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Guardianship: Lessons from a Returning Soldier

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Note: This is an essay I wrote for a feature on Faith and Thought that ran in our local paper during 2007.  It was originally entitled "Returning Soldier Has Much to Teach Us" and was published in Mid-Iowa News, February 2007.  I was reminded of it by a recent conversation with a friend.


The backbone of the common good is sharing, especially those things that are part of our public inheritance - air, water, wildlife, parks, the library, roads and sidewalks - to name a few. Government has a wonderful role serving as the trustee of the commons and fulfilling our responsibility to pass them on to future generations.

If we took the commonwealth and the common health seriously, we might innovate some leading-edge policies right here in Iowa. Can you imagine appointing a guardian for future generations in the city council and asking her to assess the impact of city decisions on generations to come? What would the city budget look like if we did an audit of the commons and included the audit information to city residents? Then we could set goals for mending, restoring, enhancing our public goods.

What if we did an inventory of all the work needed on our streams and prairies and state parks, for example, and provided a list to Gov. Culver of work that our Iowa National Guard might do here at home? There is some precedent for this: Last summer the governor of Montana wrote a letter to President Bush asking him to send the Montana National Guard home from Iraq so they could help fight forest fires in Montana.

And speaking of the National Guard, I suspect they have an enormous amount to teach us about the Wise Warrior, the True Guardian, the Sentinel who protects the common good for future generations.

Some months ago, I sat next to a young soldier on a flight from Detroit to Des Moines. He was 22-year-old Army man coming home after two years in Iraq and Pakistan. He was quite anxious about his return. This was his last leg on a 30-hour trip to Iowa. I was dismayed about sitting next to him since I am a religious pacifist and was returning from an environmental conference too tired and grieved myself about the state of the world. How could I open my heart to this young man?

I began with the chitchat - who would be at the airport to greet him? His grandparents. Oh, and maybe his ex-girlfriend. Why would his ex-girlfriend be at the airport? A shrug. I asked if he loved her. His tears rose to the brim and he said "yes, but it's not manly to say so." I said, "The true warrior, the wise man, defends what he loves." He started to cry.

From there I asked him what his work was in the Army. His job was to protect the relief efforts of the earthquake victims in Pakistan. Noble work. He said, "Yes. But I can't be wrong." Sometimes he had to tell his commanding officer to kick in a door (implying that there were terrorists jeopardizing the relief efforts), and he couldn't make the Haditha mistake and have women and children harmed.

I told him about my life's work as an environmentalist and guardian of future generations. It was clear that I had a lot to learn from him. He said that he would have just graduated from Iowa State University if he had not gone into the Army.

I asked him what he would be doing if he had graduated. He said, "It would all be trivial. All trivial. I'd be buying a better car, looking for a job that would make a lot of money. It's trivial." I told him that's what he, as an initiated warrior, knew that we did not sitting back home. That is what he has to teach us.

We spoke quietly and affectionately about what it was to return home as a warrior to a culture that has no concept of what a true warrior requires from his culture nor what a healthy culture requires of its warriors. In the end, we concluded that the great warrior is one who serves as a guardian of what they loved.

The commons are essential to so much that we love - our children's health, the deer in my backyard, the ability to drive to church on a public road. May we learn to share and protect these treasures.

Carolyn Raffensperger Ames Iowa ©Mid-Iowa Newspapers 2007