Altering Perspectives: Life, Death, Military, Mental Illness and Kaepernick 

By Pete Rearden

I’ve had some…interesting experiences in the past 43 years. I’ve had some real high points, made some friends who are probably better than I deserve, and managed to live through it all so far. I’ve also had some incredibly low points, be it from costly misadventures, poor personal decisions, or poorly advised career moves. When I was just beginning my path through adulthood I started on a real low point. Within eleven months, eleven months to the day if we are going to be precise, I had buried both my younger brothers. The white sheep of the flock, Marc, was the passenger in a car destroyed by a freight train. My partner in crime, my fellow black sheep, my best friend, Paul, stepped between me and a crackhead mugger’s knife. He bled out in my arms on his second grade teacher’s doorstep.

My brother Marc and I loved each other, but we weren’t friends. Youth doesn’t always lend itself well to understanding. His death hurt deeply, but in comparison to later events, it wasn’t a deeply scarring trauma.

Paul’s murder made Marc’s death a veritable emotional cake walk. Seeing the blood pouring from his neck, seeing him fighting for air that wouldn’t come, watching his eyes glaze as the ambulance arrived…that broke, no, that trapped a part of me on a suburban street corner where it will always be October 13, 1995.

In 1996, the burst of blinding rage, the hyper-vigilance, the nightmares, and the long sleepless vigils were given a name: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.

It has shaped who I am, both in terms of what President Abraham Lincoln called the “lighter angels” of my being, as well as the darkest demons. Over the years I’ve learned to ride the horse rather than simply clutching the reins. Sometimes you lose your grip on those reins though.

As the years went by, I lost more friends to the grave too early. I saw death up close. Sometimes it was at a car wreck, sometimes in a medivac chopper flying in and out of firefights, sometimes in hospitals, sometimes on street corners after the world had turn to all heat and noise and smoke and screams.

Each death made me a better rider of the pale horse I’d saddled that night in October all those years ago, but it also made that pale horse a little stronger as well.

I can’t see a needless death of a mother’s son on a quiet street, a child struggling to breathe through an oxygen mask as their body shakes from the chlorine they’ve breathed, or any other number of tragedies so frequently on display in the news without the parts of me that were trapped forever in the darkest moments of my past screaming out.

It makes me mean, it makes me cruel, it makes me vicious; not physically, but a sharp tongue can cut deeper than the sharpest blade.

I’m lucky. I don’t drink myself to sleep. I’m not strung out on pills. I don’t have traumatic brain injury as well as PTSD. I’ve learned to know my demons and how to keep the harnessed for the most part.

There are men and women who’ve served us who aren’t so fortunate.

Rather than talking about Colin Kaepernick, why not start a conversation about our veterans, as they are the ones the flag worshippers are claiming to be defending the honor and dignity of.

Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during National Anthem. Photo  by Chris Carlson/AP

This is what angers me. When it is convenient for them, many of those on the right – and make no mistake, this is a behavior peculiar to the more conservative voices in our nation – will fetishize our veterans. Sadly it is never convenient to fetishize and adulate when a veteran can’t find a job, when the part of a veteran trapped on a battlefield half a world and half a decade away drinks him to death, when a veteran sleeps on the streets cold and alone, or when a veteran sees his own death at his own hand as a blessing.

This disingenuous and hollow hero worship is sickening. Claiming that a man refusing to worship what at times has been little more than an American swastika as you turn a blind eye to the veteran slowly dying on the street is beyond hypocritical. It is the act of a callous and callow opportunist. To those who know intimately what these men and women deal with in the privacy of their own minds, it is a disrespect to our veterans far greater than refusing to worship a symbol.

Why don’t we turn the conversation away from how Colin Kaepernick is a bad person for respectfully protesting injustice, and turn the conversation to how we are all, regardless of race or creed, the agents of a great injustice.

Why don’t we see and talk about the injustice Kaepernick, and an increasing number of athletes are protesting with far more dignity than a person waving a trite sign on a corner, with an eye on the marginalized people who these athletes are protesting for.

To use the service of others as a political tool is a dishonor to their service. Why don’t we leave our soldiers and veterans out of this fight. They’ve fought enough.

pete Pete Rearden is a photographer, photojournalist, and opinionated commenter on America. Photo by Steve Watkins.

Part I: Reflections After Fruitvale Station

Part I: The Tension In That Moment

I saw Fruitvale Station and left thinking about the night a friend and I were pulled over by DC police officers on our way to a cabaret in northeast Washington.    

“Step out of the vehicle.” An officer said blue lights spinning on his patrol spun behind us. 

My friend, with a flashlight shining in his face, asked, “What did we do officer?”

“Get out of the car.” He yelled this time.

Out of the car, an officer pushed me toward the sidewalk.  A few cars slowed to see what was going on.  Two or three more patrol cars arrived on the scene as we were told to face away from the car.

Fear, frustration and anger boiled because we weren’t told why we were pulled over and we didn’t know what the officer’s intentions were.  Were they looking for something, someone or trying to set us up?

My friend asked again, “what did we do officer?”

He and I looked over our shoulders and saw the officers shining their flashlights through the car.  My friend yelled at them.  I don’t remember what he said but I remember trying to keep him calm and quiet.

“Watching Fruitvale and Michael P. Jordan’s ripping, raw portrayal of Oscar during the last hours of his life, I felt a brief connection. Jordan’s portrayal was real. I felt the tension in that moment. The diverse audience in the packed downtown DC theater did too as I felt and heard their disbelief during that subway scene.  

Did Jordan pull from his own personal experience?  I know that other African American men who have or will watch that scene and will say they could.

As I watched, I covered my eyes for a second, sighed heavily, prayed and sank into my seat as the scene progressed.  And I jumped when I heard the shot. 

My mind raced back to that night in northeast Washington.  Thinking, wow that could have been one of us.  

My frustration and anger from twenty years ago stirred again.  If but for a moment, I felt what Oscar felt that night.  I hope others did too. 

He was at a crossroad, a father who’d made mistakes but was trying to do the right thing.  I felt his mother’s pain for suggesting that he take the subway.  I thought of my mother.  How many times when I went out in high school or was home from college did she say before I went out, “be careful.”  

That night Oscar was just trying to get home to his daughter.  What is more frustrating is the officer, sworn to serve and protect the peace disturbed it and changed the lives including his own when he pulled that trigger.

Sadly, that isn’t where the injustice begins…..

Part II: Were We Profiled…If So Why?

The link below is video footage of the night Oscar Grant III was shot at Frutivale Station