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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Help Save the Blue Mouse Theatre

Like the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, Tacoma’s Proctor District thrives and functions as the quintessential American village—walkable, convenient, and complete, with a lively retail core, schools, churches, fire station, restaurants, library, services, a farmers market, and more—a gem within the larger city. And if Proctor had its own official town hall, that might be the historic Blue Mouse Theatre.

On balmy summer evenings or rainy November nights, it’s a community gathering place. Outside, friends and neighbors visit with each other while waiting to step up to the box office window, where General Manager Susan Evans will offer a cheery greeting and joke around as she hands them their tickets. The old paneled doors open and the warmth of the lobby and smell of popcorn wrap around you like a hug. Above it all, those little blue neon mice just keep scampering across the marquee, at least for now. But they are in danger.

Concerning this icon of the community, the word on the street in Proctor is “Go digital or go dark.” Like every small, vintage theater across the country, the Blue Mouse faces the high cost of digital conversion. During 2013, it will become far more difficult, if not impossible, to obtain 35mm film versions of movies as the digital format sweeps the market. But converting to digital projection equipment can cost $75,000-$100,000 or more.
You can help to save this 89-year-old treasure by participating in the KICKSTARTER campaign set up, in partnership with Tacoma Neighborhoods Together, to raise funds for the conversion. This Kickstarter page includes a great video about the Blue Mouse. The theater’s loyal fans are already chipping in and at last check, I see that fewer than 200 people have already contributed over $11,000. But it will take much more. With the minimum contribution set at just $1.00, everyone can help, at least a little. Won’t you, please?

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Monday, November 12, 2012

Iraq War Veterans Walk to Raise Awareness of PTSD, TBI, and Soldier Suicide

Chess Johnson had assured me on the phone, “You can’t miss us. We’ll be wearing bright orange shirts and carrying American flags.” And he was right.  Along with a reporter and photographer from KOMO TV, I watched for three men fitting that description as I waited at the Point Defiance ferry dock for the 12:10 boat. They soon appeared among the foot passengers from Vashon Island, who disembarked before the cars.

Sunshine illuminated their orange shirts, along with the red, white, and blue of three large American flags that fluttered in the chilly breeze. How lucky to get this break in the weather, I thought. Chess Johnson, Andy Britt, and Will Carroll are all Iraq war veterans who had spent the previous day, Veterans Day, walking 25 miles in the cold, hard November rain to take an important message to the streets. I learned about this walk from Sue Nebeker, the subject of my Veterans Day blog post about American Hero Quilts, and had given Johnson a call. At the dock, I spoke with him, and Carroll, while KOMO's Lindsay Cohen interviewed Britt as part of her story about the event.

“We’re marching from Bremerton Naval Base to Fort Lewis, trying to connect three branches that have posts here in the state of Washington,” Johnson told me, “bringing awareness of Posttraumatic Stress Diagnosis, Traumatic Brain Injury, soldier suicide, and over-medication of soldiers.” He said one of their main goals was to have civilians “integrating more” and doing more research on PTSD, noting that it affects everyone who knows the soldiers, not just themselves.
Post TraumaticStress Disorder (PTSD)—the same condition Johnson referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis—and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are invisible wounds, but they are wounds just the same. Johnson has suffered it all. As he walked up from the ferry, I knew who he was at once because of the deep voice I’d heard on the phone and his missing right eye. He lost it while serving as a staff sergeant with Fort Lewis’ first Stryker Brigade (3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division) when a sniper sent two  bullets into his brain—one through his eye socket and another just above. The incident left Johnson with skull fractures, neuropathic pain, grand mal seizures, degenerative arthritis of the spine, and only partial sight in his one remaining eye. He also has PTSD, like Britt, and TBI.

Everything changed forever that day for this soldier. Losing his career, his uniform, and the personal life he’d known, to have all that replaced by both physical and emotional pain, plus financial problems (see KOMO news story from 2007) led to temporary alcohol abuse as a form of self-medication. Johnson wanted to stay in the Army. He wanted to keep wearing that uniform, to go back to Iraq, to fight alongside the soldiers he thought of as family. Fortunately though, life went on. Now, this soldier who has won so many commendations and decorations has a wife who encourages him and a new focus on competing in athletics, such as the 2012 Army Warrior Games. You can read his bio here. He has also been the focus of a documentary film about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, called Exit Wound.

