304 Dr. Ray Christian
Storyteller and Fulbright Specialist
“I think it’s the expectation in the military about what young people can do. They always put an emphasis on young people and leadership, which can be a lot of pressure and misguided in every way. And in my case, it was fatally flawed.”
Dr. Raymond Christian is a retired US Army paratrooper who grew up on the poverty-ridden streets of Richmond, VA. He has taught African American History and Storytelling at Appalachian State University and is a 12-time Moth Story Slam Champion and winner of the 2016 National Storytelling Festival Story Slam. Ray is a Fulbright Specialist Scholar as an expert in Education and Storytelling Narrative, and the host and producer of the podcast “What’s Ray Saying?”
Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW):
There are scenes from movies that, no matter how many times I watch them I can’t keep from crying all over again. Art can do this – excavate a buried thing inside of us and hold it up until our eyes adjust to the bright truth of it. There is that scene from Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon’s character, who had tried to cover the pain of their childhood abuse with a veneer of toughness and bravado, is told by his therapist that “it wasn’t your fault” and he brushes it off but the therapist won’t stop repeating it -it wasn’t your fault, until finally Will breaks down sobbing unburdened by the truth and relief of it.
And there is Robert Deniro’s character in The Mission. Set in the 18thcentury – a seemingly irredeemable mercenary and slave trader in South America who kills his own brother in a fit of jealousy and says to a Jesuit priest that he is beyond saving –that for him, redemption is not possible. yet the priest gives him penance anyway – to carry a large net full of the trappings of his past – armor, weapons, gold, and walk with it on his back for miles….carried up steep cliffs and waterfalls. An easy metaphor for the dead weight of his own shame. After an exhausting, painful journey, when DiNero finally hoists himself to the top he is cut free from the net by someone who had every right to instead cut his throat, and as the contents fall down the cliff, he collapses into sobs. It was his fault.
I have felt like both of these characters at varying times in my life. Carrying both the weight of what I cannot be blamed for and the weight of what I can. The older I get, the more I realize how blurry the line is between the two, how often there are mitigating factors to our own complicity, and how we are at times complicit in complicated systems we didn’t actually create.
Why do I cry at scenes in movies that show the catharsis of mercy and forgiveness? For the same reason I started this podcast – because the road we’re on is too long, and the cliffs we must climb in life are too steep to keep carrying that shit in a ratty net behind us. Especially when grace and mercy and forgiveness are just within our reach.
My name is Nadia Bolz-Weber. And you’ve stepped into the confessional, it’s like a carwash for our shame and secrets. This episode contains a description of violence and discusses suicide. Sensitive listeners, be advised.
Nadia Bolz-Weber: My name is Nadia Bolz-Weber, and you have stepped into The Confessional. Joining me today is the scholar and storyteller Ray Christian. I am really excited to be talking to him. Ray, thanks for joining me, and tell me what brings you into The Confessional today?
Ray Christian: Wow, thank you for having me, Nadia. Nadia, I spent 20 years in the Army. I was a professional soldier. I was awarded a lot of medals, a lot of awards, you could say I had a pretty decent military career over 20 years. It started off in a way that I was a very unlikely soldier.
NBW: What do you mean by that?
RC: Unlikely in that before I left home, all I ever did was live with my momma. I never did anything. I went from high school to living at my momma’s house to being 17 years old in the United States Army. I had no other experiences prior to that.
NBW: You didn’t have something that distinguished you at that point?
RC: No, I was extremely undistinguishable as a person.
RC: You got to assume that young soldiers are teenagers, for the most part, maybe in their early 20s. They do the things that people in their early 20s and teenagers do without any real logic.
I found out it was easier to stand out as a good guy just simply by going along and not saying nothing. You could stand out. So I started employing that. But by the time I got stationed in Korea, not only was it working, I was recognized as one of the outstanding young sergeants in the brigade.
The thing is, as I started moving up, as I started playing along, playing the game, my reputation was really starting to rise. But I was still young, and I still had the same friends and associates. We were trained to not associate with guys once you moved up in rank, but it was hard to do. These are the guys that I had a common background with Southern guys. Guys who had joined the military at the same time with me. They were known for being slackers, complainers, not necessarily the best soldiers that we had. It didn’t really look good for me to be around them.
One time, I’m hanging with the guys. We’re slugging down some beers. Just shoot the shit about nothing.
