Doing the Work

By Scott Cooper
I'm still thinking back to my Thanksgiving experience this year. My family’s Thanksgivings are a bit like Festivus, with a full airing of grievances, though slim on feats of strength. We have our own version of Cousin Eddie (of “Christmas Vacation” fame). He and I aren’t exactly politically aligned, shall we say. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that he’s not really political, but is more interested in lighting the dumpster on fire.
And yet, for reasons I don’t completely understand, there’s always been a kinship between us, maybe because he respects the fact that I was a Marine, something he’s said he always wanted to be.
It started before the turkey had even been carved, when he asked me, “So, I’ll bet as a veteran you’re pretty pissed about those spoiled boys disrespecting the flag before the NFL games.” How to deflect this one? I thought. I responded, “You know, I'm most concerned about that fact that we’re arguing all the time as a country. I can’t for the life of me figure out how we can get along a little better.”
My mother (who may be the sweetest person on the planet), always the peacemaker, stepped into the fray: “Well, I just stopped watching the news. It upsets me. But Scott, tell everyone about this neat work you’re doing. Those videos were really something.” I can always count on Mom.
I told them just a little bit about the work of this really “neat” (Mom’s term) group of veterans, who are trying to bring the country together a bit while it feels like it’s being torn apart. I talked about Peter and Wisam, who served in Iraq together, and how Peter helped Wisam find safety in America after he was threatened with his life, and how Wisam took his oath of citizenship earlier this year. I told them about Alex Vazquez and his family, about how Alex’s parents came here as refugees from Nicaragua, how they raised him right, which motivated him to join the Air Force, and how he works today to give back, helping refugees.
Mom beamed (don’t you love moms?), and our Cousin Eddie didn’t argue about “not wanting those kind here in our country.” He maybe even took a small step back and considered what I had just said. Had we found some common ground? Maybe not completely on this subject, but we were soon able to talk about things we all agreed on, like debating if we hate the Patriots or Cowboys more, and how disappointed we are in the Broncos’ performance this year.
I suspect many of your conversations were similar, and that you’ll have others over the holidays. Here are some things I’ve learned, and which I plan to work on the rest of this year and in 2018:
We need to continue to build a leadership cohort. It’s you, and you’ve done some amazing things…but we still have miles to go.
We must act, not just talk. And we must show up in person, time and time again.
We must prioritize our friendships, build real relationships, even with those with whom we disagree.
Change often happens through humanizing difficult conversations, as you did in the #WhatIFoughtFor work.
And finally, we must imagine a world that is possible. Hope, I believe, is that capacity to imagine a world different from the one that exists in the present. We are a nation that at our best has been defined by hope, and not fear.
Thanks for being part of this work.

Scott Cooper is the National Security Outreach Director at Human Rights First and the founder of Veterans for American Ideals. He spent 20 years  in the Marine Corps, flying the EA-6B Prowler and served five tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, one in Europe, and one in the Western Pacific.