Chapter 1: August 1993
That old, decaying brick building on that tiny Baptist campus in Southwest Arkansas looked like the front gate of Disney World. My nerves pulsated with the sounds of stereos blaring a ragged mixture of country, hard rock, and rap music from various windows across the front of the dormitory. I could hear a basketball pounding a floor somewhere inside. A strange smell wafted down to my nostrils from the highest windows of that building that reeked of freedom.
I was 18 years old—a man by legal definition—but I may as well have been waiting for the first bell of kindergarten. I knew my world was about to change, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready.
I stood on the sidewalk in front of West Hall, oblivious to the hustle and bustle of other freshman students lugging their belongings into the building from the cracked, potholed parking lot. My left hand gripped the handle of the one suitcase I brought from home; the other gripped that of my mom as my dad snapped pictures of my bewildered face.
I was an extremely sheltered child from birth until that very moment. My parents were very strict on where I was allowed to go, who I was allowed to be around, and what I was allowed to do. I had few friends growing up, and the ones I did make couldn’t stand me for very long because I was just too socially awkward to really Get It.
For a guy who had no driver’s license, no car, and had only worked a total of the three months since graduation in his entire life–oh, and only had one (sort of) real girlfriend his entire life to speak of—this was almost too much to take in.
I finally collected my senses and turned to the front door of the dormitory. I had no way of knowing in that moment that these would be the first steps of a 17-year journey from school to marriage, war, divorce, marriage again, children, war again and, finally, graduation. I only knew of the winding journey that brought me to those first steps.
I made my way through the front door, and it was as if I was stepping from one dimension of time into another.
Chapter 2: Spring 2010
I was sitting in a hotel conference room in Providence, R.I. with the 11 other members of the Unit Ministry Team (UMT) I served with in the U.S. Army Reserve. We were all dressed in civilian clothing for this trip, so no uniforms, but everyone knew who was in charge.
The command chaplain, The Colonel, was at the head of the table and all eyes were on him. He was an older gentleman with a sharp gaze that shot over the rims of his large-framed glasses and a soft, patronizing voice who loved to challenge his subordinates whether he agreed with them or not.
We were told about three days before that this trip was going to happen, but we were not told why. He liked to be mysterious like that. Actually, if you want to know the truth, he just liked to make people squirm and I’m still not sure to this day if it was a control thing or just to amuse himself. When asked why we were doing this, he simply replied, “Because I’m a colonel and you are not.”
The hotel was not an especially well-appointed one. It had the requisite furniture, but it was all upholstered in a late-1970s funk that spoke more of disco than comfort. The drapes hung like bad suits over emaciated human frames.
The meeting did not begin with a purpose statement. There was a gift basket at the other end of the table from The Colonel and he directed our attention to it.
“I see the hotel decided to gift a bunch of chaplains and their assistants with a variety of alcoholic beverages,” he said. “Though I am Methodist, I will not be partaking of any of this sort. Any of you want it?”
His eyes darted around the room, searching for any takers. None did. We all knew better.
“Very well, then,” he said with satisfaction. “Now. I’m sure you’re all wondering why we are here.”
He favored us with another probing glance, then broke out in a loud belly laugh.
“No one is in trouble. This isn’t a whip-the-dog meeting,” he said. “We already spent the money on this place for a marriage enrichment event that we had to cancel, so the hotel owed us a training session.”
All around the room, shoulders relaxed and faces loosened as we processed his sudden change in demeanor.
“We minister to Soldiers and their dependents who have suffered the unseen ravages of war,” The Colonel continued. “As you all know, the most effective way to help them confront their issues is to get them to tell their stories, but how can we do that if we haven’t confronted our own?”
Faces tensed again as he said this—including mine.
“Today we will all tell our stories,” he said. “I’m not asking for anything deeply humiliating, but I am asking for deep introspection and thoughtful contribution. And by the way, what is said here stays here.
“Vaughn, you’re up. Kick us off,” he concluded.
Though I am rarely at a loss for words, I was easily the lowest-ranking person in the room and, frankly, I was quite surprised that I was selected to start this awkward process. I nervously cleared my throat, looked around the room at my coworkers, then began with words that I would very soon regret and later realize were both untrue and unfair.
“I was born in a culture of failure…”
One entire side of the room exploded in laughter. I was shocked by this reaction, so I shot a glance at The Colonel to see if he found what I said as amusing as everyone else seemed to. He looked as confused as I was. I kept waiting for the gut-wrenching laughter to subside, but it seemed to have taken on a life of its own.
Without even raising his voice, The Colonel said, “That’s enough,” and the room suddenly went dead silent. Just like that, the fun was over. In that moment, I had to decide whether I was more embarrassed at the reaction to my words or more in awe of his steady command of everyone in the room.
