Monday, July 1, 2013

Veteran Profile #2: Rodney Borba

Last week, when I was in search of veterans to interview for this project, I stumbled across Rodney. Online I found a post written by him where he stated, "I don't regret going, I just regret coming back." It's a sentiment that I've heard before and I wanted to get Rodney's story on film so that I would be able to understand why anyone would want to surround themselves with violence instead of peace.
When I first contacted Rodney, I didn't know what to expect. It's easy to feel discarded , especially if you feel alienated. I know that I went through several years in my life where I purposely did not allow myself to hope for anything as a way to bar against disappointment. Also, sometimes in the size of a cause, the individual is lost, and ends up feeling discarded, unimportant, and forgotten. Regardless, when I told Rodney about this project, he immediately agreed to be interviewed and donated half of his Sunday to sharing his story with us. It gives me hope that while he feels that he has been marginalized by the system, he is still willing to help me out when I am only a stranger who asked him for his help.

Rodney recalled that he had a successful career with the military. He spent several years in Germany, and in 2003, he was deployed to Iraq. Two months before he was left overseas, he found out his wife was pregnant. Nine months later, while he was in Iraq, his first child was born. Talk about terrible timing. When Rodney first arrived in the Middle East, things were difficult for him. He admits that he was wrought with distress about being away from home and from his wife, and being in a new environment that was hot, uncomfortable, and dangerous.

One day, a piece of sage advice gave him the perspective and clarity he needed. An NCO (non-commissioned officer) told him one day that he had a choice. "Whats happens," the NCO said, "is going to happen. You can either choose to fight it and worry about it and cry about, or you can suck it up, and you can do a good job. But either way, it's going to happen."

Rodney attests that it was this one simple piece of advice that got him out of his funk and carried him through his deployment in Iraq. Sometimes it just takes the right person saying the right thing at the right time in order for you to alchemize fear into inspiration.So often I find myself needing to hear those exact words. Every day I find myself faced with situations where I have to choose bravery over the impulse to hide under a rock, away from the judgments of people and the obligations of a confusing world.

 Rodney paints a picture of the Iraq that he knew in 2003 as a desolate and grotesque place. He tells me about people living in the medians of freeways, storing their food next to garbage, and living in absolute squalor. He describes destitution and poverty that most people in the United States have never had to encounter. It is still scary to me when soldiers like Rodney describe acts of horrific violence with the calm of a Buddhist monk. You have to see a lot of horror to get to be that numb. It makes me feel grateful for everything I have, and silly for that gnawing sense of scarcity that is constantly trying to set up shop in my heart.

More and more, I realize that my position as a pacifist is an extremely privileged one. I just happened to be born in the right country, at the right time. I realize that my idealism about hope and non-violence exists only because I do not hear mortars and explosions in the middle of the night. I am able to live without fear because I have not known it to the extent that our military does.

Rodney decided to get out of the military when he found out that his 18 month old son was diagnosed with autism. He realized that having a stable home life was essential to his son's progress and happiness. Soon after returning home from Iraq, Rodney accepted a job working as a civilian for the Army in Washington DC. He attests that life was relatively stable during that time.

One day, Rodney heard about a job available in California with a large defense contracting company. The way Rodney tells it, they used their program of wanting to hire only veterans as a ploy to look good, and have high numbers of veteran employment, but soon laid a lot of people off.  Rodney was one of them. The tension in the room is palpable when Rodney begins telling this part of his saga, and the pain and betrayal he feels from this is evident even in his eyes.

It took a lot of humbling for Rodney to finally ask for help from the myriad of organizations that promise to help veterans. When the defense contractors offered him a job as part of an initiative to hire veterans, he finally decided it was time to accept help. He moved his entire family across the country, only to be laid off less than a year later. This experience has rocked him. Feeling like he is incapable of providing for his family, Rodney attests that finding employment would be the first step towards creating a healthy and prosperous future. He admits that this hurdle is the first, and also the most difficult. When he lost his last job, he also lost a lot of the confidence that he had in himself. He is afraid to hope for a better life, because to him that means the inevitability of disappointment.

After talking to so many veterans about their experiences overseas, and the aftermath that ensues when they get home, I've started to see a pattern. The military usually ends up enlisting people who are around eighteen or nineteen years old, and usually its those who don't go to college who end up joining. In many cases, these kids want to go into the military just so they are able to afford college later after they serve their country.

I think about when I was nineteen. I was going through a serious identity crisis. Actually, I  still am going through an identity crisis,  but that is something one learns to be comfortable with as a self-proclaimed "artist". But at eighteen or nineteen years old, if you aren't in school with a solid five-year plan, I can see how joining the military would be a very appealing alternative to working in retail or going to a trade school. Especially because the military basically manufactures, packages up, and labels an identity for you. Not only that, but you are part of a very intricate, stable, and secure support network of both peers and mentors.

Because you all have this in common-- being in the Navy, or the Army, or the Marines, its easy to maintain your identity within your peer group as a musician, or a goofball, or a star athlete, or the tough guy. (Think of it this way. If you are an apple, and you are hanging out with a bunch of other apples, your apple-ness disappears. Instead you identify your fellow apples by their spots, or colors, or bruises, or flavors.) You are inducted into part of a family--and the infrastructure of your life is completely dictated to you. You are told when to get up, when to excersize, when to eat, when to go to bed, what clothes to wear, and the correct way to address your superiors. There's a lot of comfort in that, but I'm guessing that's not the most powerful part of joining the military.

I know I'm only basing this on my very scant knowledge, and I know that I risk appearing presumptuous by saying this (Please forgive me, I'm still learning), but it seems to me that the most valuable part  of a soldiers' experience in the military is their distinct sense of purpose. When you are deployed overseas, you are working together with thousands of other people to accomplish something impossibly important and dangerous together. You know your value as an individual and as a part of a cohesive team.

When you leave the military however, you are back where you started, at square one. Except now, you have a resume full of accomplishments that most civilians probably can't even read, much less understand, plus whatever traumatizing experiences you are carrying with you and whatever injuries you might be sustaining. You have cultivated a work ethic, bravery, discipline, and fortitude, but in the chaos of the civilian world, you have lost your sense of purpose.

I can imagine going to a data entry job, or working in a restaurant, or filing papers seems ridiculous and meaningless after going to war.  Adding insult to injury, your identity as a part of the military is amplified once you step outside it, because you are removed from your peer group, and more than ever people see you as different than them. No longer are you the class clown, or the star quarterback, or the well-loved scrawny hero. Now you are pigeonholed as a veteran. It almost seems by reaching out to help veterans as a demographic instead of focusing on the individual, we are stigmatizing them even more. Does that make sense?

I don't know the solution to that problem.

It's been on my mind all the time.

Correct me if I'm being ridiculous, but it seems to me that veterans are very well suited for work in the non-profit sector. There, you work together with a team of people who are passionate about a cause, you are inducted into part of a family, and you are working towards a common goal. I know it sounds terribly Utopian and idealistic but maybe this is the solution for veterans like Rodney.

Rodney says that he would rather be back in the middle of a terrible war than at his house three blocks away from the beach in beautiful Southern California. I've heard other soldiers also fantasizing about going back to war, so that they can regain their sense of belonging and their sense of purpose.

But, there has to be a better alternative. The problem is figuring out what it is.

No comments:

Post a Comment