Thursday, October 27, 2016

Paul Riedner - Rethinking the Modern American Veteran

Paul Riedner is an Army Veteran from Minneapolis who served as a deep sea diver. Currently, Paul is the Executive Director of the Veteran Resilience Project. He is involved in the Veterans’ Voices Storytelling Project and is a 2016 Veterans’ Voices Awardee.

It was 2006 when I started distilling my life. It wasn’t filling me up. It was draining me. By day I traded on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. By night I searched for meaning. Everyone else seemed to know theirs. What was mine? Why did I feel so empty?

I began an internal audit of my life. I reflected about, “What brings me joy?” “What experiences fill me up?” “What physical settings or landscapes I’ve traveled to fire me up?”

I discovered a need to do something that required physical work with my hands, not my head. I discovered a need to work with water. Growing up on the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minnesota, learning how to live on the water from a father who served on submarines in the Navy, left me yearning for the water.

In addition, I needed to do something meaningful. Thousands of young people were sacrificing and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; it felt like something important was happening without me.

Then one day an Army recruiter showed me a video of Army Deep Sea Divers. To the chagrin of friends and family, I joined the Army.

Not long after beginning my service in the dive field, my unit, the 86th Engineer Dive Team, deployed to the Middle East. Most people wondered, “Why would divers go to Iraq?” not realizing the amount of water there. Two great rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, are key features of Iraqi geography – it’s not barren desert.

Divers are brought in when U.S. assets find their way into the water, including weapons, vehicles, or troops. At this time, Army divers were working on rebuilding the bridges that were destroyed in the invasion and ensuing fighting. The riverbed was littered with debris and the substructures needed to be prepared. Our job was difficult, expensive, and risky work anywhere, but especially in a war zone.

After leaving the Army, all of these events and experiences began re-orienting themselves in my mind. New associations were developing. Old rationales were becoming obsolete. I found prior assumptions and frameworks sometimes dissolved entirely under the pressure of a new understanding from my military days. It stunned me to realize that while we worked on bridges in Iraq, the 35W bridge in my home state collapsed. There are trade-offs. And choices have consequences.

Life seems to observe similar laws that water does. Like a wave that rises from trough to crest, we too have cycles of activity versus reflection, spending versus saving, talking versus listening, working versus resting. A re-balancing will happen one way or another.

If we took an audit of our collective well-being as a community in Minnesota, what would we find? Do most Minnesotans have what they need to thrive? Are we being good stewards of our future? When will we, as Minnesotans, take the time to reflect honestly on the events since 9/11, as a state, a country, and as a community?

Not only acknowledging the underhandedness of the political machinations leading up to the invasion, sparking the first ever worldwide protests, but to see and understand the human damage--its scale, its depth. Other repercussions are still ripping through our local and global community. We must not be naïve about the life-long effects of this type of violence on the souls of both warriors and civilians. These wars were conducted by very few, on behalf of the many, and continued for many years by the collective decisions of the people.

When will the local needs of Minnesotans get priority? When will we apply our finest resources, blood, and treasure to returning veterans, our kids, and a future that reflects our values?

As the only state in the U.S. with an entire month dedicated to Veteran Voices, we have the unique chance to take direct lessons from the profound experiences of those we send to war. We need the gifts of those who serve to rebuild our communities. Let us not leave money on the table.

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