September 12, 2018

Remembering John McCain

John McCain

John S. McCain, 1936 — 2018

Meghan McCain eulogized her father, John McCain, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with a speech that was impassioned by grief, love, and admiration. She mourned her personal loss for the man she called her father, recognizing at the same time that his passing from this world marked “the passing of American greatness.” She defined that greatness as real and true, not just empty talk, or words from men “who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

Rarely, if ever, has there been clapping in the hallowed nave of the National Cathedral, however, when Meghan McCain went on to say that the America of her father did not need to be made great again, because “America was always great,” those in attendance spontaneously broke into applause.

Indeed, there has been a lot of rhetoric lately about how we need to ‘make America great again.’ I guess the conversation depends on one’s view of greatness. Just how is that defined, exactly? Great. Greatness. Merriam Webster defines the word great as “notably large in size, number, or measure.” The Oxford English Dictionary goes on to describe ‘great’ as “wonderful, distinguished, or famous.”

So the question should be asked: What purpose does ‘greatness’ serve? If we need to make America great again, great for what? Famous for what? And does a return to greatness mean we stop moving forward? That we reject inclusion, generosity, diversity, or a global awareness? Without purpose, ‘great’ is an empty word, full of self-importance and braggadocio.

We think of greatness in terms of nations, but what about the individual citizen? Those who serve a purpose that is greater than themselves, the people who make this world a better place?

Navy pilot John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, breaking both arms and a leg when he ejected from his plane. He was captured and imprisoned in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” where he remained a prisoner of war until his release in 1973. The wounds that he sustained, along with the torture and mistreatment he endured, left him with lifelong physical disabilities, yet he still burned with a desire to serve the country he sacrificed for; the country he loved.

He served during a particularly turbulent era in our nation’s history. The 1960s and early 70s were a time when young Americans such as McCain were fighting in Vietnam, while others protested, and still others were joining a radical new organization called the Peace Corps. Black activists, marching in Birmingham, Alabama were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs; while idealistic young men and women risked their lives as Freedom Riders to ensure people of color were allowed to vote. In 1968 Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. That same year the Apollo Astronauts traveled to the far side of the moon.

It was a decade of contradictions, of racial tension, war, riots, and scientific achievement. It was also a decade of idealism, purpose, and service, whether that meant service in the military, or service as a civilian. During the time of McCain’s imprisonment, another young American also served her country, working and living in Baghlan, Afghanistan from 1968-70. As a representative of the United States, she served in the Peace Corps, taught English and medicine in a small adobe schoolroom, worked in a hospital without running water, and established a school of nursing for Afghan girls. Her dedication reflected what was best about our country—our generosity, inclusiveness, and force for good in the world. Her story is one of thousands of similar stories. They are part of our heritage, our American history, our treasure.

John McCain understood that service can be as diverse as our nation. He endorsed this notion by stating: “It’s not just the military. We have the Teach for America program. We have AmeriCorps. There are many avenues of service, and there is nothing nobler than serving a cause greater than your own interest.” (, July, 2015)

When former senator Joe Lieberman stepped to the podium to eulogize his longtime friend, he spoke of John McCain’s deeply held belief that there is a special satisfaction that comes from “serving a cause greater than yourself.” For McCain, that cause was America— the America of our “founding values, freedom, human rights, opportunity, democracy, and equal justice under law.” 

Former President George W. Bush echoed those same sentiments. He noted that McCain didn’t see our country just as a physical place or power, but as the “carrier of enduring human aspirations. As an advocate for the oppressed. As a defender of the peace. As a promise, unwavering, undimmed, unequaled.”

Former President Barack Obama spoke of McCain’s understanding of a fundamental truth, that America’s security and influence in the world have been won not just by military power or wealth, but from our “capacity to inspire others with our adherence to a set of universal values. Like rule of law and human rights, and insistence on God-given dignity of every human being.”

What better way to honor John McCain, Obama noted, than to recognize that “there are some things bigger than party or ambition, or money, or fame, or power.” There are principles that are worth fighting for, values that are worth risking everything for, and truths that are enduring. “At his best, John showed us what that means. For that, we are all deeply in his debt.”

March 7, 2017

America’s Strength is Her Diversity

Jewish Muslim Fathers Travel Ban

Donald Trump’s executive order to ban travel to the US from countries that are majority Muslim, threatens our American diversity, has compelled me to re-visit “Little Women of Baghlan,” and explore the reasons why I wrote it.

I began the project by writing about a personal story—a young woman who joins the Peace Corps. And so by definition, it is a story about tolerance and acceptance. It is about sacrifice. Ultimately, it is about love.

