Monday, September 19, 2005

9 Months Later / Hurricane Katrina

A little over a month ago, I was on a plane heading back to California. I had just finished up spending a week and a half in Virginia supporting the Boy Scouts, at a two-week jamboree sponsored by the military. I was sent there to provide news and entertainment to military personnel and the boy scouts. On the plane, I was shuffling through my digital photos for a producer at CBS news who wanted to do a story on "Kicks4Kidz" and me. A young man sitting beside me noticed my pictures from Iraq and asked me about it. He asked the usual questions: "What's it like?" "Where you scared?" Then he said, "Is the war still going on?"

The soldier in me wanted to stand up and say, "of course the war is still going on you jerk off, and there are roughly two thousand men and women about your age who will never be in a plane or in the mall or at a football game...."

You get my point. And for the record, I managed to maintain my composure and simply say, "Yes."

The thing is, for most people, ignorance is bliss. Perhaps they are immune to the war coverage and after nearly four years of constantly hearing about it, they simply don't care anymore. Or perhaps those who produce the news are tired of it too, and the young men and women who are fighting and dying on their behalf don't bring in the audience that perhaps a pretty blonde who disappeared in Aruba does. Nevertheless, the young man didn't realize the war on terror is still a scary and unbelievably sad story for millions of Americans.

I've been home from Iraq for nearly nine months and admittedly, I am not as passionate as I once was. It is not for lack of caring because I care an unbelievable amount. But for me, and perhaps many other veterans, it was necessary to let go of it for a while, to disengage and process how I really feel about what I experienced now that I am on familiar soil.
One of the hardest parts is figuring out how to contribute or be effective from here. I've done it through care packages and emails to friends still serving in Iraq. And of course, I've been helping through "Kicks4Kidz." But there is always something telling me there is more I can do because, like the young man in the plane, people are forgetting there is a war going on - and it's not going away any time soon. Oddly enough, I have become very aware of others who watch the news. For instance, when the War on Terror is mentioned and we hear about how a car bomb annihilated fourteen American Marines and countless Iraqis, many don't even flinch. But when news of Brad and Angelina's secret rendezvous in Kenya hits the airwaves, they jump from their seats. Again, it’s just another example of how we have slowly distanced ourselves from what is happening to young men and women trying to survive in the middle of a war.

I am not talking about everyone. I am talking about the people who may not have a friend, brother, sister, uncle, father, or mother serving in Iraq or Afghanistan; the ones who can’t personalize what is happening. I do not agree with everything we have done in response to those who waged war against America on September 11th, and I believe we invaded Iraq without first realizing what we were getting ourselves into. But I didn’t always think that way. My opinion has evolved through my personal experiences, from the people I have spoken with, and from a front row ticket to the story. In spite of that, however, I can’t think of anything more frustrating than hearing people say we need to leave Iraq right now. Most of the people spitting that nonsense have no idea what is really going on over there. If they did, they would know we could never cut and run. We started what is happening in Iraq, and if we leave now close to 2,000 brave American heroes will have died in vain, and I can almost assure you America would not be safer.

In spite of the chaos in Iraq, it’s no secret I’ve always been an advocate for the progress we are making. I always wished the media would pay more attention to that part of the story, but it wasn’t until I came home that I realized just how incredibly unbalanced the reporting is. If I wasn’t in Iraq to see the progress first hand, I would have no idea what is going on. And no matter how hard I push for change, my pleas fall on deaf ears. No matter, I’ll get the word out. Because if I don’t – if we don’t – who will?

If I am going to be completely honest and dissect my actions, I’ve got to fess up and tell you I’m a little disappointed in myself. In my final letter from Baghdad last year, I vowed that you would know more about the men and women who lost their lives in the war. In yet another of my diatribes about the media’s lack of interest in telling their stories, I said “you will know their names. You will know their story. You will learn their sacrifice.” I’ve dropped the ball. I’ve done a lot of talking about it but I haven’t done much to make it happen. When I left Iraq, I was really worried about what I would do to feel as productive as I felt out there. And while I have done a lot to highlight the military and what we do, I still feel I have dropped the ball because I don’t know any more about those who have died than you do. My guilt runs deep on that one.

Hurricane Katrina.

What can be said about this tragedy that hasn’t already been said or seen on TV? I can not fathom what life is like for those along the Gulf Coast. Now, more than ever, I wish I was called to serve. Like many, I didn’t realize the hurricane was going to turn in to the catastrophe it is. Yeah I have my opinions about what could have been done differently, but I don’t feel it’s appropriate right now to waste valuable time playing the blame game. I haven’t seen an outpouring of love, of this magnitude, in four years. And while the circumstances are the worst I’ve probably ever seen, perhaps it’s a national catastrophe like this that tests our strength in humanity and showcases the qualities of true Americans. Over the last week, I’ve seen acts of heroism and sacrifice on my television screen in the same light I saw firefighters racing up the World Trade to chase a fire that ultimately chased them. As a result of September 11th, I was called to serve. And if I was called to serve in Louisiana, Mississippi, or Alabama, I would be there in a flash. But since I’m here and feeling helpless, I’m doing what I do best. I’m gettin’ shoes and shippin’ them out! That’s right. “Kicks4Kidz” is now refocusing its direction to those Americans who gave so graciously to the Iraqis. I am proud to report that “Kicks4Kidz” is now an established non-profit organization working to help those who need it most. And right now, no one needs it more than the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Over the last week, K4K has collected a few thousand pair of shoes and they are being sent directly to the American Red Cross in Houston, Texas. Iraq is where “Kicks4Kidz” began, but that’s not where it ends. It’s always been about helping those who can’t help themselves and soon enough you will not see anyone walking around on bare feet in all that mess.

We are being inundated with continuous news from the Hurricane just as we were after September 11th. Eventually that will die down and we’ll move on to the next big story…the next Scott Peterson or the next Natalee Holloway. But we all must remember that after the reporters leave New Orleans and the levee is fixed, the heartache of the victims will remain. During this terrible time, and as we mark the fourth anniversary of September 11th, take a moment to ask yourself what you have done to help alleviate the pain afflicted upon so many over the last few years. If you’ve done a lot, do more. If you haven’t, get to stepping. America needs you.

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