And He Stood Up

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This post is a reprint from a few years ago. They young men mentioned are now other phases of their respective careers. Their names are used with permission.

Asked by my old high school, I had the privilege of speaking to young people on the eve of Veterans Day. My remarks appear below.

Thank You for inviting me today—It’s good to be back at Eagle High.

On October 23rd, a few weeks ago, U.S. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler of Oklahoma was fatally wounded in a rescue mission freeing Isis-held hostages in Iraq. He died after rushing into a firefight to support the allied Kurdish soldiers he had trained and advised. Secretary of Defense, Asthon Carter, later described the chaotic events that cost this soldier’s his life.

“As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for U.S. … forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight. However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I’m very proud that Americans do in that situation . . . he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up. All the indications are that it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission a success.”

The death of Master Sergeant Wheeler spared the lives of 70 Isis prisoners scheduled for mass execution the following morning.

Wheeler ran to the sound of the guns. Now I can’t speak for our service men and women, and when I was asked to give this talk, I had to confer with those who have made that solemn commitment. My questions were misleadingly simple . . . why did you choose a military career? What persuaded you to risk yourself for potentially dangerous service?
I wanted to try and understand that burning force of purpose, of unquestioned focus to duty, detach from self preservation for the welfare of others. I wondered how personal fear could be swallowed when, as Secretary Carter explained, “Wheeler involved himself in the firefight.” Where does this nobility of character draw from? Where do these individuals come from—the few that can’t sit on the sideline when duty calls them from their homes?

The answer, strikingly enough, is right here, in this auditorium. Home. Here. No, not someone else from somewhere else. Here. And people, that is where America has always found It’s defenders, from every town and city.

A number of Eagle students have, from many graduating classes, chosen the disciplined military life. Once wiggly kids who, warming the same seats you now occupy, resisting, as you most surely are, the urge to check your cell phones, daydream about the newest version of Halo, or wonder if Bogus Basin ski hill will open before Thanksgiving. They were kids just like you.
Now I don’t pretend to know the name of every Eagle Mustang who has volunteered for service, but I’d like to mention a few.

After earning a college degree as a civilian, 2004 EHS graduate Captain Greg Benjamin was commissioned an Infantry Officer, sending him north to Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska. From this first posting, Greg has served, so far, two Central Asian tours, first in southern, then in eastern Afghanistan. He wants you to know that he loves the training opportunities he’s experienced so far–Ranger School, Airborne, and Air Assault Schools, and leadership training. When I asked Greg, now married with small children why he chose to place himself in harm’s way, he replied, “I want to take the fight to our country’s enemies, leading America’s finest young men and women in combat and training. And change the lives of people in some of the worst places on the planet.”

Captain Joe Peterson, EHS class of 2005, made his decision after high school too. “I had a number of teammates from Eagle’s Lacrosse team one year ahead of me go to a service academy . . . and this kicked-off my thought process in a serious manner. I’d always held the belief of service, but this made the choice tangible for me . . . I received an invitation to visit the University of San Francisco and their ROTC department. I decided to accept.” Joey was posted in installations ranging from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to Ft. Lewis, Washington, across the Pacific to South Korea, and Central Asia as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan overseeing all aircraft and artillery surrounding that area. Reflecting for this talk Joe added, “It was trying at times, but . . . I am proud of my service and it added a value and perspective to my life . . . it has opened doors that are unbelievable.”

Second year West Point Cadet, Colt Sterk described his heartfelt desire to be part of something he termed, “Larger than myself.” Cadet Sterk, EHS class of 2013 explained, “When I was 14 I was given the honor of presenting a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, (in Arlington Cemetery). The nameless soldier in that tomb willingly lay down his life for me, a stranger. I felt a debt of gratitude. Since then I’ve always felt I was called to serve. A senior cadet told me when I was a freshman, ‘Colt in everything you do leave a footprint.’ By that he meant make an impact even if it’s only a little bit. Is it hard? Absolutely. But I know it’s where I’m meant to be.” Colton wants you to know that he visited Israel last summer for ten days studying the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and the implications in that region for the United States, and for the US Army. This semester Colt is attending the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on cadet exchange—jumping out of airplanes, and on gliding tactics. He just earned his jump wings after completing the requisite five jumps.

Colby Hyde, EHS Class, 2010 shared a different response. He said, “We are fortunate in this country that military service is not an obligation. We are unfortunate, however, in that we do not often appreciate the sacrifice of those who volunteer on our behalf. Eventually I realized that I didn’t want to be comfortable. Comfort leads to boredom and ignorance, I thought, and life is too short to accept either of those. When someone suggested applying to West Point, I could not resist. I applied, was accepted, and have never left. My life now is not comfortable by any means, and I know the hardships are yet to come. That said, I am more satisfied with my life than I ever was before. I have taken part in New York City memorials for fallen 9/11 responders, and traveled with active duty units to the deserts of Death Valley to help them prepare for combat in Afghanistan. I have traveled across Southern China, can speak, read, and write Mandarin Chinese.

I am thankful for everyone who has served me along the way, from my parents to my teachers, and I only hope I can return the favor in the years to come.” At the end of his letter, Colby added, “I have not done anything for our country yet, but I promise I will. Cadet Colby Hyde graduates from the Military Academy at West Point in 2016.

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. Now I am not here to tell anyone to enlist in military service. Truly, the life of a soldier, marine, or sailor isn’t suited for everybody. At this point in your life you should be dreaming about double diamond ski runs, video games, and Harry Potter marathons with your best friends. And also, to be frank with you, that depth of courage and commitment to duty blooms in the hearts of only an extraordinary few.

