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Christmas With The Lepers:
A Lesson In Emotional Anti-Terrorism

GROUND ZERO PLUS 1199 DAYS,--New York, NY, Friday, December 24, 2004--Each year on Christmas Eve I am reminded of my Christmas with the Lepers.

It was Christmas, 1965. I was on the island of Okinawa waiting to mount out with the 1st Marine Division to Chu Lai, Vietnam. As a U.S. Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, my job was to record various events of interest about the activities the Marine Corps was involved in, both in combat and non-combat situations.

I was invited to spend Christmas Day at a leper colony in Okinawa

Our editor asked if anyone was interested in spending Christmas Day with a colony of lepers. No one jumped up and grabbed the assignment. I thought it sounded fascinating and elected to record and report the event.

The trip was hosted by the local provost marshall, whose civilian counterpart would be the local police chief. Each year it was the tradition of the local military police to send a detachment to a remote Leper Colony and distribute gifts that had been collected throughout the year to the people and children who lived there.

In an ironic sense of holiday amnesty, the provost marshall offered any prisoners in the brig a "free day" if they wanted to volunteer to visit the Leper Colony. The Marine Corps brig was full of convicted Marines whose crimes ranged from rape and murder to refusing orders or going Absent Without Leave (AWOL).

Given a choice of spending Christmas in a 10x10 cell or riding on a bus to a Leper Colony, the Leper Colony seemed a top choice for a number of inmates.

I came along to report the event.

On Christmas Day we loaded the prisoners into the bus and the guards and I, plus the provost marshall, climbed aboard. The belly of the bus was stuffed with pounds and pounds of gifts wrapped and sparkling with red and green ribbons.

Leprosy is one of the most egregious of all social diseases, dating back thousands of years in history. A mycobacteria eats away at the flesh, disfiguring the victim.

Socially, cultures have cast lepers into colonies and banned them from participating in "normal" society. In 1980 a series of multi-drug inoculations were introduced to cure the disease, however, the World Health Organization still records more than 800,000 cases, mostly in underdeveloped countries.

The colony in Okinawa some four decades ago subscribed to ancient beliefs of segregation and isolation.

A person infected with leprosy was placed in the colony and could never leave it. If that person ended up married and had children, and even if they children were born without the disease and were considered "normal," even the children could never leave.

In other words, the colony was a prison for not only those afflicted with the disease, but their non-afflicted offspring.

It is hard to describe the feeling of trying to prepare one's self to not show emotional fear or trepidation about meeting lepers. On the trip up, even though the conversations ranged on a multitude of subjects, the foremost thought in everyone's mind was how we would react to the people.

The provost marshall gave the prisoners a good background, dispelling many fears about the disease, including the myth of its transmission. Only through prolonged bodily contact with a sore could the chance of its transmission be effected.

We pulled up to the location. It was well fenced and heavily posted, warning anyone approaching that the area was a Leper Colony. One could have easily placed land mines around the colony, for the signs were ominous. In any movie one sees about lepers there's that horrid vision of the beggar wrapped in rags with giant sores festering and a cane helping the victim hobble about as people run and shield their eyes, hoping the pestilence of the disease will not hop off the afflicted and onto them.

I tried to brush such thoughts from my mind, but the harder I tried to be nonplussed, the more vivid the images blazed.

The battle of Okinawa was one of the most fierce in WWII

During World War II, the battle of Okinawa was one of the fiercest of all. More people were killed during it than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Casualties totaled more than 38,000 Americans wounded and 12,000 killed or missing, more than 107,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts killed, and perhaps 100,000 Okinawan civilians who perished in the battle.

I wondered if any of the lepers in the colony had been involved in that battle, but knew I wouldn't ask the question. We were there to spread joy and good will, not burrow sores into the past.

The lepers met us at the gate. They were smiling. Some didn't have noses. Others were armless or legless. Some had parts of their bodies removed--a foot, a hand, a finger.

There was the initial shock of seeing the people, who, understanding our concerns, bowed and avoided any contact.

We toured the facility. It was primitive in many ways, especially in the medical area. Beds rested on concrete with a trough down the middle so it would be easy to disinfect the floors by swabbing and then hosing the area down.

The colony, however, was like Eden. It sat on an idyllic cove with azure water lapping upon a white beach, braced by lush green palm trees and jutting rocks spired out just offshore to create a magnificent mural that seemed in such contrast to what some might consider the "deformation" of those who called the beach their home.

