Letter #6: Lasting meaningful choices
January 15, 2021
Each week after I finish my letter to you, I think, “Ok, this week was weird, but next week things will start to calm down and I can go back to writing to Trin about more normal topics.”
Unfortunately, the events that are unfolding right now in this country continue to defy predictability. We are living in a unique moment in American history, and there aren’t too many precedents for me to point to as a way to help explain to you what is happening.
On January 6th, the U.S. Capitol was assaulted by American citizens. Five Americans were killed — including a Capitol Police officer who was beaten with a fire extinguisher. On January 13th, The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for “incitement of insurrection” (a violent uprising against an authority or government) — making him the first President in American history to be impeached twice. And now, as Joe Biden prepares to be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday, thousands of National Guard troops are mobilizing in Washington, D.C. and in state capitals across the country to prevent violence from breaking out this week.
So, what is happening to our country?
I have watched with sadness over the last several years as a chasm has formed, dividing Americans and tearing apart families, friendships and communities. In the last year, that chasm has grown deeper and wider at an alarming rate. Fear and hatred are gripping the nation in our cities, suburbs and rural communities across the country. Why? What is at the root of this fear, anger and resentment?
I believe the division starts with a lack of meaningful choices, and in my letter to you today, I want to talk about what happens to people when you take away the freedom that real choices bring.
I had a very sheltered childhood growing up on our farm in West Virginia. We were poor, but we never really wanted for anything. We had plenty of food that we either grew on the farm or hunted. Our dairy cow provided milk, butter, and on special occasions, even homemade ice cream.
We lived in a small house that Pappy built in 1975 — the same house that you have come to know on our visits to the farm. We had plenty of firewood and coal to keep us warm in the winter, and although many of the clothes we wore to school were hand-me-downs, they were always scrubbed clean and free from tears and holes.
I went to a good school — a county public school where town kids and farm kids mixed and mingled working to navigate the ins and outs of adolescence as we tried our best to study hard and get good grades. I had good teachers who wanted me to win. They encouraged me, telling me that I could do anything that I set my mind to.
Pappy worked two jobs — one as a bus driver for the County Schools and a second as a manager and loader at the local feed and supply store in town. It was hard work, but the bus driving job covered us with health insurance and the steady income ensured that the four of us kids had what we needed for school and sports. Mammy worked long hours — maintaining the farm, washing, sewing, cooking and cleaning. My parents worked their fingers to the bone to make sure that my brother and sisters and I had a great life. They worked tirelessly to try to create a better life for their kids, and over time, they saw the fruition of that hard work.
I was one of the lucky ones. Sadly, there are many kids and parents in our country today who simply don’t have the opportunities that my family had. I was blessed with so many choices, Trinity. Even though we were poor, my parents knew that their children would have a better life than they did. They knew that we would have choices — so many choices. Dreams were important…and they could become our reality.
For a large number of families in our country today, that is no longer true.
Across the country, families are struggling, and for the first time in American history, many parents don’t have any hope that the lives of their children will be better than their own. They see the challenges of everyday life and see no way to change their situation or provide a better life for their kids.
Americans feel like freedom is being stripped from them. They no longer feel like they have meaningful choices in their lives. They are desperate for change. And desperate people do desperate things.
I learned this lesson a long time ago. During my first combat tour, I saw firsthand what a lack of meaningful choices can do to a person.
In April of 2003, I found myself in a fighting hole facing north along Highway 7, the main avenue of approach for American forces during the early days of the Iraqi invasion. We had just survived the first major contact in the war in a place called Nasiriyah where Marines had been ambushed and we had fought our way through the city to set up a position to the north. My guys and I were exhausted, hungry and on edge.
Southern Iraq at the time was extremely impoverished, and there was a severe lack of food. As we moved through the south, regular Iraqi troops had been retreating to make a final stand in Baghdad while Iraqi paramilitary troops called Sadaam Fedayeen were going hut to hut in desperately poor rural villages, recruiting poor farmers to fight us. They would promise food and money if the farmers would fight, and if they chose not to fight, they would rape and murder their families right in front of them. These farmers had no choices at all — they could watch their children starve to death or pick up a weapon they didn’t know how to use and go fight a people they knew nothing about. Those conditions set the stage for an event that would change my life forever.
As I walked the lines checking on my guys, I looked up and saw a vehicle rapidly approaching our position from the north. The enemy had just started using cars loaded with explosives to run into our positions. We thought it was a suicide bomber who had packed explosives in the car, so I grabbed three of my guys and we started running toward the vehicle to get it to stop.
