Monday, November 28, 2011

Painful reminders

It seems to be an unwritten law of the cosmos that when things are going well, something is bound to fall apart.

Things here have been going very well. I love my grad school program and my new Boston friends. I’m getting settled into a place where I might even stay for a while (you know, with no pesky travel requirements to places like Afghanistan). I haven’t fallen down when the T jolts to a start in quite a while. I’ve been writing a lot, and talking a lot, and through those outlets I've started to make peace with my military experiences. I found Cinnamon Toast Crunch on sale yesterday at Stop & Shop. And I’ve been running again.

I even started making plans; for a Jingle Bell run in a couple weeks, for “Lauren’s comeback 5K” in the spring. I should know better than to make plans by now, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t help hoping. Last weekend I nudged the treadmill odometer to 2 miles . . . a measly accomplishment compared to the 2009 Houston Marathon, but something I was proud of: the most I’d run – pain free – in almost two years. It was so encouraging.

Things were going so well.

And today was no exception. I got a good sleep, ate a delicious Cinnamon Toast Crunch breakfast, had a productive morning, and triumphantly jogged the entire loop around Jamaica Pond – for just the second time ever! Then, starting my cool down, a familiar pain; dull at first, then building to a sharp stabbing in my left knee.

The pain transported me back; back to the wheezing of the rickety treadmill in Afghanistan and the drips of condensation from the gym tent’s ceiling; to cursing the treadmill and body armor and Afghanistan for the pain that wouldn’t let me push harder or faster – or at all – to outrun the stress of the deployment. It brought me back to the sterile white walls of my temporary corporate apartment in Florida; to sappy chick flicks, greasy take out and one too many beers – my escapism substitute for the exercise I no longer had. It brought me back to depression, anxiety and isolation; to a dark hole I’ve worked so hard to climb out of.

It’s a pain that reminded me, in case I’d forgotten, that there are two parts to my life: before Afghanistan, and after. Before, when I was healthy, settled, sure of myself. And after, where those things remain very much in flux. It’s a pain that reminded me that – for better and worse – my life will never be the same.

I know I’m lucky. In the great scheme of things, with everything that could have gone terribly wrong, a bum knee isn’t too bad of a draw. And I know I’ll be okay. I’m much stronger now, and I have some additional factors on my side. For one, I’m in America. That makes everything better. I have my support group of family and friends. And I have writing – a coping mechanism that I terrifyingly lost in Afghanistan. I also have a team of doctors at the VA trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me so they can fix it. (Or, as I’m fearing, so they tell me I need to learn to live with chronic pain. But even that – distressing as it would be – would at least give me something concrete to lean on).

Well docs, now’s your time to shine! You told me me to “run until it hurts, and we’ll go from there.” So I did. I just wasn’t expecting it to hurt so much.

And I don’t mean my knee.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thankfulness (with an Afghanistan twist)

The amazing spread my team cooked up for Thanksgiving in Afghanistan
(thankful for an old, out-of-use kitchen and amateur chefs!)
When I was in Afghanistan, I made a list to remind myself of all the things I should be thankful for when I got back to the U.S. Being in a third world country and living in somewhat primitive conditions has a way of creating perspective, showing us all the little things we take for granted (or the totally bizarre things we end up missing).

Since this is the time of year to remember those things and express gratitude, here’s a dose of thankfulness, Afghanistan-style . . .

Things I’m thankful for (as of November, 2009; in no particular order):
- As a female, being born in 20th century America
- Being born in 20th century America, period
- My family and friends
- A cozy bed
- Reliable indoor plumbing (preferably that’s also attached to my residence)
- A shower I feel safe using without wearing flipflops/that I can leave stuff in without it getting stolen/that I can wash my hair in without bumping my elbows against the sides
- A kitchen full of food that I can stumble to in my PJs
- PJs!
- Cooking
- Ordering take-out
- Ordering delivery
- Wearing anything NOT camouflaged or emblazoned with an Air Force logo
- Slippers
- Walking around outside without body armor
- Hairspray
- My cats
- Beer (the kind with alcohol in it)
- The option to choose from 27 different kinds of shampoo (so unnecessary, but so awesome!)
- Privacy
- Building insulation
- Double and triple-ply toilet paper
- Phones that work
- Internet that works
- An occasional rare, juicy steak
- Starbucks white chocolate mochas
- Being able to say/do what I want, vote for who I want, talk crap about who I want, worship how I choose, etc. without fear of reprisal
- Senses of humor
- Disney movies
- Soap
- Spaghettios
- String cheese
- Weekends!
- Getting mail
- Shopping for things I need (and some things I don’t need…)
- A glass of wine in the evening
- Running
- Not carrying a gun
- Trees
- Trail mix (the kind with M&Ms)
- Fireplaces

And some new stuff I’m particularly thankful for this year:
- People who never stop believing in me
- New friends (and of course the old ones too!)
- The chance to chase dreams . . . and sometimes even catch them
- Choices
- Chances
- Change
- Leaps of faith

Always, my family.

