Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Gunfight: A Book Review

A guy with a giant ego exaggerates, distorts and fabricates a story to make himself seem heroically courageous. Some folks not only believe him, but embrace and promote the story because it nicely fits their narrative and agenda. No, I’m not referring to Donald Trump; I’m referring to a former gun-industry executive named Ryan Busse and his recently-released, self-aggrandizing book, “Gunfight: My Battle Against The Industry That Radicalized America.” 

In sum: A guy who had a lucrative career in the gun industry quits his job and writes an expose of the industry, telling us what anyone paying attention knew 30 years ago. (Republican President George H.W. Bush expressed disgust with and left the NRA in 1995.) 

Like most humans with hearts, minds and souls, Busse writes that the Sandy Hook atrocity shook him up and changed his views. 

On December 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man shot and killed his mother then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut, shot his way through a glass window, entered the school and shot and killed eight boys, 12 girls (all between the ages of six and seven) and six women who worked at the school. He shot his victims multiple times (he shot one boy 11 times) then shot and killed himself. He did all this in just 10 minutes, firing hundreds of rounds from his mother’s Bushmaster XM15-E2S, a 5.56mm semi-automatic rifle that fires about 45 rounds a minute. It’s basically a civilian model of the M16-A2 I was issued in the Marine Corps without the fully-automatic capability.

Busse was so disgusted and disturbed by Sandy Hook and the gun industry’s response that he spent another whole decade working for a firearms company, spouting more lies and propaganda. Why? As stated in a book review for the New York Times: 'He was earning $210,000 a year.”

Most whistleblowers don’t wait until they’re financially secure and comfortable before blowing the whistle, but Busse’s different. He wants us to think he’s a courageous hero for now finally telling us what we knew long ago. And if you doubt he’s a courageous hero, he’ll remind you that he is on pretty near every other page. 

I was struggling along through the book when I reached a part that includes me. I’m not mentioned by name, but I’m the “guy from TU.”

Some background: About 20 years ago I was the first person hired as part of a new Public Lands Initiative launched by Trout Unlimited (TU), a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring native trout and their watersheds. The initiative was the brainchild of my friend Chris Wood, who is now the executive director of TU. 

President George W. Bush had just moved into the White House and was planning to expedite gas and oil development within some pretty special wild places in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The goal of the initiative was to organize and rally conservative folks to help stop it. 

My first task on the job was to produce a detailed report of how Bush’s energy policies would negatively impact these wild places. I then recruited seven hunters, anglers, ranchers and outfitters and took them to Washington, D.C., to hold a press conference at the National Press Club and meet with congressional representatives. One of those people was Ryan Busse, who was then a Vice President at Kimber Firearms in Montana. In Gunfight, Busse tells how “the guy from TU” (me) asked him to come along to D.C. Here’s how he describes it: 

“Look, let’s be honest,” the TU guy said. “You’re from a very conservative industry. Are you willing to criticize President Bush?” The forwardness caught me off guard. “It’s an election year. The press hook is that you look like a typical Bush voter and yet you are not happy with his policies.”

“I get all that. What’s your point?” 

Our point is that you are going to get hammered on this. People are going to come after you.”

“I have a lot of street cred in this industry. They can’t come after me.”

“I don’t think they care who they kill.”

“Listen, all I’m doing is speaking out for wild places where gun owners hunt. For God’s sake, I cried when I found this place, and I hunt and shoot as much as anyone. How the hell can they criticize that?”

“OK, you’ve got balls of steel. We’ll send you a plane ticket.” 

The entire conversation is fabricated. And I guarantee I have never uttered the phrase, “You’ve got balls of steel.” 

I certainly don’t consider it courageous to speak out for protection of the wild places we love. I had hundreds of volunteers eager to do just that. But Busse doesn’t mention any of the others, he continues to portray himself as a lone courageous hero — one who continued working  for the lucrative gun industry for another 20 years, long after the rest of us recognized what he now courageously and heroically tells us about. 

(During my days working with guys, like Busse, who claimed to be “Republican” but didn’t like the GOP’s anti-environmental policies, I often wondered: Did this mean they supported the GOP’s other policies, such as their anti-gay, anti-science, anti-woman, warmongering trickle-down economic policies?)

