Archive for May, 2013

One Second of Courage

To some degree, we are all cowards.  I know I am.  I don’t like confrontation.  We hide from conflict and run for cover when the world starts falling around us.  It’s part of who we are as humans.  But it doesn’t define who we are, or who we have become. 

This past weekend we celebrated Memorial Day, where we spent the day welcoming the beginning of summer and the coming vacations, cookouts and good times with friends.  We honored the sacrifices of those service men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.  If we listened close enough, we could hear the Rolling Thunder of thousands who gathered to remember those who remain Missing in Action (MIA) and Prisoners of War (POW), and in the silence, we can still hear their voices echoing in our hearts. 

We don’t remember these individuals for the times that they sought refuge from the storms that they faced.  We don’t share stories of how, when faced with the nightmares of war, they broke down and shed tears.  We don’t remember that even we, ourselves hold cowardice within our hearts. 

When faced with conflict, our animalistic response kicks in.  Fight or flight.  In less than a second, we become someone, something different.  We see it in those who have seen and experienced war, but also in the lives of those around us.  We see it in the mother and father who throw themselves in front of their children.  We see it in the police officer who responds to the call of duty.  Or the fireman who risks their own lives to enter into the flames to save a life, by risking their own. 

We can train to respond, but we never know how we will truly act until that instant is upon us.  And in that second, the coward within us can be transformed into a hero. 

We remember those that fell to violence by the way they acted in the last moments of their lives.  They stood in the face of adversity and became someone they no longer recognized.  They are heroes because of a split second decision that now defines their lives. 

We all have the ability to become heroes.  I know many that have stepped up, but never realized it. 

My father, who served in the United States Army for the first 18 years of my life.  My Grandfather and Grandmother, who both served in the Navy.  My Sister, who, when faced with a degenerative disease, refused to back down and give up.  My brother, who has trained for the past several years to save lives as a firefighter and then a paramedic.  Corps Members that I served along side with on Shuffle Sun 6, based out of Denver, CO for NCCC Class XVII, who put aside their fears and reservations when we were called to respond to Joplin. 

We all know heroes.  We’ve all have lives touched by someone who refused to back down in that instant that they were forced to make a choice.  It’s not something that we can understand, but a split second in our lives that changes us, that defines us. 

We are all cowards, who have the ability to become heroes. 

God Bless and PEACE

300 (Heroes, Warriors, and Communities)

We all know the story of the 300 Spartan warriors who took on the Persian invaders.  We’ve seen the movie and cheered as we watched these heroes stand side by side, fending off their foes and refusing to bow before the greater force.  We use their lives as an example of what warriors should be, focusing on their dedication to combat and committing their lives to one another.

SIDE NOTE: I saw the movie three times in theatres.  The first time for the story.  The second for the artwork. And the third for the music.  It is an epic, guy movie.  That is all.

One of the tactics that made the Spartans such a powerful force was their commitment to fighting side by side, as one single unit, not as several hundred individuals.  They fought together as a community, dedicated to shielding the man next to them as they made the phalanx wall.

We can learn so much from the brave men that fought and died next to one another on the field of battle.  Throughout history, we see examples of this community of warriors that forced us to reconsider individual heroes.  In World War II, we see the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen and the famous Band of Brothers, the 101st Airborne.   We follow the men of the 7th Calvary in We Were Soldiers and read of the stories of units in the jungles of Vietnam in novels like Matterhorn.

We learn from these communities, no matter how messed up each of them are.  Fight together as a family.  Leave no man behind (adopted by the US Military due to the influences of LtC Hall Moore). Persevere and survive.

Two years ago today, I found myself racing across the state of Missouri to the small town of Joplin after a EF5 tornado ripped a six mile swath, a mile wide through the community.

It was there that I found myself side by side with the survivors and volunteers who poured off the street to join the response effort.  We had members from several different AmeriCorps programs, including the St. Louis Emergency Response Team, Washington Conservation Corps, Traditional NCCC, Texas Environmental Corps, and several others that responded to the devastation and helped to assist the community get back to its feet.

While we didn’t have 300 AmeriCorps members there at one single time, we learned what it meant to become warriors as we stood side by side with one another through the darkest of days.

While we never wielded weapons of war, we fought for one another and learned to come together as one single family, to comfort one another and those in need, to combat the destruction around us with the power of true love, friendship, and community.

Even now, as we watch the first responders and volunteers begin to pour into Moore, Oklahoma, I am proud to be part of the AmeriCorps family that is responding.  We already have the St. Louis Emergency Response Team and members of FEMA Corps on the ground.  Many others are coming.  Thousands will respond and all our hearts will move as one.

