Don’t Thank a Veteran, Honour a Soldier’s Heart

2014 1008 kohner stJacob George (Photo: Ironside Photography)22 veterans take their own life every day in the USA. On 17th September 2014, Jacob David George was one of those veterans. And today, 7th October 2014, we mark thirteen years since the invasion of Afghanistan – an occupation with no end in sight, despite the promise of withdrawl by 2014.

We continue to witness new eras of the US-led Global War on Terror, and with it, a persisting conveyor belt of new generations of veterans, too many of whom will become another “one of 22.”

Jacob George was a shining star of the counter-militarism movement. The huge response to his death has exposed just how powerful a presence Jacob was to so many people. As with many others who have expressed their grief, my brief encounters with Jacob felt unique and meaningful. His death cannot be allowed to be another number, but is testament to the brutal effects of the on-going struggle against militarism, to the urgent need to sustain our communities and to our right to heal.

Jacob was the picture-image of successful healing. As a veteran, he was out-spoken on the difference between being a soldier and being a warrior – the latter being led through dialogue with one’s soul.

My experience among veteran communities has given me a new understanding of the often entwining threads of the darkness and richness of life. Veterans have seen behind the curtain of the fragile concept of society, and under the current global system, this all too often means violence.

Jacob is a warrior whose actions not only speak to the horrors and futility of war, but also leave us with lessons of healing and finding joy amongst deep despair. Jacob had an endless ability to empathize with others. His soul was a generous one. In grief, I am trying to be generous to empathize with his decision to leave us.

As Brock McIntosh, fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) member, says in his tribute to Jacob, it is difficult to make sense of his decision to take his life. For me, as someone who is trying to write about the interconnectedness of personal healing and global social justice, Jacob’s death seems like a milestone on a thorny path with no end or sign-posts. This work is often dark and seems hopeless, and Jacob’s life seemed to represent hope and light not only for me, but for many people in and beyond the movement.

During his military career, Jacob was a “good” soldier, trusting in the script of militarism which teaches that US intervention is a force for good in the world. Like others, it was Jacob’s direct experience of combat that contradicted such nationally rehearsed and practised narratives. As he would tell audiences, by looking into the eyes of the Afghan people whose land he was occupying, he could see that it was he himself who was the “terrorist.”

I first met Jacob in 2012, when he threw his medals back to NATO generals at their summit meeting in Chicago. These medals were awarded during his three deployments to Afghanistan as a special operations combat engineer, before he was honourably discharged as Sergeant at the age of 23. Before he hurled his medals towards the summit meeting, he said “I have one word for this Global War on Terrorism decoration, and that is ‘shame.'” In reflection, Jacob said of the experience, “the act of throwing released something inside of me. I don’t know what it is. I’m still trying to figure it out. But it played a role in healing my soul.”

After his discharge from the Army, Jacob returned to Afghanistan to engage with community members and peace activists there. This was a trip which crystallized his suspicion that among the veteran community in the US, “most of us are poor farmers killing poor farmers, while people in our nation starve”.

Jacob’s commentary on his process of healing was continually emphatically political; he valued spaces which allowed for the expression of vulnerability, and asked difficult questions like “How do we share pain together?” Jacob did this by telling his story through music, giving testimony, and by founding “A Ride to the End” as part of Operation Awareness, whereby he cycled over 8000 miles across the United States, armed with his banjo and a desire to connect with as many communities as possible about waging peace and healing from war.

One night, I listened to Jacob tell a story from that trip to Afghan activist Suraia Sahar about a farmer who showed Jacob around his home and surrounding area. He described how the farmer had told him, “You have turned my home into a playground of war.” Jacob wrote a song about it. Jacob, who described himself to me as a ‘storytellin’ hillbilly’ had a natural ability in speaking with humility and poignancy, as well as a familiar playfulness, even with strangers. Jacob’s stories would shift between evoking laughter and tears. That night, as he sang eyes-closed, I watched tears first roll down his face, then Suraia’s, then my own. Slowly, other people entered the room, which organically turned into a sharing of experiences from Afghanistan. Jacob carved out those rare spaces where we could feel pain together, and start the healing process.

Such healing focuses on restoring the moral fabric of trust that has been torn-apart by the experience of war and military training, and the betrayal that veterans feel when they see the absurdity and futility of war in contrast to the script of heroism upon which militarism operates. It is a victory for veterans to be able to restore the moral fabric between one another through truth-telling sessions. However, restoring the fabric of trust with US civilians is a completely different, and at times impossible-feeling, upward struggle.

Tokens of support, such as the yellow ribbon which was introduced before the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, have had a distancing and depoliticizing effect in US political culture, giving civilians a means to “support” soldiers without engaging with war.

Jacob’s untimely death reflects the cultural blind-spot of how the USA treats its veterans. He was outspoken about such a blind-spot, and much of his life as a veteran was focused around drawing attention to how society might alter its treatment of returning warriors. “Don’t thank me for what I’ve done,” Jacob sings in, Support The Troops. Instead, he suggests that troops “need treatment and jobs, and love for the soul.”

Jacob shows us that, in blindly thanking veterans for their service, well-meaning civilians actually silence veterans, and in that silencing, prevent their healing. In short, the realities of war have become invisible behind a national gratitude of service.

What would happen if instead of thanking veterans, civilians asked questions and listened carefully to their voices? If this happened, could the kind of militarism endemic to the post 9-11 culture in the US be tolerated? Perhaps it would be exposed for what it is – a script written by a power elite to protect their strategic interests in global imperialism, profit and power.

Through his potent memory, Jacob continues to be part of a community of veterans who identify connecting one’s own personal actions in larger political landscapes as the most important way towards healing.

Jacob called this struggle to heal from war, “a soldier’s heart,” a nod to both Civil War era definitions of Post Traumatic Stress, and the name of his album he released in 2013. To the end, Jacob was a true warrior in that he allowed his soul to really feel. Sadly, the pain was too hard to bear. Through Jacob’s death I too feel that pain, and it drives me forward in my writing, and in my sense of what it means to be human.

His death has also strengthened in me a feeling of rage for the enemy – US foreign policy and the culture of militarism which props up the destruction inherent in these policies. It was this which took Jacob. It was this which continues to hurt our communities.

As we enter into the fourteenth year of NATO troops in Afghanistan, I will use my rage, grief, hurt and love to drive my efforts in resisting militarism. Like Jacob, we can find joy amongst deep despair, and carve out spaces of healing in dialogue with our souls.