I spent Halloween at the Fork Union Military Academy in Fluvanna County. The academy holds the annual Halloween candidates debate with state, local and Congressional candidates. We put up our yard signs outside the library and followed the cadets to chapel. The cadets are mostly from Republican homes and have had difficulty in school. They come to Fork Union for “discipline” as the librarian told me, and “focus.”
There were no costumes or frivolity. Each was given a sandwich bag with candy and when the debate was about to begin, cadets were told by an officer, with a drill master’s sharp command, to “drop your candy bags”.
They asked me how I felt about women in the military and LGBTQ soldiers. I said that I supported all of them filling the ranks and explained that having been in a number of war zones, I knew there was no excuse to exclude women. There was no cause to discriminate against LGBTQ soldiers either. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with courage. “When you are in extreme danger,” I told one second-year cadet, “The person you expect to be heroic may freeze or turn tail. The person you least expect to step into the breech may turn out to be brave and ready to save your life. You won’t know until you get there.”
I told them that I was concerned about military women facing sexual assault. One in four is assaulted in the service. I said I would join other women in Congress to fight for legislation to take the responsibility for disciplinary action outside the chain of command. Sometimes the commanders are the abusers. A sergeant at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, who was certified as a sexual assault prevention officer, was convicted at a court-martial in May of five counts of raping a pre-teen girl. An Army prosecutor, in change of sexual assault investigations in the Southwest was charged by the military last month with putting a knife to the throat of a lawyer he was dating and raping her. The Army confirmed to the Washington Post that eight other soldiers and civilians trained to help victims have been investigated in the past year for sexual assault. The Deputy Director of the Air Force Office of Sexual Assault Prevention resigned last year when it emerged that he had said, in the presence of Air Force staff, that it was women’s work to “shop and eat bonbons”.
A few days before the Fork Union event, I was invited to visit the National Organization of Women in Charlottesville. The director of Charlottesville’s Shelter for Help in Emergency told us that thirty-three percent of all homicides in Virginia are “domestic violence related”. Women 18-24 experienced the highest rate of “intimate partner violence”. The shelter supplies its services for free, hotlines, “nights of safety”, and emergency residence accommodation with twenty-five beds. That same evening, I learned that “If you’re an African-American woman in Charlottesville, you are less likely to survive in childbirth than if you were in Uganda”.
The child is also less likely to survive.
My district is laced with extremes. In the cafeteria of the Fork Union Military Academy, I noticed two African-American women helping with the food service. I asked if they were from Fluvanna county. No, they said, they were from Cumberland. I told them that Cumberland was in my district and asked what they really needed in that county. The women thought for a moment as they arranged the salad bar.
“A grocery store.”
“To buy food, we have to go to Farmville in the next county. It takes half an hour to get there.” Cumberland County is the rural equivalent of the urban food desert. The women say they can find a few items at True Value Hardware and a couple of convenience stores. “But it’s expensive.”
After leaving the well-groomed campus of the Academy, I raced to a meeting with Mozell Booker, the first African-American woman to serve on the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors. Mozell represents the Fork Union District. She has lived in Germany and Japan, traveling the world when her husband was in the Air Force. Since returning to Fluvanna, she has taught school and worked as a school principal. I asked her how to address the “school-to-prison pipeline” that is crippling the future of so many African-American children. “You must build relationships with the kids. The kids need to know that you SEE them. Meet the parents wherever they want to meet. The counselors are so busy with administrative duties they don’t have time to identify the children who need extra support. One boy got two Fs on his report card. He needed a progress report. He needed a tutor. There aren’t enough activities for kids in middle school. The community needs to be involved.”
She brought the subject around to teaching civil rights.
“Some teachers just don’t teach it. We have a Confederate monument built in 1920, at the height of Jim Crow. African-Americans don’t feel comfortable around it. It sits in a park that was known as ‘The Park’ and recently the name was changed to the Confederate Park. I said we needed to change the name to Memorial Park so we can put other monuments there. The public weighed in. You could see the racism. Sixty-one percent wanted to keep things as they are. I gave a passionate speech at the Board of Supervisors meeting. One audience member spoke up and said, “let’s at least change the name to Civil War Park. If we hadn’t had that war, Ms. Booker would still be a slave.”
The board voted to change the name.
Mozell Booker and the Fluvanna Historical Society want to erect a monument to the Emancipation Proclamation. They want to cut a meandering path through the park, where children can go to read about the history of civil rights. “If they won’t teach it in school, we will teach it here.”
With so many critical Virginia races on the ballot November 7th, I drove down to Rocky Mount in Franklin County to knock on doors for Stephanie Cook, a teacher running for House of Delegates. I walked the neighborhoods with Erin, Stephanie’s sister and Erin’s husband. It was their first time canvassing, but Erin found a connection with nearly everyone we spoke to, friends from school, someone who had played baseball with her husband. Erin found the old house where she and Stephanie had lived as children. She was proud of her sister and her stand on healthcare, in jeopardy for many now that a local hospital is closing, education and the proposed pipeline that will cut deeply into the lives of Franklin County residents.
Up in Madison County, I canvassed for candidate Ben Hixon, another Democratic challenger with visionary ideas for the House of Delegates, and then traveled the remote hollows of Rappahannock with Barbara Adolfi to knock on doors for Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Mark Herring and Tristan Shields. We came across an old friend of Barbara’s who was making the decision that day to file for bankruptcy. She had been nearly killed in a head-on collision and had been put back together, bone by broken bone, without health insurance. The other driver was in jail and could pay nothing. Her bills were astronomical. The accident’s traumatic effect on her brain has been to slow her down so much that she rarely leaves the house and is proud of simply getting through each day.
You learn so much when you go door-to-door.