I love Brown County, though we haven’t known each other for very long.
Ever since my first deployment in 2003-04, I have wanted to live and work as a community newspaper reporter.
I’m the kind of person who says “Good morning” passing people on the street, and I like to get a friendly greeting back, rather than a “please don’t hurt me” stare — or worse, absolutely no acknowledgement at all.
And so, I love Brown County.
I like being part of a community. I like taking responsibility — and a sense of ownership — for the place where I live.
And “ownership” was brought back to me recently when I was covering a Keep Brown County Beautiful meeting.
Ownership was one bullet point out of many in a discussion of littering, recycling and education. Yet, it was one that evoked some vivid memories for me.
My Army Reserve unit first crossed the border from Kuwait to Iraq with the 1st Marine Division in April 2003, a couple of weeks after the invasion.
In the early days, the Iraqi government disappeared at every level. The police hid their uniforms, their weapons and themselves.
Karbala, a city of around 250,000, was controlled by a gang when the Marines got there. Even when the police did go back to work, it was only after Marines tracked them down and gave them a very limited set of options.
I saw a lot of things I will never forget. And the looting — while it was one of the more mundane things I witnessed — left a lasting impression.
But “looting” doesn’t quite capture what happened all over Iraq.
It was a sort of self-cannibalizing. People were stealing copper from the power lines that supplied their own neighborhoods.
Talking with an Iraqi friend months later, his explanation actually made a lot of sense: Iraq — and everything in it — belonged to Saddam Hussein. In their minds, the looters were not stealing from their communities or themselves but from Saddam.
But I have to correct myself. There were some who did not hide their uniforms or abandon their posts.
At hospitals, nurses guarded the gates with AK-47s. Like the doctors, they often lived there, caring for anyone and everyone with what little they had.
In the streets, firefighters and medics faced the chaos of war head-on. Even when there was no water, no power, no bandages, no medicine, they were unwavering.
I can still see the room I sat in and the face of the fire chief I talked to one sweltering day in Karbala. It’s one of the memories from that year that can still choke me up.
We were talking about the early days after the invasion and the challenges he and his men faced in the midst of an active combat zone.
I — discretely — pointed to a group of police standing nearby.
I asked why the firefighters had continued to risk their lives for months without pay, even as they struggled to feed their own families and keep them safe.
He did not hesitate on his answer: How could they do anything else?
Last June, someone asked me if I wanted to join a local volunteer fire department. I didn’t answer right away, because I find it difficult to say “I don’t wanna” to somebody’s face.
But over the next days, I thought about that chief and about his rhetorical question.
That Karbala fire chief took ownership — responsibility — for his community.
He did so in the midst of circumstances few people can ever expect to face — circumstances I have never faced. Yeah, I went to war, but my family, home and all I loved were here and safe.
I thought about my excuses. I thought about what a friend told me when I got back from Iraq: that he would have joined the Army if he didn’t have a family — because, obviously, no one in the military has a family.
I thought about all the sorry reasons a person can give for why their plate is already too full.
I realized that when there is a fire, car crash or flood, someone is going to stand in the gap, placing themselves and their life between this community and whatever threatens it.
I did not like the thought of sleeping comfortably in the warmth of my bed and expecting someone else to take that responsibility.
So, I asked the fire department to let me be a probationary firefighter, to let me try to earn the honor of being called a firefighter — an honor I am still working to earn.
How could I do anything else?
But bringing it back around to the subject of littering — and all economics aside — let me be the first to say, I don’t care if a tourist is put off by trash on the side of the road.
The reason I care about that trash is the same reason your local firefighters end an exhausting, unpaid night of fighting fires and cutting people out of cars by washing every single truck that was used.
Did you know that there are people — individual people — who “adopt” roads in this county? Before the other night, I didn’t.
That means there are individual people who saw all the trash along the road, and instead of thinking, “Someone should do something about that,” thought, “I should do something about that.”
I’m not a Brown Countian. I’ll always be a transplant.
But I love Brown County.
I love the people — the ones in the old stories and the ones making new stories. I love the places. I love waking up in the morning and looking out my window at the forest. I love the sound of the owls at night. I love the parades.
I love that we have a dragstrip and a bluegrass festival and that I actually find many local teenagers downright tolerable.
And while I hesitate at the thought of claiming any kind of ownership of this county, I feel a sense of responsibility to it.
I can’t be proud to come from here, but I take pride in Brown County, because that’s how love works.
Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news for The Democrat. He can be reached at 812-988-2221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.