Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Remembrance

There’s a tiny version of me perched on my (good) shoulder right now. I guess you could call him my conscience. He looks exactly like me, right down to the ketchup-stained T-shirt and Chicago Bears slippers. He sounds like Chip & Dale. My conscience is pointing at me and screaming his ass off. He’s screaming because I’m about to break a promise I made.

“No preaching, no preaching!” my conscience yells. “You swore, you swore! Bullshitter, bullshitter!”

He’s right, of course. When I started this blog, I told myself I’d stay off the soapbox. If there’s anything I hate, it’s some self-righteous Marjoe Gortner wannabe pushing their “Message”—be it religious, political or otherwise—at me like Aunt Wilma jamming her rock-hard, 80-proof rum balls down my throat on December 25th. I’ve tried hard to keep my promise. Honestly.

But like Gulliver in Lilliput, I dispatch the yammering imp with one flick of my mammoth forefinger. Sometimes, when you’ve got some truth to share, you’ve got to do a little sermonizing. So please excuse Brother John, this one time, as he climbs up into the pulpit. When it comes to spreading the word, I strive to be more like Flip Wilson’s Reverend LeRoy (of the Church of What’s Happening Now) and less like the 700 Club’s Reverend Pat Robertson. Open your hymnals to page one. . .

Ever since the Iraq War began, I’ve kept my opinions on the conflict to myself. There are so many speaking out, pro and con alike. What could I say that hasn’t already been said, in clearer and more poignant terms than I could ever hope to muster? No matter how much I ponder, I find myself stuck on the proverbial fence. Thoughts of delusional zealots and suicide bombers make my blood run cold. Just as cold as it runs when I read the obituary notices of brave soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice so far from home. Freedom is a privilege everyone should have. But the price of freedom is always high and it’s always paid in blood. How easily we forget that.

When this conflict finally ends, whose names will we remember? I suppose at some point they’ll build a memorial. Perhaps it will resemble the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, the famous “Wall” that lists the names of the American heroes who died in battle. As well it should. Remembrance would be a small token in return for all the young lives that are being sacrificed for us.

As far as I know, there are no memorials for humanitarian-aid workers. You know, people who willingly go into these danger zones to provide care for civilians caught in the crossfire of history. Much like the cost of freedom, it’s easy to overlook these people and the inestimable service they provide. If such a memorial is ever built, I’m sure the name Marla Ruzicka will be listed there.

I saw Marla Ruzicka’s name two times in the media. The first time was when she died. It was on some “Nightline”-type program. Ruzicka, 28, was killed on April 16th, 2005, by a suicide bomb that exploded in the vicinity of her car as she trailed a U.S. Army convoy near Baghdad. I remember seeing pictures of an attractive blonde-haired woman who, they said, was a Californian and a college graduate who had been raised in a white-collar home. Immediately, I thought of “activists” like Sean Penn, Martin Sheen and Janeane Garofalo. “A damn shame,” I said to myself. “A limousine liberal who got in over her head.”

Soon after, I learned how wrong I was. I read Janet Reitman’s article, “The Girl Who Tried to Save the World”, in the June 16th issue of Rolling Stone. It’s an in-depth portrait of Ruzicka, and a pretty even-handed one at that. I encourage you to seek it out. True, Ruzicka was in some respects a starry-eyed idealist with black-and-white views of our very gray world. But she was also a gentle, benevolent spirit who put herself on the line to represent and protect the voiceless civilian victims in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I’m not going to quote from the article at length. You can find it at I don’t care if you’re the most liberal Democrat on Barbra Streisand’s AOL Buddies™ List or a lifelong subscriber to the National Review. This is one person you, however grudgingly, should respect. We’re talking about a woman who, with no special training and few provisions beyond what she could carry, headed off to Afghanistan and Iraq, two of the hottest hell holes on Earth. Her sole intention: to help the noncombatants there. A fool’s errand, you say? You could call it that—if nothing positive had come of it.