We Live.  We Love.  Service is a part of who we have become, a part of who we are.  We have discovered the heart of the warrior and embraced it.

My prayers go out to all those that served in Joplin.  To all those who continue their service throughout the nation.  To those who will find themselves outside Oklahoma City, helping the community of Moore.  To all the first responders.  The emergency managers.  Those that work behind the scenes, out of sight of the eyes of the media.  To all those affected by disasters, near and far.

You are the warriors that the younger generation will look to.

AC_Joplin

God Bless and PEACE

NOTE: Somehow, the events of the past week corresponded with an already scheduled update to celebrate the past two years of service in Joplin and my 300th blog post.  With a little editing and reworking, everything fell into place.

Coming to the End

In less than a week the members of the inaugural class AmeriCorps*NCCC – FEMA Corps, based out of Vicksburg, MS, will be back on campus for the final time.  In a months time, we will find ourselves scattered across the nation, our paths diverging from the road that brought us together all those months ago.

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been asked multiple times if this experience has been worth it.  If I was glad to stick with it through the rough moments and the hardships.  If this was what I expected.  If I learned while serving with FEMA Corps.

I smile and find the politically correct answer to please the desires for polite conversation.  And sometimes, I cringe because I know in my heart that something doesn’t feel right.

This year has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life.  As another Team Leader from the Vinton, IA campus stated, there have been waves of emotions throughout the year, from extreme highs to the lowest of lows.  I have seem myself on the mountaintops, celebrating small victories before plunging into the darkest of days.

Was it what any of us expected?  No.  But we adapted to those changes and made the best of it and worked to change the system for the next class, those that will be following in our footsteps.

Has it been worth it?  We’ve seen changes happen in the past several months.  We’ve seen a glimpse of the future, where our suggestions have been taken into account.

In my heart, I know that every step of the journey is significant and worth whatever pain comes with it.

Am I glad that I have stuck with it?  Sometimes I ask myself this same question, but as I begin to reflect on the year, I see the hardships that we faced next to the significance of our work, as we served those in need following the destruction caused by Sandy.  I see the tear that were shed as we were yelled at, offered our shoulders to cry on, and the emotions that consumed us as we worked long hours and returned the next day to continue serving in the chaos.

I think there are better questions to ask, like “Were we, as an organization, ready for this?” or “Are we prepared to accept the challenge of continuing down this road?”  As this year comes to an end, we must begin looking to what comes next.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it isn’t going to be easy.  No road is easy in this life.

I’ve seen and experienced so much over these past ten months, from Team Leader Training, Corps Training Institute, Anniston, Region IV Office in Atlanta, responding to Hurricane Sandy, working in Rockaway Park and Staten Island, and, now, here at the Emergency Management Institute.  These experiences have shaped my year and I am glad to have had the chance to share them with those I have served alongside.

When people ask, I look back and smile, for they will never know how much we have changed throughout this experience.

Just some thoughts…

God Bless and PEACE

Into The Wild

While I’ve never gotten the chance to read Jon Krakauer’s novel (don’t worry, it’s on my extensive to read list), I finally received the opportunity to watch Into the Wild from start to finish for the first time last night (thanks Netflix).  Over the years I’ve seen bits and pieces of the movie, but there were parts that I knew were missing.

For those of you that have never seen it, it’s not a truly happy story, but one young man’s journey to discover the truth about love, happiness, and, in some way, God.  If you don’t want me to ruin the movie, I’d suggest you stop reading now, go watch it, and return to read this at another time.

Several years ago I would have been right there with Alexander Supertramp.  ready to head out into the unknown and discover myself in the silence of the wilderness.  The only difference is that I’m to hesitant, to safe, and have ties that I would not be able to break.

I find it sad that throughout his journey, he surrounded himself with people who loved him for who he was, but it wasn’t until he was starving to death, alone in the Alaskan wilderness that he realized that he could never find happiness in solitude.  He comes into contact with some beautiful people who have the love to welcome him with open arms, but he is consumed with getting as far away as possible that he cannot see that he is happy in their presence.

It’s a tragedy that unfolds before us day after day.  It’s a story that can be seen in all our lives.  I saw it once in myself as I desired adventure chased after the call to Africa with reckless abandon.  Fortunately, I never lost sight of the community that supported me, that fought beside me, with me.

Yes, we can find God in the vast emptiness of the wilderness but as Alexander points out, true happiness comes from companionship.  Being alone, you can never find the peace that you are seeking, you will only find loneliness.

The movie is a great character study of a young man trying to find himself, trying to find his way in the world.  The accounts from his sister, throughout the movie, bring us in to see that our actions, no matter how big or small, will affect those around us.  It is more than a story of survival, but a journey to discovering who we truly are.

