Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Truly Uncamouflaged

Last week, I was officially discharged from the military.

I haven’t served since Dec. 2010, when my active duty commitment was complete. Since then I’ve been a “civilian,” a fulltime graduate student, a person relishing my post-military freedom—especially my freedom of speech. But I’ve also been a name on a list.

The beginning:June 2002, ROTC commissioning
with my mother (USAFR, retired)
When I signed my military contract and accepted an ROTC scholarship back in 2002 (side note: I feel old), I committed to eight years of service: at least four years active duty and the remainder in the Individual Ready Reserves (IRR for the acronym-happy military). I wasn’t required to drill or work for the Air Force in any capacity. I wasn’t paid or eligible for benefits. All I had to do was update my contact information annually, just in case...

Just in case they needed someone in my position to fill an assignment. Just in case they needed me to deploy.

I was in Afghanistan with several Army soldiers who had been recalled from IRR. They all performed their duties honorably, but the appointment obviously weighed heavily on their morale. They had been plucked from their civilian lives on short notice, thrust into a job at which they were rusty at best in a place to which they hoped to never return.

Though I’ve been out of the military for almost four years, that “just in case” has been there in the back of my mind. During the Arab Spring and escalating conflicts in places like Libya and Syria. The Air Force has not traditionally needed IRR backfills, but the last few years have seen a shrinking military. When I left active duty, my career field was at critical manning levels. (I wanted to teach ROTC but couldn’t be released for “special duty.”) Drilling reservists were being slotted for regular deployments.

So as June 2, 2014 drew closer, the date when my contractual obligation would be complete, I got anxious. June 2 arrived. My husband opened a bottle of champagne, and my family and I breathed a collective sigh of relief. After four years, it seemed anti-climactic.

As an officer, in order to completely sever my military ties and not remain indefinitely subject to recall, I had to take one more step and resign my commission.

I understand this is a very difficult decision for many people, and it’s not something I take lightly. But for me it was an easy choice. I’d done my option-weighing, mentor-advice-seeking and deliberating in 2010. I’ve had four years to reaffirm that I made the right move in getting out. Four years when I’ve seen friends deploy for their second, third, eighth tours. When I’ve seen the military continue their push to “do more with less,” involuntarily separating “overages” and expecting those who remain to pick up the slack (the same thing that happened to my career field several years ago, shortly thereafter forcing us into critical manning and a 1:1 deployment/dwell time cycle). Four years when the news from Afghanistan and Iraq has left me questioning the purpose all over again. Meanwhile at home, people don’t realize we’re still at war.

But mostly, in these four years I’ve seen myself find my footing. When I got out in 2010 I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do and a vague plan to delay really deciding by going to grad school. I struggled reconciling the veteran part of me with everything else I felt I was, or wanted to be. Now, as cheesy as it sounds, I’ve found my place.

I have no regrets about my military service. I’m grateful for the experiences it gave me and the people I met. There are aspects I will always miss. But I’m done. I’ve moved on. I’m striking my name from the list.

Leaving the military was a leap; resigning my commission was a simple step forward.

The end: Sept 2014, honorably discharged

The decision to resign or stay in is a personal one, and everyone has different rationale. Have you resigned your commission? Have you decided to stay on IRR? Are you at that crossroads? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

NOTE: As with many government activities, the process for resigning my commission was a bit convoluted. My understanding is it differs by component, but if you’re looking for guidance please let me know and I’d be happy to pass on lessons learned.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Hero Debate

There’s always been semantic disagreement in the military. Many are uncomfortable with being thanked for their service or referred to as heroes. I traditionally haven’t minded—not that I consider myself a hero; working with special operations at Hurlburt Field, FL, I encountered many more deserving of that title. But I always appreciated the acknowledgement, despite its frequent lack of context, that I had volunteered as a part of something greater than myself. I gave speakers the benefit of the doubt and assumed their words were coming from a genuine place.