Working primarily on her own, Ruzicka compiled a body of information on civilian casualties which she took back to Capitol Hill (Reitman 76). There, she found a sympathetic ear in Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont). Together, Ruzicka and Leahy helped create “a program to provide medical care, home rebuilding, micro-loans and other forms of assistance. . .It was the first time the U.S. government had taken responsibility to help those they had specifically harmed” (Reitman 76). None of it would have happened without Ruzicka’s initiative.

While highlighting her accomplishments, Reitman takes care not to besaint Ruzicka. Apparently, she was anything but perfect. Even as she toiled to help war victims, Reitman writes, Ruzicka also struggled with bipolar disorder and anorexia (78). A friend confesses that he often found the young woman’s manic energy “somewhat exhausting” (Reitman 78). According to associates’ accounts, she may have suffered from a martyr complex, as well. When the fighting in Iraq intensified as 2004 wore on, Ruzicka “ignore[d] warnings” about the danger and continued her humanitarian efforts (Reitman 77). Ruzicka’s father comments that his daughter seemed to believe “she was invincible” (Reitman 72). Her fate, at last, was one she chose.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m still the guy who chafes against the sanctimonious of our world who would deign to show me the Way. If there is any value in a Cause, I prefer to arrive at it in my own way and time, thanks very much. Maybe that’s not the right way, but it’s my way. Based on Reitman’s article, I can confidently say that I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed sitting next to Ruzicka on an airplane. Not without a set of earplugs, that is.

About now, you may have joined my little conscience in pointing and screaming “Bullshitter, bullshitter!” at Brother John. I wouldn’t hold it against you. But notice I’m not forcing you to do anything. Read Reitman’s article or don’t read it. That’s your choice. And you don’t have to do something else. You don’t have to let my cynical attitude lead you to think that I can’t recognize the value wrought from Ruzicka’s life. Look at how we pat ourselves on the back for writing a check to our favorite charity once or twice a year. While that’s all well and good, how many of us could do what Marla Ruzicka did? Few, if any. I’ll go on record here and say that I couldn’t walk in Ruzicka’s shoes. Not for a single day.

This is why Ruzicka’s death is such a tragedy. She wasn’t a limousine liberal spouting P.C. platitudes at a Hollywood photo-op. Marla Ruzicka was a genuine idealist, one who took her ideals out into the world and fought to make them actualities. I'm proud of my hard-earned cynicism. But I realize that when it comes to examining life's Important Issues, cynicism can sometimes be more of a blindfold than a lens. While idealists can be a pain in the ass, the fact is, we need them. We need them to pull off our blindfolds. We need them to remind us that there are people living in these map-squares where wars are being fought. We need them to venture into these war-zones, bringing the “human” part of the human race to the unfortunate souls who are stuck there. We need them to do these things, because most of us can’t.

If you take nothing else from this blog, please take this lone idea, one I’ve repeated so often that it’s in danger of becoming a platitude: human life is not a partisan issue. It’s a humanist issue and the humanist party is one we all belong to, regardless of politics. The courageous men and women of our armed forces who were killed in action are American heroes. So was Marla Ruzicka. Her actions were heroic and very American. She helped many people and she died far too soon. Shouldn’t she be remembered?


Blogger Mona said...

John, Thank you for taking the time to remember her so that I could take a moment to appreciate all her work.

You're right, work like this does come from people who may not be the most balanced. All the greats probably had strained relations with their loved ones because they poured themselves into their work. The brain is like that, the imbalance taps into the energy and the genius.

Didn't seem like a soap-box at all. Seemed like a terrific testimony.

And this blog is YOURS to soap-box or not whenever you feel like it :)

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think you're using the word "humanist" in the proper context here. Humanists were 16th century French folks who dedicated their entire lives to developing their bodies and minds to as many fields as possible (War skills, but also art, science, language religion etc...)

