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A Voice in the Wilderness

As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness. -- William O. Douglas

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Liberation Day - The Eleventh Hour

The Eleventh Hour

He arrived at 0500 hours just like he said he was going to. Johnny was ready – he had been waiting for quite some time. Actually, he couldn’t sleep. He was too anxious and his night’s rest was interrupted by bouts of sleeplessness the entire night. He heard the sound of the recruiter’s car pulling up and a few seconds later he heard the rattle in the door because the panes of glass shook as the soldier’s knuckles announced his arrival. Johnny didn’t want to seem as though he wasn’t ready – he wanted to appear as though he was unafraid so he rushed to open the door and greeted Staff Sergeant Hinkman with a deliberate albeit trembly handshake. Johnny’s palms were cold and wet – something common to Sgt. Hinkman who was familiar with fear and apprehension. He experienced it and most of the recruits he had dealt with had done the same.

He sat down with Johnny and went over the morning’s agenda which would end his connection with this latest new recruit once the kid was boarded for his flight to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He reviewed the contact information which was delivered. It was none the less received with a sense of foreboding - matter-of fact as it was - there was no doubt that it would be Johnny's aunt that the United States Army would be contacting sould there be any need to. They listened intently as Johnny's recruiter explained calmly, slowly and very personally what was going to happen.

The experience seemed strange to everyone - except the soldier - because there was no yelling. Instead, Sgt. Hinkman calmly reviewed how the day would unfold. His demeanor was friendly, concerned and reassuring – the kind of thing one might expect of a big brother or a loving father – something Johnny never had. Thus far, this man’s Army seemed like an organization that could offer something Johnny had been missing all his life and why wouldn’t it? Johnny was a throw-away kid – born to a father who did not want him and a mother who had grown up to believe that her worth hinged on how badly she was made to feel about herself. Johnny’s father had long ago broken all relations with his son because his most recent wife had determined that Johnny was a ‘bad kid.’ In truth, Johnny was a kid that simply never felt secure because he was subjected to the torturous discipline dealt at the hands of his father who Johnny’s earliest memory was being forced to hold his Dr. Seuss books outstretched horizontally and being closed-fisted in his belly when his arms became weak and dropped to his sides.

While he cannot remember it, Johnny used to show up at our apartment in the student family housing complex with his pamper in hand. The distance of about two blocks across a grassy park separated our residences but the eighteen-month old child had traveled it often and just as often, his father would show up accusing his sister, Johnny’s aunt of, “encouraging Johnny to disrespect me.”

Johnny spent the subsequent growing years of his life living with his mother in California. She had a knack for finding men who abused her and her son. Johnny’s life was marked by disrespect, humiliation and degradation. His most recent step-father who was all of about five foot three inches tall used to beat Johnny and berate him for eating too much once told he boy just before he was shipped off to a California Youth Authority camp that Johnny didn’t have it in him to be a Marine. “You would never make it. You aren’t tough enough and you don’t have any discipline.” That was the last time he hit Johnny and, because Johnny actually beat the man to a pulp – and because he struck his mother, Johnny became a ward of the state. Johnny spent his last two teenage years in a work camp and fulfilled his obligation to the state when his probation ended at the age of twenty one.

Shortly after his twenty-second birthday, after his step-father refused to allow him to live there, Johnny moved back to New Mexico where his father lived but his dad didn’t even know he had moved back. Johnny moved in with his aunt and cousin.

There was much work to do because Johnny did not have his diploma. He first applied to the local community college only to be denied because he had no proof that he had been gainfully employed in California. Too embarrassed to reveal his past with the California Youth Authority, Johnny kept all the information from his aunt and cousin. In short order, it became clear Johnny could barely read and so, he required help with filling out job applications. The jobs he did get were of the minimum wage variety and, like his step-father, the ex-marine with a Napoleon complex had predicted; Johnny was failing badly. He couldn’t keep a job because all he learned from the California Youth Authority was how to buck the system, how to defy authority, how to get away and be proud of the small victories. Johnny failed to see how his short-term victories were playing out; unemployment.

Shortly thereafter, Johnnie’s energy was devoted to deception – he couldn’t simply admit that he had been fired by his fast-food employers. Instead, he would get up and ‘go to work’ only to wait until the house was empty before he snuck back home. The charade continued until his cousin arrived home early one day to find Johnny asleep when he should have been a work.

Left with no other options, Johnny took the bus downtown where he met with the Army Recruiter. It was not easy getting into the Army. Johnny had to study for his GED exam. He asked his cousin for help. It is difficult to pass a test when you cannot read. Despite such an overwhelming handicap, Johnny nonetheless passed by the smallest measure possible.

The next hurdle to overcome was Johnny’s past as a youthful offender. Johnny finally had to admit just what happened that led him to be incarcerated as a juvenile. The news came as a surprise to Johnny’s aunt and cousin but, no matter, they continued to support his effort to join the military. With all the obstacles overcome, Johnny’s future at least had some sense of direction.

After the battery of tests, Johnny’s options were limited. He had the choice to be a demolitions expert, plumber or truck driver. From the vantage point of a kid coming from the California Youth Authority, a kid whose entire childhood was marked by dejection and degradation, his choice to become a driver seemed the easiest path to choose. Besides, there was a ten thousand dollar bonus attached to the career choice. Johnny failed to make the connection between suicide bombers, roads and military convoys in Iraq.

Johnny has kept contact with all of us via text messaging since his new life in the military started a few weeks ago and he is set to graduate from Basic Training in early September. His correspondences have informed us that he passed his physical agility battery of tests and will not have to go to ‘Fat Camp.’ He also has commented that the food is decent and that his correspondences will be restricted from now on to letters sent by US mail. His parents are included on his mailing list because he made peace with both of them prior to leaving for boot camp. Like his father and step-father, Johnny has joined the military. I sincerely hope he completes it and I pray he makes it home safely. I hope he does not succumb to the same fate his uncle suffered; to receive a medical discharge because he cracked under pressure.

The weekend before Johnny left for Basic Training, we had a gathering for him. His paternal grandparents showed up and, in dramatic fashion, were appalled that Johnny had received his GED. They expressed their dismay at how Johnny’s aunt and cousin helped him to get it. The event was surreal on so many counts. While Johnny’s mom tried to ensure that she was listed as the recipient of his survivor benefits, His grand parents were disappointed that Johnny got his GED and his uncle – the mental health dischargee - was offering him advice on how to survive the military experience. It was amazing to see that all the people who literally threw this kid away when he needed them were the same people offering him bad advice, seeking to exploit his situation to their own end and even express disappointment at his decision to join the military – by their actions or rather, deliberate inaction were now seeking to make themselves better or place themselves in a better light by being critical.

I don’t know how this story is going to end but I will say this, Johnny is off to war. Let us all pray that Johnny comes marching back home, that he alive, safe, and better off than when he left.


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