Recently, however, I’ve started questioning the terminology. As I witness the disconnect between those with military connections and those without. As the media glorifies combat “heroes” and condemns the “monsters” created by PTSD. As the government oozes pride in its service men and women but bumbles through attempts to follow praise with adequate support.

I’ve started to wonder, when people say “thank you for your service,” what do they mean? Do they know what they’re thanking me for? For accepting an ROTC scholarship (and the ensuing four-year contract) at 18? For working my butt off while my butt was safely in a desk chair at my FL base? For deploying? For some small contributions that maybe made a smidgeon of a positive impact on the war effort, on the lives of the Afghan people, on the lives of my fellow servicemembers? For following orders, even though I didn’t always agree? For suffering?

Is there a hierarchy of thankfulness: the KIA and WIA who made tangible sacrifices at the top, those who didn’t deploy near the bottom, and me in some murky middle ground? Are most who issue the sentiment even aware of the myriad experiences to which they’re potentially referring? The complexities of each individual experience cannot be dismissed with a trite phrase.

(For a much more in depth analysis than I could possibly provide, read David Finkel’s incredible, heart-wrenching book Thank You for Your Service.)

“Hero” is another term that’s thrown around so often it loses meaning. In summer 2012, I wrote a blog post about what I considered the mislabeling of Olympic athletes as heroes, comparing them with military members. I didn’t realize at the time, but I was essentially advocating my own form of heroic hierarchy. While I do agree that “hero” has a place in discourse, we must be aware of its implications.

A recent Salon.com op-ed by author and military sister Cara Hoffman presents a unique and compelling argument.

Hero, she writes: “sounds like praise, but it can be dangerously dismissive. The problem is that “hero” refers to a character, a protagonist, something in fiction, not to a person, and using this word can hurt the very people it’s meant to laud. While meant to create a sense of honor, it can also buy silence, prevent discourse and benefit those in power more than those navigating the new terrain of home after combat. If you are a hero, part of your character is stoic sacrifice, silence. This makes it difficult for others to see you as flawed, human, vulnerable or exploited. And it makes it even more difficult for you to reach out when you need help.

The military is a machismo suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it culture—I’ve written about my guilt in seeking mental health care because I didn’t feel I’d earned it, merely coming from that murky middle f the thankfulness pyramid. The possibility that the hero label perpetuates those ideas within the military culture makes sense.

Hoffman discusses the effects on the general public, too:

 “Whole communities deal with the complicated effects of homecoming. With the end of military operations, we’re all feeling the weight of return, and that weight will not be lightened by “using words like “hero” as a consolation prize to gloss over the very human cost of war.”
High-five, bro! I now declare you at hero status! Good luck with VA healthcare...

“‘Heroes’ protect us from the knowledge they gained down-range,” Hoffman continues. “And the expectation is they will continue to sacrifice their humanity, even when they return home, so we don’t have to learn about their experiences.”
I thanked that soldier and called him a hero. My duty as an informed, engaged member of the public is complete. Self high-five!

I’m being snarky and simplistic, but the point is, it’s easy to issue thanks or label someone a hero. Easy, but not meaningful like we sometimes trick ourselves into believing and certainly not a replacement for inquiry and genuine engagement.

More from Hoffman: “We like to think we can have no idea ‘what goes on over there’ or ‘what kinds of risks people are taking.’ That we can’t imagine ‘the horrors they’ve seen.’ This is part of elevating soldiers to mythic status — seeing their experiences as outside of human existence, as things we can’t consider. But we actually can know, we can imagine their lives — very easily — by listening and by opening our eyes. By letting people who are returning take off the masks society insists they wear. By being a strong enough, rational enough nation to stop slapping heroic cowboy-and-Indian narratives over the sad and extremely common reality of violent conflict.”

