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It's not guns versus mental illness

I’ve been in the Army for 20 years now. I’ve trained with numerous weapons systems and served in combat for my country. I do this out of a sense of duty, honor and pride.

At the same time my grandpa was an educator, my mom Joan Johnson Thompson was a kindergarten teacher, my father was a principal, my god-parents Bruce and Trish were teachers, their daughter Beth is a teacher, my parent’s life-long friends Bob and Jenni were teachers, my aunt Marilyn Johnson Wetenkamp was a teacher, my sisters-in-law Claire Butler-Saur and Jodie McInnes Thompson are teachers, my cousins Nicole Knox and Susan Wetenkamp-Brandt are teachers, my wrestling coach Duane Wright was a teacher, my friends Kristina Davis Bonet, Katie Marie, Frank Lukasik, and Eric Dyck are teachers.

As a soldier I accept the consequences of my profession and willingly continue to serve my country. I’m not anti-gun, but after what happened in Connecticut I’d much rather open up a discussion on gun control than one focused on arming the people in my life who chose the challenging, but rewarding, profession of teaching. I hope that, as a nation, we find a better solution to these senseless tragedies than requiring the caring people who choose to serve our country as teachers to focus their precious time on gun training versus their true desire to educate our children. I don’t speak for any of my teacher family and friends and I know that several of them are hunters and gun owners, but I’m almost certain that none of them ever envisioned carrying guns as a job requirement and I sincerely hope that teaching never becomes a profession of arms.

I’m saddened by the fact that we, as a nation, have lost the middle ground. That we can no longer have a rational discussion on the important issues that impact all of us. That we are so polarized that after what happened in Connecticut or Colorado or Arizona you either blame guns or you blame mental illness and there is no room for practical, useful discussion unless you agree with one of these sides.

I paraphrase, but could hardly say it better, Edmund Morris who referenced 13th and 20th century logic — “The first essential for advancement in knowledge is for society to be willing to say, ‘we do not know.’ There can be no advancement in a society that only sees itself, and likes what is sees.”

I responded earlier to a post by a co-worker and friend of mine who attributed what happened in Connecticut solely to the ‘real issue’ of mental illness. If only it were so easy as to pin this solely on mental illness and not address guns in any shape or’s not that simple though, this is more than just guns or just mental illness. It’s more than Republican versus Democrat. More than Bush/McCain/Romney versus the president. If it was as easy as institutionalizing people with mental illness or banning guns we’d have figured this out by now. It’s more than all of these things. There’s nothing pathetic about this. It’s only tragic and it’s time for all of us to sit back and reflect and put aside all of our differences and really think about how we want to be as a society.

I’m a soldier first and foremost and I love this country and have willingly stood in its defense, I support the second amendment and don’t believe we should ban guns across the board. But I’m also open-minded and tired of seeing kids being killed. I for one am open to talking about how we, as a society, overcome all of these biases and truly get down to the business of change. I want to be free to own a gun and go hunting. I want mental health care for veterans and civilians alike. I want our kids to grow up with teachers who don’t have to carry guns to protect the kids they devoted their lives to teaching.

Let’s not dismiss this as the pathetic rampage of a mentally ill kid who simply had access to a gun nor just a call to ban guns, but let’s all of us, really and truly discuss how we as a great nation can find common ground where we all are safe, happy and prosperous. I’d much rather see that than just digressing to a guns versus a mental illness argument.

Several days ago I posted about all the teachers in my life and how I hoped teaching did not become a profession of arms. In retrospect, I should have also posted about all of the people in my life who have chosen the honorable profession of law enforcement. Each day they strap on a weapon and willingly go out in our world to protect and serve.

I have cousins, friends and fellow soldiers who do this on a daily basis and who never ask for anything more than to go home safe each night. I respect each one of them and fully understand why most of them choose to carry their assigned weapon even when “off-duty.”

Maybe I represent that rare dichotomy of middle ground lost in America. I grew up with guns in the house (they were hunting rifles and shotguns). I took gun safety courses as a teenager and could not wait to go hunting with my dad, grandpa Thompson and uncle Guy. I joined the Army because college didn’t work for me. I fit in immediately to that culture. I served for 10 years prior to 9/11 and then, in 2004, got called to war. I spent all of 2005 in Afghanistan working with their fledgling Army. I was exhilarated the first time we got attacked, scared when we got RPG’d and failed miserably in an attempt to save an Afghan child, whose body was so swollen and infected I didn’t know what to do.

In turn I was failed miserably by the Army when I came home and struggled with the return to ’normal life.’ I self-medicated with booze and was mentally ill. If I had owned a gun in the summer of 2006, I would have blown my brains out. Instead I owned a yellow lab named Murphy who saved my life.

It wouldn’t have been the gun’s fault, had I owned it, and it wasn’t the war’s fault for where I was. It was a mixture of life’s events leading up to that point, and thankfully, I had Murph, Erin, Johno, my folks, friends, and ultimately, the Army to pull me through.

I guess I’m the middle ground. I can relate to guns and mental illness. I grew up as the middle child in the middle of Canada in the tolerant society of Saskatchewan. I see both sides, and respect them both, but it’s time for something different. It’s time to talk about some new gun controls. It’s time to stop throwing drugs at mental health issues and medicating our children like that’s the cure. It’s time to give the kids of today a safe environment to grow up in.

I have no idea what the answers are but I think I know what the questions are and I hope we start discussing reasonable alternatives to our current situation.

Terry Thompson was born in Brainerd moved to Canada as a child and now lives in Arizona.