National Alliance on Mental Illness
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When You Get a Chance to Ride the Train …

by Matt Kuntz, Executive Director, NAMI Montana

“The President-elect is ready to see you now,” said the member of the Presidential Inaugural Committee who had led me to the back of
the train.

A chill ran up the back of my neck. There had been two weeks of buildup since my wife and I were invited on the Inaugural Train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. Two weeks of excitement and elation. Two weeks of wondering what this honor means for NAMI's advocacy efforts on behalf of Americans living with serious mental illness and their family members.

Two weeks of being happy that I would be able to thank the President-elect for all of the recognition that he has given to our fight to get mental health screenings for all service members returning from combat. Now, at the moment of truth, all I could think about was how I didn't want to make a fool out of myself—something that I am remarkably good at.

But I didn't have to worry. Barack Obama was still the same humble and sincere guy with whom I met last August in a park in Billings, Montana. The world was erupting with excitement over his inauguration as President of the United States, and he thought to ask how my daughter was doing and who she was staying with while we were in D.C. President-elect Obama introduced me to his wife, Michelle. He told her about how I had been fighting for better care for our war heroes struggling with PTSD since losing my step-brother to suicide after he came home from Iraq.

I told them that I had brought something for them. Michelle Obama looked stunned and said, “You brought something for me?”

I reached inside my coat and took out two religious medals. I explained that the first one was a St. Therese of Liseux medal—she is the patron saint of my mother's family. I told the President-elect that St. Therese had helped us through plenty of hard times, and he might want to ask her for a little help when his road looked rough. The second one was a St. Michael the Archangel medal for Michelle to help protect their family.

The Obamas thanked me for the gifts, and Michelle asked me more about our family. I told her that we were expecting another baby. The President-elect said congratulations and then smiled, before cracking a joke about us not wasting any time.

I chuckled as we were escorted out to the caboose to wave to the crowds of people that lined the tracks. I was awed by the energy of the crowd. They were young and old, rich and poor, a variety of races and nationalities; but they were united by the feeling that something great was happening and that they were all a part of it.

President-elect Obama turned toward me and said, “You've got to blow the horn. You can't be on a train without blowing the horn. The switch is right up in the corner.” I reached up my hand and pulled down the switch: once, twice, and then three times as the train's whistle blew over the crowd.

The rest of the trip was one remarkable and memorable moment after another: from the speeches in Wilmington and Baltimore to a conversation in the galley car where the President-elect, Vice-President-elect, my wife, and I shared the same cramped table and talked about the weather. I stumbled through an interview on Larry King and cheered with 500,000 people for Bruce Springsteen, U2, and other bands at the Inaugural concert. We helped pack care packages for soldiers overseas, watched the Inauguration, and then danced with the President, First Lady, and the rest of the Inaugural Train invitees on national television at the Neighborhood Ball.

On January 21st, my wife and I woke up at the crack of dawn and boarded a plane, heading back to Montana. The following day I was back at work at the NAMI Montana office and jumping back into our advocacy efforts in the Montana legislature. My to-do list was three pages long. There were a stack of phone messages and screens of e-mails to respond to, but it was good to be back.

While there are a lot of lessons that I learned during that incredible trip, one stands out above them all: it is really hard to do good work regardless of whether you are trying to find resources for one Montana family struggling to overcome severe mental illness or crafting a plan to rebuild the American economy. In order to keep going, you have to fully enjoy the good times that come your way. As a former community organizer once told me: when you get a chance to ride the train, make sure you blow the horn.

  • Read more from the Spring 2009 issue of NAMI Advocate