The first sergeant sees me, and he calls me over. He says, “Sergeant Christian, let me speak to you for a moment. Explain to me why it is that you’re hanging out with some of the worst soldiers that we have in the unit.” Now, thinking quickly and being full of shit, I said, “First, I work with any soldiers there are. I don’t care if they have issues. I work with them when I’m on duty, I work with them when I’m off duty. I’m just trying to work with soldiers trying to make them better.
And He looked at me, and instead of saying, “You’re full of it,” he went, “You know what? I like that. I like that. That’s why you are going to do well in the military, because that’s the kind of thinking we want for our up-and-coming leaders, the willingness to go out there and work with those soldiers who have problems. And I think I have an idea.”
What the first sergeant idea was was to get the worst soldiers out of the unit and form them into a single squad. That would be the 12 worst discipline problems and put them in the one squad and make me the squad leader.
NBW: Oh, gosh. And the thing that got you in that position of suddenly being the leader of a group that’s formed exclusively of the 12 biggest disciplinary problems in your unit, is that you just bullshitted your top sergeant, when he said, “Hey, why are you hanging out with these guys?”
RC: Right. Right. I gave all the military talk I could give, and he seemed to be okay with it.
NBW: Then he gives you all of the worst soldiers, and you’re going to be the leader of these guys.
RC: Right. I got 12 of them.
NBW: Like Jesus. [chuckles] He had 12 fuckups too, man. They couldn’t get a thing right.
RC: My disciples.
NBW: All right. Tell me more, what happened?
RC: These guys ran a gambit. I would say five of them were probably just guys that needed good leadership. They needed to be motivated. slap on the back, “Hey, you can make it. I think you’re a good soldier.” You know what I mean?
RC: The easy leadership stuff.
NBW: What about the other half? [laughs]
RC: The other group probably were a range of soldiers Some of them had extreme character flaws combined with some psychopathic tendencies. I’m talking about people who stole shit. People who want to fight everybody.
RC: People who were cunning and manipulative, way beyond somebody my age should have been working with.
NBW: How old were you?
RC: I would have been 20. 20. I don’t think I was even shaving. Now, the two guys who are exceptional, one of them was a guy, not only was he a weightlifter, bodybuilder, but he had also previously been a sergeant himself, and he had been demoted three different times.
NBW: Oh, gosh.
RC: All for the same reason and that is beating up soldiers, beating up privates. I made a deal with him, an arrangement with him that I would allow him to take charge of all the discipline in the squad, all the lazy guys, all the guys who were late for formation, these are all the appearance things of leadership, like making sure all your guys are present for formation on time, ready with all their equipment looking good. We were always on time, always had our equipment, always prepared every single time.
Everybody noticed us but this was only because I allowed the former sergeant who I named my de facto team leader to do anything he wanted to do to get the guys in shape, and he did. He intimidated them, strangled them, punched them in the stomach, slapped them around, while I saw it and turned on my head and walked out the other way. Now, I used to feel nervous as hell after that and feel really bad. I felt bad that that you know was the friendly, sarge, and my boys who came in with me, oh, they took notice
“Your boy, Christian, he’s letting that dude torture these dudes, man.” Word got around with my peeps, but it didn’t get around with the chain of command. They just thought I was doing great.
NBW: You said there were two people who stood out in your squad … what about the other guy?
RAY: Now, the other guy was a dude who was really depressed quite often. I just seen him weep, and he would talk to me about, “I don’t know why I need to even bother to go to formation, I’m going to die by next week anyway, why does it make a difference?” “I wonder if I could take a grenade and blow myself up.” Now, he talked like this all the time, consistently. Now, I’ll tell you what I probably should have done, but what I did do was basically nothing. I may have tormented him myself by constantly saying, “I am getting so sick and damn tired of you always talking about committing suicide. You’re always saying that shit, In fact, hey, there’s a truck riding by right now, why don’t you go run in front of that truck and jump in front of it.”
I said that so often that every time there was a vehicle or something moving by, I would just nod my head at him, like, “Over there.” That was my thing with him. Because in my 20-year-old mind of leadership, amateur psychiatrist, I’m thinking he’s full of shit and the best way to make somebody feel less depressed is to beat on him.” Maybe that’s just the thinking of the ignorant. I know nothing about turning this man over to a professional for professional counseling, letting one of the other higher ranking NCOs counsel him and let them make recommendations, but I ain’t do that because I got the super squad. The dirty dozen. I got the group. Nobody needs to know what’s going on here. I’m handling everything.