The men and women in uniform who are spending the holidays away from home, and their families, who have empty chairs around their Thanksgiving tables.

With tremendous gratitude,


Monday, November 21, 2011

About the facial hair thing…

There has been some concerned confusion about my new appreciation for facial hair, as revealed in my last post. So just to clarify, what I find attractive is NOT the full-bearded lumberjack type. (Nothing wrong with that, just not my thing - maybe I do have a type after all?? Or a non-type, at least?) I like some scruff; perhaps a light goatee and/or manicured ‘stache.

Like this:

Or this:

Or this Brad:

NOT this Brad:


Hope that clears things up.

Image credits:

Pictures 1 & 2:
Good Brad:
Not-so-good Brad: Jon Furniss/
Lumberjack Brad:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dating in the "real world"

In talking to some girlfriends this week I realized something kinda crazy . . . I haven’t dated a non-military-affiliated guy since HIGH SCHOOL! Wow!

I guess I took it for granted at the time, but until now I’ve always had sort of a built-in dating network. College was . . . well, college. And ROTC was perhaps even an amplified version of the college dating pool: we were all college kids of similar ages with similar backgrounds, who shared similar interests and similar values and spent A LOT of time together. And as a female, the odds didn’t hurt either. (neither did the presence of guys in uniform).

Then on to active duty and more guys in uniform. I know it sounds cliché, and I don’t intend it to sound arrogant, but seriously, as a female in a small military town I was somewhat of a hot commodity.

So now I find myself in the “real world” where the playing field is a bit more complicated. The odds have definitely changed. When people ask if I’ve met anyone yet in Boston, I tell them, half-jokingly: “Well, my grad program is approximately 5% male, approximately 2% available and approximately 1% straight . . . so, no.”

To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m looking for in a guy (although straight and available are definitely requirements). Someone asked me recently what my “type” is, and I realized I have absolutely no idea. Did I ever have a type? Is “men in uniform” a legitimate type category, or was that more a virtue of proximity? Do I need a type? I find myself suddenly attracted to men with facial hair – where did that come from?! Is it some kind of sub-conscious rebellion against the military?

But beyond that, I think the bigger issue is that I have no idea how to even go about meeting someone in the “real world.” I’m not working right now, so I don’t have access to that corporate network. I’m certainly not the type to sit in a bar, cleavage runneth over, waiting for some schmuck to buy me a drink. So I’ve just been doing my thing . . . for nearly three months now. And so far the only legitimate, actionable interest I’ve received has been from the Karaoke DJ on my birthday and a porn star on Halloween (I think it was just a costume??).

So I did what it seems people do in the real world: I joined an online dating site. I figure if nothing else it should be amusing/educational/good writing fodder.

In my profile I tried my darndest to briefly (and wittingly, charmingly) summarize my crazy Air-Force-Officer-turned-creative-writing-student personal history. I posted a nice head-and-shoulders picture, a picture of me all 1980s from Halloween (hey, it worked for the porn star!), and a picture of me in Afghanistan, surrounded by a group of local schoolchildren (I was going to post a badass shot of me with full body armor and two weapons but thought that might frighten potential cyber suitors).

The very first message I received asked, “Do you know any special karate moves that you learned in the Air Force?”

Hmmm . . .

Wish me luck!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A chance to say "thank you"

(This is a long one, but I think this day warrants it)

When I was in ROTC in college, I remember being angry that my school didn’t observe Veteran’s Day. More than angry; I was pissed. I told anyone who would listen (and even some who wouldn’t) how pissed I was. I was so high-and-mighty back then; a young cadet with really no understanding of what it meant to be in the military. But I was on to something . . . something that has become much clearer – and much more aggravating – in the years since: veterans are underappreciated.