As the Mad Laughers wiped their eyes and regained their composure, The Colonel favored me with a reassuring nod that encouraged me to continue.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Frank Vaughn, B.A.
Ouachita Baptist University
Class of 1997…1999…2001…2006…
First published in The Batesville Daily Guard November 23rd, 2016
I have always said that Thanksgiving is a time for the three Fs: Food, football and family. The smells of turkey, fixin’s, and desserts permeate the house, creating a low rumble in the belly that can only be satiated by gluttonous consumption. The sounds of football blare from the family room, punctuated by alternating yells and groans that eventually taper off into a tryptophanic coma. Family crowds into the house to share in the festivities until a fight inevitably breaks out (well, that’s how I remember it anyway).
Most Thanksgiving dinners I’ve attended usually included some method of expressing the blessings in life before the food is attacked. This is appropriate, considering food and family are enough to be thankful for alone. There are many expressions of gratitude for health, loved ones, maybe even wealth and prestige. I have noticed, though, that there tends to be a focus on what has happened or what is happening when giving thanks. What about the future, though?
Yes, I am thankful for my family, my friends, my home, food, health and so forth, but I’m also thankful for opportunities to grow, learn, achieve and succeed going forward as well. I wondered if it was just me, so I decided to ask the question on social media to see if anyone else had an eye on what’s ahead. I didn’t expect to get many answers, but I was surprised. Here are a few:
Several responded with dreams for their children. One profound example was, “That my kids grow up to be responsible, contributing, ethical, compassionate, and firm in their beliefs.” Another said, “To have happy children who love Jesus and others.” One more from the parents: “To be a size 8 and raise a great son.” Our children truly are the future of this world, so it is very appropriate for parents to tune their dreams to the possibilities they have in front of them.
Several expressed a desire to travel the world, while a couple of others mentioned their dream of finding love someday. There was also a desire to become a philanthropist from someone that I personally know to be a ridiculously hard worker. One even said, “For the Razorbacks to be #1 in the nation in football.” Well, I did ask for dreams, right? Another put it simply: “I dream of tacos frequently.”
Did you know that it is OK to dream? To reach for the stars even when you know you’re going to get bruised along the way? Many are afraid to do that because they view it as a waste of time. Some get discouraged with their present circumstances and are too afraid to consider the future. Others have chased big dreams that have gone up in flames and simply refuse to allow for the possibility of failure again.
Ah, that word. “Failure.” I have a different take on that concept because I have chased many things that didn’t come to pass. I’ve fished without catching anything. I have chased love and come away empty handed. I’ve even caught love and lost it. I went deer hunting with a buddy once, and we sat in a tree stand from 4 a.m. until we couldn’t stand being frozen solid anymore, and all we saw for our troubles was a couple of stray dogs sniffing through a pile of garbage. Were these things failures? To me, the answer is no.
I believe that no matter what you try, you either win or you learn. Key word: TRY. Every task I’ve ever tried to accomplish, every dream I have ever chased, every relationship I have ever been in have all been valuable learning experiences for me. Yes, some of these experiences have been extremely painful to live through, but I am — dare I say it? — thankful for every single one. None of them have discouraged me from chasing future opportunities. They have taught me how to chase them.
As most of us gather together tomorrow to enjoy food, football and family, please still give thanks for all that you have. Enjoy the company while trying not to gorge yourselves into oblivion (I make no promises on that one). Give thanks, because that is what this holiday is for. Just remember, though, to be thankful for the future.
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First published in the Batesville Daily Guard Nov. 9th, 2016
Preparations are already being made for the holidays. Thanksgiving dinners are being planned, travel plans are being booked, stores started displaying Christmas décor sometime around August, but there is one holiday that is likely being overlooked in the midst of all of this.
Veterans Day is this Friday, and while most of you likely support our veterans, this holiday sort of flies under the radar for most of us who are not employed by the federal government, especially this year. I mean, all of America’s attention up until this morning has been totally consumed with election coverage and there has been precious little room for anything else in the Continuum. Before I get to why Veterans Day deserves more recognition than it typically gets, let’s take a moment to examine how it came to be.
The armistice with Germany officially went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m., effectively ending World War I. President Woodrow Wilson issued the first Armistice Day message the next year on the anniversary of that event, and in 1926 Congress passed a resolution requesting that President Calvin Coolidge issue a proclamation calling for an annual observance of the Armistice on Nov. 11. It became an official federal holiday in 1938, known as “Armistice Day.” The name of the holiday was changed to “Veterans Day” (no apostrophe) in 1954 to recognize veterans of all wars, not just World War I.
