Is this who we are now?

Tent Camp 6, Camp Pendleton, 1975 after the evacuation of Vietnam, Operation New Arrivals


“I, Donald J. Trump, am calling for  a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.””

Candidate Donald Trump, Dec, 2015

The Past Really Isn't...

I caught Mr. Trump’s speech before the UN General Assembly, last night, just before heading out for the monthly Lit-Up gathering in Tustin. It brought to mind so many others like it, especially the quote cited above, concerning Muslim immigration. I really love the monthly Lit-Up readings and another dose of Trumpian fulminations was really not how I wanted to start one of my favorite evenings of the month. But in retrospect, maybe it was the perfect way to start it.

This month, as every month, Lit-Up featured three local authors reading from some of their latest work, (published and unpublished) for the benefit of the packed crowd of Orange County readers. Among the readers, this month, was a lovely Vietnamese-American project manager-turned-author. She read from one of stories appearing in My Kind (of) America, published by Chicken Soup for the Soul, 2017. The title of her story was Welcome to Tent City.

The story of her journey from Vietnam, narrowly escaping it collapse took me back to 1975. As I listened, her story called up little flashes of my own first night. It had begun with a cryptic order from our Operations officer.

“Lieutenant Sayers!” Major Mee’s voice floated above the partition. “Report to the Chief of Staff’s office.”

“Sir?” I replied, uncertain I’d heard right.

“Just do it. Now!”

As an officer so junior, I would not be in the zone for Captain for almost another year and a half, this summons could not be good news. What could the Chief of Staff want with me? I was aware of what would eventually be called the Easter Offensive, but since the Marines had been pulled out of Vietnam, I hadn’t been paying as much attention as I should have. The next two hours remedied that and I found myself at Camp Talega, situated at the northern end of Camp Pendleton, preparing for the first aircraft loads of Vietnamese refugees due to arrive in less than 24 hours.

When the barely controlled chaos subsided, I had been designated as the Assistant Refugee Affairs officer, assigned to what would become the Operation New Arrivals Coordination Center. As I listened to Mai describe her own experiences, I remembered the eyes of those first arrivals, the face of war still fresh in their eyes. As she eloquently described it:

“When my family and I first set foot on American soil in 1975, we were physically exhausted, emotionally devastated, malnourished, dehydrated, homesick and penniless, having survived the perilous journey from our war-torn home of Vietnam as one of the first waves of ‘boat people.’”

By the time she finished reading, my eyes were stinging…in part for the 50,000+ men and women who had fallen during what was at the time our longest war…for all the Vietnamese men, women and children who had been caught in the middle and lost in the collateral damage. But mostly, her story reminded me of what America, at its best, is capable.

The land of the free-the home of the brave...

When Mai finished reading, I couldn’t avoid contrasting that time with today and our policy toward Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees. Have the times changed, or have we? Both, probably. Are Americans’ concerns about inadvertently importing reasonable? I suspect many if not most would answer yes. And I am one of them. Concerns for the safety of American citizens has its place. If I thought otherwise, I would not have spent 22+ years in the Corps.

But should we not be equally concerned how our policies shape our perceptions of ourselves? Is that not as important as the practical, statistical reality of what the few stray terrorists have done since 9/11? Behaviors tend to become habits. Somehow to me, this fearful, shrunken view of ourselves and what is possible doesn’t sit well with me and it certainly doesn’t dovetail with Mr. Trump’s stated intention to “Make America Great Again.”

As a retired marine officer, I am mortified by our policies toward the less fortunate, particularly in light of the gassy saber-rattling of our Commander in Chief whose characterizations of adversaries as insane and unpredictable. I will not engage in tit-for-tat exchanges with respect to whether America has declined, or remains great, or to what degree either point of view is accurate. Nor will I indulge my proclivities to rail against our tendency, these days, to allow slogans and vague generalities to stand in for wisdom or reason.

But for perspective, I wonder if it isn’t time to ask ourselves—individually and collectively—is it the generous heart or the fearful one we most admire? When I’m honest with myself, I know what my answer is and I suspect you do, as well.

For me, it is not pragmatic, self-serving calculation or clever deals in which I stand in awe. It is courage, generosity and fortitude in the face of adversity I most admire…that and the can-do spirit the regular exercise of those qualities seems to foster. If we truly want to make America great again, maybe we should be sharing it.

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