GUEST POST: Casper

Mary MoeSen. Mary Moe

by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe (D-Great Falls) Sen. Moe can be reached at moe.mt.senate@gmail.com Follow her on Twitter  @MaryMoeMT

It’s a time of jarring incongruity. Outdoors, trees shiver in the crisp air, baring their branches of copper and gold. Frost silvers stubbly fields under a harvest moon. Everything is beautiful with dying.

Indoors, vitriol and inanity drip from the airwaves as journalists breathlessly report the latest in the limbo contests that now pass for high-level political campaigns. How low must you go to prove you are best qualified to make the world a better place?

Jarring. Depressing. But then … you go to the Veterans Court graduation in Great Falls to watch five veterans complete a program that keeps them out of prison and restores them to lives of hope. And Rodger is everywhere.

rodger-boy

Rodger as a boy.

Rodger McConnell. One of the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Vietnam. In 1966, with the snap of Uncle Sam’s fingers, he went from that friendly neighbor with the flashy GTO to a terrified, lonely agent of destruction.

“Combat is such an affront to your morality and spirit,” Rodger later recalled. “It launches you out where you’ve never been before.” He retreated to “that quiet place” in his mind and did what he needed to do to survive.

A year later, he looked down from his airplane seat on the city lights below and thought, “It’s over. I’m home.”  He was wrong on both counts.  He’d left combat behind, but its assault on his humanity remained. Angry, alienated, and increasingly alcohol-addled, he spent the better part of the next 15 years homeless and hopeless. He was that guy rolled up in a blanket on the park bench, that unkempt wanderer downtown, blinking away the brightness of the noonday sun.

One day another veteran approached him in some bar somewhere and said, “I know where you’ve been, and I know where you’re going. Don’t go there.” And somehow Rodger heard him. He got help. He got a college education. He got a teaching job. Then when he retired in 2003, he really got to work, pursuing his biggest passion: helping other veterans.

Rodger McConnell was a leading force in creating the Montana Veterans Memorial in Great Falls. He was the voice for veterans on public radio, interviewing them and those who helped them in order to raise awareness about veterans’ struggles. Every year he spent countless hours on the Veterans Stand Down event, providing vets with medical screening, counseling, clothing, shelter, and referrals for other services.

In 2012, when a young attorney named Greg Pinski threw his hat in the ring for a judicial seat, Rodger McConnell immediately buttonholed him about setting up a veterans court in Great Falls. Rodger believed – rightly, as it turned out – that some veterans’ criminal acts were the result of their unresolved combat-related issues. He argued that a very structured, disciplined program emphasizing counseling and accountability and offering the mentorship of other vets would serve veterans better.

Judge Pinski took the leap of faith. Last Friday, graduates #25-#29 of that program stood in a jam-packed courtroom to receive their certificates of graduation, the accolades of their mentors, and the applause of family and friends. It was the first graduation Rodger missed. He died 8 weeks ago. Yet he was very much there … in the gratitude of the graduates, in the memories of the mentors, in the tribute of Judge Pinski, and in the full hearts of all attending.

Rodger today.

Rodger today.

Rodger had two special gifts. The first was a truly unconditional love that was both transformative and contagious. The second was a childlike capacity for finding joy in the moment. He could even make soliciting signatures for Medicaid expansion seem like fun.

And yet, there was this ineffable, almost ethereal, sadness about him, as if war and its aftermath had ravaged him so, all that could survive was this benevolent spirit, its sweetness too good to be true, its good works too evident not to be.

Rodger McConnell learned humility in a way none of us would want to. He never sought status or acclaim.  But the mayor who worked with him on the veterans memorial called Rodger’s friendship the most affirming he had ever known. And the judge he convinced to start a veterans court hurried to Rodger’s bedside to tell him he loved him before he died.

Rodger lost the boy he was in Vietnam and almost lost the man he would become in its aftermath. But a caring stranger made a passing remark that turned him around, and he spent the rest of his life helping other soldiers to really, truly come back home.