One thing never changed, and that was his love of country and comrades.  Johnson says it best: “Really, all we’re doing is paying it forward. We feel honored that we were able to wear the uniform with the American flag on it and to fight for this country. We feel that a lot of people have forgotten about the sacrifices that have been made. To the veterans who have put that uniform on before us, we want to say ‘thank you.’ It means so much to us to be able to represent this country.
“And when we put these orange shirts on, the rucksacks, and the flags, we’re representing a bigger community, a veteran community, a disabled community, a community of Americans who are just so proud. So we walk because we can, and we’re able to. So many people just take that for granted. The first year that we were in Iraq, you wouldn’t have ever seen an Iraqi walking around, just doing what he chose. It’s a way to say we’re proud Americans. And we’re going to support our brothers who are currently overseas and the ones who will be coming home tomorrow.”

Carroll agreed. “It’s literally another family. It doesn’t matter what generation, if they were in any war they know exactly what I’m talking about.” Johnson and Britt planned the walk and then invited Carroll. He has issues resulting from his service overseas, and is still addressing them. Encouraging soldiers and their families to seek help is part of the walk’s purpose.

Carroll said the hardest problem he’s had is adjusting to civilian life again, after what he calls the military way of thinking. “We’re pretty brash and straightforward. On the civilian side, I really have to be way more aware of what I say and what I do. The civilian world is completely different.”

In addition to talking about emotional and psychological issues, I asked Johnson about something else returning vets may face: unemployment.

He said: “You take a medic who has served in the army, for say…ten years, who has gone on three or four or five deployments, who has put their friends back together, has had to patch and heal wounded Iraqi nationals or Afghanistan nationals… and they’ve done this for one year straight in a combat zone. They come back to America and they try to get a job as a medic. And they have to go through all the school as if they were just graduating high school. I don’t understand why the civilian circuit won’t give us credit for the knowledge we learn in the military. On-the-job training is the most valuable they could ever have and in a combat zone. But they are not allowed to come home and life a senior citizen who just fell and hurt their hip. To me it doesn’t make any sense.

Carroll brought up truck drivers and mechanics, and Johnson gave the example of an army truck driver who drives convoys in Iraq, “. . . getting blown up for twelve months straight. He comes home and he can’t drive a simple big rig down the road.” And he talked about military mechanics and certification. “They work on giant tanks, but they can’t work on a half-ton pickup.”

Lindsay Cohen from KOMO speaks with (L to R) Chess Johnson, Will Carroll, and Andy Britt

I wish I could have had the chance to speak more than a few words to Britt. But the sun went behind one of the clouds that had moved in, and the breeze felt colder. It looked like the rain could return. They still had many miles to reach the end of their journey, the brigade's memorial at Fort Lewis.
This Veterans Day weekend I avoided the malls and the sales and ended up with something worth much more than any retail bargain.  I’m glad I met these veterans and heard what they had to say. I'm glad I caught the sparkle and warmth in Johnson's left eye, heard his intelligent comments, witnessed his smile and determination, and engaged with him instantly in our conversation. But all the while, the empty eyelid on the right side of his face reminded me of his sacrifice.

I wonder how he and his comrades feel about the political battles  dividing our nation right now. At a time when the word “entitlement” has itself been made into a weapon of war, misunderstood and misused, some of his final comments still ring in my ears:

“A lot of people say that we are an entitlement generation. I think my generation is entitled to some things. We’ve supported two major conflicts in ten years. Our generation stepped up and said ‘We’ve got this, America!’ So I’m proud of my generation. I’m proud that we were able to defend our country.”

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

At American Hero Quilts, Every Day is Veterans Day

The year was 2003, not the 1960s, and the scenes were in Iraq, not Vietnam, but the same old feeling of extreme distress weighed heavily on Sue Nebeker's heart as she watched television news coverage of the U.S. invasion called Operation Iraqi Freedom. The "shock and awe" reached right into her living room.

"I was very concerned and upset," she told me. "Because of my age, I remember the Vietnam War and I remember the Vietnam vets coming home and the way they were treated." About the same time, she read a newspaper story about a veteran, only in his early 20s, who could not cope with life after what he had experienced, and killed himself.

