Jerry White believes each of us has a moment in life from which we begin to view things as before and after, and the longer we live, the more such moments we accumulate.
It could be the death of a loved one, a battle with cancer, the birth of a child.
“If you don’t have one yet, you will,” White said.
White, now a 50-year-old deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, had his first such moment in 1984. He stepped on a land mine in Israel, and it blew off much of his right leg.
“Land mines aren’t courageous weapons. They’re put in the ground by cowards who then leave, not caring whether they blow up an enemy combatant or a child,” White told a gathering Friday at the American Lake Veterans Administration chapel.
White was an American student studying Hebrew on a hiking and camping trip when he was nearly killed. He and two friends had spent the night in a field and were walking out when the mine exploded.
“I think I was humming at the time,” he said. “I thought I’d been hit by a rocket. I didn’t know a thing about mines. My two friends got me out.”
What that day began teaching White, he said, was how to survive. It’s a lesson that continues today when he talks to other survivors.
“Nothing in life prepares you for your moment,” he said. “Nothing in our lives prepared us for getting out of a mine field alive.”
What followed was the most difficult part. Recovering. Surviving. Moving on.
White was first scolded by Israeli soldiers who said he’d ignored sign posts and fences to enter the mine field. Eventually, they acknowledged there were no signs or fences, but it was another life lesson.
“Survivors find there’s a tendency to blame the victim, which is just another load they must bear,” he said. “You don’t get through life without scar tissue.”
As he lay in a hospital recuperating, an Army officer with one leg entered his room with questions. Did he still have his knee? Could he still have children?
“When I told him ‘yes,’ he said, ‘You’ve got a nose cold – you’ll get over it,’” White said. “I never forgot that, though I remember thinking at the time, ‘If that jerk can get through it, so can I.’”
Twenty at the time, White returned home and finished college, married, had four children. He was the leader of the International Campaign to Ban Land mines, which shared the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize with coordinator Jody Williams, and founded Survivors Corps.
He also found time to write “I Will Not Be Broken: 5 Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis.”
“Only one of my children read it,” White said. “Or as she puts it, ‘I’m the only one who read your damned book.’”
How do you survive the biggest challenges in your life? White’s five points came, he said, from conversations with thousands of people who had done it and continue to do so. They are:
• Face the facts. “I realized I wasn’t a starfish, my leg wasn’t going to grow back.”
• Choose life. “Some people stay victims. Your life has to be more than one date, so don’t get stuck on it. Live!”
• Reach out. “Don’t isolate yourself – that will kill you. No one can survive alone.”
• Get moving. “It’s your life, and no one is going to live it for you. Don’t wait for someone else to do it for you.”
• Give back. “The fundamentals of life are food, sex, sleep and giving. Giving will raise your serotonin levels. You can look at someone like Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison, or you can find quiet, thoughtful ways to give, but do it.”
In town to visit family – he has two brothers in Seattle – and for his speech last week to a Pacific Lutheran University symposium, White added that humor was a key ingredient for survivors.
“I know I can survive losing a leg,” he said. “In fact, I handled losing a leg better than I sometimes handle stubbing my toe. I think of that when my four kids drive me crazy and I want to put one or two of them in jail.”Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638