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6527212 April 06, 2009

Seven Purple Hearts: An Aberration Story

I learned to depend on others, but I also learned independence--and the importance of both.

To hell with redundancy, I'll say it again.

Aberration Nation is not about world peace, going green, or gay pride. It's not about healing all the ills that exist in our growing culture of materialism and instant gratification. It's about individual self-reflection and optimism. It's making lemonade out of lemons and smiling through our tears, knowing tears are part of package, and that tomorrow is a new day filled with opportunity and greater wisdom.

We've already established that sometimes life sucks. It's unfair. This week alone we're faced with more economic stress, a savage earthquake in Italy, and reports of multiple senseless murders. And in our personal lives, we can't get what we want. We fail. We crawl. We cry. So what are we going to do about it? First, let's all define our own personal tragedy. In other words, let's ask ourselves what the heck is going on in our own lives to illicit such misery? Take a good hard look. Is it really worth all the tears and bellyache? As a brilliant college friend of mine used to say, "Maybe...maybe not."

Sometimes when hit with one of life's crappy blows, I allow myself to wallow in full scale self pity for one day. In many ways, it feels so good to feel so bad. I get to think about all the sucky things life has thrown my way, and all the people who done me wrong. I get to selfishly focus on all my flaws, and consider where they came from. I detox my problem sinuses with tears, and think about how much I hate my allergies, osteoarthritis, and headaches. The sad truth is that some people function like this day after day after day. I did for awhile--years ago--so I know how self defeating it can be. It's a painful journey on the road to nowhere, and when you're on it, it seems like nobody truly wants to come along, pull you off, or point you in the right direction. The only place it got me was a two-day stay in the Intensive Care Unit.

The road to nowhere never ends for some folks. If anyone had a right to take that sad sack road, it was David Christian. I heard Dave interviewed on the Michael Smerconish Radio Show one frigid morning on my drive to the Philly airport. As he spoke, I was completely humbled. I strongly considered that my self-pity didn't even deserve one measly periodic pity-party day to enjoy itself. I contacted Dave that very night to ask if he would like to join the Aberration Nation.

Welcome aboard Dave!

So who is this guy who so effortlessly pulled the self-pity party option right out from under my feet? Dave Christian was the most decorated and youngest American officer in the Vietnam War. He enlisted in the United States Army at age 17. Rapidly promoted through the enlisted ranks to Sergeant, he was admitted to Officer Candidate School and commissioned at 18. Following Officer Candidate school he completed Jump School and Green Beret training. He was promoted to Captain at age 20. Dave's service in Vietnam ended January 13, 1969 when he was severely burned by napalm. He was medically retired from the Army at age 21. For his actions during the Vietnam war Dave was awarded: The Distinguished Service Cross, Two Silver Stars, Bronze Star, Seven Purple Hearts, and Two Vietnamese Crosses of Gallantry among other medals.

Dave says that participating in any war changes a person for the duration of their life. However, as with any life sucking situation, a choice is made. No one ever said it was an easy choice. As a young man, David Christian courageously chose a road going somewhere, and embraced his painful experiences to forge a life filled with positives. He refused to let those seven purple hearts implode his own. He found a way to incorporate them--and all they stood for--into himself, and his heart is seven times larger for it today. On my morning commute to the Philly airport, I just had to believe that if he could do it, so could I. Dave's words here are brief, but when you know the story behind them, they pack a heroic punch.

You were awarded seven Purple Hearts for your service during the Vietnam War. First, can you briefly define what the Purple Heart signifies, and how you ended up with seven?

The Purple Heart is a unique award created by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War in Newburg, New York. It started as a Purple Ribbon of Merit. During WW I, it was reestablished by the US Congress and Department of Defense to be given for Combat Injuries. In reality the Purple Heart is one of the most unique Awards in the United States. An individual is eligible by an enemy inflicting bodily harm on an American Military Warrior. To earn one or multiple Purple Hearts you must be injured by different enemy weapons or enemy deeds at different times.

When you returned from the war, you were quite young. How long was your recovery and how did you cope?

My physical recovery is a lifetime. You are a Veteran 24/7 and you carry your wounds for life.

Were there specific individuals who made a positive difference in your recovery and attitude, or did your own resolve get you through? Some people have a tremendous amount of help but they still can't seem to pull themselves up when life has knocked them down. Do you believe circumstance plays a role in how we cope in such situations, or does it ultimately hinge on our inner spirit and determination?

My wife and daughter were important. The men in my outfit from Vietnam, "Christian's Butchers" were also a positive factor. In serious disabling injuries like burns, I think people, places, and things all have an impact on one's inner spirit and determination.

Did your experiences in Vietnam play a role in creating the path you took once recovered? If so, can you explain?

