Thursday, June 20, 2013

Veteran Profile #1: Josh Ferguson, a jack of all trades

When I pull my weathered silver mini-van into the gravel parking lot at Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach, I realize with the force of hurricane the importance of what I'm about to do. I'm here to interview Josh Ferguson, a veteran of the United States Coast Guard, whom I've never met before and know almost nothing about. All I know is that I want to hear his story, so that I can share it with the world. On a long enough timeline, it is bound to reach the right person. 

  If you told me a year ago that in the very near future I would be dedicating all my time and energy trying to solve the problems that veterans face in the United States, I would have questioned your sanity. And then I would have avoided you. Back then, I prided myself on being an open person, accepting of all colors and creeds, but found myself feeling uncomfortable and closed off around people who were in the military.

As a peace activist an avid tree-hugger, I saw members of the military and veterans as people whose viewpoints were diametrically opposed to my own, and so I didn't try to relate to them. I figured we would have nothing to say to each other. But unfortunately, unconditional love and empathy are not exclusive. We  cannot pick and choose who we are good to, and we should not be the ones to decide who is worthy of our compassion. Once I realized the inherent problem with my thinking, and how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, changing was easy. I am still in the process of doing it now, and all it takes is admitting that I have a lot to learn. 

Today, as I prepare to meet Josh Ferguson, I feel nothing but pride and overwhelming gratitude at the opportunity I have to listen to the story of someone who has so much to teach me. Over the last year, I've learned volumes about veterans like Josh, and each time I hear about their experiences, I walk away feeling as if I have been given a huge gift. He is doing me a great honor by exposing his truth and making himself vulnerable.

I spot him in the corner of the parking lot, sitting in a huge white truck with his leg propping open  the driver's door. Immediately, I like Josh. He has a big warm smile and kind eyes that twinkle like something just a little mischievous is hidden in them. We make small talk as we wait for Robot, who will be documenting the whole interview on film. After a few moments of chatting with him, I catch myself thinking that he doesn't seem like a veteran, which is to say he seems like me, but I immediately recognize this as a perfect example of veterans' greatest problem. As Josh reiterates in the video, people need to recognize that veterans are no different than you or I. Their lives are full of meaningful experiences, vivid memories, and huge dreams. They are fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, husbands, wives, best friends and lovers. Suspending judgement is a courtesy that we should be extending to everyone, not only to veterans. But it's a good place to start. 

Robot arrives, we exchange introductions, and all pile into Josh's truck so he can drive us through security clearance at the front of the base. Robot and I were up working until the wee hours of the morning before, trying to prepare for the shoot so it would make sense, but somehow we're both beaming and wide awake.  As we ride back to the trailer park on base where Josh lives, we are energized by simple prospect of being able to learn about another person and in turn, to learn about ourselves. 

What struck me immediately about Josh is how humble he is, and with every reason not to be.  Josh was born into a military family and grew up in different locations all over the United States. He has traveled all over the world, and helped countless people. He has learned to fit into any environment, and he carries with him a calm sense of noble calm that leaves you feeling completely at ease.  Josh has spent his life learning the value of being self-reliant.  He can weld, build houses, restore cars, drive a ice-breaker through the waters of Antarctica, keep peace in Haiti, jump out of a helicopter in blinding darkness, and pretty much fix any problem you present to him with methodical proficiency. 

When he tells me that two weeks ago, he was living in his truck, I am absolutely dumbfounded.  Finding employment after leaving the military is apparently a lot more difficult than one would assume. Josh states that the only reason he obtained his current job is because Google was dedicated to hiring only veterans for the project that he is working on. Josh's job, which is to create maps for google navigation, is a cake-walk to him and he is great at it. However, his innumerous talents and skills are not being utilized in the way that they could be.

When I ask why Josh joined the military, he said it was because he wanted to help people. I think this is the same with a lot of people who join the military. The truth is, everyone wants to make a difference, and protecting the country that you love (and more importantly--the people) seems like a straightforward way to do that. Unfortunately, when a soldier's time in the military has expired, the desire to effectively serve humanity does not disappear, and they are left without a vehicle to do it. This is largely due to misconceptions and ignorance about what veterans have to offer their communities.

It's becoming more and more obvious to me as I hear these kinds of accounts from remarkable people like Josh that it isn't necessarily money that needs to be raised to help veterans (although that certainly helps with medical bills, house payments, and education), but awareness. Even though a veteran may not have five years of experience pushing papers or working in a cubicle for corporate America, he or she has spent years honing the skills of discipline, dedication, hard work, and resilience. With a little enthusiasm and education of employers, veterans will be able to find employment that uses their talents, while paying their employers' confidence back ten-fold. Everybody wins. 

Here is the great thing about raising awareness: Anyone can do it. Next time you hear that your employer is planning on hiring someone new, suggest that they interview specifically veterans. Tell them to watch the video of Josh's story. He is one of many. Talk to people. Share. Allow yourself to care. 

After all, regardless of how you feel about the military, every veteran has dedicated a huge portion of his or her life to protecting and helping you. 

I think it's time we repay favor.

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