What I Saw

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this blog, as projects and work have kept me away.  Yesterday I had an experience that prompted me to pick it up again.

Yesterday, the funeral for Army Pfc. Shane Reifert was held at Holy Cross Catholic Church, just down from my house.  He was from Cottreville Township, which is the rural area to the west and south of Marine City.  He died in Afghanistan and I won’t sully his memory by turning this into a debate about the merits of the war.  He’s someone who gave everything he had, including his life, in service.  For me that put him in the hero column, no matter what other decisions he’d made before.

In the last few days, it became known the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to protest the funeral.  These are the “Christians” who protest military funerals in the belief that soldier’s dying is God’s just punishment for our nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.  I know that doesn’t make any sense.  It doesn’t have to. 

The people who attend this church, and especially their leader, suffer from something called Oppositional Defiance Disorder.  We all grew up knowing (or maybe were) the kid that got into trouble so they could get all the attention.  It’s always irritating and tough to deal with.  A child with ODD takes it to an unreasonable level.  All they care about is manipulating emotional responses, even if it means they come into great harm.  A lot of kids with ODD wind up getting abused.  A lot of kids become ODD because of abuse.  If a boy with it is getting beaten, in his mind he’s thinking “I won” because he bent the adult out of shape. 

With children, ODD is an issue you learn to deal with so they learn to live for positive goals.  An adult with ODD is just an asshole.

When the Westboro people started the protests, they got everything they were looking for.  People reacted with understandable anger and they got to be on all the big news channels.  The more outrage they drummed up, the happier they were.  The feelings of the family didn’t factor into the equation.

This leads up to yesterday.   Since they put this funeral on their website as a protest target, I saw a hornet’s nest of activity on Facebook about them. 

“Great,” I said.  “It’s just what they want.”

I talked and wrote emails about how ignoring them is the only thing we can do.  Counter-protests only give them the confrontation they want.  When I was asked what else you’re supposed to do, given the fact a family is being abused, I said all you can do is lend them your support.

I’m embarrassed of how “above it all” I was.  Sitting in my home office yesterday, I could tell there was a lot of activity going on as the time for the funeral approached.  It dawned on me I had spent an inordinate amount of time talking about what people should do and very little doing anything myself.  I was embarrassed I had become so aloof.  Who was I to criticize people who were emotionally involved?  I mean, given the nastiness of these people, shouldn’t I be doing something to work against them?  Especially when events were happening down the street as I sat in my basement?

I made a decision to head down.  I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew I had to go.  The scene awaiting me was far better than anything I had imagined.

If there were protesters, they were not to be seen.  Instead, the street leading to the church was lined with people displaying American flags and other signs of support for the family.  Instead of an angry showdown, I found a large, unselfish display of love and patriotism.

I recognized several faces from around town (the owner of The Sweet Tooth was passing out flags).  I also discovered many had come from other areas to lend their support.  I took a spot on a corner next to Rich, a local Vietnam vet.  He held a large MIA-Never Forgotten flag.

I got talking to Rich while we waited.  He served in Vietnam for seven months.

“I never knew seven months was enough to mess up the rest of your life,” he said, “but I’m still not over what I saw there.”

In his time, he’d seen many buddies get killed but what haunted him the most was a ten year old boy he saw step on a mine.

“I had little brothers the same age.”

Rich only started counseling for his PTSD in recent years.  In the meantime, he told me he’d put his family through hell.  He didn’t think he’d ever get over all of it but wishes he’d started dealing with it years earlier. 

In the past year, he’s worked with programs reaching out to vets of our current wars, helping convince them to get the help they need.  Rich hopes he can help them avoid some of the things he’s experienced and done to people he loves.  He’s an amateur artist and has also been helping others use this to express themselves as part of their therapy.

From just our short conversation, it was clear Rich and I wouldn’t see eye to eye on politics.  He expressed great admiration for the Tea Party.  But I wasn’t there to get into a political discussion.  I just told him thank you and that I admired him for not just serving once, but for dedicating part of his life now to helping others.      

One thing we discussed was the hate he and other Vietnam vets received when they came home versus the support given to troops now.  Instead of anger about the difference, he was relieved times had changed.  I am as well.  No matter what you think of the cause, soldiers don’t pick their battles.  They make one choice and that is to serve.  Speaking as someone who didn’t do that, I’m in no place to do anything but support and honor them.

That’s what happened yesterday.  The Westboro clowns didn’t show.  Even if they had, they would’ve been invisible behind the wall of supporters.  In addition, the Freedom Riders came in to help out.  I began the morning thinking I might witness an ugly scene.  Instead I had one of those experiences that inject some optimism into your life.  We need as many of those as we can get.

I also got a does of humility.  Like most people, I hate to admit I even needed it but I’m glad I did.  It’s an essential ingredient in showing up self-serving cretins who have no concept of the freedoms they abuse.  We can shift the spotlight off them towards people who really need our support.

My condolences to Shane’s family and all those who knew him.  I hope what you saw yesterday helps in the hard days ahead.  I’m humbled by the sacrifice you’ve experienced.

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