Climbing back up to grace…

The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.
–Aristotle

I woke today morning and performed a task as routine as morning ablutions: I opened my phone browser to Yahoo! Sports in search of the leaderboard for today’s Deutsche Bank golf tournament. I will explain: I did this every time Tiger played when I lived in China. It was a way, like music and bootleg movies, for me to stay tethered to something wholly American. Tiger was part of America’s sports greatness and he was a symbol of how I felt about my country.

The young LT. as budding golfer

I am one of the world’s worst golfers. No, really. I started the game in hopes of finding a way to “quiet the machine” and relax with the help of a sport that rightfully is known as a good walk spoiled. I had not thought of it as much of a sport until I learned it was easier to navigate a leech infested swamp at night with an M-16 above my head than to putt a tiny white ball into a PVC drain pipe. But, I digress…

Tiger Woods, son of a Special Forces Major, single-handed turned golf into an muscular, precision pursuit of excellence. Sure, John Daly could guzzle a beer, put his garish pants on backwards and hit 7 balls between cigarettes father than any other golfer on the tour, but Tiger was the one to watch. And people did it in such numbers that people who had never watched were devoted to golf where before they might have preferred to watch weeds grow in a vacant lot.

When Tiger’s life landed in the rough I couldn’t wait for the public to begin judging him again for his athletic prowess instead of his celebrity moral failings. He literally limped along for a couple of years as I continued to hope that rumors of his death were digitally exaggerated.

On my recent trip to Detroit I visited Piquette Square for Veterans. It is an apartment complex built on the site of an old auto factory. It gives permanent shelter to veterans who

Honor Guard at the Piquette Center mugging for the camera

At the center, I was introduced to Coniel Norman,a veteran and peer counselor employed by the VA to assist homeless vets there. I instinctively knew there was back story here. Coneil had just told me he attended the University of Arizona in the early seventies and I guessed by his height and powerfully large hands that he had been a basketball player. I just didn’t know how great an athlete he had been: Coneil, whose nickname was “popcorn” due to his rapid-fire accuracy, is still Arizona’s record holder for points scoring average in a season. He was drafted in the NBA’s second round and played three seasons: Two with the 76ers and then one with the San Diego Clippers, after a two year stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). After being released by the Clippers in 1979, Norman enlisted in the military and served four years. He left in 1983 and then played professional basketball in Europe for seven seasons. The man who was once lauded by an opposing coach ( he described Coniel Norman as the “finest pure shooter” he had ever seen), saw his basketball career end when he was injured in a serious car accident on the Autobahn.

Time passed and Coneil eventually lost his way via drugs and alcohol. Homeless, he reached out to his family who supported him through rehabilitation. He now lives and works at the Veterans Center.

When you are one of the best at what you do, there is little place to go but down. And the people who cheered your successes are not always there when you descend. Worse yet, they turn their disappointment into anger and add considerable weight to to the already heavy burden that is recovery from injury, personal loss, or misdeeds.

That Tiger has won more events this year than the average professional can hope for in a lifetime of golf, while under such close scrutiny and subject to such blistering critique (just read some of the comments below any Yahoo! article on Woods), is a triumph on its own merits. Even if he fails to live up to fan and sports writer expectations by surpassing Jack Nicklaus for the number of majors won, his achievements are legendary and his records will likely stand long after his detractors have left this life. Hoping one day to see him play.

Coneil’s impact on the world now extends beyond the record board at Arizona. There will be veterans who will remember him as someone who returned hope and sobriety to their lives. I could not be prouder that I was able to shake the hand of an ideal man.

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Today’s call to action is a little selfish for the first time in 9 years of blogging: I could use a little help in getting to Denver to pick up Gander: http://Indiegogo.com/veterantraveler/

Running Into the Line of Fire

I drove to Chicago from Detroit this past week with corrective lenses though which my inner eyes could finally see a Midwest America. Six months ago my view was a distorted one, fed by television images of inner city violence and despair : From the highway Gary Indiana and Detroit all you see are the burned out dreams and bankrupt ambitions of the lunch bucket America of which I was so proud of in my youth.

