A helicopter spaying Agent Orange in Vietnam. Army photo via Wikimedia Commons
A helicopter spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam. Army photo via Wikimedia Commons

By Holly Hanks

I grew up in central Virginia in the 1990s. My mother was a court reporter who owned her own business. Our family did pretty well. She had deep connections to the legal profession and like all parents, she wanted me to be successful. So I got my degree in philosophy with a pre-law concentration and I went to work in legal services, where I worked as an independent contractor for seven years, until I was 25.

In 2010, the bottom fell out. After watching my mother work all through my childhood to build a business, sell it for over a million dollars, and begin her retirement, I watched everything my mother had slaved for evaporate overnight when the housing bubble collapsed and their beautiful property in Louisa County became basically worthless. I watched her go back to work two years into retirement, punching keys for rich attorneys with a barely-healed greenstick fracture in her arm and the beginnings of carpal tunnel in both hands when she had worked hard her whole life and mine to play by the rules and do everything right.

Watching all of this happen, I realized I was running myself ragged working up to 80 hours a week with no health insurance and no retirement plan. Worst of all, not only was I sworn to secrecy about the sometimes questionable things I learned, but the work itself did almost nothing but make doctors and lawyers richer. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake the idea that there had to be something better than this. But I needed the money. I didn’t know what else to do.

Then, one seemingly regular day, my stepfather had his first seizure. I was laid out sick three hundred miles away, with less than a thousand dollars in the bank and unable to work, when my mother called to tell me that they were at the hospital. “They don’t know why this is happening,” she told me, “but I think it’s the Agent Orange.” I hung up the phone and cried.

The next day, I quit my job with no safety net three years into the Great Recession. After three days spent lying on the couch watching bad TV and studiously not thinking about my future, I got up and went to the computer. I pulled up Craigslist, and for the first time in my life, I went to the nonprofit section.

I barely knew what a nonprofit was, and I didn’t know a single thing about Greenpeace, but I called their ad anyway. My carefully rehearsed introductory script fell apart when a bright young lady answered on the second ring. I stuttered and stammered my way through the two-minute phone interview and was shocked when I was invited to an in-person meeting the next day.

By the end of the month, I was on the streets of Washington, D.C., openly asking strangers for money on behalf of the world’s largest independent environmental nonprofit. The first day was cold and painfully awkward and I watched a girl quit at lunch. No one else in my eight-person orientation group made it past day three. But I clung tenaciously to the promise of a job, and my coworkers helped me, and I signed up three monthly donors in three days. I had “made staff.”

To my ever-growing surprise, Greenpeace was full, almost to a person, of the most amazing human beings I had ever met. They were warm, open, and smart. They were passionate and principled and friendly and patient. They were idealists but not idiots, and they were great trainers. And they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself: a fierce advocate for truth with a head for facts and a heart like a lion. Slowly but surely, they addressed my lack of confidence and my social anxiety until finally, the only thing left was my fear of fully embracing my anger at the system and transforming it into the clear-eyed self-possession of one who sees flaws and works doggedly to change them. I left the society that raised me behind, and I full-on committed to the quest for a better world.

My stepfather, who married my mother when I was six, is a veteran. He was Special Forces in Vietnam, where he served more tours than he wanted to, and then career Navy. In the mid-1980s, when the ICBMs tipped with chemical and biological weapons first came out, he was high up enough in the chain of command that he might someday be the man who had to push the button. When he realized that his conscience wouldn’t let him do it under any circumstances, he made the difficult decision to leave. He’s now in his sixties and suffering the long-term effects of Agent Orange exposure. In January, I got a call from my mother telling me he’d had six seizures in one day. Medication does nothing to stop them. His short-term memory is shot and sometimes he can’t remember what state I’m living in now or how old he is. He can’t physically fill out his own Social Security disability paperwork.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that infinitely worse than the seizures, the diabetes, the sudden collapses in public, and the occasional vomiting of blood is the psychological torture that I’ve lived with and watched him endure since I was five years old. The nightmares; the wincing or explosive reactions to loud noises and crowds; the unpredictable and terrifying rages; the sudden and uncontrollable violence. It was around the time that I started with Greenpeace that I learned that these symptoms had a name: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

He’s the reason I built upon the skills I learned at Greenpeace in order to co-found Moderate Majority and begin working on behalf of veterans. Not every veteran with PTSD has a spouse like my mother, who has the legal and financial know-how to fight the VA for three years and counting, the stubbornness to insist on his attendance at psychological counseling and medical treatment, and the strength to come out of retirement to pay for it all when the VA doesn’t or won’t.

I tell you this not because it is my story, or my family’s story, but because it is my version of a story so deeply American that we all already know it. It’s my personal slice of a story that we all live in every day.

I care deeply about this country. It’s taken me a long time to reconcile my love of the United States with my clear-eyed recognition of its flaws, but I really do believe in the values that I was taught as a kid, of liberty and justice for all. I believe those are real and good things. I believe they’re woven into the very fabric of our country and its people. I even believe that they are worth fighting for. I just don’t think they’re won on the battlefield. And I don’t think they should be paid for with our soldiers’ long-term well-being and psychological health, or with the retirement funds of our hardworking military families.

This country is fixable, and I for one won’t rest until there’s nothing left to fix. I want my family and friends to live in a country where liberty and justice aren’t empty buzzwords, but the day-to-day reality we all work and live in, and I don’t trust our current Congress to make that happen. To me, that’s what it means to be a part of the Moderate Majority.

Holly Hanks is co-founder and ex officio Board president of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to advance the cause of veterans’ mental health and put an end to political partisanship. She currently resides in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she is a graduate student at Eastern Mennonite University‘s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

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