So why does Veterans Day deserve our recognition? Well, the obvious answer is that our veterans have sacrificed so much of themselves and their lives to do what they do to ensure our country remains free and our interests are advanced around the world. Many have lost their lives, many have lost their quality of life either through physical injury, mental and emotional wounds (commonly referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress) … many have lost marriages and relationships due to extended absences. Many have missed birthdays, anniversaries, children’s first steps and words, and many more important life events while serving our country abroad.
Bottom line? America can never repay our veterans for the sacrifices they have made in the course of serving in combat. There is also an apparently not-so-obvious answer as well…
We are still at war. Though we shut the lights off in Iraq and pulled all of our troops out in 2011, we have had to send as many as 5,000 of them back since then, with another estimated 1,300 on their way over before the end of this year. There has been talk since 2009 of pulling all of our troops out of Afghanistan, yet at least 10,000 remain in that country.
Now we have troops in Jordan and Syria as well, with others stationed for sustainment operations in Kuwait and still more conducting training exercises in Eastern Europe just in case Russia decides to be … well, Russia. In just the last couple of weeks we have lost at least five Americans due to combat-related injuries, including three Special Forces troops currently stationed in Jordan.
Veterans Day is not a political issue and it is not a politically-driven holiday. Regardless of whether you agree politically with the current state of U.S. military operations abroad, we still have troops in harm’s way doing what less than 1 percent of all Americans will ever be willing or able to do. They deserve our respect, they deserve our admiration, and they certainly deserve at least one day of our time to thank them and express our appreciation for what they do.
First published in the Batesville Daily Guard November 16, 2016
I have been stationed in Puerto Rico for the last two-plus years, and I have seen sights both beautiful and interesting. The architecture of Old San Juan is majestic as you run alongside the foaming, roiling ocean in a cloudy haze, and the northern beaches at sunset paint a perfect picture of peace as you drive slowly home from a hard day at work. While those scenes evoke feelings of sophistication and serenity, there is another that just … makes you think?
The chapel at Fort Buchanan sits atop a steep hill, overlooking the installation. The slopes on every side are covered with green grass and offset with groves of palm trees and, on one side, near the road that passes by, you can see a set of stairs. They ascend from the bottom of the hill back up to … nothing, actually. It is as if they once were connected to a building, or maybe a stage in the days before a road was paved through there, but they no longer serve any function whatsoever. They are just … there. I had walked by them countless times on my way to visit the chapel without noticing they were even there. I had a sense that something about that beautiful scenery was a little off but, like a faint scent in the breeze, I couldn’t quite place what I was sensing.
I first noticed the stairs one day as I was walking to the chapel for a meeting. I was running a little behind, so I decided to commit the Cardinal Sin of the U.S. Army and cut across the grass. I was really hustling that day and I wasn’t looking where my feet were taking me, so I stubbed a toe on those concrete stairs and nearly sprawled face-first right across them. I have to be honest about something — I was very late for that meeting that day. Once I regained my balance, I looked down to see what the rather solid obstacle was that halted my rapid progress across that otherwise pristine grass. OK. I stumbled, so regroup and continue on, right? I wasn’t hurt and no one saw me, so I wasn’t embarrassed. I was actually mesmerized.
I stared at those stairs for a good while and for some reason, I could not get my mind to make my legs move again. There was something about these stairs that held my attention and I knew at that moment that I wasn’t going anywhere until I got to the bottom of why these things were there, why my life took me right across their out-of-the-way path, and why I was so captivated by them. I’m serious, folks. I was rooted to that spot. My time with these stairs was beginning to get a little uncomfortable when it finally hit me.
It wasn’t that they didn’t belong there. In fact, the opposite occurred to me. They did belong there, once. No one creates stairs in a grass field and then calls it a career. Once upon a time, those things were connected to something and served the very real purpose of assisting people up and down from … whatever that was. The structure that they used to belong to is long gone now, but those stairs were just … forgotten. Forgotten? Used to serve a purpose? Then it hit me.
We were all created for a purpose. No one is on this earth by accident and no one is completely useless. As long as we have breath in our lungs, we have the possibility to make a difference in peoples’ lives. In fact, I have ministered to people on their deathbeds who have said wise things to me that I have carried with me ever since. In their last moments, people have helped shape my life. They understood that however many seconds they had left, there was still a difference to make. They redeemed whatever time they had left.
I have also met people who are content to just be. Like those stairs, they were created for some reason and to perform some function but have been disconnected from that very thing. Like those stairs, they are just sort of out there in that field of their life, weather beaten and forgotten, only to be occasionally tripped over by folks who are in a hurry to answer the calling in their lives.
With that question answered, here’s one more for all of us to consider: Person of Purpose or Stairs to Nowhere — which are you?