By Thomas G. Gassaway
Field training in the military is meant to be difficult. Officers and assistants intentionally apply pressure and stress to recruits in order to instill discipline, enhance critical thinking abilities, and improve mental and physical reflexes. The ultimate goal is to take an ordinary human being and train them to competently respond to scenarios of extreme adversity. I speak from experience when I say that there is a marked difference in the caliber of trainees from before and after the final graduation ceremony. Ironically, I can also attest that the greatest lesson that I took from my month in Alabama was something that my superiors could not control.
I had already been at Maxwell Air Force Base for ten days when the monotony of the training was unexpectedly broken. We were all standing at stiff attention for the early morning presentation of reveille. It was the dawn of a typical Alabama day, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and the flag reached the top of the pole just like it had at every other ceremony. Then, after a brief pause, it slowly and somberly descended to half-staff. I felt my gut tighten inside me as I immediately contemplated what could have happened. My mind instantly turned to the worst possible scenarios. During our time at Maxwell, we were isolated from the outside world and had no way of keeping up with the day to day happenings outside of the walls. It was not until later that evening that the field training commander briefed us on the brutal slaying of five police officers that had occurred in Dallas the day before. News of that nature tends to hit you harder in a military setting.
Despite the awful news, the training had to go on and five days later the flag returned again to full-staff. The shooting, though tragic, seemed to fade quietly into the past. Life had returned to normal. Unfortunately, before we knew it, the flag was again lowered to half-staff for the massacre at Nice, France. Those five days were again extended after the shooting in Baton Rouge. I did not see the flag at full-staff again until after I had returned home to Utah. The quick succession of events was intriguing to me and I immediately set out to discover how often the President had ordered the flag flown at half-staff for terrorist attacks or home-grown shootings over the past year. A quick online search informed me that since the Chattanooga shooting on July 16, 2015 to the Baton Rouge shooting on July 23, 2016, the flag had spent a combined total of forty-five days at half-staff; seventeen more days if you include memorial holidays and the deaths of Nancy Reagan and Antonin Scalia.1 Maybe children do not tend to notice such things, but I cannot remember the flag ever being lowered so often when I was younger. While the lowering of the flag to half-staff as a mourning gesture has undoubtedly been used more liberally in the past two decades, the corollary truth is that the present world is now more acclimated to lone-wolf massacres.2 We seem to almost take them in stride in the twenty-first century.
Whenever tragedies occur, there is a wide range of questions that are asked across the societal spectrum. Law enforcement asks what could have been done to stop the attack. The religious community contemplates why the attack happened in the first place. Those who are personally impacted by the atrocity perhaps ask the most difficult question of all: what now? The entire judicial process from the initial investigation and arrest of a suspect to the final sentencing can normally take years to complete. The affair often uproots families, destroys careers, and causes severe emotional trauma. Recovery is often cyclical and victims must go through recurring episodes before healing can run its’ course. It simply takes time. The mother of one of the Aurora theater shooting victims in 2013 – Caren Teves – said that “six months is not a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of time a person needs to grieve for their child.”3
Despite the difficult nature of recuperating from these massacres, many organizations have attempted to get at the root of the problem and help people expedite the healing process. The American Psychological Association’s website lists a number of recommendations for grieving families. One particular suggestion was thought provoking. “Help others or do something productive.”4 This advice is reminiscent of the counsel given by former religious leader Gordon B. Hinckley who said the following: “the best antidote I know for worry is work… The best cure for weariness is the challenge of helping someone who is even more tired.”5 Grief is a natural consequence of loss and can understandably lead to feelings of anger and in extreme cases, revenge. Maybe the cure then is not something that naturally comes to us: forgiveness and compassion.
On October 2, 2006, an atrocity was committed against an Amish community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A lone gunman entered a small one-room schoolhouse and violently took the lives of ten young girls. The inhumanity of the act shocked the world and newspapers from Los Angeles to New York raised the massacre to the national spotlight. How could anyone even dream of committing such a heinous crime against such a passive group of individuals – let alone children? In light of the natural human tendency towards anger and retribution, what happened next astonished the world. On the very afternoon of the shooting, the families of those young girls began to publicly forgive the man who had brutally murdered their daughters. They reached out to the widow of the self-destructive assailant to comfort her during her grief. At the end of that week, the “Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.”6 This was a truly unnatural response from an exemplary group of individuals.
Reconciling this scenario with reality can be a hard pill to swallow. Regarding my own personal beliefs, I am an aspiring officer in the United States Air Force. I believe in maintaining a strong military capability. I believe in justice and I believe in fighting against those who are committing these heinous acts. How then do I reconcile all of that with my love of peace and my inner-conscience that melts at the power of forgiveness in the story of this Amish community? Martin Luther King Jr profoundly observed that, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”7 For my part, I unreservedly believe in that statement. At its’ best, war is simply a cruel way of stopping a worse tragedy. However, it never has nor can it ever permanently resolve the conflicts of the world which are rooted in human nature. When used by good men, war is simply a tool used to maintain the status quo while the real forces of change temper the hatred of man. These two forces work in tandem. It is an inherent duty of citizens to trust their local law enforcement, their military, their political leadership, and their God to apply justice in its’ correct proportions. Yet in the meantime, it is evident that the only effectual method of ending this unnatural string of half-staffs is to forgive and strive for goodwill towards all.
1 Half Staff. “Half Staff American Flag Notifications.” 2016. Online. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://us.halfstaff.org/.
2 Korte, Gregory. “Obama has ordered flags at half-staff more than any president in history.” USA Today, June 16, 2016. Online. Accessed July 27, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2016/06/15/obama-flags-at-half-staff-proclamations/85891870/.
3 Ingold, John. “Aurora Theater Shooting, Six Months Later: Loss, Grief and Recovery.” The Denver Post, January 18, 2013. Online. Accessed July 29, 2016. http://www.denverpost.com/2013/01/18/aurora-theater-shooting-six-months-later-loss-grief-and-recovery/.
4 American Psychological Association. “Managing Your Distress in the Aftermath of a Shooting.” 2016. Online. Accessed July 29, 2016. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/mass-shooting.aspx.
5 Hinckley, Gordon B. “Words of the Prophet: Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.” New Era (July 2000). Online. Accessed August 2, 2016. https://www.lds.org/new-era/2000/07/words-of-the-prophet-put-your-shoulder-to-the-wheel?lang=eng.
6 Lancaster, PA Blog. “Amish School Shooting.” LancasterPA.gov. Online. Accessed August 2, 2016. http://lancasterpa.com/amish/amish-school-shooting/.
7 Brainy Quote. “Martin Luther King Jr. Quotes.” 2016. Online. Accessed October 4, 2016. http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/m/martinluth101472.html.