And unfortunately the story reminds us that we may never realize what is right in front of us until it is too late.

God Bless and PEACE

Preconceived Notions, Experiences, and Learning to Balance

For the past 10 months I have served with AmeriCorps*National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) – FEMA Corps, based out of the Southern Region in Vicksburg, MS.  Call us disillusioned youth, out to make a difference in a broken world.  Call us misguided children being led by the ideal of a better world.  An army of youth willing to do what is necessary, whatever is asked of us.  Blind visionaries.  Hippies.  Or worse.

We’ve heard it all.  We’ve seen it with our very eyes.  We’ve shared our stories.  Offered views into who we are, what we’ve done.  Served.  And somehow things never change.

None of us knew what we were getting into.  We had preconceived notions of what service was and what we would be doing, how we would be serving in FEMA Corps.

I came in thinking one thing and quickly realized that I would get a glimpse into the behind the scenes work of Emergency Management, not the Disaster Response that Traditional NCCC is known for.   I accepted it.  Embraced it.  Others were not as accepting and left.  Or remained for a time before departing.

This wasn’t the place for all who started this program.  FEMA Corps isn’t for everyone.  Neither is Traditional NCCC.  It’s difficult.  It’s challenging.  It’s stressful.

We started with hesitation.  Nothing seemed solid beneath our feet.  Yet, we were asked to be flexible.  FEMA flexible.  I laugh when people ask me if I am flexible during interviews, and I have to hide the smile and explain how working in the inaugural class of this program has allowed me to extend my breaking point and learn to “go with the flow.”

We received our teams the night that Hurricane Isaac passed overhead, knocking out power at campus for the next three days.  We continued team building exercise and trainings.  And we attended more trainings as we journeyed to the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, AL.

The thing about training is that it can only prepare you so much.  We watched Hurricane Sandy become the Super Storm that we all knew we needed to keep this program afloat.  It was also the accumulation of all our fears and nightmares.

Like children, we all watched in fascinated horror, fixed on the devastation and destruction.  Each of us were affected by the storm as it crossed the path of family, friends, and loved ones, ripping into the fabric of our lives.

We took a breath for an instant as the skies cleared and found our boots in the sand, amongst the ruins of the city.

Months of training never prepared us for what we experienced in the days following our arrival.  We had all the technical skills, but nothing could prepare us for the hundreds of people who showed up each day, seeking assistance that we couldn’t provide.  Nobody warned us of the emotional impact, the trauma that poured forth into our lives.

It took everything in me to keep myself afloat.  And I, a Team Leader, was expected to be there for my team.

We all struggled.  Every member of every team.  Some more than others.  We leaned on one another for comfort, for support.  When the world came crashing down, we were forced to live and learn.  It was either that or leave.

Returning after a couple of weeks off over the holidays felt like returning to face the same demons, the same dragon that were slain the day before.  It was a darkness that could be felt deep within my chest, clutching hold and refusing to let go.

In time I found a way to center myself when the balance was off.  I let go of some things.  Took hold of others.  I focused on what I needed to do for myself and learned what it meant to be a leader for others.  I embraced the friendship and company of other Team Leaders and took pride in the work that the team was doing.

I reached out to those that I thought were lost and discovered that we were never alone in this battle.  We learned to take time for ourselves, to distance ourselves from the work, but continue to keep it intimate, personal.

In a month, we finish this program.  In a few short weeks we depart for campus one last time and discover where the next path leads.  For some it is obvious.  For others, it is a foreign concept that has yet to be grasped.  For me, it is a shadow that escapes the light that seeks answers.

We look back and ask ourselves how we got to this point.  Content, but in a way, wavering on a razors edge.  Balanced on a perch that seems to constantly move beneath us.

My team is currently working on editing and revising trainings that we received months ago, before our experiences in Sandy.  But how can you prepare someone for a life like this?  How do you train them when you look back and remember the emotions, the chaos, and the overpowering weight of the world on your shoulders?

In a way we are idealists, misguided children, and blind visionaries.  We all are seeking to change the world in some way, either through our service in AmeriCorps or out in the “real world.”  In doing so, we embark in a quest to challenge ourselves, to grow and become something so much more.

I smile when I hear people speak of this program without ever living through it.  They don’t know who we are or what we’ve gone through.  What we’ve done or who we’ve become.  In a way, they never will.

None of us expected this, but we accepted what we were given and moved on.  Some continued on this path with this new journey while others followed in the footsteps of others.  Like the saying says, “When life gives you lemons…”

God Bless and PEACE