This guy’s dishonesty, ego and self-promotion might match that of Donald Trump’s. 

I couldn’t read anymore. I tossed the book.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Ignore, Block, Obfuscate and Attack: The Bizarre Campaign of Jacob Elder

I first met Jacob Elder at meetings of the Missoula County Democrats Central Committee. He seemed a nice, sincere, honest guy, and a fellow Marine Corps Sergeant. The feelings were apparently mutual. He recently wrote to me, “You are a good man that I came to respect – not only as a Marine but because you welcomed me in when I was hanging around the central committee.”

He wrote a wonderful OpEd for the Missoulian, published June 2, 2020, called “Being Black in America Shouldn’t be a Death Sentence,” about systemic, institutionalized racism, and “the blatant execution of black people by the police,” as he put it.

That was before he decided to run for mayor of Missoula, to replace incumbent Mayor John Engen, who has been in office for 15 years. That was before things got weird.

At first I was intrigued, and willing to support him if his views and proposed policies aligned with mine. So I asked him questions.  

On his Facebook Page he indicated support for SB215, a “religious freedom” bill passed by state legislators, identical to bills passed in other states, designed to allow for discrimination against the gay community.  I asked if he supported such discriminatory laws. He didn’t answer. In other places, he obfuscated on the topic – something, I later learned, he does on most topics.

I asked him what he did in the Marine Corps -- his Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), a common question among fellow Marines. (I served in a Force Recon unit and earned three: 0311, Infantryman; 0321, Reconnaissance Marine, and 8654, Reconnaissance Marine Parachute and SCUBA Qualified.)  He wouldn’t answer. He told me he wouldn’t provide such information to people with “ulterior motives.” (My only motive was to learn more about him to determine if I would vote for him.)

On his Facebook Page, he posted that he would put all homeless people who aren’t Missoula residents, on a bus and send them to California. I asked him the following: “How would you know if they are residents? (Many don’t have identification). Would you force them to go if they don’t want to? Is this legal? Would there be legal challenges to the city? How much would it cost?”

He deleted my questions and blocked me from his page. He sent me a personal note on Messenger telling me he was “disappointed in me as a fellow Marine.”

I have since learned he has ignored and blocked hundreds of people – Democrats, Republicans, independents – simply for asking him questions or trying to get clarification of his views and positions.  As local political consultant Kristi Govertsen recently put it (as quoted in the Missoula Current): “It’s super fun to see mayoral candidate Jacob Elder using the extremely absurd campaign strategy of blocking hundreds of potential voters and future constituents from his social media platforms. These aren’t obnoxious internet trolls he’s blocking. These are engaged citizens, community leaders, bridge-builders, and longtime Missoulians that are genuinely curious about him, his platform, and how they might work together should he get elected.”   

Elder claims he ignored and blocked us all because we “work for Engen.”

He portrays Engen as some kind of big-city, Tony Soprano-like mob boss out to get him.  “Vying for a political office against a 16-year incumbent mayor has proven to be one of the most dangerous endeavors I have undertaken,” Elder has written. He wrote to me that his family “has received numerous threats from Engen’s supporters,” threats he calls “extremely racist,” and that he now “has to carry” a firearm to protect himself. “How does a city mayor create supporters that are this threatening and borderline racist?,” he asked me. “That should be the title for an Op-Ed or letter to the editor on my behalf.”  

Elder also seems to have changed his views to appeal more to the right. He’s refused interviews with some local media, but met privately with “Patriots of Montana,” an extreme right-wing group that perpetuates long-debunked conspiracy theories. Elder even seems to have changed his views on systemic, institutionalized racism, recently assuring folks that “no racism exists in the Missoula police department” and ridiculing the Black Lives Matters movement as dangerous and harmful.

I recently learned that Elder seems to have created a fake Facebook account under the name Richard Peterson, with a bizarre profile photo making fun of Mayor John Engen’s weight and alleged, past struggles with drinking (see attached). Elder uses this fake profile to troll those who don’t support him.   

Last week I posted a statement on a Facebook Page about why I could not support Jacob Elder as mayor. Within minutes he sent me a personal message on Messenger (see attached) telling me I was not really a Marine (“You are not a Marine! You never served!”) accompanied by a barrage of creepy emojis. After I received it, I called him to see if we could have a rational, reasonable discussion. We couldn’t. He wouldn’t let me get in a word and told me that I was “not really a man,” that I am “a disgrace to our nation and Marine Corps,” and that he does not believe I was a Marine.

