She walked up to the microphone, the red bandana and red shawl making her instantly distinct even before she spoke. And though her voice was neither loud nor deep, it conveyed her presence clearly. Unlike some of the Truthteller award winners before her that evening, Eli Painted Crow had no rehearsed sales pitch, no artifice. She spoke from pain etched and burned into her heart from being a 22-year veteran of the U.S. military – most recent deployment being Iraq – and from having two sons who emerged alive, but broken, from Iraq. She spoke from the pain of many betrayals: the countless hours writing letters and make telephone calls so that her sons could get their Veterans Administation disability benefits, the general disregard for women in military service who report rape, the rampant racism within an institution that claims to be protecting democracy.
“I’m tired of fighting.” Of all that Eli said that night, this is the phrase that sticks in my brain. She refered to how the clashing egos and personalities within Code Pink and Veterans for Peace were undermining their own work to end the Iraq War, of how it fatigued her (and implicitly others) to organize within a culture that focused on fighting the political enemy while lacking a common vision of what peace actually looked like and what achieving peace would mean for how we related to each other.
Eli reminded us of how we were a few days from Veterans Day, but that for veterans, every day is Veterans Day, not because veterans feel honored every day, but because veterans have to live with the shock and brutality of war lividly pulsing within their thoughts Every Day. What those starched education psychology professionals call “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Those various but similar memories that lead many veterans to commit acts of violence in civilian life, sometimes killing themselves.
There is no way for me to fully convey the power of Eli’s presence through e-mail, but i will tell you this. She ended by playing taps on a harmonica. Everybody stood up. And though the hundred-or-so number of us had our bodies in a lighted, sheltered-from-the-rain dance studio, i felt a chill. I felt my heart peering into a gaping expanse of darkness punctuated by the notes of that sad, slow rendition of “Amazing Grace.” And somewhere between those notes were the remnants of stars, but not like the ones you see on a clear night while holding onto the warmth a loved one. These were smashed and fragmented shards, like porcelain dropped from a third-story window.
After her harmonica had stopped, we all sat down. But me, my mind kept drifting back to Amazing Grace. My eyes were dry, but i felt the heaviness of rainclouds, the echoes of all the broken pieces of myself i’m carrying, a survivor of war waged within the walls of a house. That song occupied my mind in every moment of silence for the next hour.
Oh amazing grace
how sweet the sound
to reach a one as me
I once was lost
but now am found
Once was blind
But now I see.
Eli Painted Crow is a Native woman of the Yaqui nation. She has toured the country, having spoken at and organized within Code Pink and Veterans for Peace. She has now started another organization: the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). To find out more about her work, please send an e-mail to email@example.com. You can also find out more at www.elipaintedcrow.org