Battle ground to common ground: Louisville vet works to bridge communities a world apart

When Aaron Spalding arrived at the downtown branch of the Louisville Public Library on Thursday, he didn’t expect to be called a neo-Nazi. But that’s exactly what happened when the medically retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant arrived with his buddy Ilya Chernyavskia to a meeting of the Louisville chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, the mainly-white auxiliary arm of people in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Within minutes of his arrival, a social media sandstorm blasted across Facebook featuring the two with their openly-carried handguns in hip holsters, under a caption declaring their invasion.

T-Shirts

Aaron, left, and Ilya attend Thursday’s SURJ meeting to hear about racial justice activism in Louisville. Photo Credit: Meg Stern

But it wasn’t just the guns. It was also the tattoos.

Public speculation jumped to visions of swastikas, despite one supreme irony: Aaron’s ink is actually a tribute to his service in the 82nd Airborne Division–the same division whose legacy includes driving the Nazis out of the Netherlands, shoulder-to-shoulder with the famed 101st Band of Brothers.

Aaron describes himself as a staunch advocate for gun-ownership rights, and serves on the board of Kentucky Cards for Concealed Carry. Ilya is the president and director of all the group’s chapters in Kentucky.

“Honestly, I was shocked at how pleasant people were last night,” Aaron said on Friday. “Typically, pro-gun activists get less-than-friendly responses from groups like SURJ. However, I feel it is the gun groups who need to speak out more for cases like Philando Castile.”

Ilya, right, packs a 9 mm Heckler and Koch P30L. Photo credit: Meg Stern

Because Louisville Public Library prohibits concealed weapons, gun-owners like Aaron and Ilya need to comply with Kentucky’s open carry laws if they bring guns on the premises. Both made certain their weapons were holstered and visible at the event.

“I want to make sure people know that our firearms were only visible because the library made us open carry. Once I was outside they were concealed again,” he said.

Recent shootings have increased community tensions, though. The sight of two armed men set some at the meeting on edge. Facebook posts shot up online featuring the two men’s pictures, most labelled them neo-Nazis, with some commentators publicly speculating on whether the pair were members of the fascist Traditional Worker’s Party.

Even now, a cursory search on Facebook will produce angry posts from individuals across Louisville who quickly shared the misinformation spread by some.

“I feel bad about the shirt I wore,” Ilya told me, referring to his black cotton t-shirt reading “Fuck Your Gun-Free Zone” which became a point of inquiry in the Facebook frenzy.

“My friend had given it to me, and when we hang out I like to wear it as he is a disabled veteran and the company that makes the shirt is a vet-owned business. He was expecting a small crowd, maybe 20 people, with no children. Had I known differently, I would have simply worn an American flag shirt,” he said. “Live and learn. And carry spare garments in the car.”

Ilya, who is pro-gun, says his choice to carry openly was “not meant to intimidate.” Photo Credit: Ilya Chernyavskiy

Ilya immigrated to the States 25 years ago from the U.S.S.R. and, with no small amount of self-deprecation, describes himself as a patriot “to the point of ‘Murica!'”

He’s a proud member of the National Rifle Association, and said he attended the event at Aaron’s behest.

“He said it wasn’t BLM. It was for white people involved in the issue. I had images of ‘white guilt’ as portrayed by the media–people kneeling and bowing their heads with shirts saying ‘I’m so sorry’–but decided to keep an open mind,” Ilya said. “I know gun owners and advocates who are white, black, gay, old, young, foreign, men and women. It is truly the most diverse crowd that I have met who agree on one thing: If you support gun rights, that’s all we care about. Generally, we don’t cross over into other areas other gun owners participate in, like LGBT, social reform, et cetera. I can’t speak for gun owners in general, but that has been my experience.”

Ilya is a graduate student at UofL School of Medicine, working toward his PhD in Physiology, and has advocated for open carry laws in the past on-campus. He isn’t what you’d call a regular at SURJ meetings, which makes him the exact audience SURJ is attempting to reach in the city.

“I myself don’t support BLM or SURJ. I don’t feel as though I’ll work against them, but given what I have seen I don’t see the issue, nor agree with the methods of some members,” he said.

When asked what role local NRA members might play in curbing gun violence in cases like the death of Philando Castile, who held a carry and conceal license, Ilya said, “I don’t know. I, myself, am still thinking about it. They could do more if they were not demonized,” but added “Whenever we open carry, it’s not to intimidate. It’s to show that normal people can own and carry guns, to help people get used to it.”

This isn’t the first time Aaron has reached across political boundaries to seek common ground between advocacy groups. One look at his resume, and it’s clear that making community-focused connections is what this guy is all about.

Friendly Fur-Faces

Valor, an Australian Shepherd – Husky mix, when he was still a rookie. Photo courtesy of Aaron Spalding

Although Aaron and Ilya were new faces to many in last night’s crowd, they are no strangers to participating in community-building work. Since meeting his fiance, Ilya has become an advocate for the visually impaired, and Aaron, a social work major at the University of Louisville, started down the path of social outreach during his struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He currently volunteers for the Stolen Valor community, and has previously devoted his time to Paws for Purple Hearts, a service dog training program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he used to help train pups to be paired with wheelchair-bound veterans. He’s also been a vocal supporter of service animals on U of L’s campus.

