Friday, July 20, 2012

A change in perspective

I had great plans to actually write a post with recipes in it, but something came up at work and I wanted to write down my thoughts.

My first job out of college was at a newspaper in south Georgia in a community that likely wouldn't exist without a large Army post in its backyard. (Well, there is the whole Aflac thing, but...) When I got there, I had considered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be a distant conflict that didn't really affect me. But moving into a community full of soldiers and their families changes that. The war becomes real.

At the newspaper, we ran an Associated Press story on Iraq every day and on Afghanistan a few times a week. Frequently, those stories were put on the front page. I knew a lot about what was happening, why it was happening, where it was happening and how it was happening.

We had regular updates from the units that were deployed from our area, and deployments and homecomings were front-page news. And when a soldier from the post was killed in action, the story always went on the front page.

As real as the war was for me (someone I was close to was there for 15 months), those deaths and the subsequent stories still became routine. In most cases, those soldiers were just stationed at the post in our town for a few months or maybe a couple of years. The funerals were rarely held in town, but in the soldiers' hometowns. I was always detached from it all. Yes, I read about them and occasionally saw a picture, but it was part of my job.

Fast forward a few years. Last week we found out a soldier from Columbia had been killed in Afghanistan. There was some scrambling to get it confirmed and a lot of back and forth about when to call the family, etc. I stayed in my detached mode. I was thinking to myself, why are we scrambling? The Associated Press will put it in their daily update the next day. But I kept my mouth shut.

A few days later, another co-worker was telling me how she wished she had been soliciting memories and stories about the soldier from readers. I know I had a confused look on my face because she went on to say, "This is a hometown boy; this is a big community thing." And I realized this doesn't happen every week here. It probably doesn't even happen once a year. And I had never been in those soldiers' hometowns where people were mourning much more than a soldier. I didn't see a community's reaction to all of those deaths I read about in Georgia.

But I'm getting a glimpse of the community response now. Friends and neighbors put flags all along the neighborhood streets. And on Thursday, there was a processional that went all through town, and people gathered on the streets and overpasses and in his family's neighborhood to honor him. We received picture after picture from people that watched it. There is a movement to get as many people as possible to make a human wall around the funeral to block the protestors planning to come. 

As a journalist, I read about a lot of tragedies and death. There's plenty of good news stories, but the bad news can wear you down. A lot of times the best way to deal with it is to stay detached.

But as I looked through the pictures from the procession that showed a community standing together, I realized I missed the human element of it. In Georgia, those soldiers were a number to me. In Missouri, that soldier was a son, brother, friend, student, role model, neighbor, Eagle Scout and much more. And even though it's hard, I'm glad I've taken my blinders off to see that.

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