I’d like to say it’s better now than it used to be. And in many ways it is. Thank God we’ve progressed beyond the Vietnam-era, when soldiers – many who were drafted into service against their wishes – came home to face angry protesters, be spit on, called “baby killers.” What a dark period in American history. Now, it seems, whether or not people agree with this country’s wars, they overwhelmingly support those fighting. I’m grateful for that.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a huge improvement over the outdated Montgomery GI Bill, and more veterans are taking advantage of their education benefits than ever before (I’m one of them!). There are also laws in place now to allow service members to break leases if they’re relocated or deployed (I’ve done that!), and laws that require employers to hold jobs for Reservists and National Guardsmen if they’re activated. There are more and better agencies supporting veterans both in and out of the military (I’m definitely using some of those!).

But even when the support systems work, they’re often mired in stigma and move at an excruciatingly slow pace. Organizations are understaffed, underfunded and tangled up in bureaucratic red tape.

And, if statistics are any indication, there’s still a long way to go. Last year for the first time in history the military suicide rate eclipsed that of the civilian sector. While the national unemployment rate hovers around 9%, the unemployment rate for veterans who left active duty since 2001 is a staggering 12.1% (Maze).

Many veterans return from combat with obvious, tragic wounds like missing limbs and severe burns. But many carry deep, unseen scars as well. Studies show that around 40% of OIF/OEF veterans have been diagnosed with some type of mental disorder (depression, anxiety, PTSD), and an estimated 10-20% of returning troops have at least a mild brain injury (Zoroya).

And since the economy is the “hot topic” of the moment, consider this: A new enlisted troop in the rank of E-1 earns $17,604 in annual base pay (the poverty level is $10,890). A first-year officer in the rank of O-1 nets $33,396. By comparison, the minimum salary for a rookie (now-on-strike) NBA player is $473,604 (2010-2011 data). If that’s not a sad commentary on modern American priorities, I don’t know what is.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are officially the longest wars in this nation’s history. Reserve and National Guard Forces are more than pulling their weight with frequent deployments to backfill manning shortages and often don’t have the support structures active duty troops have upon return. We live in an era where, arguably, more is being asked of the all-volunteer military force than ever before.

Yet still, in the debate over national debt, military retirement benefits are on the chopping block; the benefits that were promised upon enlistment, that were paid for in 20+ years of blood, sweat and tears and unfathomable sacrifice.

I’m not asking you to run out and write your congressman (although that would be awesome!). I’m just asking you – today, any day, every day – to say “thank you.” Sometimes that’s all it takes.

I remember once after a long, hard day at work I stopped for takeout on my way home. I was still in my uniform, looking, I’m sure, unprofessionally frazzled. When I got my food, someone had picked up my tab. I thanked him and he said, “No, thank you for your service.” I cried the whole way home because it felt so good to be appreciated.

When I got back from Afghanistan, all it took was someone saying “thank you” to open the flood gates. I had felt so isolated for so long, in a place where people were, at best, ambivalent about my existence; a place so cut off from the rest of the world. That small gesture – thank you – showed me people cared.

So today I want to say thank you to those who bear the burden:

To those who have served, and those who continue to serve, THANK YOU.

To those who have been force shaped, medically discharged, prevented from deploying or in some way limited in the capacity to which you could serve, you are veterans too. THANK YOU.

To those who serve on the homefront, maintaining families, careers, sanity, LIFE while your spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers deploy, we couldn’t do it without you. THANK YOU.

**If you want to say “thank you” in another way, the following link has a comprehensive list of organizations that support service members and their families. You can send letters and care packages to deployed troops, “adopt” a service member, volunteer with or donate to a non-profit veteran support organization, or contribute to a scholarship fund for children of service members killed in action. Check it out:


Fairweather, Amy (prepared by) “Swords to Plowshares Iraq Veteran Project.” National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, Dec. 7, 2006. Web. Nov. 10, 2011.

Maze, Rick. “Jobless rate increases for young veterans.” Air Force Times, Nov. 4, 2011. Web. Nov. 10, 2011.

“Veterans’ Mental Health Concerns Rising.” Psych Central Online, July 18, 2009. Web. Nov. 11, 2011.

Zoroya, Gregg. “Troops risk undetected brain injury.” USA Today, June 7, 2006. Web. Nov 11, 2011.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


I just need to take a quick moment to say... WOW! I am so humbled and amazed by the feedback I’ve received from just these three measly blog posts – from veterans saying they can relate, and from non-veterans saying this information is interesting and important (And, yes, even telling me that I’m fascinating. You know what? I’m almost starting to believe it! But don’t worry, I won’t let it go to my head.)