Valor isn’t only Aaron’s cause, it’s the name of his Australian Shepherd – Husky companion.

According to Aaron, Valor started a career in canine service through Paws for Purple Hearts, but also received an education through the Georgia K9 National Training Center.

“He has had more than two years training and has passed his Assistance Dogs International Public Access Test. He’s trained in 36 separate tasks and is a full blown Service Dog,” Aaron said. “He goes for refresher training every winter with Bluegrass K9 here in Kentucky for two weeks.”

A Vet and His Dog

Aaron

Selfie requested by the author and provided graciously by Aaron Spalding

More recently, Valor and Aaron have taken on new service roles together. As a mentor for The Louisville Youth Group, Aaron has been heavily focused on helping create a supportive and safe environment for Louisville’s young LGBTQIA population.

Aaron is combat veteran who has survived Iraq from 2003 and 2004, and Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, but when I asked him what it meant to him to work with vulnerable youth, he told me: “I am amazed by their bravery.”

“I would have never be as open as many of them are at their age,” he said. “They often wear their emotions on their sleeves and understand that sharing your problems, instead of bottling them up inside, often makes the healing process quicker and less painful. My worst year psychologically–when I was being retired from the military for medical reasons–would have gone much better for me had I learned that its okay to depend on others for help.”

Valor

Valor, no longer a rookie but a full-blown Service Dog, doing youth outreach work at La Casita Center in his custom vest.

Aaron also credits Louisville’s youth for breaking him out of his shell:

“I think veterans are a pretty insular group and LYG helped me gain the confidence to seek friendship and guidance outside my comfort zone. I don’t think I would have ever approached a group like SURJ had I not worked with those kids before doing so. They showed me that people can and do listen despite differing backgrounds and ideologies.”

Valor makes himself useful during LYG events like those hosted by La Casita Center, a community resource hub for Latino immigrants in Louisville. Manning the LYG booth during a resource exposition for Latino youth, Aaron volunteered weekends doing therapy dog outreach work with Valor.

“I had the vest specially made for the youth group and the kids all signed it,” he said, sharing photos of the center’s March event. “I like volunteering, and being retired gives me plenty of free time to pursue it. I had a lot of friends earn their citizenship by serving, so it feels nice to help others going through similar issues.”

Breaking the Blue Line

Aaron’s training extends beyond military and into law enforcement, an experience he credits with shaping his views on police gun violence and which he believe can be useful to groups like SURJ who advocate for non-violence and community-focused policing.

“As a former officer with Atlanta Police Department, I was taught to deescalate situations and it disheartens me to see police so quickly resort to use of force nowadays,” he said.

Aaron is something of a throwback patriot. His conviction that law enforcement should be a public good compels his tough-love critique. He believes in their mission and wants to see them succeed in it.

“Much like the military is subject to civilian oversight and leadership so too should the police,” he said. “I feel police unions have too much power in how LEO’s are investigated. Use of force allegations should always be investigated by persons outside the department in which they occurred and never by fellow police officers… Police should be held at a higher standard for their actions than the average civilian. This is the trade off for the enormous power we as the governed afford them.

“You’re taught by the military and law enforcement to have each others backs because often your lives depend on each other. However, this makes it real easy to turn a blind eye when your peer does something wrong. In the police you want your peers to like you, because your physical safety can be influenced by how they like you as well as many officers face immediate harm and discrimination for breaking the blue line and speaking out against their fellow officers.”

Groups like SURJ, who call for white people to speak up against injustice, and whose intent is to bring together a community fractured by grief and police violence, normally seek out people with Aaron’s level of devotion to community policing.

“Integrity was always huge to me so it was always more important for me to speak out against what I see as injustice, but not everybody is this strong,” he said. “I am strongly against the militarization of Police. I think too many departments think they are in some kind of war and thus feel the need to ‘play’ at being Army. Sadly, I don’t think many see the difference between what they do and what I did in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

From Battle Ground to Common Ground

So what is it that draws a U.S. veteran like Aaron–whose personal politics range from a love of guns to LGBT rights–to a group like SURJ?

Like most vets, he’s a man who just wants to be useful.
across the aisle

“I feel that by combining my efforts with SURJ, and by proxy BLM, I can advocate for more positive interaction between LEO’s and armed–or suspected of being armed–people of color and thus better interaction with every armed individual. I can speak the language from a police or military standpoint and thus can be of use advising organizations like SURJ on what realistic changes to pursue and maybe some unique insight in how to pursue them.

Also, I feel that by openly showing support I may persuade more conservatives to step across the aisle and assist in a matter than affects everyone.”

One thing is certain: If the moral obligation of white people at the crux of racist violence is to educate and connect supportive communities in alliance against rising hate, then Louisville allies may be hard-pressed to find a man more suited to the task of building bridges than this Kentucky vet and his dog.

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