Friday, November 15, 2019

A soldier and opera lover shares his story

Left: Joshua Rodriguez today, with his wife Michelle at a Seattle Opera gala, and before, as a cadet. "My wife Michelle has experienced the best and the worst of the Army, where I learned some of the hardest lessons leadership can offer. She’s had to endure reports on CNN that cover stories explaining why my unit was suddenly blacked out on communications without knowing if I was alive or dead, all the while taking care of our kids, getting a Master’s degree, and working full time to maintain career progression for herself. No matter what I do in the future, I don’t know that I’d ever perform at the same level she has for 10 years now." 
By Gabrielle Nomura Gainor
Joshua Rodriguez will never forget bringing his fellow soldiers home alive after a particularly close call with the Taliban. It was nighttime at his remote observation post in Kunar, Afghanistan.

“We had nine U.S. Soldiers, one Latvian officer, and no more than 10 Afghan National Army Soldiers in defense,” Rodriguez says. “The enemy had approximately 80 fighters, all of whom were committed to ending our lives.” 

It took all but three of the 43 grenades they had on hand, plus numerous individual acts of bravery. But somehow, Rodriguez and his soldiers made it through the night with only minor injuries. 

“We left that mountain with two Bronze Stars for Valor, three Army Commendation Medals for Valor, and one hell of a story.”

Today, Rodriguez is an Army veteran, an officer in the Reserve, and leads an investment management team for Goldman Sachs. In his spare time, he 
serves on the Seattle Opera Board, where most recently, he's been helping to launch The Falling and the Rising as a member of the steering committee. Based on interviews with active-duty soldiers and veterans, this new American opera shines a light on the untold stories of American service members. Through a collaboration with Path with Art, the opera's chorus is composed entirely of veterans from the Puget Sound region.

Liz Frazer, a Seattle Opera teaching artist, works with the veterans chorus for Seattle Opera's production of The Falling and the Rising. Photo by Philip Newton. 
In addition to bridging the divide between civilians and those who serve, The Falling and the Rising is meant to provide a moment of catharsis for service members in the audience.   

"When I talk to civilians about my experience as a solider, how many people were injured, or who we lost, it’s not emotional for me. I know that most likely, they haven’t taken the time to truly understand what I’m talking about," Rodriguez says. "But when I tell that same story to combat veterans, sometimes I can’t even finish the story without breaking down." 

The Falling and the Rising can help civilians better understand what gets left behind after a war. It can validate the recovery journey that many veterans have experienced or are going through now. This is why Rodriguez describes the production as "bigger than Seattle Opera realizes; the city should take note of what we’re doing here." 

Why is opera important to you? 
In opera, I find an escape. Opera to me is calming—meditative even. After working long hours during the week, I enjoy being able to listen to beautiful music. I was an active musician through high school, into college, and grew to love and appreciate different genres, though opera moved to the top for me. Music was one way my mom and I connected. When I was 15, she took me to my first opera in Cadiz, Spain. My Army service caused a break in attendance, but I’ve been a subscriber to Seattle Opera for the last few years.

What do you hope that audiences get out of The Falling and the Rising
Awareness. I hope they come away more aware of those who serve. Last month, a soldier from my first deployment went missing, and we found him one week later. That man is hurting, and it’s all left over from the Afghan deployment we shared in 2008-2009. The United States is sending folks overseas—and perhaps it is necessary. But when soldiers return, it’s almost like we go into a void that must be fought through, often without substantial help. Often without much recognition beyond the yellow-ribbon-car-magnet. The first thing we can do to support our veterans is to be aware of what we—simply by virtue of being American—are asking service members to do. We can be more aware of how this experience impacts them.

Photos of Rodriguez's military service, courtesy of Josh Rodriguez. 
Tell me more about how we can support and honor veterans. 
For one, by giving them a shot in the workplace after their military service ends. I appreciate The Partnership for Youth Success (PaYS) program, for example, which allows people to serve while preparing for a future career. Soldiers and ROTC cadets are guaranteed a job interview and possible employment with a PaYS partner—an American corporation or public-sector agency—of their choice. Veterans have a ton to offer and that talent should be tapped. No one works harder or is more loyal than a soldier.

