come.  It was not necessary to bring anything, just come.  I would cook for 2, sometimes 3 days to prepare for the event and we would end up borrowing dishes and utensils from all over the place. I remember one Thanksgiving when we managed to convince a Viet Nam veteran to visit.  He braved the encounter and by the end of the day he was the favorite uncle of all the younger children.  A substitute family, but one that brought him joy.  You see, that is what Thanksgiving means to me.

Visit a neighbor, a friend, a family member.  Avoid the stores at all costs.  If you eat out think of some way to thank those who gave up their holiday to serve you.  Find a way to support those in America with far less.  Maybe add to a local food bank as millions of Americans see a cut in their food stamp support.  Smile, hug, hold a door open.  Stop, for just one day and appreciate what you have and seek ways to share it. There is always someone else with less, someone who paid for your bounty.

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