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ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper sat down with White for an in-depth look at his story.
Cooper: I have to ask—why were you hiking in Israel?
White: (laughs) Like a tourist? I was the first non-Jew to graduate with a degree in Judaic studies and Jewish history from Brown University. My advisor said, “Jerry, God doesn’t speak Greek or Latin in heaven. He speaks Hebrew. It’s time for you to head over to Jerusalem and learn the language.” So I went over there with my backpack and Hebrew-English dictionary, not knowing anything more than “shekel” and “shalom,” wanting to walk in the footsteps of the prophets, and study Biblical archaeology, foreign policy of Israel, Hebrew, and a little bit of Arabic as well.
Cooper: What prompted you to set out that way? What’s your own religious background?
White: Irish-Catholic. I grew up outside of Boston in a town with no synagogues. I think I had my first bagel when I was 17 years old. My sister had come back from college with this chewy doughnut no one had ever had.
Cooper: Those bagels will get you.
White: (laughs) Right! Anyway, I grew up in a preppy, homogeneous, small town on the coast of Massachusetts. But when I went to Brown, all the smart kids were drinking coffee, reading the New York Times, and taking Judaic studies classes. I followed some of my friends. No one had really told me Jesus was Jewish, so the baseline of my Christian faith felt shaky, like, ‘What else don’t I know?’ I wanted to understand the Judaic context of earliest Christianity to backfill my ignorance, and Brown happened to have some really great professors on this front. Being a Religious Studies major, I narrowed in on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and that ultimately led me to the land where it all began.
White: So I studied for about one semester, and then there was a Passover break in the spring of 1984. A couple of friends and I went on a round of touring and hiking in the north, which was heavily forested with waterfalls and nice nature hikes. But we sort of wandered off the beaten track. That was our flaw, our fatal step–we had turned left when everyone else had turned right. We had entered through the unmarked back door of a minefield.
Cooper: No pun intended with the “fatal step?”
White: (laughs) Luckily, it wasn’t fatal. I went back there [to the scene] in March of this year, for the first time in 25 years. I used the media, the profile of my story and my return to this personal ground zero to raise awareness among Israelis about the nature of the landmine problem in their backyard, which they don’t really know much about. You shock most Israelis when you tell them, “There are nearly 300,000 mines buried throughout your country, and you have hundreds of non-operational minefields.” In March alone, when I was there, there were three new landmine accidents.
Cooper: These mines are from the Israeli government?
White: Yes, some left over from Syrians. A lot of the mines in the Golan are mostly part of Soviet-supplied, Syrian-laid minefields. The specific camping area, where I had turned left, was a Syrian stronghold from the ’60s. There are also some Jordanian-laid minefieldsoutside outside Jerusalem, from when Jordan controlled all that territory. So it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, depending on which area of the country you’re talking about.
Most Israelis understand that there are minefields in the Golan, and many believe that they need mines along the borders because they don’t have peace and it helps prevent terrorism. That would be the generic belief of most Israelis, but many don’t understand the extent of the problem–minefields have not been cleaned up and can be. So that’s why we were there, to raise awareness and get Israel to start cleaning up this military litter from all of these wars.
Cooper: Are these fields clearly signed? Are there fences that say: ‘Danger-Keep Out’ or ‘Minefield?’
White: When I was injured in 1984, no one wanted to believe that these areas weren’t properly signed and fenced. There was a tendency to blame the victim. I would say, “If I had known it was a minefield and I had seen the sign or fence, I don’t think I would have gone camping there.” But that was 1984. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the Israelis did a survey of all their minefields and admitted, in a Comptroller General report from the government of Israel, that there were, in fact, a number of minefields that were not properly fenced off or signed. And then it took until 2004 for minefield maps to be published illustrating where the minefields are throughout the country. The maps, however, were only published in Hebrew, not in English or Arabic or Russian. So there’s still work to be done.
However, even when you go up and visit some of these minefields, signs fall off or tourists take them. Barbed wire falls down, cattle trample them, and there are still instances in which people, sometimes children, are at risk while retrieving their soccer ball. For some Druze families, weather floods the minefields in winter and the mines come up right into the doorsteps of their houses. So even the minefields don’t stay put, and signs and fences don’t stay put. Therefore, the only real solution to the problem is cleaning up the areas and de-mining.
All of this led me, in an unlucky time, to step on a landmine. In the book, I describe my story of surviving, of having my two friends pick me up and carry me out, and then of spending six months in Israel. If you’re going to step on a landmine, I recommend that you do it in Israel, because it has the best trauma care in the world. I was in a hospital in my own room, with about four guys my age. Sadly, it was normal to have lost arms or legs or eyes because of explosions in war. At that time, in the ’80s, many guys were coming back from the war in Lebanon. Israel hospitals have an advanced technique of interdisciplinary trauma care, as well as the intentional use of peer-support, visitation, and mentoring by other amputees. That’s where I first learned of what, 20 years later, would become our hallmark of work around the world: pioneering the use of peer-support methodologies to improve the mental and physical health of the injured and of people with disabilities.