In this season of incongruity, I believe in friendly ghosts.

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13 Comments on "GUEST POST: Casper"

  1. What a great story, elegantly written.

  2. I don’t know Roger but we as a society need to remember Roger’s life & trials are the by product of wars entered into without consideration for the individual costs to all combatants or cultures on all sides.

  3. Once again my favorite Senator Mary Moe lifts my spirits. Thanks. To you and to Rodger.

  4. Thank you sincerely, Senator Moe. I never knew Rodger but now I am grateful for him. What wonderful contributions he made to society. And, his life inspired your writing. Beautiful.

  5. Beautiful. I heard Rodger many times on the radio, wondering why I was listening. I never could overcome the disconnect between those who went to Nam and my own life, of a year too late. Hearing his program over many years taught me a lot. After 20 years in Great Falls, maybe I am getting the picture a little bit. We live in a community complex by virtue of its many hidden histories, each concealed by its memories of tragic experiences and lost or fulfilled hopes that linger to this day, new expectations raised by the chimarae of new opportunities, lives thrilled and restored or laid waste by passing economies. But the veterans whose youths were interrupted and unresolved by that war weigh so heavily here. The children, of course, bear the burdens of our histories. Thank you, Mary, for this kind insight into who we are together and how these men shape our world.

  6. I heard horror stories from my uncle who was a WWII vet. He couldn’t even talk about his experiences unless he was drunk and then he cried and talked. I’m sure every war has gotten worse. We, as a nation, need to do a much better job of taking care of our vets and we sure as hell need to find other solutions to the world’s problems than turning our young men into killing machines. Rodger, thank you for your work now and for serving.

  7. Grandfather Allen came back from World War One a very different man than the young farm-boy who was shipped off to Europe in 1917, both of his younger brothers used to say. “He never was the same,” his younger brother once told me. His youngest brother never could understand that man who came back decorated with the Purple Heart and a rod holding his left leg in place, that oldest of the brothers who came back from the trenches and the machine guns and the gas used in the 47-day Battle of the Argonne Forest, that battle that finally ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Grandfather Allen wouldn’t talk about it even with my step-father, who was shot down in his P-38 during WWII and was burned severely head-to-toe down his back, but who survived and went on to fly the Berlin Airlift. Pop Allen couldn’t stay on the farm after he came home. He went off to city life and got a job delivering packages for the Railway Express Agency (the forerunner of UPS and FedEx), and he did it 42 consecutive years, five days a week, before retiring at age 65 and dying at age 89. He had a few friends, fellow soldiers and airmen at the VFW and the American Legion, and brothers at his Masonic Lodge, but he died tired and depressed, homesick for the farm he could never go back to and the farm-boy he never would be again. I wish we had a Rodger McConnell to help every Pop Allen who comes home from war, and there are many.

  8. Thank you Senator Moe for your beautiful words to share the beautiful soul of a precious friend. Well done…well said.

  9. Mary you are such a special soul to all of us. If only we all had your sensitivity and sincerity our world would be a much better place. I am sorry I didn’t know this man.. He has really blessed our city, and am sure will be greatly missed. Thank you for letting us all know what a great man Mr McConnell was and still is.

  10. Mary, thanks for a wonderful post. For those of us who knew and worked with Rodger, no one could have told his story better. For those who did not know him, they certainly know him now.

  11. This blog has been completely cleansed of any dissident thought, made into a boring tripe sheet of sheep in agreement with the herd dogs. What a dismal display of human weakness! Sheehy is a legacy, set up to hold office due to family connections. They run her face, and she is set to move from state to national, perhaps even to be the next Baucus, good grief, the shame in that phrase. Democrats are the problem, as always, such phonies,

  12. With a slew of indecency
    lomarck hardvark overlooks decency
    and the diverse crowd that comments here.
    Is there some name for fools that try to get people
    to hate what the fool’s hate?

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