Finally, the car stopped about fifty meters away, and the driver, a gaunt, young Iraqi man, jumped out of the car and began running towards us frantically waving his arms. I thought that he must have strapped a bomb to himself, so I sprinted towards him and raised my weapon. Suddenly, a black military vehicle drove up and stopped behind the man’s car. Six men in black jumped out and began shooting into his car. The Iraqi man stopped in his tracks, turned around, screamed, and began sprinting back towards his car. It was then that I realized what was happening — this man was just one of those poor farmers who didn’t want to fight, and he was trying to escape across our lines to safety with his family.
I yelled at my guys to take out the Fedayeen, but it was too late. By the time I reached the man’s vehicle, his wife lay dead in the passenger seat — she had been shot in the face and in the chest. He had a baby in the back seat whose arm had been shot off and she had been shot in the head. He knelt on the asphalt next to the car — sobbing and cradling the body of his 5-year-old girl who had been shot in the stomach and was choking on her own blood.
For the first time in the war, everything slowed down for me, and I put myself in this man’s shoes. I thought to myself, “I live in a world of choices. Where do I want my kids to grow up? What do I want them to have for breakfast? Where do I want them to go to school?”
What were this guy’s choices when he woke up this morning? He had nothing. He could watch his kids starve to death or fight the Americans with a weapon he didn’t even know how to use. He had no choices.
A fierce anger awoke inside of me…it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that this man and his family had no choices just because of where they were born.
There is real freedom in lasting meaningful choices. That freedom became a battle cry for me and a focus for my life’s work. In the years that followed my time in Iraq, I started an organization called Nuru International that would help extend lasting meaningful choices to families living in desperate conditions in far away places. After Iraq, I continued to see again and again how a lack of meaningful choices fueled violence and instability in places like Somalia, DRC, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya.
I lived in these remote communities overseas for years — working with courageous leaders on my team and courageous leaders in the community to fight extreme poverty and give families real choices as alternatives to supporting violent, oppressive extremist groups attempting to exploit them and their children. Time and again I saw desperation transform to hope as moms and dads began to have real choices again for their children.
Not in a million years did I ever think that I would see the same desperation in the eyes of American citizens. But people are people, and that same lack of meaningful choices that plagued the farmers I worked with overseas is now bringing our own country to the brink of instability and violence on a national scale.
In 2015, I moved back to the United States to participate in a new leadership program that I had been selected for. I had been living overseas for almost fifteen years — first as a Marine and then in the villages I worked in with Nuru. When I got back home, I was shocked at what I saw…I did not recognize the country I left to fight for as a Marine. Fear and hatred was tearing the country apart, and many citizens, leaders, businesses and media companies had divided themselves into two warring factions — the Republicans and the Democrats.
I was an outsider coming back to the home I loved after many years, and I could not have been more disheartened by what I saw. My friends and I had been downrange fighting for the idea that America stands for — the freedom of lasting meaningful choices for everyone, everywhere — only to come home to see that it wasn’t going to be Al Qaeda or ISIS or China that would destroy our democracy and the American way of life…it was going to be us.
Americans had lost their voice. They had lost the ability to make the lives of their children better. They had lost their freedom of meaningful choices. And it was the system and the leaders leading that system who were failing them. Americans had lost their trust in the institutions that are supposed to protect and preserve the American dream — to protect and preserve their fundamental freedoms and the American way of life.
They had lost their faith and trust in the leaders who are supposed to represent them. They watched as these leaders pandered to corporations, wealthy donors and other special interest groups, and then turned a blind eye to the needs of the families who elected them. Their leaders lied to them repeatedly — fabricating falsehoods and conspiracies in order to tap into the anger and frustration their people feel just so that they can hold onto power and prestige.
Americans had lost faith and trust in the news media. Newsrooms that once could be depended on to report truth and facts had descended into a world of spin, deception, and sensationalism to drive ratings and profit. A lack of empathy and an increasingly tone deaf attitude of condescension and elitism from these same newsrooms had pushed Americans into the arms of fringe groups and charlatans who pose as actual news outlets as they fuel viewers’ frustrations, loss of agency and feelings of disenfranchisement.
They had lost faith and trust in law enforcement. In some communities, parents were afraid to let their children walk to the store to pick up groceries for fear that their child would be shot because of a misunderstanding exacerbated by the color of their skin. They no longer believed that the authorities would protect them — nor that they would get equal justice under the law.
Citizens across the country of every color, race and creed…in cities, small towns, farms, and suburbs — all felt like they had lost their voice. They were desperately crying out for change but felt as if they were screaming into the wind.
