Morgan Shaley Renew 24” x 18” • Acrylic on Canvas

Morgan Shaley Renew
24” x 18” • Acrylic on Canvas

Within this piece, I wanted to pay homage to Jake’s medical service, as well as his service to our country. Therefore I chose to portray an American soldier in anatomical position, wrapped in the snake and wings of a caduceus. I wanted these specific aspects of the painting to be in black and white to represent the mental hardships of both occupations.

As for the patches the soldier bears on his chest, I wanted them to be colorful, proud, and commanding. I chose to place an American flag on the right side of his chest, and a Pride flag on the left over his heart as a symbol of strength in adversity.
I was so honored to be able to listen to Jake’s story and creating this painting was truly a joy. I will remember this experience fondly for years to come.

Inspired by the experiences of Jake Connell

What We Deserve
by Robert LeHeup

“Man steps on the ant when it can’t catch a fly.”
-Bill Gaede

In a global society made of a melting pot of different cultures, tragedy and shame aren’t always easy to define. The righteous judgment of one religion might impede the righteous judgment of another, causing hate and discontent and war on both sides. Political affiliations might cloud progress toward our health as a nation, or prevent mankind from even hoping to come together to reach for the stars. Schools of thought might undermine one another with paradoxical proofs, leaving all participants no better than when they started. But in this nebulous understanding, where so many attributes are left to context, there is one truth that is immutable: If a person is objectively doing their best to help the world as a whole, it is in society’s best interest to support that person in their attempts. And to not support them is both tragic and shameful.

Jake was not simply born into tragedy. He was shaped by it. And thank God for that. Someone who had grown up in easier circumstances might have suck-started a shotgun by now. Bullied at home, bullied at school, bullied because he wasn’t a cookie cutter individual that reinforced how “precious” it was to be common, he had no choice but to adapt to the circumstances where nature and nurture were their most cruel. And like so many courageous enough to address the love shaped hole in them, Jake had a profound love even for those who mocked him. And in time, despite that love sliding off like Teflon, it turned into social responsibility, where he would fantasize about being a police officer or a fireman.

He had found friends, having built a home out of what he was given, like birds might make a nest of found objects. But once he was on the verge of graduating high school, his options were opened like a blooming flower, with pedals reaching in all directions. He had been a lifeguard, he taught first aid, and CPR, he was known for being someone of objective Good, in spite of his supposed social handicap. Yet when a friend of his told him she was joining the Army, he put all of that away and joined up as well, if for no other reason than to ensure she was protected. Add to that his ability to continue his journey of helping mankind on a larger scale and off he went.

While in the Army, he felt a genuine sense of camaraderie, each person fighting in the same direction toward a common goal. He had chosen in this instant to be a mechanic for light wheel vehicles, as he felt an almost meditative feeling in the tinkering aspect of it. That, and he’d also been given a sizable bonus, as that job was both entirely necessary and lacking in enough personnel to provide full support to the rest of the Army. In other words, he had found a job that he had enjoyed, while also fulfilling his responsibility in a way that was invaluable, continuing the theme of service that had defined him.

What’s more, he had continued developing his own forms of expression through music and song writing, pouring himself mentally and emotionally into his craft with the same singular love that was shown in his childhood and later, his chosen profession. Each string plucked was one step closer on the journey toward knowing not simply himself, but his place in the world. There was a calm between those chords, where he could, with comfort and dignity, celebrate all that made him and all that made us. A world where those that shunned him, those that spit at the thought of him, knew better.

He left the Army hesitantly, the family that had been cultivated regretfully cheering him on only because he would continue his work as a paramedic in the civilian world. He missed it terribly, but he had a responsibility back home to ensure those he’d known would still have the kind of protection that had been robbed from him throughout his life. His expectations weren’t lofty. Instead he was grounded in the firm belief that those who had belittled him were mired in their own myopic nepotism, where small towns supported one another through the comfort of cultural reinforcement, rather than societal progress. Yet he went anyway, firmly set in his obligations toward those that needed him, hoping against hope that some sort of growth had occurred since he’d left almost a decade prior.

Hitting the ground running, Jake began his EMT training in 2009, becoming an EMT a year later, then receiving his paramedic license in 2012. Between that and his experience as a volunteer firefighter, he had fantasized about being the Caped Paramedic, showing up to help people in any hazardous situation. It was common sense that if he poured his heart and soul into his work, the people around him would have no choice but to appreciate his combined efforts. That style of imagination was entirely necessary for his own mental health, a defense mechanism that laid the foundation for the justification of his survival in spite of his upbringing. But fantasy is the prey of reality.

He saw friends die. Watched as life passed out of them and through his trembling fingers. He had to clean up the aftermath, where everything that’s in a person falls out, the shell of what we leave stripping the understanding of our own self-importance. This burden was further underscored by a woman who was both a colleague and a friend, who chose to committed suicide rather than deal with the harshness of losing hope. He saw those things that haunt the dreams of veterans, and like those veterans, soldiered on, fueled by the lofty dream of being loved and appreciated, persevering through the personal acknowledgement of his own sacrifice.

Jake began working 48 hours straight, 24 as an EMT, 24 with the fire department, then taking a day to rest before doing it all over again. It was as though, through sheer effort of will, he could stem the tide of all suffering in his small town. But sacrifice, by the fleeting nature of life, reaches a limit. When Jake reached his, it came in the form of his own mental debilitation. He stole Benadryl off his ambulance so that he could sleep when he wasn’t working. He had to combat suicidal ideation to the point of hospitalization more than once. Ironically, the final straw was one he’d carried his whole life.

Like so many who strive to do their best for the world, he was so generous with his love that at best he gave it away freely, and at worst, he left unguarded. He had dedicated the whole of his being to helping those that couldn’t help themselves, in spite of their judgment. Of healing those people that would see him torn down. Because he was not exactly like them, he was lesser in their eyes. So when Jake finally owned the love he had given away so freely, he realized that guarding it was his last line of defense. And so he quit his job as an EMT. Quit his job at the fire department. Quit giving all he was because of the callous mindset reinforced one final time when Jake decided to come out as a transgender man, yet his coworkers refused to use the pronouns he’d chosen to adopt.

Shame and tragedy can be hard to define in a society made of differing cultures. In a world where a transitioned veteran can be in a collaborative art show with a Liberian boy who suffered through a civil war, an Apache presidential advisor, a wandering artist from the Netherlands, and a Vietnam veteran musician from Asheville, NC, the intrinsic values we place on the individual need careful consideration. But one thing is clear. If society is created by a collection of cultures, and a culture shuns someone who possesses such depth of character as to sacrifice themselves daily for the betterment of that world, the tragedy is laid at the feet of that individual. But the shame is laid at the feet of the culture.