(Photo: Reuters/Bob Strong)
Jacob George, a Christian war veteran who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, was one of the dozens of young veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who gathered outside the McCormick convention center in Chicago last Sunday. The gathering marked the first day of the 2012 NATO Summit and was used to make a historic call upon world leaders for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.
The group of American service members who were deployed and redeployed to war zones – often times against their will and while still suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder – were joined by activists and organizations such as the Civilian Soldier Alliance, Iraq Veterans Against The War, Veterans For Peace, and Operation Recovery as they handed back over 100 war medals in protest of the global body's mission in Afghanistan.
"There were a lot of things that protest meant to me," Afghan war veteran and advocate for the rights of veterans Jacob George told The Christian Post. "It was moving, it was inspirational, and it was healing."
"To stand with my sisters and brothers and to go through this with each other and support each other, and to have so many other people support what we were doing, it was a very powerful moment for me."
George, a Christian who grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and is a founding member of the veterans collective A Ride Till The End, which rides bicycles across the United States raising awareness about the war in Afghanistan, told CP that he became inspired to speak out against the war after his younger brother Jordan George – who is nine years his junior – was called to fight in Afghanistan.
From 2001 to 2004 George served three tours in Afghanistan, but unlike his younger brother he had voluntarily enlisted to fight in the war.
"The opportunity came up and I was like 'Ok, I'll go,"' he said. "I came from the Washita Mountains in Arkansas and had a pretty conservative, very narrow world view."
But the first time George landed in Afghanistan as an unseasoned 19-year-old he had his initial epiphany about the chaos and calamity of war – an experience that he would carry with him and reflect upon years later.
"I'm a hillbilly farmer from the hills in Arkansas," he said. "When I went to Afghanistan one of the first places I went was to the Pakistan border and we landed in farmer's field. We all ran out of a helicopter heavily armed and the farmer looked at me like I was demon, and to be perfectly honest to him I must have looked that way."
"But I could tell he was a farmer, and it got me thinking, what would I do if a helicopter landed on my grandpa's farm and a bunch of heavily armed people ran off – I'd probably pick up a gun and want to fight back as well."
But it wasn't until the spring of 2010 that George became inspired to take a stand against the war when his 19-year-old brother received orders to deploy to Afghanistan.
"I was looking at him and he was terrified. I saw myself getting ready to go back to all of this and it hit me that this war has gone on an entire generation," George told CP.
Jordon protested his deployment by taking absence without official leave, and for the past two years the two brothers from Arkansas, along with anywhere from two to 50 other friends, veterans, and anti-war activists have been riding bicycles across the South advocating for an end to the war and sharing their story through music.
"I know that music is one of the best ways to bridge any gap in the South – especially bluegrass folk music," he said. "So we basically travel and try to open up dialog with as many people as we can through our music about the wounds of war, and veterans rights to heal, and what this action is doing collectively to us as a nation and to our souls."
To date, the brothers have traveled over 7,000 miles by bike sharing their beliefs about war and their story with the American people.
George grew up in a Southern Baptist church, going to church sometimes as often as four times a week, but said it was his three tours in Afghanistan that opened him up a new interpretation of Christianity – one that does not misuse or misconstrue the words of Christ and war.
"I think those two things have absolutely nothing to do with each other," he said. "One of the things that was very challenging for me wasn't necessarily my beliefs or my love for the Gospel of Christ – it was the interpretation that I was taught and how so often we like to throw around 'For God and Country,'" he said.
"(But) Jesus was an advocate for non-violence. He never advocated for people going to war. He advocated for compassion and loving our enemy. What I witnessed (in war) drifted from that ethos – there was very little love for the enemy, there was hatred for the enemy," he said. "And the true essence of a warrior is loving your enemy."
For George, as a more seasoned adult who is now able to reflect upon his experiences in Afghanistan, he believes that in every conflict a non-violent solution exists.
"War means there is going to be struggle and that means people are going to die, but the question I have to ask is do you want to be a person that is taking life, or do you want to be the person that is giving life? Where does the honor lie? Does the honor lie in killing another man, or does the honor lie in standing unarmed believing what you believe in, and giving your life for something you believe in?"
"When 9/11 happened we had an opportunity to change the world, we did," he said. "If we said, 'We are going to open our arms, we're going ask why did you do this, why did you attack the brains of our economy and military might and what can we do to keep this from happening,' - if we would have done that the entire world would have stood up with us. But instead it's been 10 years and many more thousands are now dead and we are even further away from peace, what does that do?"
Last year George went back to Afghanistan, not as a solider but as a civilian to engage and work with the youth of the country. For 30 days the war veteran worked with Afghan children who showed him around their city, dressed him in traditional Afghan garb, and treated him like a brother, he says.
"They had every right in the world to hate me - I could have killed any one of those kids six years ago when I was there and they saw completely past that and treated me like a brother and they showed me what compassion is – they showed me what real love is and it really shook me to my foundation."
"The irony was I went to Afghanistan to learn a deep dark level of hate and than in the end I went back to Afghanistan to learn what love really is."
The love and compassion the children of Afghanistan showed George is what he now believes in what the world needs to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence and war.
"The only way we are going to live in peace is if we come together. It can't happen without it and if we truly want to get to heaven, if we want to live in heaven, not only get to heaven but be in heaven we can do that if we accept and embrace and love each other – it's not that far away," he said. "But it's our responsibility to make that manifest, to make that happen."