Truthdigger of the Week: Jacob George
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.Who did I ask to make this the plan? To make me a refugee in my homeland?
-- Jacob George, "Playground of War"
Mourning over the death of farmer, musician and three-tour U.S. combat veteran Jacob George continued this week. Truthdig reported the 32-year-old's suicide on Sept. 19 in an article that gave special prominence to the value he ascribed to antiwar activism in his effort to recover from "moral injuries" he said he sustained in Afghanistan. Between the 19th and the publication of this piece, the article was viewed almost 100,000 times.
Telephone and email conversations between Truthdig and people who knew George suggested that families, friends and advocates of former soldiers, especially those who work toward peace, made up a bulk of the article's audience. The exceptional level of interest indicates an intensity of devotion consistent with what anyone who spends time among antiwar veterans is likely to observe. Former soldiers gathered in places where war is condemned rather than glorified treat one another with particular gentleness and affection, exactly as one would expect of people intimately bound by a common sense of tragedy, fate and purpose.
It is not difficult to grasp why Jacob George was so beloved. Vietnam War era veteran Ward Reilly, who never saw combat but who does therapeutic work with veterans afflicted with what military psychologists call post-traumatic stress disorder, met with George during various stops on the former Afghanistan soldier's 8,000-plus mile bicycle "Ride Till the End" across the United States. After departing his native Fayetteville, Ark., in May 2010, George spent three years telling the stories of his experiences and sharing with everyone he met his music, his passion for the United States and his opposition to those whose actions degrade it. The stops included Fort Hood in Texas, to date the location of the largest shooting on an American military base; New Orleans at the time of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the Occupy protest in Washington, D.C.; the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library in Dallas in 2013; and later that year the court martial of Pfc. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning at Fort Meade in Maryland. The ride crossed paths for a time with antiwar mother Cindy Sheehan's "Tour De Peace" bicycle tour through New Mexico. Reilly's friendship with George began at the annual convention of Iraq Veterans Against the War in Austin, Texas, in 2010. (George co-founded the Afghan Veterans Against the War committee the of IVAW.) It was there that the "brothers," as Reilly referred to his friend and himself, "got to hug for the first time, and where we bonded." George "was a particularly strong and beautiful voice, a dynamic personality," he told Truthdig by phone.
Reilly's opinion of George tracked with that of everyone Truthdig spoke with. The young veteran had mined remarkable insight and wisdom. The lessons, of course, were earned at a terrible cost. "The realization that you are an oppressor of poor people is something that's just incomprehensible, especially when you come from the land of John Wayne," Reilly said, referring to the portrayer of romanticized cowboy heroes in mid-20th century Western films. "You're gonna go liberate the world. The propaganda says we're No. 1. The reality of criminal occupation is hard to accept for someone who still has his humanity."
Paul Appell is another Vietnam War veteran who spent time with George on multiple occasions. A farmer as George was, Appell said he has played George's nine-song 2013 album, "Soldier's Heart," some 500 times as he has worked his farm where he grows soybeans and corn. "The moral injury that Jacob had and sang and wrote about is an injury that never truly heals," Appell wrote in an email to Truthdig. "Many veterans of war have bonded with and feel an endearment to Jacob because he was willing to bare his soul." He quoted an introduction George wrote for his album: "A lot of us veterans feel we entered into a relationship with our nation through our service: a sacred contract of protection signed with the soul. … This contract isn't for the interest of international corporations or greedy people. Its fulfillment hinged on the needs of the people. Through the misuse of this contract, many of us feel betrayed, deceived, cheated on, and abused emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually."
Appell also spoke of the bond both he and George felt to the community of veterans who marched and talked and agitated against war-mongering together. In the song "Warrior," George sings about "the difference between a soldier and a warrior." A soldier, he says during a spoken portion of "Warrior," "is loyal. A soldier is technically and tactically proficient. A soldier follows orders. Now a warrior ain't so good at following orders, because a warrior follows the heart. You see a warrior has empathic understanding with the enemy, so much so that the very thought of causing pain to the enemy causes pain to the warrior." Then George sings: "You see a warrior understands that we fight to make a stand, no matter the injustice we might see."
Soon after come lines that tell of the event George regarded as one of the most significant and healing of his life: "My veteran sisters and brothers and I had heard that NATO generals were gonna be meeting in Chicago in early 2012. And we thought we'd give them the opportunity to honor us by returning our medals. So, we let ’em know what we wanted to do, and told them we wanted them to ceremoniously receive them. And they refused. So we decided we were gonna march straight to the gates of that summit and throw ’em back. Because we were seeking a rite of passage into warrior hood. And we wanted to show the world that this country still has warriors." Again, George summons a throaty Arkansan growl, "It was a hot and sunny day in Chicago as we lined up to march down the road. With 20,000 strong there wasn't nothin' to go wrong as we sang songs through every barricade. Now I held my head high as I marched beside my sisters and brothers in arms. And there's no better day than the day that we marched to the gates of the NATO barricade."
And then a line that is dear to Appell: "Surrounding us was a circle of trust by veterans of many wars past."
Trust became a crucial theme for George. In "Soldier's Heart," which can be heard below, he sings about the betrayal of his trust in the leaders and institutions of the United States. In "Warrior" and elsewhere, he sings about finding it again among his brothers and sisters in arms (the double entendre is no doubt intentional), and certainly a deeper, more powerful, personal and lasting type than the kind that was shattered.
The veterans told Truthdig that they do not blame George for "doing the surefire therapy for ending the pain," as one put it. Some confirmed they had come close to suicide themselves. Appell added that "times for war veterans are tough because we know exactly what is going to happen with the actions that Obama talked about in his recent speech. Jacob and other war veterans know the pain and suffering that will be done to our fellow man no matter what terms used to describe war, whether it is done from afar with drones and bombs or up close eye to eye." Reilly reiterated Appell's opinion that the announcement of renewed battle in the Middle East has "triggered post-traumatic stress in veterans nationwide."
It is often said that the current generation lacks a representative voice comparable to those that rang out during the antiwar era of the 1960s, to the trudging behemoth that pushes society into the sadistic territories of empire. Eloquence, determination, sensitivity, intelligence and warmth came together in Jacob George in a way that shows those voices have been pushed only from the mainstream. It is an irreparable tragedy that our institutions did not help George come back to a home in which he could remain. Though he may have been unable to reconcile with the man he was for a few long years, there are clearly thousands of people, if not tens of thousands, who admire, benefited by and are proud of the man he became. Jacob George is our Truthdigger of the Week.
Readers who wish to donate to a memorial fund for Jacob George can do so here.
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