More recently, because I called him “creepy,” he accused me of being racist. “This fellow is racist! Yes, RACIST! He DO NOT belong in our community!” he posted on Instagram and Facebook. I’ve since learned he accuses many who disagree with him as being racist. Ironically, his actions confirm what I stated: Jacob Elder is creepy.

I can fully understand why some people think Mayor Engen has been in office too long and would like to see someone new. But Jacob Elder is clearly not the right choice. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Trump’s Letter to Joe Biden

It’s a modern Inauguration Day tradition for outgoing presidents to write a letter to their successors and leave it on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. 

Barack Obama wrote to Donald Trump, in part, “Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it's up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them."

George H.W. Bush wrote to Bill Clinton, “I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you."

Attached is what Donald Trump left for Joe Biden.  

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Return

He wasn’t sure if it was his snarling hungry stomach that awoke him or the crackling of spruce turned to ember, releasing one last gasp of expanded gas while travelling from tree to ash. His head remained clear enough to recognize irrepressible shivers, and carefully and precisely note to the various stages of hyperthermia. Or is it hypothermia? It troubled him knowing he should know, while simultaneously intriguing him that his mind was still capable of knowing there’s a difference; knowing he ought to know what he doesn’t. Then, as if to prove to himself his level of awareness, his brain delivered a few words of caution: Do not remove your clothes! It then obnoxiously repeated it, over and over, like an earworm, or is it a brain worm? Or a cognitive itch?

Then he imagined himself prancing naked in the snow, making clotheless snow angels, then jumping in the frigid ice hole his father had cut into the lake with a chainsaw when he was a child, then rapidly climbing out, running and submerging himself in the hot springs, skin tingling, friends laughing, sun shining, snowflakes stinging against his bare naked face. He laughed out loud and thought he heard himself. Then he thought he heard others, maybe, or perhaps just the wind howling through bare limbs of larches around him. Or it might have been wolves singing in the distance, wailing like he imagined the sounds of native women mourning the deaths of their children, or at least how it’s portrayed in the movies, and then he thought of Robert Redford and Jeremiah Johnson and Hatchet Jack’s final note, “I, Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broke legs, do leaveth my rifle to the next thing who finds it, Lord hope he be a white man. It is a good rifle, and kilt the bear that kilt me. Anyway, I am dead.”

Ha! He remembered! And he laughed again. Longer. Louder.

Sound mind, he thought. Do not remove your clothes!

Doused by increasing heavy snowfall, the fire gave off one last tiny flicker of orange and red then turned black as the forest around it. He wondered, if you can’t see the forest, is it still there? He laughed again.

He knew he had to do something. Anything. But he had no energy, no desire, no inclination to gather wood, though he knew he should, but he also thought how difficult and tiresome it might be to yet again build a fire, a thought that brought to mind Jack London, and again he laughed hard and loud as he envisioned a bucket’s worth or two of snow falling upon him from spruce boughs above and burying him in a thick blanket of warmth.

And there was his father, cutting though the thick, hard ice with a chainsaw to reach the warm water below.

He turned slowly around towards the lichen-covered ledge behind him that, until now, had served as a fine backrest, for which he would forever remain grateful, and said so to the rock, before forgetting to. He couldn’t see it but could feel it, solid as a brick house. Indestructible. Immortal. Invincible. Or is it invisible? 

He remembers confusing those very words whenever reciting the Pledge of Alliance as a school kid. Why should he know the difference now? At least he knew that he ought to know, he thought.

Sound mind, he thought. Do not remove your clothes!


So he dug.

He knew he needed claws, sharp claws, claws as sharp as his mind. And he needed strength, physical strength, the physical strength of a grizzly. He was aware he possessed a sufficient and effective quantity of both. 

So he dug.

He dug deep through layers of soft snow and frozen crust. He dug deeper through a layer of dead and decaying duff. He dug deeper and deeper through roots and dirt and rock towards the fiery center of mother earth, deep down past the early stages of warmth until it grew increasingly, almost uncomfortably hot. 

Then he stopped.