Cooper: At what stage did this prompt you to create the network?
White: After I returned home and resumed my studies at Brown, I worked on arms control and the nonproliferation issue for about 10 years. I didn’t even think about my leg. I got a new fake leg and then I got married and had four kids. It really wasn’t until 10 years after my accident that the landmine issue became a global issue. I jumped at the opportunity to get involved. When I met co-founder, Ken Rutherford, he said, “Jerry, you’re tracking the wrong weapon of mass destruction. Landmines have killed more people than nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons combined. With your professional experience with arms control and national security issues, and with your personal experience losing a leg to a landmine in Israel, why don’t you get involved? There’s this new campaign that’s just starting.” This was in the mid-’90s. In fact, the UN was having its first conference on landmines in Vienna in September of 1995. So I was just at a propitious moment to join this nascent campaign.
And that’s when the light bulb went on and we started Landmine Survivors Network. Born during the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Prize in 1997, it’s the first international organization created by and for landmine survivors. We were the only survivor group, and we also started to work with Princess Diana. All of this gave us a lot of attention, of course.
Cooper: How did that connection occur?
White: Princess Diana had gone to Angola and had been awakened to the problem of landmines on her trip there. When she said how awful landmines were, sort of off the cuff, really, she was accused by the British government of not being a proper princess. They thought she should stick to humanitarian issues and not talk about security issues that she doesn’t know anything about. So she began looking for a humanitarian platform to address the issue of landmines. The first time she gave her public speech on landmines was at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and we were at her side, planning the conference and the platform for her. Later on, we did a lot of work with her and brought her into Bosnia. She kept asking for help, “What should we do next?” Fundamentally, I think Diana was a person of compassion, so she wanted to help people. She single-handedly translated the issue in people’s minds from a security issue to a humanitarian issue. This was about people getting blown up. It wasn’t just about the weapons.
Cooper: Did Princess Diana come to you?
White: We were told by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) that Diana wanted to meet us and wanted to have survivors involved. We were the international survivor group, so MAG said, “Why don’t you get in touch with Kensington Palace?” The de-miners brokered the introduction, and I started to brief Diana on our work with survivors around the world. She asked me to plan, in secret, her first trip to Bosnia. That was in 1997.
Cooper: Did you go to England to meet, or was this mostly over the phone?
White: Mostly by phone. We went over to Kensington Palace on a couple of occasions to brief her and also met with her in the US during an event. In Bosnia we spent three days together, non-stop.
Cooper: How did you pull that off?
White: We didn’t tell anyone about it.
Cooper: You have visas and diplomatic issues to get into another country?
White: I knew on her end that the Foreign Ministry of Defense would have to handle her permission to go, and that her travel on a private plane was to be arranged. I was just supposed to go pick her up and travel with her back to Sarajevo. Meanwhile, we had her bodyguards. But even the British ambassador to Sarajevo was not informed. This was at a time in Diana’s life in which she was over the pain of her divorce, and she was starting to call her own shots out of Kensington Palace, not having to always do what the establishment wanted or the government wanted or the family wanted. So she was sort of cutting out on her own.
I wouldn’t tell anyone who was coming. People would guess. They thought it was Bianca Jagger or Hillary Clinton or some other celeb. I said, “I can’t tell you, but I’m trying to arrange a VIP visit, and I was wondering if I could have your help on the following days.” So we engaged the help of friends who could supply us, but I told them I couldn’t say who was arriving, only that it would be important and that they would be glad they were involved. It’s amazing how far we got by doing that. The whole thing was also done pretty tightly and quickly, so in that July and the run-up to August, there wasn’t much time for leaks.
Cooper: What was the experience of going there?
White: I was watching a person with a gift in action, which was very fun. I realized it wasn’t just about Diana the celebrity, it was about a person who fundamentally cared about people who were hurting, someone who had a gift of compassion and healing. Seeing her in action in any particular room, or in a home where there would be people with stumps and raw wounds or losses, Diana was always very appropriate and loving. This was a woman who had just lost her husband only a month before. She’d listen as people poured out their hearts to her. And she took some of their pain out of that room each time, again and again and again. So for me, it was a privilege to watch and learn from the master, someone who just fundamentally understood people in pain and how to be with them.
Cooper: Did these people know who she was?... continued in ABILITY Magazine
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