Earlier this month, I visited a center in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq which has, since it began in 1991, helped survivors of land mine detonations and other war related injuries gain a new lease on life. On the walls of the Emergency Rehabilitation Center are small photos of people whom the staff has treated, over the years, with surgery, physical therapy and prosthetics.
Workshops train people in carpentry, tailoring, shoemaking and other skills so that people can return to their homes with a new vocation. Several of the therapists and technicians were maimed by weapons. They adamantly oppose war as a means to solve disputes. The staff's dedication and the familial atmosphere at the center give many people hope in a dark time.
They gave hope to Ali, an 11 year old boy who was severely injured by accident. While he was climbing a high voltage tower, the power was turned on. Electricity surged through his body, leaving him armless. It seemed a miracle that he survived. He is bright, energetic, and thoroughly engaging.
His mother, who is Kurdish, beamed with energy and pride as she helped Ali cope with physical therapy. She saved her tears until he was out of sight. Ali's father, an Arab Iraqi, has taught Ali to speak both Arabic and Kurdish. Ali helped me practice my fledgling language skills over the course of a few days. But mostly, from Ali, I learned about courage.
One day, as technicians at the center showed me a video about one of their "success stories," Ali walked into the room. He climbed up on the chair where I sat, and immediately grew curious about the 28 year old man, in the video, who was struggling to use his artificial limb, with a spoon inserted in the plastic hand, to feed himself.
I glanced at Ali's face several times, anxious that he might feel frightened or overwhelmed. First he was curious, and then clearly taken aback as he stared at the man's repeated failures to bring the spoon to his mouth. Ali quickly realized that he would face this challenge. Suddenly he sat up straight, nodded his head eagerly, and then smiled with delight when the man on the video succeeded in feeding himself. The next day, Ali was fitted with an artificial limb. Within hours, he proudly posed for a picture that shows him putting a spoon in his mouth.
Just before I headed off to visit this Rehab center renowned for helping victims of war, I received a letter from Brian Willson, a U.S. Viet Nam veteran who, unlike Ali, received horrible wounds from direct military action. He received these wounds from the U.S. military, on American soil.
Here is how he remembers September 1, 1987:
"In 1987, while peacefully blocking a military train at a U.S. Navy munitions base in California loaded with armaments headed for Central America, I received severe injuries and was almost murdered when the train chose not to stop. The Navy train crew and their supervisors knew in advance of our nonviolent three-member veterans' blockade and had a clear, 650-foot view as the train approached us at high noon on a bright sunny day.Ever since, Brian Willson has bravely "walked the talk," although he must do it on two artificial legs, traveling all over the world to campaign against weapons and war and the voracious resource consumption, chiefly by Western nations, which spurs so many of the world's conflicts. In more recent years, Brian has, with impeccable logic, started staying closer to home to avoid consuming more than his fair share of energy resources wasted in nonessential air travel.
Though expecting to be arrested and jailed by the nearby armed U.S. Marines and local police, we never imagined the conscious and criminal acceleration of the loaded train to more than three times its posted five-mile-an-hour legal speed limit.
I lost both legs, suffered a fractured skull, multiple other injuries, and nearly lost my life as I was run over by the speeding train.
One of the other veterans jumped high in the air to grab onto the cow catcher railing on the front of the locomotive just above the platform where the two government spotters stood.
A military ambulance and crew quickly arrived on the scene but refused to transport me to a hospital, alleging that my limp, maimed body was not lying on military property.
In the meantime, my wife, who was a midwife, and other friends at the scene, worked feverishly to stop my bleeding and to preserve my life energy while we awaited arrival of another ambulance 15 or 20 minutes later.
Shockingly, unbeknown to us, we had been labeled "domestic terrorist suspects" by the FBI, explaining the orders given the crew that day to NOT stop the train to prevent what they feared was to be a 'hijack.' This case remains an illustrative example of the severe danger of the government using the 'terrorist' label for dissenters, both at home and abroad, so prevalent today."
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