Although he greatly appreciated and applauded the mind’s well-meaning counsel and advice, and such warnings made perfect sense at the time, considering previous and precarious circumstances, he knew that his once dire situation had now significantly changed, thanks to claws, strength and soundness of mind. All had suddenly taken a turn for the better. Everything was going to be just fine. It was hot. So he removed his clothes, then crawled quickly down into his cozy hole. It was beyond perfection, like “being in God’s pocket” as his mom liked to say. Then he heard her say it, again, and tell him how tremendously proud she was of his unwavering determination, fortitude and presence of mind in the face of adversity. It felt richly satisfying to have pleased his mother enough to receive such high and unusual praise. He couldn’t remember when he had last felt so content. He curled into a fetal position, and thought he could recall the warmth and comfort of his mother’s womb.

He drifted warmly into a deep, deep sleep and dreamt of bright golden glacier lilies in a lush, green meadow where all seemed to be slowly sliding down, slipping towards the precipice, down towards the edge of a warm and welcoming silence.

Friday, October 23, 2020

"The Emperor Is Wearing Nothing At All!"

“THE EMPEROR IS WEARING NOTHING AT ALL!” — It doesn’t take a child to see it. It’s not just liberals opposed to Trump. It’s not just Democrats concerned. Numerous prominent Republicans see and are speaking out about the obvious: Trump is an incompetent, dangerously divisive, lying narcissist who behaves like a child. The opposition is unprecedented. Everyone can see it except the thoroughly brainwashed and blind.

Retired Marine Corps General and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis has denounced Trump, calling him “a threat to our Constitution,” and recently wrote: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

Retired Marine Corps General and former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly agreed with General Mattis, and has called Trump the “most flawed person” he’s ever met in his life, adding: "The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me. The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship, though it's more pathetic than anything else . . I think we really need to step back. I think we need to look harder at who we elect. What is their character like? What are their ethics? Are they willing, if they're elected, to represent all of their constituents, not just the base, but all of their constituents?”

A group of 489 generals, admirals, senior noncommissioned officers, ambassadors, and senior civilian national security leaders recently signed on to a letter endorsing Joe Biden. The letter reads, in part:

“The current president has demonstrated he is not equal to the enormous responsibilities of his office; he cannot rise to meet challenges large or small. Thanks to his disdainful attitude and his failures, our allies no longer trust or respect us, and our enemies no longer fear us.”

Former Chairman of the National Republican Committee Michael Steele has assailed Trump, saying that Trump does not represent Republican values, and says he’s voting for Joe Biden, who he calls “a good man.”

“This ballot is like none ever cast,” Steele says. “I’m a lifelong Republican and I’m still a Republican, but this ballot is how we restore the soul of our nation.”

To those still supporting Trump he says: “So, all y’all want to play this little game that Donald Trump is like you, you’re stupid. You’re being played. You’re getting punked. But what’s so bad about it is you’re complicit in your own punking.”

Republican Senator Ben Sasse recently criticized Trump for “the way he kisses dictators' butts. I mean, the way he ignores that the Uyghurs are in literal concentration camps in Xinjiang right now. He hasn't lifted a finger on behalf of the Hong Kongers. The United States now regularly sells out our allies under his leadership. The way he treats women and spends like a drunken sailor. The ways I criticized President Obama for that kind of spending, I've criticized President Trump for as well. He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists."

Sasse also slammed Trump's response coronavirus — which has sickened more than 7.9 million Americans and killed more than 217,000 — saying that Trump’s leadership has not been "reasonable or responsible."

"The reality is that he careened from curb to curb,” Sasse says. “First, he ignored COVID. And then he went into full economic shutdown mode. He was the one who said 10 to 14 days of shutdown would fix this, and that was always wrong. So, I don't think the way he's led through COVID has been reasonable or responsible or right."

Other prominent republicans who oppose Trump: Former Secretary of State Colin Powell; former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; former Secretary of Defense William Cohen; former Special Assistant to the President Peggy Noonan; former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge; former EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman . . .

The list goes on, and on.

More than 70 former senior Republican national security officials and 60 additional senior officials have signed on to a statement declaring, "We are profoundly concerned about our nation's security and standing in the world under the leadership of Donald Trump. The President has demonstrated that he is dangerously unfit to serve another term."

