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 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? 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

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,

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Welcome, Veteran Poster Boy: Aaron Alexis

I should be polishing the essay I turn in to my workshop class tomorrow, or starting the research paper due next month, or chipping away at that looming thesis project. But sometimes there’s something that needs to be written before anything else can be. Today, that something revolves around Monday’s shooting at the Washington, DC Navy Yard

It’s been a violent week. Last weekend, three separate shootings rocked my home city of Boston. The Navy Yard incident, though farther from home, hit me hardest. Not because of the scale—though how can you not balk at the gruesome facts: at least 12 killed and eight injured in the “single worst loss of life in the District” since a Boeing 737 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982, killing 78 people.

No, the Navy Yard shooting hit me hardest because the shooter was a veteran

Aaron Alexis, the new veteran
Poster Boy
That makes it personal. That adds Aaron Alexis to a list of high-profile poster boys who represent what the public knows to be a veteran. He’s in the company of Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who recently pleaded guilty to killing 16 Afghan villagers in March 2012; Iraq veteran Benjamin Colton Barnes, who shot and killed a park ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park almost exactly a year ago; and Army veteran Wade Michael Page, who fatally shot six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August 2012.

Of course, any shooting death is tragic. But a perpetrator with military connections makes it doubly tragic for the veteran community. Cue the ripple effects of reinforced stereotypes.

Additionally, this situation is hard for me because I know that as a veteran, Alexis had access to a support network.

The military and VA certainly don’t lack for negative press, especially in light of shocking statistics like in 2012, the number of military suicides was higher than the number of American soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Still, the military community comes with an inherent support network that includes not only official mental healthcare channels, but also chaplains, family support centers, supervisors who are trained and charged with their soldiers’ well-being, and, of course, peers who have “been there, done that.” So many resources—if Alexis had reached out to one, could this tragedy have been prevented?

And is it really that simple? Of course not.

Seeking help requires a degree of self-awareness and an emotional vulnerability that goes against military culture and training.

The military thrives on an ethos of hyper-masculinity. In war, you can’t afford to be emotional. I am by nature one of the most emotional people I know (I still have to fast-forward through Mufasa’s death scene), but in Afghanistan, out of necessity (and somewhat unwittingly), I built barriers around my emotions. It was a defense mechanism that enabled me to do my job—one which keeps war-fighters focused and alive.

But emotional dullness doesn’t translate back to “real life.” I recognized that on some level—that’s what spurred me through the doors of my base’s Mental Health Clinic when everything in me wanted to turn around. My military mentality told me I was weak. A failure.

In hindsight, I realize that incredibly difficult, controversial decision was one of the most important choices I’ve ever made. But can a veteran be faulted for not making it? Is there an element of institutional failure as well?

Right now, the details of Alexis’ military career are sketchy. There's no information on whether he deployed. Reports say that during his service as a Navy reservist he had a “pattern of misconduct” but ultimately received an honorable discharge. The New York Times also reports that Alexis “exhibited signs of mental illness” for many years. 

Surely, there were people who interacted with Alexis and noticed red flags. Surely some such interactions occurred during his time in the service.

In response to the shocking suicide rates, the military has become, in theory, hyper-aware of mental health issues. One of my annual Air Force training requirements was a lengthy Suicide Prevention presentation that was so cheesy and mind-numbing that we all joked it made us want to commit suicide. Each unit took “training days” to discuss our individual and group concerns. We filled out questionnaires about our mental health. We were given flyers with a hotline number.

Mental health was a hot topic for discussion, but too easily clashed with the aforementioned culture in practice. A change in culture starts at the top, and takes more than handouts and PowerPoint. And ultimately, each person is responsible for his or her own sphere of influence. How many paths did Alexis cross where he could have been turned? How many people were too busy, too distracted, too disinterested, too self-absorbed, too scared, too lenient to act?

As a 2nd Lieutenant, my second year in the Air Force, I got a call in the middle of the night that one of my Airmen had been put on suicide watch. The Airman was someone I directly supervised, someone I interacted with on a daily basis, someone I was responsible for. I had failed. It can be so easy—and so terribly costly—to fail.

I could never justify or rationalize the killing of innocent people. I’m not making excuses for Alexis’ actions. I imagine there are a million factors that combine to make a person commit a violent act. And I imagine that no matter how strict our gun laws or how strong a person’s support network, if someone is dead-set on committing violence, he or she will find a way to do so.

I can only hope that in the wake of this tragedy, we can all take stock of our potential for failure—as individuals, as institutions, as a society—and be hyper-aware in practice of prevention.