Experience in any war will have an impact on one's life for their entire life. Hopefully, they will gain the wisdom to understand that war is always the last resort in resolutions of issues and conflicts.

Now that so many years have passed and your life story has played out a bit more, do you feel that those painful moments in Vietnam ultimately held positives in terms of the man you became and the life you have now?

Absolutely. I learned to depend on others, but I also learned independence--and the importance of both.

Most of us can't imagine being in war, particularly those of us who are part of more recent generations. We watch war movies and the History Channel. We read about the events in the Middle East, but for most of us, it's not as close to home as in years past. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we often take our freedom for granted. As someone who has fought for freedom and stood next to those who would try to take it, what can say to us about America and the many things we enjoy?

Even if a particular day, week or year doesn't go so well, we're still free. From your perspective, how valuable is that? First we must understand that war is not romantic. It's traumatic. America has never given out a Romantic Stress Award for war. However, America does recognize traumatic and emotional injuries. To coin an old phrase war is hell. I believe in the flag, the Constitution, and the men and women in uniform. True warriors want to prevent world 'bullies/terrorist." They are protecting America, their neighborhoods, their families, their churches and their friends. In war an individual realizes that our freedoms had to be inspired by a higher power, and many soldiers recognize that there must be a God behind the men that crafted and fought for America's freedoms.

As someone who has fought for personal freedom--which is about individual choice--what would you say to those who feel victimized in life. In other words, folks we hear constantly saying, "He did this to me, and she did that," and "I can't get a job because they ... blah, blah, blah."

The world is made up of many different people. You will always have the victims. The victims may be removed from the experiences by geography or time but you will always have victims (both real and wannabes).

If you could say one thing to Americans, and have them truly listen, what would that be?

Love and respect yourself, and therefore you can understand respect and love of country.

And I'll just add--it's tough to truly love and respect yourself when you're drunk on tears at the pity party.

To read about David's accomplishments and current activities, go here.

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6527212 January 30, 2009

Child of War: An Aberration Story

"We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options."

So times are sucky. People are losing jobs, stores are closing left and right, and the good ole' American staple, peanut butter, is being recalled everywhere. Or maybe you have a job but simply can't stand it half the time. Is your boss a jerk? Maybe your family is driving you batty. They just don't appreciate you, do they? Perhaps you're miserable because you can't seem to shed the twenty pounds you've been carrying around for years. And furthermore, when the hell is someone, anyone, really going to love you for who you are? Maybe you're lonely. While all of these predicaments are important, before you get too downtrodden and break out the ice cream, a board to beat your head upon, or full scale ammunition, consider this--things could be worse.

Evelyne Tannehill was born in January of 1936 in the German province of East Prussia. Unfortunately, this was not a lucky place to be born in the mid-1930s or early 40s. By the time she was nine years old, families were forced apart, people were killed, and hunger was rampant. Freedom lost its meaning, and suffering became the norm. There were no pounds to lose, or peanut butter to lick off a spoon. Love was ripped away, and jobs were like diamonds. Life--and all its beautiful predicaments--was extinguished as if it had absolutely no meaning. This was Evelyne's childhood and adolescence, which she has eloquently recounted in her book, Abandoned and Forgotten: An Orphan Girl’s Tale of Survival during World War II.

Each life is filled with unique aberrations that hold equally profound significance to its owner. Let's face it, life can suck! But could it be that human suffering exists on a bell-shaped curve? If so, I would put the suffering of children at the most extreme negative end of that arc. Childhood tragedy has a knack for tangling its way completely around who we are and who we become. It takes profound determination and courage to overcome such misfortune. Evelyne has done just that, and I'm so honored to include her in the Aberration Nation.

So do me a huge favor. Next time you're down in the dumps, take Evelyne's advice and, "Get over it." Hold your head up and away from that banging board of frustration. Put down the ice cream scooper and do something about it. You always have options. If you don't think you do, perhaps you're just not looking hard enough.

So many of us choose to focus on the negatives in our lives although there are positives all around us. As a child, you were stripped of the freedom, love, and security many of us take for granted. Can you give us an idea of what your childhood was like, and why it was unique?

My childhood ended when within a period of six months I lost all that constituted my secure world. I lost my father, mother, sister, two bothers, two dear aunts, my physical home, my cat, my dog, and my precious doll which I had just received for my 9th birthday. This occurred the beginning of 1945 when Germany was losing WWII and the Russian Red Army was fighting its way toward victory in Berlin.

Even growing up as a young girl during war time in Germany (while my family was still intact), my childhood certainly wasn't normal as compared to growing up in the US, for example. But it appeared normal to me. Watching the fathers, older brothers, and uncles of all my friends being put into uniform and sent off to the various fronts seemed normal. Even their not returning, or returning with an arm, a leg, or an eye missing, seemed normal at the time. What bothered me most was that my father, the foreigner, (as our neighbors referred to him) was an aberration. (He was a naturalized American citizen.) Upon reflection, I realize that as children we very much wanted to belong, even in the negative sense.

