Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Brief Rant

I was going to post this on Facebook, but figured I owe this neglected thing some attention. Plus, if someone googles “assholes” or “douchbaggery” maybe they’ll stumble upon this little blog.


I have a veteran friend who’s in grad school. She just started a new semester with a new crop of students who don’t know about her veteranness, and, like many vets, she doesn’t necessarily advertise it when making introductions. So she enters the classroom and kindly expresses her need to sit on the perimeter of the room—a need driven by deployment-related anxiety—and another student points to a seat in the middle and rudely suggests, “Why can’t you just sit in that seat?” My friend says she can’t and moves that desk to the perimeter. And the other students laugh and make fun of her

Really, people? In grad school, where everyone is supposedly at least a somewhat mature, mostly completely brain-developed adult? 

Lack of veteran context aside, so someone has a quirk—any quirk—must you be all Douchy McAsshole about it? 

I was recently a guest in my husband’s college freshman English classes, talking about narrative distance and empathy in writing memoir/personal essay. I said something that’s applicable here—a super sophisticated and eloquent analogy along the lines of: “Everyone has shit. Some people’s piles are just bigger or more smelly.”
People are different. Sometimes people are weird. Sometimes people have things bubbling under the surface that you know nothing about. Get over it. Or at least have the decency to save the laughter and gossip for behind closed doors


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Response to American Sniper demonstrates vast spectrum of war experience

I’m cleaning, like I do when I’m anxious. My husband Colin is thinking about shoes.

“Women and children,” he says. “You determine their intent by their shoes.”

We saw American Sniper earlier. All through the movie I fidgeted, like I do when I’m anxious. Colin sat rigid. Now he’s thinking about shoes.

“Women have no cause to wear shoes with tread,” he says. “So if they are, they are far more likely to blow you up.”

I say something like, “that makes sense,” because it does, and because I don’t know how else to respond. I often don’t know how to respond when Colin’s brain is in Afghanistan. I know his mind needs to dwell there for a while. It bounces between mountain passes and desert, between quiet conversations and the rumble of Humvee motors, or gunfire. Often it fixates on the suicide bomber who rammed his truck into Colin’s convoy. The young Afghan boy caught in the explosion. Colin’s gunner, his friend, engulfed in flames.

My brain goes to Afghanistan sometimes, as well, but to another time, another location, another mission. Colin served as an infantryman in 2006. My role in 2009-2010 as part of a nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team was largely bureaucratic. However, when we met in 2012, Colin and I connected through our disparate war stories. We talked. He lent me his then-unpublished manuscript of war poetry. I shared an essay about redeploying. Our writing, our experiences, were drastically different. But they were also the same.

I discovered this connection, too, with my mother, who served as a nurse in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. When I came home from Afghanistan, despite the decades, borders, and job duties that separated our wars, Mom and I found common elements weaving through each deployment, and the aftermath.

In the weeks since its release, American Sniper has generated heated discussion of many colors: respect and admiration for what Chris Kyle and his family endured, attacks on his character, praise for the film’s raw and intimate portrayal, admonishment for lack of political context, rebuff for the use of the mythical/hero formula and appreciation for the same.

Perhaps the most impassioned debate comes from within the veteran community. I’ve seen numerous articles and social media posts from veterans proclaiming that the movie did not accurately represent their time in the military or in Iraq. Many express the valid concern that this contemporary war film will become the contemporary war film and will shape (or perpetuate) public opinion. Others rejoice that the movie has spurred conversation, regardless of the nuances.

The response mirrors war itself. War is a spectrum. Or more accurately, war is a complicated graph of various separate but related spectrums: of danger and comfort, of excitement and fear and humor and absurdity and friendship and guilt and shame and pride.

Veterans easily point fingers at those who had it worse, or better, or different.  We elevate some to the top of the heroism hierarchy. The rest are left muddling somewhere in the middle.

Kyle’s war certainly more closely resembles Colin’s war than it does mine. Still, Colin never engaged in urban combat (“urban” isn’t a term associated with most of Afghanistan). Colin worked directly with the local population, rather than viewing them solely through a rifle’s scope. He didn’t deploy multiple times. He didn’t leave a family at home.