But her story is also about a time in America when the best and brightest young Americans gave up two years of their lives to live in another country. They taught, established hospitals, and dug wells. And yet, their work paled in comparison to what they learned–that deep down we are all the same. We laugh and cry. We love. All of us want a safe home, an education for our children, and the freedom to practice our religion.

As we enter a new era in our nation’s history—one fueled by bigotry, fear, and ultimately, hate—her story is more important than ever.

My America is generous and welcoming. I refuse to allow myself or my country to be defined by racist, xenophobic policies that undermine our moral credibility.

February 9, 2015


Susan Fox

Nurse’s book recounts efforts by fellow nurse to start an Afghan nursing school for women in Baghlan, Afghanistan

By Brendan Dabkowski
Wednesday December 31, 2014

At the tail end of the 1960s, long before words like Taliban and Mujahideen would fall on Western ears, a young American nurse and Peace Corps volunteer traveled to Afghanistan to help establish an Afghan nursing school for young women.

Heeding President John F. Kennedy’s call to action, Jo (Carter) Bowling, BSN, RN, joined the Peace Corps, and in 1968, launched a small school in Baghlan, Afghanistan devoted to empowering and educating young Afghan women and helping them learn the basics of nursing.

Fortunately, Bowling, who eventually went on to a healthcare career at Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee, Ill., kept a diary of those experiences. The diary became the basis for Susan Fox’s book “Little Women of Baghlan: The True Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban,” which Peace Corps Writers published in 2013.

Fox, an RN at Presence St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee, has known Bowling for most of her career, having previously worked with her at Riverside Medical Center. Deciding her friend’s story needed to be told, Fox talked with Bowling and breathed new life into Bowling’s diary entries. Fox also conducted much investigative research to piece together a remarkable tale.

“The nurses in Afghanistan worked under horrific conditions,” Fox said. She noted Bowling and the two other women Peace Corps volunteers the book focuses on had to contend with “a hospital without reliable running water, a lack of supplies and antibiotics and, not least, a population of women who were often denied medical care because their husbands would not allow them to be examined by a male physician.”

Perhaps the biggest challenges Bowling and the other volunteers faced were religious restrictions and cultural differences. “The hardest thing was getting the fathers’ permissions for their daughters to attend this nursing school,” Fox said of Bowling’s recollections. However, Bowling and the others always felt welcome and got along well with their Muslim hosts, Fox said.

Fox said the legacy of the women’s work in Afghanistan is incalculable. “Training a nurse is more important to a country than building a city” is something one of Bowling’s hosts told her.

Bowling, who is now retired, said she has known Fox since 1970 and trusted her to write the book. “She was really accurate to my diary. She did a tremendous job,” Bowling said.

Fox’s book is among the finalists for the Chicago Writers Association book of the year award in nonfiction for 2014. For more information, visit

Susan Fox

Susan Fox, RN

Brendan Dabkowski is a freelance writer.

December 18, 2014

Book of the Year Finalist, Chicago Writers Association

Chicago Writers Association logo


Book by local author Susan Fox chosen as finalist for Book of the Year by the Chicago Writers Association.

“Little Women of Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban,” written by Susan Fox, is one of three finalists in the non-traditional, nonfiction category for Book of the Year, 2014. The finalists will compete for four awards to be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24 at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 Lincoln Ave., in Chicago’s Lincoln Square.

“On behalf of the Chicago Writers Association, we thank all those who submitted books to our 2014 Book of the Year award contest,” said CWA President Tori Collins. “I am always excited and amazed that each year more authors from the Chicagoland area enter the contest, giving us the opportunity to hear their stores as well as share and experience their expertise. Each year we receive more books, and our screeners have to make tough choices as to which books our finalist judges will review.”

Susan Fox holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of St. Francis, Joliet. She is senior assistant editor for Chicago’s online literary magazine, Ten Thousand Tons of Black Ink, has been a keynote speaker at The Indiana Center for Middle East Peace, and was recently interviewed by Bill Moller on WGN radio. Susan works at St. Mary’s Hospital in Kankakee, Illinois, serves on the Human Rights Committee for Good Shepherd Manor in Momence, Illinois, and is a member of the Kankakee Valley Wind Ensemble. She lives in Momence with her husband Ken.

Find “Little Women of Baghlan” online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

October 14, 2014

Goodreads Review

Good Things happen when you least expect it. I opened my email this morning to find my first Goodreads review!

Little Women of Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban

by Susan Fox (Goodreads Author)

Oct 13, 14
4 of 5 stars

bookshelves: peace-corps

“This is an absolutely fascinating insight into life in Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion and the rise of the Taliban. Fox brilliantly retells the story of Jo, a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan. By the end of the book, I felt that I personally knew the volunteers and Afghans of Baghlan. My only minor issue was that it was perhaps a bit too long, but that did not take away from the impact of the book.”