The persistent kind

Unknown-1This year’s Super Bowl was as fun to watch online as it was on television as people weighed in throughout the game on Facebook and Twitter. When the power went out and the game was temporarily halted, some people ran to their computers and smart phones, while sports commentators caught flat-footed tried desperately to fill air space.  All the while, we were treated to over-hyped commercials that often fell short of expectations

One Facebook post caught my attention. Justin Constantine (’92) wrote: “In case any of you missed the commercial about the Wounded Warrior Project during the Super Bowl tonight, here is the YouTube link.” He posted the video with a reminder of how easy it is to contribute to the cause.  What struck me was Justin’s dedication in the midst of the gridiron contest that borders on a national obsession. He wasn’t taking a break from his all important work.

The same should be said for Adam Armiger (’07) whose commitment to the Hope Marietta Foundation found Adam cheering on his Facebook page about Hunter Paulin, a friend of the foundation and the Play 60 Super Kid of the Year. Hunter who has a congenital heart condition delivered the game ball.

It made me realize that significant change — the kind that alters lives and has widespread and lifelong impact — requires commitment of the persistent kind. Lasting change demands a commitment that does not ease up, slow up or give up. It is on going, devoted and never interrupted by even the most memorable of Superbowls.

Individuals like Justin and Adam demonstrate this.  To care and wish and even work a little isn’t enough.  Change happens with serious commitment, persistence and a relentless drive for the long haul.

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More than a silver lining

Major Constantine crossing a canal.

Major Constantine crossing a canal in Iraq.

No one changes the world alone. This is a story about two people who wrapped their arms around brutal change that came to them unexpectedly and found ways to support each other — and change a part of the world.

Justin and Dahlia Constantine are simply amazing. Justin’s courageous recovery from a devastating war injury and his subsequent advocacy of wounded warriors, and Dahlia’s selfless commitment to the man she loves are more than inspiring. They are life changing.

On Saturday, Dec. 15, Justin (’92) will address the December graduates of JMU’s Class of 2012. In anticipation of Justin’s commencement address, I asked him to write today’s blog post. Here is a part of Justin and Dahlia’s story.

Courage, commitment and change

By Justin Constantine (’92)

Nothing in life remains constant, and we are continually changing, adapting and evolving. Just like JMU looks and feels a lot different than it did 20 years ago when I graduated, I too am quite a different person now. Six years ago my life changed drastically, and by all objective measures I shouldn’t have survived to be here today.

Justin (far left) and his Civil Affairs Team

I joined the Marine Corps after my second year of law school, but when I deployed to Iraq in 2006, it wasn’t in the role of a JAG officer. I had the honor of leading a team of eight Marines, and we were attached to a Marine infantry battalion.

On October 18, 2006, our combat patrol stopped at one of our forward operating bases, and I noticed that the reporter accompanying us that day was kind of standing around. When we got out of the vehicle at our next stop, I told the reporter that he needed to move faster, because we knew a sniper had already killed a few Marines in that area. Based on that, he took a big step forward, and a split second later a round came in right where his head had been and hit the wall behind us. The next shot hit me right behind my ear and exited out my mouth, causing catastrophic damage along the way. In fact, the Marines around me thought that I had been killed, and when the Corpsman came running over, told him, “Don’t worry about the Major – he’s dead.”

George Grant and Justin Constantine

But George Grant is an amazing young man, and although the sniper was still shooting, he saved my life. As torn up as my face was, George performed rescue breathing on me, and then an emergency tracheotomy, so that I wouldn’t drown on my own blood. In fact, despite all that was going on around him, George did such a wonderful job on my tracheotomy that my plastic surgeon at the military hospital thought another surgeon had performed it.

Back in 2006, Dahlia and I were not yet married; we were married two years later in 2008. We had met earlier in 2006 at a Spanish immersion course in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Dahlia was there from California, and I came from Virginia. We were in the same small class, and we really hit it off during that time. We dated that summer back in the States, and then when I deployed to Iraq, Dahlia left to pursue her Ph.D. at Cambridge University in England. Unlike in other wars, we were still able to communicate with email, and letters and packages and the occasional satellite phone call, and we often talked about our lives together and how we could work that out.

