When the second Iraq war started in 2003, I was in high school. I was worried about AP tests and choir concerts and college applications. I was busy but I did pay attention to the war news, partly because my dad was an Air Force officer who was just about to retire after 21 years in the military. Every evening, we watched coverage of the invasion together -- the night-time bombings, the search for Saddam Hussein, the cable news debates about the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
What I never thought about were the kids like me, over there, amidst the bombs. Or the kids who were being recruited as suicide bombers by insurgent factions. The kids who couldn't go to school, or even dream of higher education. And there was no one telling me that perhaps I ought to care about them.
Gunnar Swanson is an Iraq war veteran who wants to change that. Not only does he want to make sure we all think about kids in war zones and what their lives are like, but he wants to make sure that they, too, have opportunities for productive and healthy futures.
I'm inspired by his goal, but almost more so by the way he's accomplishing it: On July 4, Gunnar started marching northward from Dallas, Texas, and he's going to walk all the way to Northfield, Minnesota. Along the way, he's meeting with groups of kids and adults to talk about his sponsoring organization, War Kids Relief, and their programs for helping kids in war-torn regions.
When Gunnar first walked into our office a few months ago with Dina Fesler (who runs War Kids Relief and its parent organization, Children's Culture Connection), it was clear he was determined to march all 1,000 miles despite fundraising obstacles and summer heat alike. Our team thought we could help, and together we built a video that explains the motivations behind Gunnar's march, and encourages youth to take an active role in fundraising and spreading the word about A Soldier's March for Peace (ASM4P).
Of course, one of the first people I sent the completed video to was my dad. He's been retired from the Air Force for a few years, but he still pays attention to military issues and news. I thought it would be a cause he would care about, but his enthusiasm about Gunnar's project surprised even me. Within ten minutes, he had e-mailed the video to dozens of friends and family members, military and civilian alike. He's only recently gotten into Facebook, but he joined the ASM4P fan page and wrote on the wall with words of encouragement for Gunnar. And at a family reunion last weekend, almost everyone had already seen the video and had questions for me about Gunnar's march.
To me, this story is a perfect example of how technology can help causes like Gunnar's -- not just because of the video, but because the way people have been interacting with the march online is similar to the way they support the march in real life. Like my dad did, they tell their friends about it, in person and on Twitter. They write notes and prayers on the Facebook wall. They hear about it from their kids, who meet Gunnar when he visits YMCA youth camps along his marching route. It confirms my belief that, at the core, social media and e-communications are more of an extension of everyday actions than replacements for face-to-face interactions. Sure, Twitter has users who spam people with marketing messages, and the news feed on Facebook can be overwhelming at times. But when I see these same tools being used to support a great cause, I remember why they have value.
So while Gunnar marches, there's a whole community of people behind him. That, combined with the great people he's running into along the way -- sometimes literally, like the local American Legion president he met while walking through an Oklahoma ditch -- are what will make this march a success. It's a daily reminder not only of my own luck to be born in a place with such opportunity, but of the power of relationships and a common cause.
Learn more about A Soldier's March for Peace and watch the video at www.warkidsrelief.org/march.