Anyone who’s read my writing knows I’m in agreement. I stress the importance of listening to veterans, reading military writing, and viewing other forms of military art (watch Sebastian Junger’s documentaries Restrepo and Korengal). But I also believe it’s a two-way street. In order for the public to listen, read, view, veterans must speak, write, create. It’s just as easy for a veteran to think, “you don’t know what it’s like,” or “you can’t possibly understand how I feel.” It’s just as easy for a veteran to—intentionally or not—build him or herself up to that mythic status and shut others out to the possibility to learning. Yes, we bear some of the responsibility, too.

So where does that leave us, semantically? You see someone in a military uniform walking through the airport, what do you say? I personally would appreciate an attempt at (a non-political) conversation: What is/was your military job? Oh, public affairs, what does that entail? Where have you served? Ask questions that show interest and give the servicemember a chance to respond to the degree to which he or she is comfortable.

But that’s just me…I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Veterans, how, if at all, would you like to be approached? Has anyone had a particularly engaging encounter?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

An attempt at Throwback Thursday

I don’t normally participate in the Throwback Thursday trend, you know posting old photos where I look all young and cute (maybe because my old photos usually trend toward young and dorky?), but today I’m feeling nostalgic. And it’s Thursday. So here goes.


Here’s me approximately two years and eight months ago, sneaking in late to the Emerson College New Graduate Student Orientation (I hadn’t learned that the MBTA requires buffer time built into your schedule), and sitting stiffly through a day of death-by-powerpoint presentations reminiscent of military briefings, except instead of camo the audience was in plaid. We were herded to our department meetings, where the Writing, Literature and Publishing program (predictably, in hindsight) miscounted and didn’t have enough chairs. Look! There’s Jen and Shannon sitting on the floor! The department head gave a speech that equally excited and freaked me out. Something along the lines of: everything up until this point doesn’t matter; you need to prove you belong in this program.

Here’s me a week later, in my first ever graduate nonfiction writing workshop, passing out copies of a bare-all-my-baggage essay about my post-deployment mental health struggles to a group of people I’d known for approximately two hours. I knew them enough to know most had little experience with the military. This was New England. This was academia. Here’s me wondering if I’m a masochist.

The feedback those strangers gave me the following week propelled me to a year later. Here’s me submitting that same essay to a contest with Glamour magazine. Here’s me dancing around the living room on the phone with an editor after she informs me that I won.

Here’s that essay last October in the magazine. Here’s that essay last month in my graduate thesis. There’s my cap and gown, ready for Sunday’s commencement ceremony.

When I left the military in Dec 2010, I applied to graduate school in part because I didn’t know what else to do. I was giving up financial stability for (at least temporary) geographic stability. The economy sucked. I had no expectations of a creative arts degree setting me up on a financially viable career path, but I was ready to take a risk to try my hand at something I loved. I hoped Emerson would help me become a better writer and find my footing in the publishing world.

My amazing, talented, and super serious Emerson gang
I never expected my classmates to become my best friends. As it turns out, swapping baggage facilitates bonding. We read the most intimate details of each other’s’ lives, and we weren’t strangers anymore. We were supporters, cheerleaders, commiserators, grammar Nazis, drinking buddies, and so much more.

I didn’t expect to not only find my footing in the publishing world—I’m graduating with a decent publication record, a year of editorial experience, and even a couple paychecks—but also to be welcomed into a talented, vibrant community of veteran-writers. (I definitely didn’t expect to be engaged to one of them!) Here’s us sitting around a restaurant table at an annual writing conference in March. I look around at the array of funky-to-nerd-chic hairstyles and listen in to a conversation analyzing Ulysses as a post-war model for the “new man,” and remark: “Looking at us, you’d have no idea we’re all veterans.” Across the table someone observes: “I think we’re all that one person who didn’t quite fit in in our units.”

Here’s me finding my niche.

Happy graduation, and thanks beyond words to everyone who helped me get here. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

On the next decade

Well hello, Blogosphere. It’s been a while. 

It’s been so long that it’s now 2014…how did that happen? It’s been so long that I’m now 30. Eeek…how did that happen? But, perhaps contrary to the opinions of popular culture, I’m actually excited to be moving into this new decade.