It’s unbelievably wonderful to know that these words are reaching people. When I’m feeling depressed or insecure or suffering from writer’s block, that will keep me going.

Sometimes life throws you down, steps on you and runs away laughing. And it sucks. But then, sometimes, as you’re picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and looking around self-consciously to see if anyone noticed, you realize that in your struggle you inspired someone else. And it still kind of sucks. But it’s also kind of awesome. Maybe it’s all even worthwhile.

Life gave me lemons, and since I’m no good at making lemonade, I’m going to keep writing. I need to for my own sanity. But thank you all for helping it to be so much more than that.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Looking for solid ground

So I started this blog at the worst possible time. That’s a bit melodramatic, but it has been a crazy couple of weeks. I apologize to all my loyal readers (hi Mom, Dad, Grandma and Grandpa!) for the lapse in posts.

Now, here’s a story from a few days ago:

I don’t know how the conversation started, but it ended with convictions. It was the second time I’d had that conversation that day, so this time I knew exactly what to say.

I was talking to a classmate; one of the people here who seems so fascinated by stories about my time in the military. It’s a fascination I don’t fully understand – I think we have a way of un-glorifying our own experiences – but I’ll go with it because, frankly, it feels nice to be fascinating. This person is also someone with strong convictions, someone who knows exactly where he stands. Whether I agree with him or not, he’s the kind of person I’m a little jealous of right now because in so many ways I don’t know where I stand anymore.

I think I’ve felt that way for a while, but it wasn’t until I met with a Veteran’s Affairs (VA) therapist earlier that morning that I fully acknowledged it. She let me ramble and helped sort through my jumbled thoughts until I put my finger on it. So when the topic came up later with my classmate, I was prepared.

In a nutshell, this is what I told him:
I used to have strong opinions about everything: from politics to race relations, religion to foreign policy, whether or not Bud Light can be categorized as a real beer. I used to have a firm stance on solid ground. Now I’m teetering on the shifting sands of uncertainty.

And I told him why:
My solid ground was propped up by a combination of nature and nurture. I was raised in suburbia in the Pacific Northwest in a good, conservative, patriotic family. My grandfathers and mother served in the military. When I was 18, I went into ROTC, and four years later into the Air Force, where I spent four-and-a-half years. Somewhere in that eight-plus year stretch I “came of age.” I “found myself.” Or whatever cheesy title you want to give it. Like most people do in their late teens and 20s, I figured out who I was and formed opinions that correlated to that persona. It’s a vulnerable time in everyone’s life, full of opposing influences. And because I was in the military while my self-discovery was taking place, the military’s institutionalized values to some extent became my own.

But then I went to Afghanistan and everything got shaken up. I saw the best and worst in humanity, crammed together in the same tiny spaces – even within the same people. I saw sides of issues I’d never been privy to before: bureaucracy, corruption, censorship, suffering, desperation. In short, I got a new perspective, a new filter through which to view the world. And through that filter, from where I stood, nothing looked quite right any more. I tried putting down the filter, but I couldn’t. So my only choice was to stand somewhere else. I’m still looking for solid ground.

For a long time when I got back from Afghanistan, and then when I got out of the Air Force, I felt very unsettled. That’s a whole topic for another blog post sometime, but it’s important here to note that mostly I don’t feel that way anymore. Except for my convictions. I have some values, of course, that I’ve maintained and that will never change. And I have “hot button issues” that are entirely new to me – things that jolt me into a Hulk-like alter-ego I never realized I had until I got back from my deployment. But when it comes to my stance on some of those “big issues,” I’m still floundering. I hate floundering. Floundering makes me uncomfortable.

But I realized yesterday, if I really think about it, I’m glad I have that filter. Because now I have a solid, worldly foundation of life experience on which to build my patch of solid ground when I figure out where I want to put it.

I recently got out of the military. I’m back in “liberal academia." And I’m surrounded by a new group of people: people who don’t know much about the military; smart, eclectic, worldly, passionate people; artists; people who could have equally heated in-depth conversations about punctuation and about race relations; people from New Hampshire (love you guys!).

In many ways I feel like I’m back at that “coming of age” place again. I don’t have a clean slate (do we ever, really?) but I have an opportunity to reestablish my opinions, my values, my convictions. I am once more being bombarded by opposing influences. But this time I have the power of discernment. It may take me a while, but I know that when I do find my solid ground, it will be mine and mine alone. It will be shaped by my experiences, filtered through my unique lens.

When I find it, I know I’ll be unequivocally comfortable there.

And I will still never drink Bud Light.