A group of former senior U.S. government officials and conservatives—including from the Reagan, Bush 41, Bush 43, and Trump administrations have formed The Republican Political Alliance for Integrity and Reform (REPAIR) to, "focus on a return to principles-based governing in the post-Trump era."

A third group of Republicans, Republican Voters Against Trump was launched in May 2020 and has collected more than 500 testimonials from Republicans opposing Donald Trump.

They’re all pointing out what is painfully obvious. It’s time to get rid of Donald Trump and start healing our nation.


Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Slow Stroll Through Camp Town

The walk across and under the Reserve Street bridge isn’t written up in any Missoula hiking guides, Chamber of Commerce pamphlets, Office of Tourism Brochures or in the flood of “Come Visit-and-Fly-Fish-Montana” magazine articles. If it were, there’d likely be a warning about the putrid stench of the Dailey’s rendering plant, where bacon is processed (“Premium Meats Since 1893”) and how, if the breeze is drifting towards you, as it was towards me that day (gusts of wind up to 100 miles-per-hour, and 60-degrees, in February, in western Montana!), it won’t take long before you feel nauseous. Or maybe it’s the sights under the bridge that made me nauseous. . . and queasy, and uneasy, and guilty, and a bit ashamed, and fortunate.

I walked on the sidewalk south across the bridge, away from the giant American Flag behind me, flying above the old Perkins restaurant (soon to be yet another brew pub), serving as a welcoming gateway of sorts to the homogenistic stretch of anywhere-in-America mega super stores -- Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s, CostCo, Best Buy, Target, Barnes and Noble -- built on the former ranchlands where I used to hunt.

Beyond the railing to my left, about 50 yards below, was the Clark Fork River, flowing rapidly underneath me and west from the direction of downtown. The tallest of the buildings -- the historic Wilma theatre, the First Interstate Bank, the recently-opened Residence Inn by Marriot where the Mercantile used to be -- are all visible in the distance from the bridge, as are the tall, snow-capped mountains above the University and framing Hellgate Canyon beyond. I was both surprised and concerned to see no ice. None. In February!

Just a dozen feet away, across the rusty railing to my right, between sidewalk and traffic, were hundreds of people sitting in a seemingly endless line of cars and trucks and SUVs, bumper to bumper, for as far as I could see, with nothing better to do as they crawled along, so it seemed, than watch me walk across a bridge. I felt a bit self-conscious, wondering – dressed as I was in dirty tan cargo pants, torn grey flannel shirt, old green wind parka and worn baseball-style cap adorned with the Marine Corps Eagle, Globe and Anchor -- if any or all of these people behind their steering wheels and in passenger seats wondered if I was one of them, a citizen of the camps below, and then I wondered if and why it would even matter what they wondered?

On the northeast side of the bridge, in a dead dull golden field of invasive knapweed, close to Dailey’s meats, is a large billboard with a photo of an inviting, modest-looking home for sale by Christies International Real Estate, “On Foothills Drive in Florence, $699,900.”  Across the street, on the southwest corner of Reserve and Mullan, a man wearing a black hoodie and red MAGA hat waved a bright red, white and blue banner: “TRUMP 2020, No More Bullshit.”

When I reached the south side of the bridge, I hopped over the metal railing to my left and, while carefully and clumsily walking and sliding down a steep, muddy hillside littered with garbage and shopping carts, down towards the little town of camps, I met two Missoula police officers who were on their way up. One of them, who introduced herself as Detective Brueckner, told me they had recovered a body from one of the tents earlier in the day. “He likely died in his sleep,” she said. “Apparently, he died a while ago.”

The bottom of the hill leveled out onto a flat, rocky floodplain, near a small grove of cottonwoods, about 100-yards or so from river’s edge, with mostly calf-high grasses and weeds in between, and round, fist-to-bowling-ball size rocks, exposed and polished by hundreds of years of spring flood currents, with an occasional dead or dying cottonwood here and there, some already fallen to the ground, where plastic shopping bags and other garbage and woody debris from previous flooding accumulated on the windward and upriver sides. Separated by maybe 50-300 yards, on either side of the bridge, were a series of small camps, close to a dozen, constructed of cheap tents, tarps, pallets and cardboard boxes. A small town of sorts, mostly out of sight and out of mind, with a fluctuating population of 10-20 people. On this day, on this particular walk, I only saw a handful of residents, but more may have been sleeping or resting in their shelters, or off doing their best to gather food, water or money. I saw a lot of blackened fire rings, built from river rock, and wondered if it was mostly a nocturnal town. I made a mental note to visit sometime after dark. Maybe. 

