It was Sunday evening in the little village of Mosqero, New Mexico. The old colonial Catholic Rectory was full of ranchers, cowboys, and rural people from as far away as Wyoming. Everyone had brought covered dishes of aromatic treats to share, and wine was flowing in anticipation of a concert of western songs and stories.
I didn’t know many people and I was a bit nervous as I felt expectations rise for the night’s entertainment, so I stepped outside in the early spring air. As I wandered around the building I encountered a young man who was also inspecting the place. We greeted and he asked, “Are you from Santa Fe?” I said no, I live in Salt Lake City. He looked down at the turquoise on my wrist and said, “It’s the bracelet.” Even through my own nervousness, I sensed troubles in this young man I’ll never know.
During the second half of the concert, I sang “Soldiers’ Heart,” a song I wrote in tribute to Veterans. It takes its title from the Civil War term for those who suffered Post Traumatic Shock Disorder (PTSD). As I sang, I could sense that there were those in the room who heard this song as I meant it, a personal message from me to them, a way of saying thanks but also a shared prayer of hope.
After the concert the young man I’d met earlier came up and pressed his hand into mine. He blurted out, “I, I want you to know that when you sang that song, I was standing at the back and I stood at full attention through the whole thing. Thank you.” He demonstrated the posture of standing at full military attention and then shook my hand again. “Afghanistan,” he said. “I’ve been there.” Altogether, he took my hand to shake it four times in our few moments together.
Later, as we were sitting around with our dear friends and hosts, the Crews family, I told them how moved I was by this young man and the intensity and immediacy of his response. I quoted a line from the song: “And though his war has ended, the battle rages on.”
Bella, the lovely teenage granddaughter of our host, told us that this same young man came up to her as she was selling our CD’s and books and asked her where she was from. She told him her home was in Jackson, Wyoming. He replied, “Oh that’s where Dick Cheney is from, Wyoming. He is a true patriot.”
The next morning, Monday, the Rush Limbaugh Show was broadcast to millions of people across the country. I was not tuned in. At the time we were touring the Crews Ranch – talking grass, calf weights, and looking at their incredible corral system designed by Temple Grandin. I learned later that the guest host of the radio show had interviewed a disgruntled cowboy poet and together they trashed the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the Western Folklife Center and me personally for over ten minutes. A couple days later, when I finally heard the claims and incendiary commentary, it almost seemed laughable; it was so full of mistruth and outright lies. I wondered how to respond to something like this without being ensnared in the muck of it all. I know the power and privilege of broadcasting as we have contributed over a hundred stories on NPR. Part of that privilege as a journalist is the duty to conduct fact checks and find credible sources. In the end, I decided that the portion of Rush Limbaugh’s audience that actually takes everything said on the show as gospel already has their minds made up, and that people who know me or have seen the beauty of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering over the years as a force for good in rural America, know us by our acts rather than by idle talk.
What I know for sure is this: a young man took my hand to bind his life with my song. I may never understand what all he has been through. He may never understand why I wear a bracelet or question Dick Cheney’s brand of patriotism. But because we met and took time to really listen to each other, way out in northeastern New Mexico, I can honor him and he can stand at full attention, and we are together in that moment.