Remembering Rodger, the vet who gave other vets hope

Rodger

Rodger McConnell died a year ago today, but the good works he put in motion live on.

It’s a time of jarring incongruity. Outdoors, trees shiver in the summer heat. Dew dries at dawn. Everything is ripe and wilting.

Indoors, vitriol and inanity drip from the airwaves as journalists breathlessly report the latest in the limbo contest that now passes for leadership in our nation’s capital.

Jarring. Depressing. But then … you go to Veterans Court graduation in Great Falls and watch a new set of veterans complete a program that keeps them out of prison and restores them to lives of hope. And Rodger is everywhere.

Rodger McConnell. One of the 2.7 million Americans who fought in Vietnam. In 1966, with the snap of Uncle Sam’s fingers, he went from that friendly neighbor with the flashy GTO to a terrified, lonely agent of destruction.

“Combat is such an affront to your morality and spirit,” Rodger later recalled. “Nothing can prepare you for it. It launches you out where you’ve never been before.” He retreated to “that quiet place” in his mind and did what he needed to do to survive.

A year later, he looked down from his airplane seat on the city lights below and thought, “It’s over. I’m home.” He was wrong on both counts. He’d left combat behind, but the things he had seen there and done there and felt there wouldn’t go away. Angry, alienated, and increasingly alcohol-addled, he spent the better part of the next 15 years homeless and hopeless. He was that guy rolled up in a blanket on the park bench, that unkempt wanderer downtown, blinking away the brightness of the noonday sun.

One day another veteran approached him in some bar somewhere and said, “I know where you’ve been, and I know where you’re going. Don’t go there.” Somehow Rodger heard him. He got help. He got a college education. He got a teaching job. Then when he retired in 2003, he really got to work, pursuing his biggest passion: helping other veterans.

Rodger McConnell was a leading force in creating the Montana Veterans Memorial in Great Falls. He was the voice for veterans on public radio for many years, interviewing vets and those who helped them in order to raise awareness about veterans’ struggles. Every year he spent countless hours on the Veterans Stand Down event, providing veterans with medical screening, counseling, clothing, shelter and referrals for other services.

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In 2012, when a young attorney named Greg Pinski threw his hat in the ring for a judicial seat in Great Falls, Rodger immediately buttonholed him about setting up a veterans court. Rodger believed—rightly, as it turned out—that some veterans’ criminal acts were the result of their unresolved combat-related issues. He argued that a very structured, disciplined program emphasizing counseling and accountability and offering the mentorship of other vets would serve veterans better.

Judge Pinski took the leap of faith. Since 2013, 25 graduates of that program have stood in a jam-packed courtroom to receive their certificates of graduation, the accolades of their mentors, the applause of family and friends … and an open door to new lives.

Until this day last year, Rodger McConnell attended every graduation. On this day, the very date of the ambush in Vietnam that had tormented him for 49 years, Rodger died. Yet Rodger has very much been in that courtroom for graduations ever since … in the gratitude of the graduates, in the memories of the mentors, in the tributes of Judge Pinski, and in the full hearts of all attending.

Rodger had two special gifts. The first was a truly unconditional love that was both transformative and contagious. The second was a childlike capacity for finding joy in the moment. Watching co-eds get coffee at Starbucks … playing poker with friends … whooping it up at a Mini Cooper rally … shoot, Rodger could even make soliciting signatures for Medicaid expansion seem like fun.

And yet, there was this ineffable sadness about him, an almost ethereal quality, as if war and its aftermath had ravaged him so, all that could survive was this benevolent spirit, its sweetness too good to be true, its good works too evident not to be.

Rodger learned humility in a way none of us would want to. He never sought status or acclaim. But the mayor who worked with him on the veterans memorial called Rodger’s friendship the most affirming he had ever known. And the judge he convinced to start a veterans court hurried to Rodger’s bedside before he died to tell him he loved him.

Rodger lost the boy he was in Vietnam and almost lost the man he would become in its aftermath. But a caring stranger made a passing remark that turned him around, and Rodger spent the rest of his life helping other soldiers to really, truly come back home.

In this season of incongruity, I believe in friendly ghosts.

Mary Sheehy Moe retired from the Montana University System in 2010 and has since served on the Great Falls School Board and in the Montana Senate. She lives in Great Falls.

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