One morning, I came in, and he did not report formation. I was running around flipping out. I went to my enforcer, “Where is he? I haven’t seen him.”
NBW: Making you look bad.
RC: Yes. I was losing it. Until I was told that he had jumped in front of a truck
NBW: Oh Jesus
RC: He killed himself.
All I was thinking was, “I told that man to jump in front of a truck. Who else knows what I did?”
But I got pats on the back. “Damn, Christian, man, you really worked with him too. Boy, Sergeant Christian, that sure must have took a lot out of you. It must be difficult for a noncommissioned officer like you to have to deal with something so harsh. Wow, sergeant Christian.”
I might have pushed a suicidal man over the edge. I let a psychopath run wild. Now, people are patting me on the back.
NBW: What was going on inside?
RC: I was thinking, “I killed that man.”
NBW: It feels like the reason you have in your mind for why you were in that situation is that you bullshitted someone, and then you thought, “I’m rising up in the ranks. People are respecting me. I’m a good leader.” That’s how you ended up in that situation, but do you see it differently now? Because you’re telling me that story, I think what a monumental fuckup of the Army to put 12 soldiers who needed the most expertise in the care of a 20-year-old child. 20 is so young. There’s not a 20-year-old on the planet that would have the skill to do that well. What are the other factors?
RC: I think it’s the expectation in the military about what young people can do. They always put an emphasis on young people and leadership. Which can be a lot of pressure and misguided in every way. In my case, it was fatally flawed.
NBW: So the two things that seem to weigh on you are that you allowed this violent soldier to be abusive to the other soldiers, so that they would perform the way they needed to in order for it to look good on you. And you had a kid who struggled so much with depression and suicidality that you thought, “OK, I’m just going to be tough on him and like kind of help him snap out of it.”
NBW: What led you to make those decisions, like was that modeled for you?
RC: I had had sergeants, and it had been pseudo acceptable to rough handle some soldiers. Now, this trend was starting to come to the end about that period. Because by the modern standards, that sergeant who had been demoted three times, he would have been kicked out, first time out of the box.
You habitually got soldiers got a big old black eye going to sick hall because their ribs hurt. Couldn’t have even imagined that by my 10th year of service the whole chain of command would be relieved to duty for something like that.
NBW: Eventually the culture shifted but not before it did it’s damage.
RC: Yes. I was part of that. The best thing that ever happened to me was not long after that they disbanded the squad.
And … I would tell you that for the rest of my career, I would go out of my way to refer guys to mental health counseling, to snap on young sergeants who I thought was playing amateur psychologists.
I would tear up counseling forums that even look like they were writing about, any insight to anybody with mental health, I would rip the paper up. “You’re not a professional. Rewrite that counseling statement.”
In later years, I would become a senior instructor at the noncommissioned officers course, myself. I could go on and on about all the lectures that I gave about abusing soldiers. But I would always have this thing in my stomach when I would give that lecture.
NBW: What was the thing?
RC: Guilt, because I would speak about it with some passion, how wrong it was.
I never said, though, why I was giving those lectures, cause I did this thing and I know what you might be thinking.
NBW: How do you feel like you carried that through your life later? Because that is also something that somebody should’ve been able to write a referral form for you for, … for you carrying that much guilt. That has its own cost. I was just watching this show right now called Alone People go out into the wilderness, and they just have 10 tools, and they have to survive. They filmed themselves. There’s no camera crew. There’s this woman who was a retired cop. She set up the camera, and she just started recalling this night where she was off duty, and there was an active shooter thing that went down. She heard it on the radio, and she hesitated a bit because she was technically supposed to be off before she turned the car around, and she goes, “Yes, I’m going to go check it out.” By the time she got there, they were carrying this young woman’s body out. This is decades ago. She goes, “All I know is that if I just hadn’t hesitated, that girl would still be alive.” I couldn’t stop saying to my boyfriend, “That breaks my heart.” It just breaks my heart. She has carried that around for that long. Man, people need priests for this. While you talk about blaming yourself for not referring people to get the help that they needed, my pastoral response is why wasn’t somebody writing you a fucking referral form for the fact that you’re carrying that weight way around?
RC: The irony of that is I would be a sergeant first class and almost two years away from retirement at 18 years in the Army, and I was diagnosed with having severe PTSD. I was sick for years on active duty, and it took that long before I was forced into a situation where I had to see a psychiatrist for an evaluation.
I had a lot in my brain that was clawing at me.