Young children hugged their parents' legs and looked up at us with big brown eyes. They were "normal" and it was hard to imagine they were forced to spend the rest of their lives inside the parameters of the compound, legally, socially and culturally ostracized from ever stepping a foot outside.

As we began to speak and interact, the "horrid" nature of the disease evaporated. The humanity of he people, their warmth and kindness, their love and appreciation of our presence, soon overshadowed the fears that they were going to "infect" us. Even the prisoners--our social outcasts--our legal lepers--seemed to shed their affinities They weren't "prisoners" but "people" like the rest of us.

We entered into a circle and began to sing Christmas Carols organized by the colony. The children, originally shy, began to sidle up to us. Soon, they were sitting next to us cross legged on tatami mats. We drank and ate, forgetting we were lepers and non-lepers. We became just people.

Singing Christmas Carols at the leper colony was very different from any other caroling I had experienced

Then, we gathered up the presents and passed them out. There was a wonderful period of appreciation by all for the thoughts, the gifts and the joys they brought. The children beamed and bowed, respecting everything given to them.

As we wrapped up the day, we found ourselves shaking hands and hugging the lepers, ignoring the illusion that they were covered with sores or had no noses, or their ears were missing, or that stumps replaced hands.

I wrote a story of great importance to me, for it was about the loss of a false belief...the loss of a prejuidice...the loss of a bigotry toward people who on the outside appeared to be the most "ugly" of all forms of human degeneration but who, on the inside, were the most beautiful.

In a way, the lepers carried a form of visual Terrorism on their outsides that blinded the beauty of their Vigilance to those fearful of the truth of human nature.

It is not unlike looking at someone today from the Middle East and despite any evidence to confirm a belief, to suggest, imply or infer that just because they have the skin color, the accent, or believe in Islam, that they are now, or will become, Terrorists.

Similarly, it is the same when a die-hard Republican looks upon a die-hard Democrat, or a "red" stater looks upon a "blue" stater.

In our own country there are those who consider our government to be lepers

In our own country there are those who consider our government to be full of lepers, nasty, evil people who want to infect the world with a disease of capitalism, lust and greed at the expense of human life.

Conversely, there are those who think that people who protest or stand against certain policies are communists or subversives seeking to undermine and weaken America's backbone.

Terrorism is only skin deep.

Even our own.

When we look at ourselves and hate what we see, we see a leper.

Learn to look in the mirror and be a "high class" leper

Many of us can look in the mirror and see a "loser" or a "failure" or a "victim" or a "nobody" or someone who is "uglier than," or "not as smart as," or not as "fortunate as," and as we dwell on such infirmities of the mind, we begin to see our flesh decay and feel as outcast as a leper in a world where we have become the doormat and everyone else is the sole of the feet stomping on us.

We can also reverse this and think of ourselves as "better than" others, more "intelligent" than, or more "privileged" than, or "prettier," or more "handsome" than the less "fortunate" and become a leper by over valuing ourselves and our importance so that we become an ugly self-serving beast who considers ourselves a hammer and everyone else a nail.

We can be "high class" lepers when our egos soar.

Vigilance, on the other hand, asks us to balance ourselves out and become right size.

If we seek to look through our false fronts--either those that degrade our natures or those that isolate and elevate us above others--we find that there is little difference between ourselves and all others.

The color of one's skin, the amount of money in the bank, the level of education, the cultural beliefs, the pedigree--all mean nothing when we reduce ourselves to human beings who have one goal in mind--the safety and security of the children.

One thing I am constantly reminded about from my Christmas with the Lepers, is the faces of the children.

They were pure innocence.

The children were free from the disease of their parents. They were the next evolution of life, unencumbered and unafflicted.

Yet, society placed upon these children a burden of great onus.

Sadly, we who suffer our own varying degrees of Emotional Leprosy also infect our children.

Innoculate our children and loved ones from the dangers of Emotional Leprosy

That's why we must seek the antibiotics of Vigilance to cure ourselves and inoculate our children from the dangers of Emotional Leprosy.

If we think on this Christmas Eve and throughout the Holiday that our goal in the coming year is to remove from our selves and our loved ones the dangers of Emotional Leprosy, we will be urged to join the ranks of the Sentinels of Vigilance.

If we can muster the Courage, Conviction and take the Right Actions necessary to protect the children from harm, then we dispel the Fear, Intimidation and Complacency of Emotional Terrorism.

We will become free from Emotional Leprosy.

Inoculate yourself and loved ones today....take the Pledge of Vigilance.


Go To December 22 Story: "The Bells Of Christmas: The Blood Of Warriors"


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