If you've ever read my blog posts on Huffington Post Impact, you know I like to tell stories about inspiring individuals who are driven by a sense of purpose. Recently, I was speaking with an Army Veteran who had been in Iraq, and I realized that I've written very little about the veteran population. Shame on me. To serve in the military is to live (and sometimes die) with a sense of purpose.
So back in August, I took it upon myself to find three veterans whose stories I would share. I didn't have to look far. Thanks to my friends at the The Mission Continues, I was given access to their nationwide community of 3,000+ veterans. Ultimately, I selected three people who moved me not because of something uniquely spectacular that they'd accomplished, rather because of how normal and accessible they were. These are people who struggle with day-to-day living just as you or I might, yet they draw from their military experience and continue to lead lives of purpose and service. What better way to honor them and their brethren on Veterans Day then by sharing their stories.
Jeffrey Courter - Chicago, IL
By the time 49-year-old Jeffrey Courter left for Afghanistan, the husband and father of three had served his country as a Marine, a Navy Reservist, and an Army National Guardsman. Despite his many years of military service, this was going to be Jeff's first experience in an active combat zone. In his 2008 book, Afghan Journal: A Soldier's Year in Afghanistan, Jeff wrote about the time he spent supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, working with Afghan security forces who were fighting against the Taliban. "I volunteered for this mission, believing it was important to do so ...I considered it a matter of personal integrity."
Jeff's year in Afghanistan changed him forever. "It opened my eyes to poverty, oppression, and human need. I saw children standing barefoot in snow. I saw old villagers afraid of terror. I saw families of Americans providing toys, school supplies and clothing to poor Afghans. I saw bravery, kindness, and evil up close. I saw suffering on a scale I had never encountered before."
Indeed, Jeff's time abroad was rife with new experiences, but it also buttressed many of the values that he already held dear. Volunteerism, service, commitment, integrity, faith - these are things that Jeff, who is also a full-time seminary student and ministry intern with the U.S. Presbyterian Church, identifies with on a very personal level. But perhaps the value that trumps all others for this veteran is that of community.
In his book, Jeff wrote about the vital peer-support that his wife and children received during his time overseas. "Military families share much more with each other than most communities. They help each other and rely on each other, because they need each other." But for Jeff, community is about more than just the social safety net; it's fundamental to the human condition. He lays it out plainly: "We can't live by ourselves ... We must learn to work together to safeguard our world and each other ... learning together, working together, playing together - these create relationships which allow us to live in peace together."
For all of Jeff's experience, education, training, virtue, wisdom, and drive, he finds himself today unemployed (save for the small amount of drill pay which he receives through the National Guard). "Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, there is active discrimination against veterans by many hiring managers." Still, Jeff does not wallow in self-pity, nor does he equate being out of work with being unable to contribute.
Jeff has found myriad ways to serve, while creating that sense of community for which he still yearns. In 2014 he joined The Mission Continue's Chicago Service Platoon, dedicated to improving health and wellness for the 122,000 Chicagoans who have little access to healthy food options. As part of this community of veterans, Jeff works in low-income neighborhoods, educating individuals and bringing communities together to promote healthier lifestyles. "Too many people don't have the time to volunteer anymore. Programs like The Mission Continues are a great way to encourage volunteerism, while giving back to the community."
Thank you Jeff for inviting us to get to you know better this Veterans Day.
1. WHY DO YOU CONTINUE TO SERVE HERE AT HOME? Service is the gift we give to the world. It's what makes us human. It is also what gives our lives meaning. Serving my country is part of serving humanity.
2. OF WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD? I am proud to say I was able to do something significant in life, something positive. I have served in the military, volunteered in my community, earned academic achievements, but my favorite title of all is "Dad." Relationships are what count most in life.
3. DESCRIBE A MOMENT THAT CHANGED YOU. My deployment to Afghanistan changed me in many ways. It opened my eyes to poverty, oppression, and human need. I saw children standing barefoot in snow. I saw old villagers afraid of terror. I saw families of Americans providing toys, school supplies and clothing to poor Afghans. I saw bravery, kindness, and evil up close. I saw suffering on a scale I had never encountered before. People asked me whether I made a difference being deployed there. I would say, "A very small difference, but if everyone makes a very small difference, in time it will make a large difference." I have learned to strive for large differences, but to be content with small ones. Trying to be humane and just in a war is difficult, but it differentiates us from despots and dictators. I am proud I serve in a military with rules of engagement that seek to protect innocent life, as we have in OEF. I am proud to have served with people who joined our military for the right reasons.
4. WHAT DO YOU STRUGGLE WITH THE MOST SINCE STEPPING DOWN FROM ACTIVE DUTY? Unemployment. Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, there is active discrimination against veterans by many hiring managers today. It seems to me, one who has been seeking work for some time, that many of the companies declaring their intent to hire vets to be more PR to make their companies look good for other Americans, rather than actually hiring veterans. If companies want to hire vets, there are plenty of us looking for work - it shouldn't be too tough to hire us.
5. WHAT DO YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE VETERAN COMMUNITY? Many people ask questions about what I did in Afghanistan - was I in combat, did I kill anybody, etc. While plenty of military personnel engage the enemy, there are more people in support roles than on the front line. These support personnel also risk their lives, but their tasks are different. Surprisingly, even support personnel can get PTSD - there are horrifying events and memories that can affect us as human beings. Vets want and need community, just like everybody else.
6. WHO IS A PERSON YOU ADMIRE AND WHY? WHAT WOULD YOU ASK HIM/HER IF GIVEN THE CHANCE? A person I admire is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany who actively worked against the Nazi regime, which led to his execution in a concentration camp. He began as a pacifist, but then came to believe it was necessary to kill Adolf Hitler in order to stop the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis. If I could ask him a question, it would be what he thought about America today - he lived briefly in New York in the 1930's, and I wonder what he would think of our society now.
7. WHICH ISSUE FACING YOUR COMMUNITY WOULD YOU LIKE TO BRING GREATER ATTENTION TO? So many vital causes! We must learn to work together to safeguard our world and each other; education is the key. Learning together, working together, playing together - these create relationships which allow us to live in peace together. Many people think people in the military want war. They are wrong - almost all of us really want peace. It's why we joined. Relationships create peace.
8. WHAT IS SOMETHING PEOPLE MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT YOU? My wife and I are opera lovers! Such beautiful music inspires me.
9. MY LEGACY TO THE WORLD WILL BE: A life full of love, family, friends, faith and hope ... hope that I leave the world a better place.
10. WHAT QUESTION DO YOU WISH I HAD ASKED AND WHAT IS THE ANSWER? QUESTION: Will war ever end? ANSWER: I wish I had an answer to this question myself - it is certainly within humanity's power to prevent it! However, evil has always existed and will probably always exist in our world, so I think some form of violence and warfare is the unfortunate result, and we must prepare for it.