As I awake on the 17th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq engaged in yet another global crisis I am reflecting upon where the world and I were in 2003 and the path we forged to the present. 23 year-old me was gazing upon the safe waters of the Mediterranean as our ship, USS Portland (LSD-37), headed home due to mechanical failure on our way to deliver U.S. Marines and their tools of destruction to invade Iraq. 17 years later, I am currently applying some of that same military training in helping organize my fellow community members of the Norfolk, VA metropolitan area — one of the most densely populated regions in the state — to survive the global COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. The events unfolding around me over the past week, while surreal to many, invoke memories of my time in the military and how we trained for these crisis situations.
Earlier in the week I saw military and national guard members were recalled to their duty stations and travel restrictions enacted. I only recall this occurring during my time on active duty (1998–2004) during the 9/11 crisis and the invasion of Iraq. Currently, civilian access has also been restricted on military installations. These actions achieve two goals in a pandemic or crisis situation: they first attempt to mitigate the spread among troops to maintain operational and strategic readiness; and secondly provide the military space that is secure from civilians to prepare and enact a militarized state in times of war and pandemics.
Another way I am able to relate this to my specific military experiences is through the mission of the type of ship where I was stationed. USS Portland (LSD-37) was a dock landing ship, also known as an amphibious assault ship, capable of carrying a loadout of Marines and their equipment close to shore during an invasion. Due to its design, an additional capability was accommodating large amounts of people carrying out humanitarian missions such as evacuations or quarantines. We thus trained and were certified in performing this mission during situations like the COVID-19 pandemic we face today. As our training, we were told how to communicate with our families and civilians. We rehearsed many of the procedures of processing people similar to what we see unfolding on our streets and the streets across the globe. Therefore, combining that knowledge with my professional public relations experiences and education in crisis communications, I am hyper-sensitive to the messaging presently shared and severity of our near future.
I’m troubled we are not on the side of mitigated outcomes, especially facing an economic crisis foreshadowed in a U.S. culture invested in racism, materialism, and militarism.
I spoke with a friend in Geneva this morning who was an international relations professor in the UK a few months ago, and since lost her job and visa — now homeless abroad not knowing what she will experience the next few weeks. I had a conversation with neighbors earlier in the week who are at increased risk for contracting COVID-19 due to their age and health, and the husband (a Fox News follower) thought this was biological warfare from the Chinese government. I went by my local gardening store as one of my last ventures into the public for at least a week or two and it was business as usual with them concerned about how they will pay bills and feed their families. I am gravely concerned hoping we are able to mitigate the situation, yet I’m troubled we are not on the side of mitigated outcomes, especially facing an economic crisis foreshadowed in a U.S. culture invested in racism, materialism, and militarism.
Currently in Virginia, I am working with the Hampton Roads Poor People’s Campaign, Food Not Bombs, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and a growing team of neighbors responding to this tremendous need existing among the most vulnerable in our communities. I have spent the past few days listening to voicemails requesting food and other assistance originating from our most affected residents. We are expecting an influx of entire elderly communities requesting assistance as a few of them told us yesterday their food provisions are rapidly depleting and they don’t have transportation to acquire more. I also spoke with a mother who had to travel to a hotel an hour away from her rural home so we could provide her with baby food. There was another mother of three who was evicted from the hospital after having her foot amputated and is in a wheelchair unable to leave her house. Utilizing fusion and coalition organizing models we have pulled together more than 100 volunteers formally with many others helping each other out in the comments of our Facebook group.
What if the military funds utilized to destroy poor and suffering people and their cultures in Afghanistan and Iraq were diverted to assist domestically for the public good?
While this network of volunteers — organized as CovaAid 757 — are able to meet many of our requests, we also know there are resources available that need to be made accessible. What if the military funds utilized to destroy poor and suffering people and their cultures in Afghanistan and Iraq were diverted to assist domestically for the public good? I saw how freely they were available during my time in the military, and I have since learned they are misappropriated to kill a child of parents thousands of miles away from our own shores, while we let our own children experience extreme hunger and poverty. I remember as a kid hearing seniors refer to the “Golden Years,” yet we now allow Congress to tell them there’s not enough money for their social security, while another trillion dollars go to war. This is how we can begin imagining a society shifting from being organized around war to one that prioritizes care and the well-being of all people.
This is where hope originates in this kairos moment, a time of turmoil and change. One of my last close and personal interactions prior to this was in Washington, D.C. at a Poor People’s Campaign training for students across the country. As Rev. Dr. Barber was working his way through the room, our paths crossed. I introduced myself and he embraced me. He told me we are going to have dinner together and I will be a guest in his house. Seeing him put his faith in action, based upon theory and reflection, welcoming folks into his ministry of caring for our most affected neighbors in their times of need — regardless of where they are in life — motivates me to accomplish more good.
Every day since, I meditate upon those words as they drive me to utilize the skills I acquired over the past decade, organizing with anti-war groups of veterans such as About Face: Veterans Against the War and Veterans For Peace. These, along with autonomous mutual aid tactics utilized by Food Not Bombs, and the nonviolent protest practices of the Poor People’s Campaign are what I share with my community. In kairos moments, those on the side of peace and equality must mobilize, maintaining equanimity while achieving equality for all, especially our most vulnerable and affected population.
Forward together, not one step back!
T.J. Thompson is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, enlisted from 1998–2004. He was stationed on board USS Portland, LSD-37 from 2000–03 and deployed to Europe in the Mediterranean Sea, South America, and in support of the Global War On Terror to the Persian Gulf in early 2003. Thompson was raised in Chesapeake, VA where he currently resides with his family and is a community and national organizer volunteering as an advocate with groups including the Poor People’s Campaign, About Face: Veterans Against the War, and Drug Policy Alliance . He has worked directly with the U.S. House and Senate on marijuana policy reform for veterans and currently engages in ongoing work locally with Hampton Roads Poor People’s Campaign. T.J. is in the process of a Masters Degree in the Humanities at Old Dominion University with an emphasis in critical cultural analysis.