What contributes to the divide between civilians and those who serve? Why do veterans such as yourself tend to not feel seen and acknowledged by people like me who haven't served?
It’s tough. There needs to be an environment where people are encouraged to talk about their experiences in the military. With many different groups, be it communities of color or other marginalized folks, we’re in a phase of learning to be more inclusive. Veterans still represent a group where most people feel uncomfortable bringing up what has made them so resilient and valuable to our workforce. When I was first starting my MBA program at the UW Foster School of Business, the members of my small group were sharing about our backgrounds. When it was my turn, I talked about serving in the Army, which led to an awkward silence, followed by: "Hey thanks for everything Josh," and "Yeah Josh, thanks man." My response was, "I’m not trying to kill the mood here!”

In a way, I can relate to your MBA colleagues. I have often had the urge to thank someone I see in uniform, but haven’t known if that’s awkward or not. 

We ask soldiers to put their lives on the line. What do you say to that person? There must be a way to make a connection—I think The Falling and the Rising is a way to get people talking more. Out of the more than 100,000 who deployed to Afghanistan at the height of that surge, maybe 3,000-4,000 saw combat daily—these are the folks immortalized in books and movies. But the vast majority of soldiers don’t have Hollywood asking to make a movie about them. The vast majority of folks don't see their story in the media or in popular culture. That lack of representation can make some veterans feel disenfranchised and question how meaningful their fight was. How do you talk about their story? The Falling and the Rising is a way—because it speaks more universally to serving in all its forms.

Tess Altiveros (Soldier) in Seattle Opera's production of The Falling and the Rising. Philip Newton photo
What motivated you to become a solider; how has the experience changed you? 
I come from a family of service. It was actually my grandfather who chose to better himself, and lift his family out of poverty by enlisting in the Army. In three decades, my grandfather worked his way up to the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve as Command Sergeant Major. In this role, he was responsible for the health and welfare of more than 5,000 soldiers and their families. By the time college applications were due, I had never even considered any other career path. I had it in my head that all other tracks lacked a real purpose. So I submitted a single college application—to West Point—and was admitted for the following spring.

In the Army, I saw constant inequities. I saw young people—often from marginalized backgrounds—coming in from tough situations. However, it was also in the Army where I saw people improving their lives everyday. I didn’t come from a wealthy neighborhood full of connections. My mom sacrificed much to raise me with a good head on my shoulders. But compared to many, I was also so fortunate. One person I served with had previously survived by panhandling; now he was supporting his entire family. Often, my fellow soldiers came from nothing, but they were grounded with a high level of character and integrity. That was inspiring.

Ultimately, I was able to find purpose outside of the Army as well at Goldman Sachs.

In a progressive city like Seattle, sometimes it can feel as if military issues represent the other end of the political spectrum. But why are veterans issues something that everyone should care about?
Because your kids—progressive kids—are also serving in the military. The majority of recruits come from Texas, New York, and California. All of these states are diverse. Of course, Texas might be more conservative, but New York and California have significant liberal populations. We, the people who serve in the military, are not creating policy. We are simply carrying it out on behalf of the voters—it’s important to vote! This can be difficult to reconcile during politically divisive times, but I can tell you that folks in the military come from every end of the political spectrum.

Josh, his wife Michelle, and their three daughters. Photo courtesy of Josh Rodriguez. 
When you sit down to watch The Falling and the Rising, how will the experience be different than previous Seattle Opera productions?
This one cuts deep, it’s personal to me.

I first heard about The Falling and the Rising in early 2018, when then-General Director Aidan Lang asked me to lunch. He wanted to tell me about a new work that Seattle Opera might co-commission, a piece from the U.S. Army Field Band. What he described sounded incredible. But I cautioned him: “Don’t mess it up. If you tell this story the wrong way, it could be really bad. That said, it’s a very good thing what you’re doing. I’m involved now whether you like it or not!”
Opera is incredibly emotional. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect medium to help people connect to these ideas about service and sacrifice. The way the orchestra and singers convey this style of music is so personal—you’re accentuating the most intimate of human emotions. 
The Falling and the Rising is real. It’s authentic. It’s a tragedy exposing an issue our country must confront today. And the chorus includes veterans who have experienced homelessness, an issue that’s impacting veterans in Seattle, in Washington State, and across the country. Everyone I’ve spoken to about The Falling and the Rising, from cadets at the University of Washington to a four-star general is excited about this initiative. It’s bigger than Seattle Opera realizes and the city should take note of what we’re doing here. 
Seattle Opera presents The Falling and the Rising

Get tickets for Seattle Opera's The Falling and the Rising:

The Nov. 15 and 17 performances are sold out. A handful of tickets are still available for performances Nov. 20, 22, & 24. Tickets can be purchased at:

Performances are held at the Opera Center (363 Mercer St.).