10 Years Ago: From Soldier to Social Worker

Kalima Q. DeSuze, NASW-NYC Board Member

Ten years ago, I was a Sergeant in the United States Army and was stationed at 2nd Infantry Division, South Korea.  Ten years ago, I was awakened by the shrieks of a battle buddy reacting to a phone call she received informing her of the attacks on NY.  And ten years ago, I sat on my bed enveloped by darkness in shock and disseminated by the fear, grief, and powerlessness I felt watching the towers fall.

It has been ten years yet- the memory of that night is so fresh in my mind, that it’s hard to see clearly through the tears.  I remember lifting my eyes to my uniform keenly aware of what it would mean to put that uniform on from that day forward.  It was almost the same feeling of pride I felt the first day I donned it four years prior.  And as I got dressed, lifted my rucksack on my back, and tightened my Kevlar, pride was joined by anger, by virulent and vicious thoughts of revenge.  I immediately returned to who I was trained to be, a Soldier whose work centered on defending theUnited Statesat all cost and sometimes, that meant taking lives.

And without a doubt, I was prepared to do so.  I am ashamed now to admit this blind rage. However, at the time, you must understand the Twin Towers held a special place in my heart as it did for many New Yorkers.  The thought of innocent people filled with fear, confusion, and that stark realization that they will not make it out alive, filled my heart first with anguish then with rage.  Of course, being in the center of one of the strongest and most combat-ready divisions in the United States Army only encouraged those feelings; even sadness was locked out.  Certainly, there was no room for questioning; I simply went about hating strangers and imagining what I would do to them if given half the chance.

See, Soldiers are not trained to question or to think critically about the conditions that create and support hate on such a level that it would drive people to fly planes into buildings, killing other innocent people and themselves.  We are not taught to even consider the “enemy” as people-human beings deserving of our compassion.  And so, it took six months for me to realize that there was another side to the equation.  It took another year in a race and ethnicity class; housed in the social work department, to prompt me to question exactly what caused 9.11.01 and what would be my role in preventing a repeat.

The race and ethnicity class was the first time I explored the manifestations of politics of domination and the role social workers played in unclenching its hold on people lives.  I learned that war does not just happen.  It is a concoction of power and supremacy, desperation, and a resolve to persist and be recognized.  Terrorists are not born terrorists; they’re handcrafted by the same savage conditions that support war—economic, political, religious and social desperation caused by ruthless oppression.  It was then that I realized that being a GI (Government Issue) Solider was not the only way to stop another 9.11.01. In fact, it was not the way to interrupt the policies, practices, and attitudes that support war.  I chose social work practice, specifically community organizing, because I knew from the conversations in that class, that social work would be the tool I would use to shift the trajectory of the world.  I continue to hold that belief.  I continue to envision a more just and equitable world where neither war nor the conditions that support a war like environment exist.

10 years later, I look back on who I once was and reflect on who I am today.  I still cry thinking of that day; how it changed my relationship to power, NY, and me in the world.  I often think of the lives lost and their families– on both sides and I am filled with empathy; the splitting has ceased.  And while I still experience a certain depth of anger, it is now directed toward the invisible hands that manipulate us all.  I would not be at this place if it were not for social work.

I remain a Soldier- a different breed.  I am of the line that is fighting to honor the humanity of us all by dismantling the oppressive conditions that create desperation which lead to war.  I am a bold and unapologetic Black Feminist Social Worker in community practice—creating a more just and equitable world one community at a time—ensuring that we all persist and are recognized.  And, I remain firm in my belief that social work is a critical tool in shifting the direction of our world.  I bear no shame in this fight.

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4 Responses to 10 Years Ago: From Soldier to Social Worker

  1. Holly Fancher says:

    Kalima: Your piece is beyond “well done.” I hope you’re working on a book. I’m proud to know you. -Holly

    • Kalima. says:

      Thanks so much Holly! I’m planning to expand this piece into a much longer essay. I’ll share once it’s done. Thanks again for your support 🙂 I’m happy we’ll have an opportunity to work more closely over the next few years 🙂

  2. Tangie says:

    My cousin is the best. This piece as all of your others are very inspiring. I am so very proud of you. And as Holly stated, I am also awaiting the publishing of your own book. Love you!!!

  3. Ashley says:

    This is an excellent paper. I hope that you write more about yourself and your conversion if you will from soldier in social worker. I too am on that path, slightly different then your own, but we are side by side following some of general guidelines. I hope that you find much personal happiness as you bestow understanding on those that so desperately need to be understood. As for being bold and unapologetic, never lose that or leave it behind, that is truly the only way to be and it is the only way that one person can remaining standing up for others under even the strongest oppression.

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