"I wanted to do something," Nebeker said. That's when an idea came to her.

Nebeker is a Washington quilter who lives on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. She knows how a quilt can offer—in addition to physical warmth—the warmth of love, the softness of an embrace, and a sense of comfort and caring. Her distress led to action.

"My husband and I went out and bought lots and lots of fabric and talked neighbors into coming and helping to cut fabric," Nebeker recalled. "And my son, who's in advertising, made posters. I asked people to come to a 'sew-a-thon' to thank our wounded warriors."
And that's how, in 2004, a non-profit organization called American Hero Quilts came into existence.

"We're at 12,000 quilts," she said. "We never thought it would be that much."

Once the word got out, quilts began to arrive from all over the country. When I asked Nebeker where she stores them all, I was told that they go out just as fast as they come in. Each and every month, this grassroots organization sends from 125-150 quilts to Afghanistan, plus another 100 to Fort Lewis for the Warrior Transition Battalion, and also supplies them to several other military hospitals and rehab facilities.

In Afghanistan, quilts supplied by American Hero Quilts cover wounded soldiers on gurneys, to keep them warm as they wait on the runway to board Medevac aircraft and be flown to safety and help. It's a dangerous situation, as the larger planes make easy targets.

The quilts are made by both individuals and active groups of quilters who get together regularly to work for this cause. On Vashon Island, where American Hero Quilts is based, enthusiasts meet once a month at the local quilt shop, Island Quilter, to do anything that needs to be done.

Nebeker said, "They do make quilt tops, but for the most part they sew on bindings and labels for all the quilts that are coming in. Some of the quilts that come to us are just tops, and we send those to long arm quilters." By that she means, not quilters with long arms, but those who use the types of sewing machines called long arm quilting machines, made specifically to reach into the center of large quilts.

With the demand so great, help is always needed in the form of donations of pieced tops, volunteers to sew, quilt, and apply bindings, and cash. If you are interested in contributing in any way, you can learn how through this link, where you can also read about the standard requirements for the quilts, or donate through PayPal. All use patriotic colors and are made bed size, big enough to wrap around an adult. The organization does not distribute lap quilts.

All American Hero Quilts flow through the Vashon Island headquarters, for reasons of quality control and documentation. Nebeker said, "We have a label we put on the quilts that says, 'You are our hero. Thank you.' But sometime in the future, someone is going to ask, 'Who are the people who make American Hero Quilts? What are they doing, and what is it all about?'"

After a request from the
Washington State Library, she makes sure every quilt is photographed and all the information about it is preserved. Now, even far into the future, families will be able to research the quilt their loved one received.

Visable versus invisable wounds

American Hero Quilts does not forget those soldiers whose wounds can't be seen at a glance, the ones with brain injuries or
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, often called PTSD.

"They are as wounded as someone with a visible wound," Nebeker said, "so we make sure those folks are covered as well." Her organization also remembers the families who have lost beloved veterans to suicide. "That is a national shame and a national epidemic," she said. "There isn't a big recognition of their service to our country. So we make sure that we send a quilt to the family, and it state, 'With gratitude.'"

Sadly, there seems to be no end to Nebeker's work, even though it makes her happy to do it. Resigned to the inevitability of war and its consequences, she continues on.

"We want to give back to our warriors and thank them for their sacrifices," she said. "It's a way to give them a metaphoric hug. It's a way to comfort them, and it's a way for us to do something when we're at a loss as to what we can do."
Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

All photos are courtesy of American Hero Quilts
Please visit Good Life Northwest again for a related post about two wounded veterans walking many miles in the rain this weekend, to bring attention to PTSD and brain injuries. They left Bremerton this morning, on Veterans Day, traveled to the north end of Vashon Island, are walking the length of the island today, and will arrive in Tacoma via the Point Defiance ferry dock on Monday, Nov. 12. From there, they will again walk, all the way to Fort Lewis.
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Friday, November 9, 2012

Republican Versus Democrat—Civil War Memories Warn Us To Close The Great Divide

William L. Livesley       Company A Sixth Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry

Three days after the election, we're back in the fight, brother against brother, sister against sister. This morning I read with dismay, this news story about President Obama's, apparently voter-sanctioned approach to taxation and the so-called "fiscal cliff," versus the stance of Republicans, who still point a finger at "entitlement programs" and firmly resist raising taxes on the rich. It's more harping on the same points of disagreement. Both sides have their points and both feel they are right. The president is trying to bring the two sides, and the nation, together to solve problems that no amount of partisan bickering will ever solve. I wish him luck, for all our sakes. Yes, this is democracy in action, but we might hope it could be a more civil democracy.

