Joe Martin Cantrell

Lesson 1: The Orphan—Around the World and Back Again


Understand that gaining a broader perspective sometimes requires separating from the familiar and viewing life through a different lens.


Develop awareness towards the life perspectives of others and be an ally to others who like you, are looking for acceptance and support.

The Orphan

The Orphan represents the feeling of being alone and being in a place that causes the feeling of isolation from others.  It is the feeling of being singly challenged and even feeling overwhelmed at times by the work facing you.

Getting It Right

“I thought I had seen the truth about war, but it was not the truth I had been raised with….either I didn’t see what I thought I saw, or [other people] were seriously misguided—or someone was lying”

Joe Cantrell

Joe completed his first Vietnam tour of duty and returned home to the United States.  Despite the patriotic and altruistic motives for his enlisting in the service, Joe reflected on his personal war experience, which did not gibe with what he had been told by the policy- and decision-makers who fashioned his military experience.  He began to seriously question whether the Vietnamese people were truly the beneficiaries or the casualties of a mission intended to protect them from Communist aggression.

Because he was determined to do the right thing—“to get it right”—Joe reenlisted and took his training at the U.S. Navy diving school.  Even after completing his second tour and being discharged from the military, Joe was still not ready to come home.  At one point, he briefly attempted to resettle in the States but that move proved unsuccessful.  Joe made his way back to Southeast Asia.  Eventually he traveled to Singapore and became a photojournalist.  By the time he moved back to the United States for good, he had been away from home for approximately 15 years.

Coming Home

“…the moment I knew that I’d come home was when that woman down at the Grand Ronde [powwow] pulled me into the Veteran’s Dance.  That was so important…I didn’t think anyone was going to welcome me home.”

Events conspired to bring Joe back to the United States.  He felt national politics impacted his ability to do his job the way he felt it should be done.  He experienced a sense of “burnout,” and as a political photojournalist, he found his life was being threatened.  But most importantly, he “missed his country.”  What Joe experienced in being pulled to the dance floor was a welcoming home. That single dance experience represented a new beginning for him, an offering of acceptance and integration back into his American -- and Native American -- way of life.

Serving as a photojournalist gave Joe an opportunity to chronicle life; he recorded real-life situations as they happened.  His job offered a platform to observe and learn.  By observing others, we come to better understand ourselves.  Through his photo work, Joe began to observe and understand his own life experience in relationship to that of others.  As his perspective broadened, he became more objective and it was then that he began to consider the true nature of the war, the distortions of propaganda, and ultimately, the sacrifices of indigenous people.

The task of the Orphan is to see, to listen, to feel, and through that experience, to understand.

Joe speaks of the need to take responsibility for one’s actions and words.  He admonishes people who “choose not to pay attention…not to do anything.”  Assuming the role of an ally -- for members of your own family, people in your peer group or others in your community -- is a thoughtful and deliberate process.  Using the war as metaphor, Joe explains his thoughts on winning:

  • You must be on the ground, and not just dropping bombs from miles away
  • You’ve got to speak the language
  • You must understand the culture
  • You must do things to improve lives, not destroy them.

These notions can be translated into meaningful strategies to assist others who are trying to break free from negative influences and transform their lives.  While a good part of transformation includes getting help from others, it includes helping others as well.  Promoting change requires co-responsibility, being a “brother’s keeper,” or serving as an ally.

By being an ally, we increase our perspective and learn to see the world through someone else’s eyes.  This in turn helps us be more objective when making important decisions about our own lives.

Following Joe’s prescription for “winning,” make it your mission to extend a willing hand to others, an action that will reward you with much personal gain in your own life.

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