by Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe (D-Great Falls) Sen. Moe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 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 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.