That was only a couple years ago. A lot has happened since then. As you are seeing in the news, things have gotten worse, and we are now standing on the brink of instability and violence. America is at a dangerous crossroads, and it is our leaders who have brought us here.
As I watched events play out last week, I saw authorities beginning to charge and prosecute various individuals who helped coordinate and carry out the assault on Capitol Hill. Are they really the ones to blame? Of course, we all must be held accountable for the things we say and do, but are these Americans the real culprits here?
For months now, these Americans have been living in a world where the celebrity leaders they watch and listen to in the media, their elected Representative and Senators in Congress, and the President of the United States himself have all been lying to them consistently day, after day, after day. They have been told repeatedly by these leaders that the 2020 Presidential election was rigged, that it was a complete fraud, that their vote has been stolen from them and that Donald Trump actually won the election in a landslide victory. They have been told that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are leading a socialist revolution that will turn America into a communist state — stripping them of their freedom, of their faith, of their family, and of their way of life.
These are all proven lies, and the leaders in government, business and the media who are spreading these lies know that the stories they are telling the American people are false. But they don’t care. Anger is good for ratings. Anger is good for political fundraising. Anger is good for turning out the vote. They don’t care about the truth. They don’t care about the American people or democracy or doing the right thing. They are doing it for one reason and one reason only…they crave power.
But now imagine if you were one of those Americans. Imagine that’s all you heard every day from leaders you trusted. Imagine if they were telling you that evil communists were stealing the country you love away from you forever and that your children were going to suffer? Imagine how those parents must feel? If I was one of those parents, I would be furious, and I would be afraid for you. I would feel desperate, and I would begin wondering whether or not I should take things into my own hands in order to protect you and mom. Now multiply that feeling and desperation by millions, and we end up with a large group of American citizens who are desperate for change and feel trapped.
So, whose fault is this?
The current crisis that America faces is the fault of power-hungry leaders who have lied again and again for their own gain…leaders who are unwilling to do the right thing…leaders who are afraid to admit that they were wrong. And now, those leaders must be held accountable for their actions so that we can start to pull our nation back from this dangerous precipice we are approaching.
There are those who would say that some of these leaders didn’t know that the information they were passing to their people was full of lies and conspiracy theories, or they would say that these leaders received enormous pressure to just go with the flow of deception and lies.
That is not an acceptable excuse. There is no acceptable excuse. Leaders have a really tough job. That’s too bad, it comes with the territory.
A leader’s job is to seek truth and act on it / not follow trending ideas on Parler, Facebook and Twitter.
A leader’s job is to step out from the herd and do the right thing / not follow others like a mindless lemming too weak to think for themselves.
A leader’s job is to say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong. I’ll do better.” / not double down on the terrible mistakes they made and pass the blame to others.
There is no excuse for the leaders who led us into this crisis, and in order for us to heal as a nation, these leaders must be held accountable for their lies and deception. Yes, forgiveness is important, but leadership is about owning responsibility for your mission and your people. As a leader, you must own your mistakes. And if leaders refuse to own their mistakes, then we the people must hold them accountable. If individuals are going to be held accountable for events like the Capitol assault of January 6th, then we must start at the top with our leaders.
But beyond holding our leaders accountable for their actions, we the American people must find our agency again in order to heal our nation. We need to find our voice. American democracy is a system of government of the people, by the people and for the people. We must use our voice and power to change the American political system so that our government can actually function for the people. We must use our voice and power to elect leaders who will put the country ahead of their own interests…leaders who will protect and preserve the freedom of lasting meaningful choices for the American people.
All Americans..regardless of age, gender, hometown, color of skin, political party, or religion…all Americans must fight right now for our democracy if we want to save it. This is our country, and it’s ours to take back. We must come together to heal, and healing cannot happen if we insist on judging others based on their worst moments while we judge ourselves based on our best intentions. We must learn to forgive each other. This healing won’t happen on its own. No one is coming to save us. It’s ours to do, ours to act, ours to choose. We all must do our part. There are simple actions that we all can take each day.
Tell the truth.
Choose to love.
Serve one another.
Learn to apologize.
Listen more, talk less.
Give people the benefit of the doubt.
Choose to see the best in other people.
Trinity, we have the power to save it. We have the power to turn our country around. As we find our voice again and the freedom of meaningful choices is restored, we can heal the divide and become the nation we were founded to be. Only then will we finally deliver on the promise of America to all who wear the American identity and to the rest of the world.
And only then will I feel at peace about the nation I will leave to you…a nation where your dreams, too, can one day become your reality.