But the movie left him thinking about shoes.

“I shouldn’t be sad,” Colin says. “I didn’t even come close to doing what Kyle did. But I did more than most, so it’s not like I feel insufficient. I don’t feel depressed. I just feel sad.”

I feel sad, though for different reasons. I’m remembering being on the other side, when my mom deployed and left me behind. I’m thinking about all the things I might have done differently in Afghanistan, all the things I might have done better. I’m trying to figure out what “better” would have been.

I’m also worried about Colin, because I’ve seen his sadness spiral deep and dark and lasting.

No, Kyle’s war was not Colin’s war. It wasn’t my war, or my mom’s war. It wasn’t anyone’s war but Kyle’s. Yet his narrative contains threads Colin and I, and many other veterans, can latch onto.

For the general public, American Sniper provides one perspective. One perspective, from one man, in his unique personal circumstances—and filtered through a Hollywood lens. One perspective cannot come close to a full representation of war.

But it helps.

As long as we have war, we need discussions of war, stimulated by literature, film and other mediums. The public bears responsibility for consuming and engaging with this art, in all its forms, from all its sources: veterans, journalists, civilians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

However, the onus is on veterans, too: for producing it. In order for the public to listen, read, view, veterans must speak, write, create. If we hope to achieve an environment in which veterans can have comfortable dialogue with non-veterans, where discussions of war are candid, not taboo and not sensationalized; if we hope to bridge the oft-referenced “civilian-military divide,” we, the veterans, must lay the groundwork. We must stop the finger-pointing and heroic hierarchies. We must put aside the pride and stubbornness and self-sustaining ideas that one type of soldier has more right to tell his or her story than another. We must welcome all narratives: familiar, traditional, and not. 

More narratives facilitate both a greater public understanding of war and increased opportunities for each individual veteran to find a story—or a thread—to which he or she can relate.

“I’m sad,” Colin says again. “I don’t quite know what to do with that.”

Eventually, he settles on sleep. The next morning he decides to join a support group at the VA.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

MY MOST IMPORTANT POST EVER: Help pass veteran mental health care act TODAY

Friends, if you read one post here ever, please let it be this: The veteran community needs your help. Today the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans (SAV) Act, which supports much-needed (and much-belated) mental health care access improvements for vets, stymied by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who placed a Parliamentary hold on the act. His rationale? It's too expensive.

My husband did the math: The $22 million bill breaks down to less than $2,739.79 per vet who commits suicide each year. Not to mention the thousands of others who are suffering for unnecessarily long to unnecessary degrees because they can't get access to the care they need--and the care they EARNED.

Care for which Senator Coburn allegedly advocates. The following quotes are his:

"We must recognize our troops have eliminated two evil regimes that threatened international security"

"We will be doing our troops a great dishonor if our objective is to leave Iraq yet we leave them in harm's way"

"They & their families deserve our thanks & admiration for all they have sacrificed in service of our country"

That $2,739.79 per veteran suicide equates to roughly 1.57% of Senator Coburn's annual salary. Must we argue who in that equation has given more to his country?

Are you outraged by this hypocrisy? Do you support this nation's veterans? Well now you have an opportunity to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.


Share this info. Call until we jam the OK phone lines. Call until every angry American voice joins into a chorus on repeat in the senator's head. He's retiring in January, surely to a nice cushy life. Don't let his last act be to stop this critically important piece of legislation. Don't let him go quietly. DON'T LET THIS BILL DIE.

According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who championed the bill, "The Senate is expected to end its current legislative session by Friday. If the bill does not receive a vote in the Senate before adjournment, it dies, and vets will be left to begin the entire process again -- if possible -- in the next Congress.

Also from IAVA: Richard Selke [Clay Hunt's step-father] spoke directly to Senator Coburn in a video.

"The bill we are talking about is projected to cost about $22 million dollars. That's a lot of money to me. It's a lot of money to you. But in the context of the value of a human life, it is insignificant." Selke noted that 22 veterans, on average, die by suicide every day. "There are some things in this bill that might have saved Clay's life, and that might have saved some other veterans' lives" if the resources found in the Clay Hunt SAV Act would have been available.