I felt intrusive walking from camp to camp, skirting close to the edges, like an American tourist visiting a poverty-stricken third-world county, feeling fortunate for my own circumstances while pondering the plight of those who call this place home; Mental illness? Addiction? Bad choices? All of that and other things? It’s complicated, I know, but I couldn’t help but think about the mostly-celebrated groundbreaking currently underway a few miles upriver, near the heart of downtown, for yet another new $100 million hotel and events center being built by a millionaire who has been granted millions by the City Council in Tax Increment Funding because, well, it’s good for the economy.

Scattered everywhere were shopping carts and shopping bags from Target and Walmart and Albertsons; empty Pepsi and Coke cans; Nacho and Cheeto bags and an old, empty box of It’s It ice cream cakes. I saw a large, stuffed-animal black bear in a fire ring with its head ripped off, and a used syringe laying on the dirt nearby.  Somebody nailed a “Beware of Dog” sign on one of the cottonwoods, but I neither saw nor heard any canines to beware of. In one of the camps, I found two wet, moldy paperbacks sitting on a log: “How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life,” by the Dali Lama, and “The Leader’s Handbook: A Guide to Inspiring Your People and Managing the Daily Workflow,” by Peter R. Scholtes. I stepped in a hole and took a fall, spooking some magpies from their nearby perch of dead cottonwood branches and noticed fresh deer tracks in the mud in front of me.

Years ago, before the camps started popping up in 2000, I sometimes came here in the spring to photograph bald eagles, during that time of year when the river rapidly rises, filling up with freshly melted snow from the Mountains of western Montana and rushing it west towards the Columbia and Pacific.  I remember once wading through frigid, knee-deep water where some of these camps now sit, seemingly high and dry and safe during most of the year. Last May the river rose right into the tents and carboard shelters, washing most everything, and even a few people, into the river. Local news reported that the folks living here “lost everything,” which might not seem like much, but was indeed everything to them.  People expressed understandable concern about the garbage washed away and floating towards Idaho. Every now and then I’ll read about bodies recovered from the river. 

On the night of July 31, 2014, a fight broke out between three of the men living in these camps. One of the men, 38, was viciously beaten and shot to death, then dumped in the river. His body was found a week later, and several weeks after that they caught the killer, who was 28, down in Louisiana. He’s serving a 40-year sentence.

Word quickly spread that this place is dangerous. Or can be. I didn’t sense any danger while walking around there, not in the middle of a warm, windy February day. I imagine the incident serves as a metaphor of sorts to the danger residents of this camp may pose towards themselves – a danger of self-destruction, the danger of being caught in a devastating cultural, economic and social whirlpool, swirling and swirling ever downward, into the depths of mental illness and addiction and unpaid bills and stigmas and judgements and bad choices and circumstance and -- who knows what else?-- struggling to keep afloat, or perhaps giving up, or maybe enjoying the ride in an “I don’t give a shit” sort of way, all fed and fueled and powered by numerous complex factors I can’t and won’t pretend to fully understand. Many or most or maybe all of these factors, no doubt, are out of their control, though I was recently called a “dumb liberal piece of shit” for thinking so. I will say this: I’ve ventured to the precipice of that vortex. If not for a remarkable, loving ex-wife and a wonderful, caring physician at the Veteran’s Administration I’m not sure how far down I’d have fallen. I know I wouldn’t be walking around these camps as an outsider with the luxury of contemplating such things. 

A guy named Joseph approached me from one of the camps, a good-looking  young man, perhaps 30, wearing a yellow North Face hoodie, blue jeans and gray tennis shoes. He asked me what I was up to, requested I not take photos of any people living there, and told me that his friend, a seemingly shy quieter man standing nearby, said I looked just like his pastor. “Same build, same walk, same look,” he said.

“He must be a handsome pastor,” I replied.

They both laughed.