Most people don’t get dare to get out of their cars in either city for fear of surrendering what little hope they might have left in their own ability to survive this time of angry divisions and doubts about a secure future. When Casinos and prisons are the only monuments to progress you can see, It’s probably best to put them in your rear view mirror. Or so I thought…

Flags everywhere were at half mast in memory of those murdered in Aurora. It was a five hour funeral procession of quiet cars and maybe I projected my own grief on truck stop patrons and restaurant workers, but it was a deeply somber day it seemed for all of America. And for one sad second I was grateful for a national tragedy that finally had us agreeing on something. Queen Elizabeth said on the occasion of Princess Diana’s death that grief is the price we pay for love. But, how we grieve and how we respond to crisis is what makes all the difference.

The stories of heroism in Colorado outnumber the tales of fear and flight. A soldier laid down his life for his girlfriend, a wounded victim helped rescue a mother and her child after her boyfriend fled, police and firemen hurried into the chaos despite not knowing if it was still safe to enter the theater.

Victor Frankel, a concentration camp survivor and eminent psychotherapist, believed we are hardwired to respond certain ways to danger and difficulty. There are children on the beach who will run at the sight of on oncoming wave, others will throw themselves into the water with screams of delight and a few, paralyzed by indecision will sit down and cry.

Frankl also spoke of what rescues us in times of chaos and oppression: a decision to help others through difficult times. Those that survived Nazi cruelty were those who spent their time in service to others. It is the most powerful of paradoxes: Altruism nourishes us like no food can and while we are giving of our time and talent for the betterment of others. In this digital age we can positively act out of character and defy our genetic leanings. There is little to fear.

Stories will follow soon of people I met who are brick, by brick, rebuilding Detroit. And the work I saw being done by community organization like Southwest Solutions serving people from every demographic. They sense a need and search for solutions confident the resources will emerge to further their work. The apartment complex they constructed for Veterans should be a national model for returning warriors who lost their way home to dignity and productivity.

The purpose of this blog and my proposed trip across America became clearer in Detroit. It is not enough to chronicle the stories and successes of vets and vet groups. We are all united in our love for America, despite our political animosities; With the Olympics on this week, despite the failings of NBC, we are galvanized in our desire to elevate the status of our country in the eyes of the world; and the vast majority of Americans believe that veterans are worthy of salvage. That the all volunteer military pays its troops, that a Veterans Administration exists to care for those who served, that vets seem to be afforded discounts and courtesies civilians are not , should not blind us to their needs. It is not a level playing field: The VA is dangerously inept, only 3% of vets are finishing college after service, tens of thousands are in long lines waiting for benefits or medical care promised to them, discounts are only given when a service can be bought in the first place and while pay for officers is at acceptable levels our enlisted soldiers often live paycheck to paycheck with little to show for a hitch in the service beyond medical and psychological problems that impact them for a lifetime.

So, future these tales here will all contain a call to action of some kind. A way for us to contribute to something reconstructive, something good for veterans, a way to come together, if only for a brief moment, to improve the quality of our lives by recognizing the sacrifices of others. We can safely run into the line of fire to help those who did it for us.

To paraphrase Adrian Cronauer, the Armed Forces DJ whose story inspired Good Morning Vietnam,our flag, at half mast this week, did not represent a political point of view. Tragedy should not need to be the precursor for fraternity. The flags of mourning and draped over the shoulders of our athletes are symbol of our national unity. As should be every veteran who has ever donned a uniform in service to their country.

Today’s call to action: A daughter’s petition to the VA: a request for them to accelerate a benefit decision about a Vietnam Vet dying of liver cancer possibly linked to Agent Orange exposure.

http://www.change.org/petitions/veterans-affairs-approve-the-liver-transplant-of-vietnam-veteran-lucius-littlejohn#

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