I’m on antidepressants right now. Maybe all he needed was a pill. I know what I feel like when I get off of them. It wouldn’t take but the weight of a straw to make me pull a car off a curve and go off the edge, much less having some monster in your ear repeating it over and over again. Some amateur that doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
NBW: Do you feel like you can have any kind of compassion for your 20-year-old self in that situation profoundly ill-equipped to be doing that work?
RC: I would look at him for the sheer weight of his ignorance. Not for any evil in his heart.
I may have told two or three of my closest NCO friends about this many years later as others share these kinds of secret stories. This was late in my career when I was a sergeant first class. There are real-world consequences for bad leadership.
NBW: Yes. Had you really only told a couple people this story before?
RC: Yes, I was ashamed of it and how we talked and what the culture was like in later years, this kind of stuff was just– It was so discouraged, it’s so looked down upon. That’s not something that you want to talk about even being a part of.
NBW: If this is a story that you’ve only ever told a couple people in that because you feel ashamed of it, have you made your peace with it, or does it still grind at you?
RC: I am still bothered by the idea that I should have known. I know I can’t lie, I didn’t try hard to find out better. I absolutely at the time did not want anybody to know that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
NBW: Oh, wow. Yes.
RC: I was stressing. I could have went to some other NCOs. I wasn’t doing any of that because there was so much focus on me.
NBW: Right and it would collapse if you admitted you didn’t know something or if you said, “God, I feel like I’ve gone down the wrong road here. Can you help me course correct?”
Did you have any models at all in your life up until that point for men asking for help, admitting they didn’t know something, trying to get some wisdom from other people to know how to do a thing? Did you have any models for that?
RC: No, no, no, no, no. I saw guys go all the way to catastrophe rather than ask a damn question.
NBW: So many of the confessions are things that people did between the ages of 18 and 28. Almost every single one. Your brain isn’t even done growing. You know what I mean? You’re thrust into situations. You haven’t earned enough wisdom to know what to do and what not to do. You’re all instinct and impulse and reaction.
This is the irony because we did things that we’re ashamed of during that period of our life, we learned lessons and we earned wisdom and we became the people now who would never do those things. I don’t know where you can just clip a coupon and exchange it for the lesson. That doesn’t exist. [laughs]
RC: Right. You wish it could work that way.
NBW: There’s a price,
RC: You pay to learn.
NBW: Yeah and Sometimes other people pay and then you’re left going, “How can my life honor the fact that I get to still be here and I learned some lessons?”
RC: That’s the big question. That’s what eats at my heart.
I wish I could say to him and I wish I could say to his family, I wish I could say to the universe, “I’m sorry.” Even if I didn’t know, I should have known. I would only say for myself that I was young and ignorant and I did the very best I could to make sure that nobody else did the same stupid shit that I did when I was younger. You got to stay in your lane sometimes.
NBW: Well, thank you for sharing a story that you’ve mostly kept yourself. How many of those are left with you? You’re a storyteller, right? [laughs]
RC: Yes, I could have-
NBW: You got something you’re holding still?
RC: Well, if the CIA hadn’t put that computer chip in my buttocks, I would tell you.
RC: I was already nervous about stepping in a confessional because the people be crying and stuff after talking to you.
NBW: I know. [laughs]
Well, there’s such a particular generosity to being willing to revisit these stories and talk through them. For the generosity of that, I thank you, Ray. I appreciate it.
RC: Thank you.
NBW: A blessing for Ray:
Ray, I can not stop thinking about the sheer weight of this story.
The accumulated burden of grief and regret that you have carried for so long. Like a cargo net full of ignorant things you said and did and trophies you didn’t feel you’ve earned all bound to you with a rope that you can not cut loose with your own hand.
But you can’t cut it loose with your own hand sometimes. Because sometimes all the, “i’m so sorry’s”, no matter how genuine, can’t free us from our own burdens.
Sometimes it takes another person to wield the knife of forgiveness on our behalf.
So, Ray, may these words be a sharp blade of love taken to the rope binding you to your own guilt.
You are forgiven for being an unprepared kid in an unwinnable situation.
It was your mistake, but it wasn’t your fault. You did not kill a mentally ill young man, Ray. And 40 years is long enough to haul it around dragging at your tender soul.
So, may you be liberated from the weight of this story, the girth of it, the circumference of it, the solid lumpy unseemliness of it. May you watch it tumble down the cliff and disappear into the soft fog of mercy. Which none of us deserve and all of us need. Amen.