I assured him I respected others enough to not take photos of them without permission, and was just checking things out, and would likely write about my visit. He didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he gave me his phone number and asked me to give him a call if I wanted to chat more. He was a life-long Montanan, he said, who “fell on hard times.” He recently moved to these camps from another along the Yellowstone River near Bozeman (“now THAT crazy river floods!” he said), and he hoped to help organize this camp a bit better, clean it up, make it more acceptable and livable.

“I’m a religious man,” he said. “I believe in the Ten Commandments. Do unto others. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not kill. All of that. Unfortunately, not everyone lives by that, but we all need to.”   

I looked above, atop the massive concrete structure nearby, where lines of congested traffic slowly moved north, and south, to and from the big box stores, the economic heartbeat of America, beating faster and faster and faster.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

This Montana Marine Veteran is Sick and Tired of ‘Anti-American’ Rhetoric

I’ve met Montana Senator Steve Daines a few times. I’m a constituent. Although I don’t agree with him on a lot of issues, he always seemed nice, professional and respectful. He was good to my son Cory, who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. 

Once, when Daines was still a Congressman, my son and I visited his office in Washington D.C. to persuade him to support the renewal of the Muscular Dystrophy Care Act. (He did, and even called Cory days later to personal tell him about it.) He took Cory out onto the House floor, let him cast a few votes, and introduced him to then-Representative (now Senator) Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, who, like my son, is also in a wheelchair. She lost both of her legs in Iraq while serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot. Born in Thailand, she was the first Thai-American woman and the first disabled woman to be elected to Congress. She’s liberal. She was born elsewhere. She’s American. She loves our country. She’s a patriot. She’s a wonderful part of American history. Daines seemed to respect her despite their political differences.

At one point, my son asked Daines about an issue Daines and I have disagreed on. Daines looked at me, looked at my son, smiled, and said, “Cory, there are things your father and I don’t see eye-to-eye on, and that’s okay. But we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about you and muscular dystrophy.”

It was a good answer. Daines earned my admiration and respect that day. 

Monday, he lost my admiration and respect when he defended and joined Donald Trump’s insulting, race-based, xenophobic and divisive attacks on members of Congress, and his dangerous McCarthy-like judgements of who is and who isn’t “American.” The day before, Trump accused four progressive congresswomen of color of “hating America,” and suggested they “go back” to the “crime infested” countries they “originally came from” – even though all four are citizens of the United States, three were born in the United States, and all were elected by fellow U.S. citizens to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In response, Daines tweeted: “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals. This is America. We’re the greatest country in the world. I stand with @realdonaldtrump.”

I love the United States. I love the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality for all. Even if we haven’t always lived up to those ideals, our founders left us a Constitution that not only outlines those ideals but established legal and civil ways to fight for and achieve those ideals. To challenge things. To criticize things. To try and change things. Central to that is the freedom to speak against the things we don’t like.

That’s why I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, volunteered to serve in a Force Recon unit, and took an oath to defend our nation and Constitution. That’s why after leaving active duty I served in the Marine Corps Reserves and then the Montana Army National Guard. I served with a diversity of people, from all walks of life, from a variety of backgrounds, from throughout the nation. Different colors; different religious views; different political views – a snapshot of Americans serving America. We often had debates and disagreements, occasionally heated ones, but we would have all sacrificed our lives for each other and our country. In fact, some of my friends did just that.

Last May, I attended a reunion of my fellow Force Recon Marines at topsail Beach, North Carolina, near Marine Corps base Camp LeJeune. I hadn’t seen most of them for more than 30 years. We remain different; maybe more so as we’ve aged. I don’t agree with the political views of most of them. But I love them like brothers. We’re all Americans. We all love our country. We’ve proven that. We take seriously the Voltairean notion (as expressed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall), “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 

E pluribus unum.  United we stand. 

I find it increasingly and disturbingly disconcerting that so many Americans, and leaders such as Trump and Daines, don’t seem to understand the important distinction between patriotism and nationalism. They’ve hijacked and distorted the word ‘patriotism.’ They don’t seem to fully understand the First Amendment of the Constitution. They apparently believe that anyone who doesn’t share their thoughts, values and believes, and conform to their standards and notions of ‘patriotism,’ must hate America.

Ironically, their attitude is as anti-American as it gets.