12:50 PM  
Blogger John Left said...


Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment. I appreciate your calling me on my vagueness. It's true that I could've been more specific about which definition of "humanism" I was using. There are, I've learned, a lot of them.

In this instance, however, I was thinking of philosophical humanism (the Vonnegut version), not the Renaissance humanism you mentioned. I've pasted a couple of relevant factoids below for whoever's interested, along with their sources and the web address of the American Humanist Association. Some pretty cool food for thought, huh?

“Humanism is a system of thought that defines a socio-political doctrine ("-ism") whose bounds exceed those of locally developed cultures, to include all of humanity and all issues common to human beings.”

“Renaissance humanism was the cultural movement in Europe beginning in central Italy in the late 14th century, that revived and refined the language (in particular the Greek language), science, philosophy and poetry of classical antiquity.”


“Philosophical Humanism is any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. Sub-categories of this type include Christian Humanism and Modern Humanism.”

As Kurt Vonnegut succinctly described: being a Humanist means trying to behave decently without expectation of rewards or punishment after you are dead. Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The American Humanist Association at:

6:32 PM  
Blogger Weary Hag said...

Thank you for this finely written and well thought out piece.
Being somewhat of a fence sitter myself (regarding the current activities in Iraq) I can fully appreciate what you put across in your post ... and I fully intend to take a look at the article you are in reference to.

There are all sorts of noble folks in the world, and it's important to remember that many of them never put on a uniform in their lives.

Excellent food for thought here.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Doggie Extraordinaire's Mom said...

Your definition of "preaching" and mine clearly differ. I didn't find this post preachy at all --poignant, yes; preachy, no.

I am a staunchly opinionated person regarding the war issues, and I can agree whole-heartedly with your effort to draw attention to civilian heroes. Thank you for sharing her story!

It does make me a little bitter, however, because the more I think about the heroes (humanitarians) of this war, the angrier I become about there being few testimonies about non-American heroes. This has to be a step in the right direction, though, shedding light on those who have no military ties and yet sacrifice so much for strangers.

Thanks, John, for making us think.

12:23 PM  
Blogger Monica said...

yes she should. My son was a soldier in Iraq.

Isn't Kirsten Dunst planning to play her in a movie? Hopefully it will make more people aware of heroes like her.

5:20 PM  
Blogger John Left said...


Thanks for your time and for your comment. I hope your brave son is safe and sound.

On Kirsten Dunst: yes, right after I posted the piece on Marla Ruzicka, I read about Hollywood's plans to make a film about her life story. Dunst, I hope, will do justice to the part. If they do it right, the film will serve to preserve the memory of Ruzicka. Hers is a story worth telling.

I just hope they avoid Oliver Stone-like alterations. Time will tell.

11:33 AM  
Anonymous Bloggeries said...

I spent 17 years of my life as a Paramedic/Firefighter. Having been told so many times that all of us in the "Job" were heros, I started to take it serious.

In early 2004 I signed up with Halliburton to go to Iraq and work as a Paramedic for a year. The money was good, and after all, "That's what heros do right?" Not this one!

I went to Houston for a week and went through all of their training. I was lying in bed contemplating my recent decisions, the night before I was to board the plane to the middle east. I had a family at home, friends, and a career. "What the hell was I thinking?!!!"

I bailed! Snuck out in the middle of the night, like a slug, and embarked on a 3 day bus trip back home to Indiana. I got home safe and sound, and with a new outlook on life. I was no hero!! I bailed out when things started to heat up. The real heros are the ones that left all they had to go and help someone...anyone. Those people, regardless of what they did here in the states, are the true heros. When they were needed, they went, and they didn't look back and change their mind.

Me? I am just a Paramedic...Just a guy that thought being a Paramedic would be cool, and spent some time in college to do it. No hero here. I get paid to do what I do, and I get to go home when the clock strikes quiting time. Home is not a tent in the desert.

8:07 AM  

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