Very young children can’t discern what is good or bad in the world around them, certainly not within the larger picture. For instance, our parents sent out mixed signals. They taught us not to lie or cheat, yet during a time of severe rationing and shortages my mother made me go into a store for a light bulb a second time and made me say that I had not been there before--when in fact I had. I was so frightened that I thought both mother and I would end up being punished in some way. It was an extremely confusing world for a child. So I was already confused when everything suddenly collapsed around me and I found myself without the loving protection parents and a family provide.

No child should have to endure the terrors of war. How did you cope day to day? What kept you going?

Once everything that I held dear and made up my small world had been ripped away from me I escaped into a world of fantasy and fairy tales. I made up all types of pleasant scenarios in my head, scenes of rescue and liberation from my state of enslavement in a very abusive environment. For instance, I imagined the sudden reappearance of my father in the form of a brave knight in shining armor on a white horse who would appear one day, sweep me up and kiss all my fear and hurt away, or, the reappearance of my dead mother who would take me with her into her grave and hold me in her loving arms to keep me safe--sometimes it would simply be a kind stranger. My grandmother had introduced me to the world of fairy tales at a very young age. When things got too difficult to bear, I buried myself in a world of make believe to the point where life became a blur of reality and nightmare and I had trouble distinguishing between the two.

Physical pain and misfortune are terrible to bear, but pain and torture of the soul can be even longer lasting, especially when inflicted during childhood. How did having those experiences, and overcoming them, impact your adult life? Although I know it must have been difficult, were you able to find positives in your story of survival?

I had very low self esteem, was extremely shy, and trusted no one. If some one singled me out in a group of people and talked to me, I blushed and actually stuttered my answer. I eventually realized that I had to take charge of my life. The first thing I learned to do was not to take anything personal. I had lived in an angry environment where everyone was hurting, had an axe to grind, and was angry about the injustice that had been done to them. (I'm referring to our experience with the Russians and the Poles in my book.) My harsh experiences taught me a lot about human nature. I learned not to judge people but instead to wonder what has happened in their lives that made them into what they have become.

Many of us struggle as adults to forgive and forget any ills imposed upon us as children. As your life progressed into adulthood, how were you able to find a place in your heart and soul for the pain of your childhood?

I did not have much of a support system in my later teens and early twenties. I barely finished high school and had to go out into the world to work and support myself. I had no time for self pity. On the contrary, I considered myself very lucky to have survived my troubled past and I focused on self improvement, especially learning the English language so I would never find myself in dire straights and in need of help from anyone.

What are your thoughts on folks today who see themselves as victims during everyday American life simple because things aren't going their way?

Get over it. Take charge of your life and get on with it. Wallowing in the negative and the cruel fate you may feel you have been dealt is very destructive and it does not matter against whom you make your charges or accusations, even is God seems far away during those dark times, only you can find your way back. Learn from your mistakes. Make friends, and above all, learn to be a friend.

Sometimes when struck with tragedy, we realize that we can choose to either sink or swim. Sinking gets us nowhere but swimming can take us somewhere else--and so we make that choice. Do you believe that the push tragedy gives us to swim in a particular direction can ultimately lead us to a better place?

Without a doubt. Over a life time tragedy occurs in almost everyone’s life in one form or another. The quicker you find or recognize the lesson to be learned from it the sooner you will find happiness, or at least peace. We must not lose sight of the fact that we have options. So often when one door closes another one opens. The philosopher Kant put it very wisely by saying, “Adversity makes you strong.” People with a strong belief system fare better than those who do not have one. But either way, ultimately only you can pull yourself up and stay up. Family and friends can help, but you have to do the work.

As you've made your way through life here in America, how have you been able to incorporate the experiences of your childhood into our materialistic culture of instant gratification? Has it been challenging to connect with others who perhaps don't have the depth of experience that you brought with you?

When I first came to the US, I felt very disconnected from my peers because I had no shared cultural experiences. I came from opposite ends of the growing up experience. In Germany my living space was very small. School was extremely strict. We did not play the same games--even sports. We did not have the same toys (better said--no toys) and we were held responsible for our actions. The one thing that bothers and surprises me even today in this country, is the fact that no one takes responsibility for foolish actions or anything negative that happens to them. It is always somebody else’s fault.

What has your life taught you about the human spirit?

With the right positive attitude you can overcome anything.

If you could say one thing to folks who may be feeling as if there is no hope for a better tomorrow, what would that be?

Look around you--there is beauty everywhere. Learn to distinguish the difference between your desires/wants and your actual needs and then focus on what your real needs are.

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