Find more information on the SAV Act here.

CALL NOW and CALL NOW and CALL NOW. Also, please CALL NOW.

Thank you for your time, and your voices.

PHOTO: My husband, Colin Halloran, standing amid a display of flags on the National Mall--one flag for each veteran suicide this year. Far too many.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

#GivingTuesday (yes, it's a thing!)

Happy Giving Tuesday! Apparently that's a thing. (A good thing, obviously, I just feel very old and uninformed not knowing about it until now.) If you, like many, plan to supplement your holiday consumerism with some good old fashioned charitable contributions, let me point out a few military/veteran-focused nonprofit organizations worthy of your consideration:

The largest organization for Post-9/11 veterans and their supporters, with membership topping 250,000, IAVA also boasts a stellar 5-star (93.32/100) rating from Charity Navigator. Unlike many veteran organizations, IAVA doesn’t charge membership dues; their funding comes through fundraisers and donors. They’re a community for veterans to connect, hosting “Vet Togethers,” parades and other events across the country, but much of IAVA’s impact comes from legislative initiatives. Every year they “storm the hill” to bring veterans’ concerns straight to congress. They were the driving force behind the Post-9/11 GI Bill and other game-changing enterprises. Currently, IAVA is pushing to enhance veteran mental health care and end the suicide epidemic, lobbying for Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. **You can help FOR FREE, by signing the petition here.

I wrote a post about Got Your 6 two years ago when they first got started, and I'm excited to see how they've grown! “Got your six” is a military term meaning “I’ve got your back.” This organization has our backs with an unlikely ally: Hollywood. You may have seen their star-studded public service announcements, like this one:

…or noticed their snazzy “6” pins on the lapels of your favorite entertainers (which would make great stocking stuffers...hint, hint!). Got Your 6 is working to bridge the civilian-military divide by changing the conversation about veterans and shifting perception from “victims” or “charity” or even “heroes” to empowerment and potential. Like it or not, the entertainment industry has a lot to do with that. Portrayal of veteran characters on TV and in movies, in songs and literature, works into our collective psyches. (Got Your 6 recently published a fascinating—and disturbing—study on the topic, which you can read here.) In addition to PSAs and swag, Got Your 6 partners with 30 leading veteran non-profit orgs supporting their “six key pillars of veteran reintegration”: Jobs, Education, Health, Housing, Family and Leadership.

Team Rubicon epitomizes the idea of veterans continuing to serve. Trained and organized with military proficiency, their primary mission is as first responders following natural disasters, deploying to ground zero to provide immediate relief before conventional aid arrives. Efforts have ranged from small community service projects, to clean-up after Midwest tornadoes, to sending teams on humanitarian missions to Haiti and the Philippines.

More than just providing services to others, Team Rubicon also supports veterans with, from their website: “three things they lose after leaving the military: a purpose, gained through disaster relief; community, built by serving with others; and self-worth, from recognizing the impact one individual can make.” I have several friends (veterans and non-vets) who are active in Team Rubicon, and I’ve seen how the program has enhanced their lives. If my word isn’t enough to convince you, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote highlighted Team Rubicon in his new book: For Love of Country: What Our Veterans Can Teach Us About Citizenship, Heroism, and Sacrifice.

PHOTO from Team Rubicon members in action in the Philippines in response to Typhoon Haiyan. Focusing on the hard-hit city of Tacloban and the surrounding towns, TR treated over 2,100 patients with immediate medical care.

Writing/Artistic Organizations

A cause close to my heart is using writing or art to work through trauma and intellectualize military experiences, and to share those experiences with others. What better way to create an engaged, informed and supportive community? Along those lines, I recommend the Veterans Writing ProjectWords After WarWarrior Writers, Military Experience & the Arts, and the Veteran Artist Program. The missions are similar, but programs, mediums, teaching methods and operating locations vary. Donate and/or check out their artistic projects (more stocking stuffers!).

There are many more worthy military charities, as general or niche as you want, as diverse as veterans themselves. For other areas, offers a comprehensive list, as does Charity Navigator.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, and happy giving!

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 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.