By Alexsandra McMahan
When American combat troops return from the Middle East, the words of advice often provided are to the tune of reacclimation, as if you can just “get used to” the United States again after a life changing wartime experience on the front lines. For Richard Gilbert, a retired Marine Corps sniper, these words were not enough. In his view, returning to the U.S. isn’t so much a reacclimating procedure, but instead, a blending of lessons learned both overseas and in his home country. Returning to the U.S., and particularly to San Diego, Gilbert did not only experience happiness and relief. Some welcomed him with coldness, and others with outright anger. “This is my third quarter [at UCSD],” Gilbert mentioned, “and I’ve been called a murderer here, I’ve been told I went to the Middle East and killed babies…” All of those things. It’s really interesting because there are things that are offensive to specific groups that neither one of us even knows are offensive.”
In some ways, Gilbert’s circumstances are not typical - he suffered a traumatic brain injury from his second tour in Iraq, held a very high-pressure and personal position in combat tours as a sniper, and when he returned to the U.S., decided to relocate to a city thousands of miles from where he was raised. However, with the number of brain injuries on the rise and the increased understanding that any position in combat is highly stressful, Gilbert’s story has common threads with those of many other veterans. Although the ways in which these servicemen and women cope with their different experiences vary, Gilbert stands by certain principles as key not only for veterans, but all human beings, to cope with intolerance, stress, and alienation.
Gilbert has extended these ideas of tolerance and open dialogue into a life of action, taking this course to a new level last spring. At San Diego’s Mesa Community College, Gilbert founded Project Unity, a blood drive aimed to bring together Muslim and veteran students. Project Unity became something every individual could take part in as a blood donor or volunteer, and a project that can be brought to other communities with ease.
The need for this project was cemented for Gilbert during some particularly formative experiences at Mesa Community College. Although Gilbert found animosity in many different places when he returned to the U.S., he realized that he encountered it most frequently within communities where veterans and Muslim students had to share space. The most notable example in his mind was during his fall semester at Mesa.
“When I was at Mesa, the Muslim Student Association had a tent, and at the time, I was rocking the aviators, I had my big red ‘Marine Corp retired’ hat on, and I saw a poster that said ‘WAR’ at the top of it. [I thought], ‘That looks very interesting, I should probably read what they have to say about it, because it would be interesting to get their take on it.’ So I approached the tent, and there were four young females there, and as I approached, they literally took three steps back.”
This drastic response stuck in Gilbert’s mind, particularly because he “was pretty surprised that [his] viewpoints on war coincided with their viewpoints a lot.” This experience wouldn’t leave his thoughts, and finally, he brought the discussion to the attention of his Vice President of the Student Veterans Organization at Mesa. Together, they determined something should be done to guide these two groups into a more comfortable relationship.
“I started thinking,” Richard said, “if our opinions are the same and I view people from Iraq, Middle Easterners, and Muslims as my brothers, and they don’t view me that way, then obviously there’s something wrong. We need to do something about that. On top of that, you add the fact that we’re all Americans, which automatically makes us brothers, and the fact that they didn’t even know who I was, they didn’t know my name — all they knew was my outward appearance…They seemed a little uncomfortable around me, and that made me uncomfortable, and I was like, ‘Surely, there’s something we can do to remedy that, to take care of that, to change their perspective of veterans.’” An important first step was Gilbert’s acknowledgment that this discomfort occurs on both sides: “There are also veterans who have a very blindsided viewpoint of Muslims and Middle Easterners, so there’s something we need to do to change their perspectives as well.”
Project Unity, Gilbert makes clear, was not a personal effort to justify his experiences or promote his viewpoints on war. “The overall goal, when I first started,” Gilbert emphasizes, “was just to get people to realize… the founding fathers’ ideology of what America is. That no matter what color you are, what religion you are, no matter what you believe in or who you love, the fact that we are all Americans, we are all brothers, and we are all human beings.” He feels that goal is still true within Project Unity’s efforts today, and contends that it is a project that can help everyone open dialogue and reduce ignorance on key issues at the same time without forcing students to change their beliefs.
“The awesome thing is that Project Unity — it’s not about getting us to see the same point of view. It’s not about me saying, ‘This is what I think and this is what I’m trying to get you to think.’ We’re not trying to change political beliefs, religious beliefs, [or] political points of view within Project Unity, whatsoever. It’s not pro-war, it’s not anti-war, it’s not pro-veterans, it’s not anti-veterans, it’s not pro-muslim or anti-muslim. It’s pro-American, and it’s pro-human.”
Gilbert has continued to learn from his experiences with transferring to UC-San Diego this year and joining a new community. He has not lost sight of Project Unity’s success last year and he would like to bring this experience to UCSD in the future. He has spent the past year establishing ties with the Muslim Student Association, Afghan Student Association, Student Veteran Organization, and the Arab Student Union. Eventually, Gilbert hopes this program could spread nationwide and help serve as a physical space where groups can take the first steps towards opening dialogue on tense issues. During our interview, he asked me, “You know the breast cancer walk that they do every year? All sorts of people come out, pink ribbon is everywhere, it’s all over the country. I would love for Project Unity to be coast-to-coast on every major university [campus]. Because that’s really where dialogue starts.”
Ultimately, Gilbert’s experiences are important because they shaped who he has become and his actions have become a product of that; however, he stresses that what he really wants above all is for others to feel comfortable discussing difficult questions. Without dialogue, open communication, and - sometimes - saying the wrong thing, Gilbert believes it is difficult to ever reach a level of comfort about yourself and your beliefs. It is after communication, Gilbert stresses that people can move past understanding and towards concrete action. This, he says, is where change will happen to make the world a better place.
“There’s so many things that we see and it’s like, ‘Oh that’s awful, that’s horrible, how can we change it?’ and there’s so many things that are so far out of our reach that we feel insignificant about, and we think, ‘Okay, that’s some bad shit that happened, but I can’t change it.’ I find myself saying, ‘Well, that’s not really an acceptable answer for me.’…[How] I look at it, if I can get you… to see things from a different perspective, if I get you to respect everybody’s points of view — not that you don’t, but — if I get you to do that, who are you going to talk to tomorrow? Who are you going to affect tomorrow? And then who are they gonna affect?”
Gilbert admits this isn’t easy. As a veteran, he has sometimes struggled with the viewpoints of others on war, duty, and respect for individual life, but he has always overcome these differences to form authentic personal and business relationships. It is possible, he argues, and we, as individuals, can all have a part in educating ourselves and learning from those around us. Sometimes the hardest part is getting started, but here, Richard Gilbert - as always - has a few things to say. His advice?
“Don’t be afraid. I feel like…our country is so busy being politically correct that we are now afraid to approach people. We are now afraid to open dialogue, we are afraid to say ‘oh, well, this is what I think.’ We’re afraid that what we think is offensive, and it might be, but what we think is offensive because we don’t know any better. We’re not going to know any better unless we open this dialogue and we educate ourselves.”
As a university, UC San Diego often promotes its work to create dialogue and safe speaking spaces. Richard Gilbert’s efforts are amongst the most honest and dedicated actions, I have seen to truly encourage individuals to reach a more open understanding of the lives and struggles that affect others. Project Unity serves as an example of what opening dialogue really can do: bring together groups, foster understanding, and ultimately save lives.
Photos courtesy of Richard Gilbert.