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16 Years Later

My first day in New Zealand, I was walking across the main road in Arrowtown, a small community in the middle of the South Island. An air raid siren sounded, calling the all-volunteer fire department to the station. It sounded like a WWII siren and it pierced the otherwise perfect moment. Clear blue skies, poplar trees, tourists milling around in front of the old storefronts, and then there was me. I heard the siren and hit the deck, I dropped to the ground in the middle of the street and waited for the sound of the mortar to fly overhead, replacing the sound of my pounding heart, and explode nearby. Needless to say, there was no mortar and about 5 seconds later, I realized how ridiculous I probably looked. I jumped up, got myself together, and pretended like it never happened. That was the moment I realized two important facts: one, that I was probably experiencing some mental health injuries as a result of my two deployments to Iraq, and two, I would never have to worry about mortars and gunfire in New Zealand. This place was the second safest country in the world.

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The three and a half years I lived in New Zealand saved my life. I’d spent years “self-medicating” with anything I could to avoid unpacking all the baggage I’d accumulated after 18 months in Kuwait and Iraq. But over time, I was forced to examine myself in more honest and holistic ways. The safety of the island reduced my hypervigilance, the kindness helped me to trust again, and the international community only bolstered an often-unpopular opinion I developed in Iraq: the United States is not a perfect country that we should be weary of criticizing.

New Zealand is a rich and diverse country. With a tourism driven economy, people from all over the world are there at any given time. Diversity is one of New Zealand’s greatest strengths. I made friends from several different countries, of different faiths, of different social statuses. We were all there together experiencing the serenity of a nation that was kind enough to open its doors to us and which helped us all grow into better people because of Kiwi generosity and hospitality.

The Christchurch shooting was the worst act of domestic terrorism New Zealand has experienced in its history. New Zealand holds the door to their country open for the whole world, inviting us all to experience its beauty, and this man came in to destroy it. He murdered 50 people, wounded another 50, and with each round fired he stole a piece of New Zealand’s innocence. He chose New Zealand to show the world that nowhere is safe.

This act of hatred and violence has shocked the world and his actions have hit close to home for me. To know that my refuge, the place where I learned to trust again and where I found solace after war, is not immune to this kind of hate and violence, breaks my heart and I mourn for the lives lost in this senseless act. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, no matter what you call it, we can safely say that fear is on the rise.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, post 9/11 veterans worked side by side with local forces and community leaders to protect all civilians in these Muslim majority countries. We have first hand knowledge that the brand of hate this shooter subscribed to is unjustified and radical, like most hate. If this shooter had ever served his country he might have experienced this first hand but he sat on the sidelines.

True patriotism is a woven fabric of diversity that strengthens our greater society as well as local communities. The United States is a nation of immigrants just as New Zealand is. We do not get to shut down the avenues of a better life to people just because they don’t look like us or pray like us. We cannot take away the means by which our very own families were able to succeed. That is hypocrisy at its finest and it goes against the very pillars of our founding.

I’d encourage veterans from every nation, of every color, faith, and gender to stand against these acts of violence and hatred. We see extremists finding safety among the rank and file of enlisted men and women currently serving today. Call them out! We see hate and division at our local VSO chapters and bars. Call them out! Show those who choose hate over kindness that there is no space for their division among the ranks of us who served a greater cause than ourselves. Fight against the notion that tacti-cool branded nationalism is patriotic.

We are stronger together. Veteran voices need to scream out against hate and racism. Diversity is strength and we saw that while serving. We are uniquely situated to combat this kind of rhetoric. We need to heal, from the inside out, and we can do that by working together towards a more inclusive nation that refuses to be the genesis for hate and narrow mindedness. Tell your stories, embrace your neighbor, and fight alongside each other for a more inclusive and open world that isn’t driven by fear and ignorance.

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