The Constantines on their wedding day

After I was injured, Dahlia decided to temporarily drop out of her doctorate program to be with me in the hospital. Never mind that studying at Cambridge had been a lifelong dream of hers, or that she didn’t know anyone in Maryland near the military hospital, or that at that point the doctors didn’t even know if I would survive. When I awoke from my coma, Dahlia was there and we have been an inseparable team since. Because of the injury that caused these problems, I am far closer with Dahlia than I would have thought possible, I now know that I am far stronger than I ever would have imagined, and I can put everyday obstacles into their proper perspective and focus on what is truly important to me and Dahlia.

And they say that every cloud has a silver lining, but all the changes that have happened since that day in 2006 are far more than a lining. I am truly very lucky for my “new normal” and have some great things going on in my life. I have stayed in the Marine Corps Reserve and am now about to be promoted again. I am attending Georgetown University at night for an advanced law degree through the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program, and I work full time as a lawyer with the FBI and also recently started my own inspiration speaking company.

Justin and Dahlia when he received the Purple Heart

Because of my injury, I belong to a number of different wounded warrior organizations committed to helping so many of our returning heroes, and frankly, I know that I would not be doing this kind of advocacy if it weren’t for my injury. It sounds crazy, but this change that was violently thrust upon me, and all that comes with it, has actually been very beneficial to me in the long run.

Life changes, for better or worse. It all depends how you look at it. I choose the glass to be half full, not half empty, and to embrace change. I want to live in the future, not the past. Be the Change!

To read more about Justin and Dahlia Constantine, go to this link:
http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/constantineIraqAndBack.shtml
Learn even more about Justin or engage him to speak by going to his website: http://www.justinconstantine.com
You can also find Justin on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and see him accept the 2011 George C. Lang award for his work with wounded warriors on YouTube.

Can you connect the dots?

Can you connect the dots?  James Madison University in the company of Financial Times, Huffington Post,  Army Times and The Breeze. What’s the common denominator?

Here’s a hint: I found this graphic on the website of our own Be the Changer Justin Constantine (’92). Justin is the common denominator. His story or writing has been featured in all of the above.

Justin’s story is flat out inspiring. Gravely injured by a sniper’s bullet only weeks after deploying to Iraq in 2006, he fought a courageous battle to rebuild his life. But it was never all about Justin. With his then-girlfriend Dahlia, now his wife, by his side, Justin took a challenge and turned it into inspiration — one that continues to transform others’ lives as well. He has supported and assisted countless other wounded soldiers. It has been only six years since his life was forever altered, but in that time, he has accomplished remarkable things.

This week, I was in touch with Justin. I am excited to give you an update on him and tell you about an exciting new venture he has started.

Justin works full time as an attorney for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That’s his day job. In the evening, he recently enrolled in a master of laws program at Georgetown University. He continues to work with the Wounded Warrior Project and sits on the board of directors. Compounding his commitment to these noble men and women, Justin also is a member of the congressionally-mandated Department of Defense Recovering Warrior Task Force.

And as if all that isn’t enough, Justin reports that he recently launched his own inspirational speaking business. Through this new venture, he shares his personal journey and what he has learned to thousands of people during speaking engagements all over the country. Once again, he is having an impact. Once again he is changing lives.

Mike Haynie, executive director of the Institute For Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, says: “Justin’s story is both powerful and inspirational. By sharing his experiences, Justin is able to help others see a path to overcoming obstacles that they’d previously perceived as insurmountable. It’s an empowering experience that should not be missed.”

Personally, I can’t wait for Justin to visit JMU sometime with his message of unsinkable hope and courage.

You can read more about Justin and his work by clicking the embedded links above.
Learn much more about Justin’s new business venture at  www.justinconstantine. com   And don’t miss the video provided. You’ll get a taste of what Justin has learned and what he shares about overcoming adversity. You can also follow Justin through his blog, accessed through his website.
 

Joplin and the best things in life

Information can shake you in your boots and then again it can absolve your fears. And sometimes, it’s a catalyst for action.