What I do want you to reflect upon when you exit this auditorium is that Captain Greg Benjamin, Captain Joey Peterson, Second year Cadet, Colton Sterk, and third year Cadet, Colby Hyde, and many, many other Eagle High School alum have solemnly sworn to protect you. And consider as well, that this oath assures these few will run toward the sound of danger–for us—just as Master Sergeant Josh Wheeler of Oklahoma.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight, a memoir in two volumes.

Beware Of Darkness

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Vote, but don’t vote in fear. If concern guides your trip to the polls, clarify those fears.

While one party points to desperate and dispossessed people as threatening our country, recognize this distraction is providing cover for deeper, more substantive threats.

At this writing thirty-five people have been indicted for conspiring to hack the 2016 Presidential election. This is not theory, it is fact. Of those thirty-five, four convicted conspirators have  “flipped” and are cooperating with Federal Prosecutors to shorten their sentences in this scandal. George Papadopolous, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and others are awaiting their fate while they each divulge all they know about Russian meddling and their aid in that subversion.

Russia, under the direction of former KGB operative Vladimir Putin, powerful ‘oligarchs’ have organized electronic sabotage to interfere and undermine the integrity of the United States of America. Never forget that. It’s treason: providing aid and comfort to our enemies.

To silence his own critics, Putin has dispatched hit squads of assassins, at home in Russia, and abroad, using military grade nerves agents, thallium, and firearms to silence opponents. Though Putin has denied authorizing any such thing, as he did in Russian election meddling, our president says he believes him. That is a serious concern.

Friendship has extended from this White House to other totalitarian regimes similar to Putin’s. Kim Jong Un, the North Korean butcher of his own family members, and starving people, Rodrigo Deterte of the Philippines, and Erdogan of Turkey who is demanding the US release a Turkish journalist critical of the autocrat. As I write, the president still wants to do business with the Saudi Prince, MBS, despite the grisly murder of a Washington Post journalist by his order. That is a concern.

Fear is a powerful and toxic motivation to rush the polls on Election Day. However, we must all show caution in what we fear. Do we look where this administration points, or do we ignore the calculated chaos and figure out the real threat to our nation?

“Beware of Darkness” from George Harrison’s song of the same name.

Everybody’s Dad

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September, 1974.

When my dad said we were getting up at 5am, he wasn’t kidding. His morning schedule demanded we jump out of bed and climb into the truck, the back flanked with high wood racks. Two or three chainsaws were stored in the truck bed, along with cans of gasoline, rusty chains, a yard stick, chalk, and a cooler. This equipment was secured under a green canvas tarp that effused a pine scent from previous visits to the woods. 

Dad took the wheel in his 1968 white Chevy pickup, my friend, Mary sat in the passenger seat. I was wedged in the middle, straddling the stick shift, trying to sip coffee as we made our way out of town. The morning was chilly and new, the traffic quite light. Getting up that early on a Saturday rendered us among the few who had places to go. 

Eventually clearing out the cobwebs of sleep from my brain, the morning grew electric. We were motoring to the woods north of Spokane, to some secret locale my father had discovered the previous spring. He had a constant eye for suitable timber, especially if the trees were already down and dry, insuring a superior burn. After an hour or so, Dad turns off on a mountain road, bumping along deep into the timber. The terrain is steep, and he assures us we’re close to his remembered spot. The coffee is long gone, and we need to stop soon and wander into the trees for relief.

The truck rumbles to a halt on a lone logging trace. We’re out of the cab stretching our legs breathing in the morning warmth. My dad has already dropped the tailgate and is tending to the gas and oil in his Stihl chainsaw. We help haul out the rest of the equipment, and donning leather gloves follow him to the downed trees, lying right where he scouted them, above the road. I go first, chalking the cut-length with the yard stick, measuring out the entire tree. His chainsaw roars to life and my dad follows me, slicing tree rounds to fit the wood stove. Mary is rolling the sections to the flat, and righting each round for further splitting with an axe.

The day has grown quite hot. We toss our flannel shirts into the cab, drink some water from a canteen, and go back to it.

By 11:00am the trees are no more. Where they had rested for a season, only skiffs of sawdust remain, the wood secured onto the truck. It’s now that Dad opens the cooler and we dine on bologna sandwiches and warm Shasta cola. Somehow the white bread tastes surprisingly good, though only lunchmeat and butter. We had worked up powerful appetites. 

My father is relaxed now that the job is complete, and the truck loaded with over a cord of firewood. We roost on the tailgate, chitchat and laugh, sweaty and smelling of pinesap. 

That he loves the woods is clear by his smile and satisfaction. And there we socialized, two teenaged girls and our genial guide resting our backs against neatly stacked rows of wood.

July, 2018

My father is in the hospital. The ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, chronic blood clots and advanced age has faded his once vibrant presence. We don’t know how much time he has left, as he grows weaker by the hour. And perhaps this isn’t the best way to inform friends and acquaintances of his failing condition. Still, we can choose to remember him, as I have, during his halcyon days when he was everybody’s dad.  

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Gail Chumbley

Sun Valley Idaho is especially beautiful in the fall. We had driven to the resort through steep, intimidating mountain passes, to finally descend among groves of whispering Aspen trees. We had traveled over for a book presentation on “River of January,” the first volume of my two-part memoir at the local Library. We had arrived with hours to spare.

With tons of time to kill we walked the boarded walkways of Blaine County’s most famous community. My eyes were peeled for a glance of the the rich and famous; perhaps Arnold, maybe Bruce, or Demi, or even Tom and Rita. They pop up once in a while to relax in the natural beauty, away from the rat race.

Wandering, we chanced across a dress shop, and I slipped inside the glass door, leaving my husband sitting on a bench outside. The clothes were beautiful; plaids in silky fabric, and fashionable…

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