This situation, especially in conjunction with Veterans' Day, makes me think about another time in this nation's history when divisions between its citizens reached a critical point and became the Civil War. As the great-great-granddaughter of a Civil War veteran, I consider his perspective. I am republishing an updated version of a blog post I wrote in 2008, when Obama was first elected, because I believe it makes points we need to remember. ~

On my desk sits an original copy of a book called The Sauk County Riflemen- Company A 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, over a century old, published in 1909. The cover is still a rich blue and the paper high quality, but fragile. I turn the pages with great care. Without my respectful handling it could someday just fall apart.

My great-great-grandfather, William Lamb Livesley, was one of the original members of Company A, one of the young men who signed up to fight for his country during the recruitment drive in what was still considered "the West" during the Civil War. The 6th Wisconsin was part of what would later be known first as "The Black Hat Bridgade"—because of their black, western style hatsand then as the famous Iron Brigade. He treasured this book, inscribed to him by the officer who wrote it, Philip Cheek. It is drawn from diaries and eyewitness accounts of the daily experiences they both endured. He is mentioned by name, and some of the more harrowing passages are underlined in pencil, by him. I cannot even imagine the pictures those words brought to his mind.

After the recent presidential election, I look at the book and ponder those defining few years in my ancestor’s life, and in the life of our nation, and how it all relates to me living here in Tacoma and writing a blog called Good Life Northwest. I have existed only about half as long as this book, but that’s long enough to have seen a number of elections. What I’ve never before seen is so much division in our country. I wonder what my great-great-grandfather would think about it. I think it would fill him with deep concern.

William Livesley didn't believe in bickering. He believed in hard work and positive action. His can do spirit helped him survived the Civil War, traveled with him to the prairies of Nebraska where he homesteaded in a sod house, and during his travels west to Washington Territory, in a covered wagon. That will to survive kept him going when he walked from Eastern to Western Washington over the Cascade mountain range and fell ill, carving his name and the date into a tree trunk so his body could be identified if he didn't recover. His toughness carried him through pioneer days in Tacoma and on Vashon Island, where he brought his family in 1880 to be counted among the island's first settlers. His legacy is one of eternal optimism. We must call on that kind of spirit now.

Just a minute ago, I read again the Gettysburg Address, picturing my great-great-grandfather reading it back when it was the news of the day. Most of us (I hope) know the first sentence about our nation having been “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. It goes on …“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” The differences of opinion in the Untied States today cannot be compared to a civil war, but when I see our citizens so polarized I worry that this country I love, where I can live in peace and write my blog about living a good life might become as fragile as the pages of my book.

The book’s dedication reads “To our comrades, living and dead, this volume is lovingly dedicated.” and in the preface it is described as “a record of the private soldier-the man that placed the 'Stars' on the shoulders of the generals, the men that performed the hard work and suffered the most privation; the man that made it possible to preserve this Nation.” I have the greatest respect for the generations of soldiers who have fought and continued to fight, even in unpopular wars. To all those soldiers and to ALL my fellow Americans, in "red" or "blue" states, I lovingly dedicate this blog post. We are all soldiers in the cause of a brighter future.

No matter how you voted, let us now unite for the sake of our common concerns and goals. Partisan bickering must end. Like the members of Company A 6th Wisconsin, we are in the midst of a time that will define our nation’s history. Let us now, regardless of party affiliations, be grateful we live in a democracythanks to the brave soldiers of every generation. Let’s join together to ensure that a government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Just like my book, without careful handling it could someday fall apart.

Here is how Cheek ended his book:

"No man liveth to himself alone. Not for themselves, but for their children, for those who may never hear of them in their nameless graves, have they yielded life ... Blessed be their memory forever."

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

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