Monday, June 02, 2008

Invitation to a Dialogue: What Can I Do to Make A Difference?

A few weeks ago, my friend, Dougan Sherwood, came to me with an intriguing question. In a nutshell, the essence of his question was this:

“I am a 30-something young man – husband and father of a young son. I hear of all that is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and the War on Terror, and I see the sacrifices that our soldiers and their families are making. I don’t feel as if I am being asked to sacrifice anything. I want to be able to do something. Short of my enlisting in the military, what do you suggest?”

My response to Dougan was to say:

“What a great question. I wish more people felt the same way. Let’s begin by letting me introduce you to my friend, Capt. Dave Gowel. Dave is a West Point grad who has been deployed and is now back in the U.S. as part of the ROTC faculty for the Paul Revere Battalion at MIT. Although you come from different places politically and experientially, you are both bright and inquisitive Renaissance Men who would benefit from knowing each other.”

It took a few weeks for us to coordinate schedules, but eventually, Dave Gowel, Dougan Sherwood and I shared a long and loquacious meal at the Kendall Square Legal Seafood. The conversation was riveting as these two young loyal Americans quickly found common ground as we explored how someone like Dougan might devote some of his time and energy in reaching out to serve those who have served overseas. Dougan and Dave have both reflected on what we experienced that day, and have given me permission to share the thoughts that they articulated in letters to me.

Al,

Here are my thoughts from our lunch.

Since our first meeting, I've come to you on many occasions for advice, direction on everything. In every instance, you've not only diagnosed whatever cause is affecting me, but you have offered an approach to the solution that is truly unique - and spot on. I know your ultimate resource is the Good Book. But in the case of advising me on this topic, I think introducing me to Dave Gowel is about as close a second as can be.

I came to you b/c I recognize that the history of the past seven years is the War on Terror, which is being played out through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. American's haven't been asked to sacrifice and the overwhelming responsibilities of the War of Terrorism have been left to the few serving in the military. There is very little personal about this war for me. I know only one person who's served in Iraq (and I don't know him very well).

Over the past couple of years, I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with how little the America people are involved in this war. I truly feel that America is not at war. The American military is. My personal commitment has been limited to reading the news, studying history, paying taxes and being a role model for my very little boy. These are important but they're indirect. I am now to the point where my instincts and sense of decency are pushing me to play a more active and direct role. I don't know how this will unfold, but my first action step was going to you and you introducing me to Dave. From my view, in Dave, you've put a face and a name to a "person" whom I've admired and honored for several years. He's a remarkable man and I was struck by his kindness, humility - and normalcy! He thanked me for my willingness to join him for lunch and brought paper to take notes about what I said! He's the one doing me a favor and I have to wait for him to finish thanking me before I could share my gratitude! Unexpected. I learned a lot simply through his approach to this lunch.

I basically wanted to know what a 33 year old husband and father of a one year old can do to support the War on Terrorism from the perspective of someone who's served. Paying taxes isn't service, and there's no reason why I should be waiting for my government to call me to act. I wanted to know if what I was feeling made any sense to someone in the military and what suggestions they might have for me. Would Dave tell me to join the Army?

This meeting was the beginning of a dialogue that has potential to spread in any direction. Dave did not shy from affirming his view that the ultimate sacrifice is to enlist. But he also emphasized that there's I can do without necessarily joining the military. He encouraged me to consider my interests and strengths and together we'd discuss how to put them to serve the military community and the War on Terror.

I don't have many friends who tell me they lose sleep b/c they feel disconnected from this war. But how can they not be feeling how I feel to some degree? I believe that many other civilians do feel as I do, but like me, find it very hard to engage. One lunch with Dave and I now have a real personal connection to the war that confirms everything I've been feeling for the past several years.

Inspired, Grateful, Humbled.

Dougan

Al,

I can’t thank you enough for the opportunity to get to know your friend and now mine, Dougan Sherwood. In preparing for my departure from ten years of wearing the uniform, it was invigorating to speak with an American as sincere and patriotic as him. In the past decade, I have had many people (friends and perfect strangers alike) offer their thanks for my military service in the form of words, letters, and care packages while I was deployed to Iraq and at home. Dougan’s approach, though, to supporting the troops is one that ranks among the most appreciated gestures that I can recall.

His desire to support his military makes me proud to serve. It’s not everyday that someone who has spent his own time, energy and resources to cultivate leadership in America’s youth feels as if he’s been delinquent in supporting his country. The results from a quick web search on his name paint the picture of an exceptional individual that has not earned those restless nights caused by the absence of connection to the war. I took notes on his words during that conversation because I see it as my duty to help this awesome American use his talents to support our troops.

On one level, I’m proud that my brethren (and literally, my brother) currently serving in harm’s way tonight are doing their job so well that many Americans can list their greatest immediate concerns to be the high price of their gas and the low price of their homes. It’s our job to fight and win America’s wars so America can continue to enjoy that which we protect. On another level, nobody wants to be forgotten and more importantly, nobody wants for those they care about to be forgotten. I agree that the military is bearing a disproportionate burden and it isn’t fully captured by the 4,085 individual tragedies for the families of the Americans killed in this war. The advances in body armor for this conflict have dampened that oft recited number of soldiers lost. This equipment has dramatically altered the standard wartime ratios of soldiers killed to soldiers wounded resulting in the “less visible” 30,143 soldiers who have come as close as one can to making the Ultimate Sacrifice. Most of them have a daily reminder in the form of a scar, a missing limb, chronic pain or a lost sense. Coupled with the unrecorded numbers of troops suffering from PTSD, I do think that these wounded sons and daughters of America, although maybe not forgotten, aren’t receiving the support they deserve. I look forward to collaborating with Dougan (and anyone else bearing even a shred of the steel cable-like moral fiber he has demonstrated) to help those pillars of our freedom live the lives they haven’t been able to because of their sacrifices. And it is because of Americans like Dougan, that such sacrifices are worth making.

Gratefully,

Dave

Dave Gowel

Captain, Armor

Assistant Professor of Military Science

Army ROTC

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I think it is clear why I felt the need to share the thoughts – and dialogue – between these two remarkable young men. It is my hope and prayer that it may inspire you to engage in your own dialogue – to reach out to someone different than yourself and ask: “What can I do to make a difference?”

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments.

Al

1 comment:

Craig Balben said...

It's so funny that Dougan is feeling like there must be more he can do. For the last few years I've been feeling the same way. Because of my work on our local planning group, I attend Community Leader Forums hosted by MCAS Miramar. I'm constantly overwhelmed by the military's professionalism in not only performing and showcasing its work on the base and at war, but in also working with the communities that surround the base. There is a professionalism and confidence there that is rarely seen by other governmental and public agencies. You'd think there would be a disregard for the community since we are at war and national security is on the line, but no, quite the contrary. I am in awe of what and how they do what they do. Although I'm far removed from you guys and am a firm believer in the power of prayer, please let me know what you end up doing. I'd very much be interested in knowing how I may serve/help/encourage the miliary guys out here on the West Coast in measurable and meaningful ways.