Yesterday was Veterans Day and I was traveling to Long Beach, CA for the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Annual Conference where some of my friends and colleagues are veterans. I was reading their posts on Facebook about respecting our Veterans and I realized that respect extends as far as the other person’s perspective. In this last year, I have had my U.S. Veteran status challenged because I do not look like everyone else.
During a Memorial Day weekend family trip this year, my family and I went to a magic show at a children’s park in the Lake George Resort area. When the magician asked about veterans in his audience, I was the only one who raised a hand. He took one look at me and asked if I fought for our side or theirs. Who was he talking about? What choice does he give me but to assume he meant anyone but the Americans? Was he talking about my brown skin or my large frame? Since the magician was not a Lilliputian from Gulliver’s travels, he was casually remarking that my brown skin made me a foreigner.
Last month at my local Veterans Affairs medical facility, I entered a room for an orientation to behavioral health and the nurse leading the orientation stopped his presentation to ask me if I was a veteran. Let’s keep a couple facts in mind here. To receive care at any VA facility, you must be a veteran and they fully authenticate your eligibility. The room for the orientation was not a room I could have found accidentally. One of his colleagues led me to this room and said this is the room for you, veteran. At the end of that session, a veteran speaker came in to share his experience with mental health with us. At the end of his talk, he went around the room to ask everyone’s service. He skipped me. I guess I was invisible. He left the room for a minute and then came back. Somehow, he could see me this time to ask my branch of service.
The final straw came when I checked into my hotel room last night for the conference and asked about any related events for veterans. The front desk staff asked me if I was a family member or a friend of a veteran. I really wanted to scream because I had just handed him a credit card that had “Army” and the USAA logo embossed on it.
What the heck does it mean when the folks at the VA facility cannot even believe you are a veteran? How is a person supposed to react when she is constantly told she does not look like someone who could have been a United States service member? It’s frustrating. It’s maddening. I’m tired of it. It happened more in the last year than in the entire time that I’ve been a veteran. I want to scream it out: yes, brown girls can be veterans too. In fact, I did not get my U.S. citizenship until after I left the Army. For those of you who think immigrants cannot faithfully serve this nation, you are wrong. We do. Every day.
We brown girls can do many things. Those of you with the limited perspectives and the prejudices can either do something about your ignorance or you can get out of our way. Your ignorance will not stop us. It will not stop us from serving our country in any capacity, then or now.
I have officially moved to Delaware to start my life as a doctoral student. It may seem to some that I am starting a brand new life but I am really just continuing my journey in a different place. This is an important distinction. Although, I am a new doctoral student, I am still the same person I have been. Although, since my time in India, I am more aware of the similarities of people in spite of perceived differences. In some ways, I feel wiser and in some ways, I think I am more cantankerous and ornery. In any case, I recognize there is far more to religion and faith than just my faith and just my perspective. To be a person who fits into the global world, we must be more accepting of people in the realm of faith and religion.
For the purposes of this post, religion is the organized body of a particular belief structure and faith is an individual’s spiritual leanings and practice. Before I started my travels, I used to work as a disaster manager for an American faith-based social service delivery organization where I worked with people from many faiths across the United States. In the space between religion and faith is the realm where life exists for people who are affected by disasters. My work often centered in this space and I became efficient at navigating between religions and faiths. It turns out that every organization has a need for competent administrative functioning in order to help people. I focused on what I could do to help people and kept my opinions of the politics to myself. After all, disasters do not discriminate against people or religions and politics helps no one.
Lately, I have been very honest (cough, cough) about my personal feelings for the charlatans in the religious world. Recently, I was chastised on Facebook for seeming to have a vendetta against Christians because I shared a meme about requiring churches to pay taxes because of an affluent Texas televangelist. For the record, I am a progressive Catholic and this was not my first post challenging Christian religious practice, as it is known in certain areas. While a few just admonished me generally for having the temerity to constantly challenge religious notions, others gave me information to correct the error I had made in this meme. I did indeed make an error by sharing this meme. Fortunately for me, I had friends who took the time to do more than admonish me or question my faith or challenge my standing as a human being. They explained the tax law for the pastor versus the tax law for his church and reminded me of all of the small houses of worship out in the world that do so much for so many people with so little money.
How could I have forgotten that all of this is always about the people? Faith is always about people. People sharing of themselves even when they have nothing. Remember how I said I used to work in disasters? Well, my best memories of that work are about people who came from the local communities or around the country to give of themselves to help a stranger who may have lost their home because of a tornado or a flood. No one asked what faith or religion the affected persons belonged to or practiced. They just practiced their own faith and helped someone in need.