Last night as the news from Joplin, Mo., unfolded after a tornado tore a six-mile hole through the heart of the city about dinner time, I immediately scoured the Internet for information because I have a cousin who lives in Joplin. The scope of the devastation hadn’t yet made it to television news. Producers, I’m sure, were scrambling to bring it to viewers, but I couldn’t wait. I was worried about Sarah and her family.  I found her house on Google maps and then tried plotting the path of the tornado through the neighborhood with what information I could glean from local news outlets, weather sites and Twitter feeds. Most of the destruction was along Ridgeline Road and north of the I-41.  That was encouraging; Sarah lives south of the interstate. But St. John’s Medical Center sustained a direct hit. Her husband is a doctor and her daughter, pinned on Saturday, is a brand new nurse. Were they there?

I dug out her phone number, but telephone service was down. Texting — I read somewhere —was the best means of communicating in an emergency, but I only had the number for her landline.

More digging. I found the Jasper County emergency services broadband feed. It crackled off and on with clinical and efficient messages. I was struck by the calm in their voices, the sense of purpose in the midst of absolute chaos. I listened, riveted: “Traffic is flooding in here. Can someone stop it up there?”  “We can’t get through the streets; can you give us an alternate route?”  “Where’s the shelter being set up?” An accompanying Facebook page added more to the rescuers discussion. Here I learned that J-4 was a code name for someone who had not survived. Rescuers, referencing J-4, were asking, “Where is the temporary morgue?”

The tornado was “rain-wrapped,” the worse kind, meaning it couldn’t be seen coming. Only felt. All the bits and pieces of information pelting the broadbands were frightening knowing that Sarah and her family were there. I sent her a Facebook message, not knowing if she had power.

As I watched the destruction coalesce across news outlets and blogs and finally on television, I thought about all that was lost. I am certain that many people in Joplin who escaped with their lives would eventually agree that the things — even the precious things — are replaceable. Some things like photographs may not be, but their loss pales in comparison to lives.

It should always be all about lives.

We graduate from college. We pack up our diplomas and our graduation gifts. We sail off on a journey to build successful careers that we too often measure by what we own, by what privileges we earn, or by what we “have.” But in the end, an education measured only by power or wealth or accomplishment isn’t worth very much during times like Sunday in Joplin. If our educations, on the other hand, prompt us to roll up our sleeves like the citizens of Missouri, particularly the search, rescue and emergency people, our diplomas mean something very different.

Being the change sometimes means picking up the pieces after a disaster. Ultimately it means understanding that it’s the things that we can do without; it’s the people we can’t. I’m reminded of the massacre at Virginia Tech and JMU’s response. The university sent teams to Blacksburg to help. After the tornadoes in Virginia recently, I am sure Madison people were helping their neighbors. Jon McNamara (’05) with the Red Cross in Virginia certainly was, and soon I’ll share with you some of his perspectives. This week Madison magazine heard from Justin Constantine (’92) who has been appointed to a congressionally-mandated committee on wounded warriors. It is not the prestige, though, that excites Justin. “It is great to have the opportunity to be part of the solution,” he wrote. Be the Changer Anne Stewart, professor of graduate psychology, knows this too through her work with crisis intervention. There are hundreds of others who everyday take seriously the charge and responsibility to Be the Change.

Last night in Joplin, rescuers dug out the living trapped from under collapsed roofs and overturned cars. They rescued the wounded from rubble-filled basements, and they comforted those without bearings or belongings. If we respond as they did last night to everyday needs, then we validate education. And we change the world.

This morning, to my great relief, I heard from Sarah. She wasn’t in the path of the storm, but her daughter and son-in-law were not so fortunate. They lived in the path of the destruction. Their home and their cars are gone. Destroyed.  Nothing is left. They, however, were not at home when the tornado hit. They are safe.

Relieved, I sent Sarah a reply: “The best things in life aren’t things.” No, they certainly are not.

If want to help the people of Joplin, including some who are Dukes, the link to an ABC news story about how you can help:  http://abcnews.go.com/US/joplin-missouri-tornado-victims/story?id=13665690

To learn more about Anne Stewart and Justin Constantine, click on the links below:

http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/stories/constantineIraqAndBack.shtml

http://www.jmu.edu/bethechange/people/stewart.shtml

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