My 20s were fine, but they were messy. There were the typical growing up things: going to college, getting my first full-time job (for which I felt sorely unprepared), living on my own, suffering through more than one broken heart. There were things that on the eve of my 20s I couldn’t anticipate: moving across the country not once but three times, running a marathon, buying a condo, going to war, needing therapy.

There were things that made me feel powerful. Things that made me feel mature. Things that made me feel hopeless and helpless and weak. Mostly, I fumbled. What I lacked in job experience I made up for in time and energy. I threw myself into work and “love” and play with the fervor that only a 20-something can, alternately having fun and trying to outrun the cynical voices of my young psyche: What am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing? How do I do this? What does this mean? What’s the point? WHO AM I?

I know these struggles are not unique to me. Our 20s are inevitably a time of transformation—from our social circles, to our professional lives, to our priorities, right down to our brain structure. But I think these issues are intensified in a military environment—and/or when you leave that environment.

A very military family, at my commissioning
I signed my military contract at 18. For the next four years, I was a college student, but mostly I was an ROTC cadet. I was held to the standards of conduct and grooming commensurate with my position as a soon-to-be Air Force officer. Because we spent so much time together and because, for the most part, we shared similar values, my ROTC classmates became my best friends. ROTC activities (both official and unofficial) dictated my social life.

After I commissioned, the Air Force moved me across the country—about as far as one can move from home without crossing an ocean, from Seattle to the Florida panhandle. Again, this is not an entirely unique situation, but the military transition is unique in that it serves as a half-step of sorts toward independence. I was living on my own for the first time, but I had assistance finding a place and a housing allowance once I did. I was in an unfamiliar area, but I had a whole city of a base to fulfill my basic needs. I knew no one, and though as a young, single female officer in a small unit it was harder to meet people in my demographic, it was easy enough. (I may or may not have stalked every female 2nd Lieutenant in the base’s network and sent a mass email about getting together for dinner…). I didn’t need to stress over what to wear in the morning.

A military base is a strange microcosm of real life. At once intimate and segregated. The learning curve is steep because the stakes are high, yet always governed by rules, regulations and routine.

Most strikingly when it comes to the tumultuous 20s, as a servicemember, you must internalize the values of the military. You must talk the talk and walk the walk, because everything you say and do reflects on the military. As a public affairs officer, where my job was to promote support for the Air Force, I—rightly or not—took this to the highest level. I drank the Kool-Aid. The Air Force ideology became my ideology. The badge on my uniform all but declared me [Property of] U.S. Air Force.

Then I deployed and gained exposure to other ways of thinking and to the shortcomings of the ways I’d adopted. Isn’t that what your 20s are about? Gaining perspective? Learning and growing? Sometimes it comes gradually, through a natural progression of experiences. Sometimes, it metaphorically whaps you in the head with a 2x4.

My one-size-fits-most military persona was shattered. Shortly thereafter, my contract was up and I re-entered the civilian world. And all those things the military had cushioned for me during my last “coming of age” were no longer there. I didn’t have a career trajectory set out in front of me. I half-heartedly applied to a few jobs in the PR field, which seemed safe and logical but unsatisfying. I took a leap and followed a dream and applied to grad school to study writing (because an English major wasn’t financially unviable enough).

I moved across the country. Again. But this time I didn’t have military movers to help, just my parents and seven suitcases and a series of hiccups in the condo sale and a very patient lawyer and a hotel an hour away and a hostel downtown and the couch of a generous grad school classmate who thankfully didn’t think I was a homicidal maniac.

I spent hours trying on different outfits, trying to figure out what style suited me (anything
but camo and combat boots was fair game!). I was self-conscious as a non-native New Englander and a non-traditional student, and had to constantly remind myself that I didn’t need to censor what I did or said—that autonomy was both liberating and terrifying.

Despite the marvel of Google maps, I got frustratingly lost in my new city. Boston felt enormous and crammed with people, yet I struggled to connect with anyone outside my grad school classes. I tried on-line dating and seriously considered joining a convent.

But in the big enormous city I also discovered the wonder of freedom. I could be anonymous. I could be a student, I could be a veteran, I could be a hermit-writer-cat lady, or all of the above. With my new wardrobe, I could chose to stand out or blend in. In class, I could listen to lectures and feedback, take time in forming my own opinions, and present them how and when I chose. I could speak my mind. Or not.

It’s finding our individual windows of freedom and getting comfortable there, I think, that our 20s are all about. With is prescribed structure, the military complicates that process. But I also credit the Air Force for shaping my window with a breadth of experience and contact with people that helped move me a few steps closer to answering that elusive “Who am I” question.

I’m starting this next decade with a pretty good idea.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Mesothelioma, Veterans & the Affordable Care Act

I was recently contacted by someone at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance and asked to share some important information. I’d heard of mesothelioma; when I browse the community bulletin boards at the VA there are usually flyers advertising support groups or research studies for afflicted patients. Because I am not an afflicted patient, my interest has never moved beyond curiosity.

It turns out mesothelioma is a rare but aggressive cancer affecting the lining of the lungs or abdomen. The cancer is caused primarily by asbestos exposure, and because veterans who served between the WWII and Vietnam era were at risk for increased exposure, more than one third of all mesothelioma patients are veterans. Family members and colleagues of those directly exposed have also been infected due to secondary exposure.
The disease can lie dormant for decades, so many veterans are just now being diagnosed. The VA is struggling to play catch-up and provide sufficient care.

More healthcare changes are on the horizon with the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare Act. How do these changes impact veterans battling cancers like mesothelioma? Mesothelioma.com reports:

“The Veterans’ Administration says that if you are enrolled in the veteran’s healthcare program; the Civilian Health and Medical program (CHAMPVA); or the spina bifida health care program, you are square with the ACA. The new law will not change your benefits or out-of-pocket costs.

Further, you don’t have to sign up or enroll in any other program. Go ahead and use your benefits just as you have in the past. If you are combining VA benefits with Medicare or other insurance, you can continue to do that, too.

In fact, some VA hospitals and clinics are trying to get the word out to all uninsured veterans — sign up for VA benefits! If you do, you won’t have to pay a penalty for being uninsured, and you won’t have to deal with the glitchy federal insurance website. If you think you might be eligible for VA benefits, you can go to the VA Health Benefits Explorer page and find out for sure.”

Read more about Veterans & Mesothelioma 

See the VA Public Health Asbestos Exposure page for information on associated health problems and disability and health care eligibility.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Original Glamour essay link

I'm pleased to present a link to my original Glamour essay, now available here on Glamour.com.

I sincerely hope no one out there who's suffering is deterred from seeking help as a result of the Daily Mail "article" and the backlash it generated. No one should be chastised for suffering, regardless of the degree or cause, and no one who suffers should be discouraged from seeking help.

Thank you for reading,

Monday, October 7, 2013

Public Service Announcement

Dear readers,

If you found me via the Daily Mail article, hi, welcome. I appreciate you taking the time to refer to my blog rather than simply adding to the Daily Mail's comment thread. I have been receiving a lot of comments here regarding that "article" and since many deal with similar issues, I figured I'd post something here for posterity:

I did not write the Daily Mail "article," nor was I involved in it in any way (believe me, if I was, I definitely would have chosen more flattering photos, and photos that are a more representative cross-section of the Facebook page they were taken from, including at least one of my cats). I wasn't even aware of the "article" until I started receiving messages about it. The "author" of that "article" took a random assortment of quotes from my blog and the Glamour essay and smushed them together for her "story," changing the context and the tone. 

This is a public forum, and I welcome your thoughts and feedback. However, I would appreciate you withholding your feedback until you read the essay that I actually wrote versus the DM's sad excuse for journalism. Read my actual writing, then bring it on.

Thank you,