Saturday, July 28, 2012

Little and big things

In Afghanistan, there were little things I missed every day. Flannel pajamas. Starbucks white chocolate mochas. Paved roads. The sound of the ocean. Guacamole. Thinking of these things reminded me that I wasn’t home.

Then there were bigger things that I missed terribly, desperately, things that didn’t gnaw at me on a daily basis but that, when a thought or memory struck, could cripple me with sadness. Thinking of these things reminded me that I was missing life.

I missed my family, of course. A sticky note on a Christmas tin full of homemade cookies brought me to tears. I wasn’t there for the birth of my twin nieces; “Auntie Wowen” was introduced much later to giggling six month olds. I wasn’t there for the wedding of a longtime friend. I missed every major holiday.

And I missed the Olympics.

I’ve always loved the Olympics. My childhood could be measured in four-year increments . . . then later, after 1994, by twos. Primetime Olympic coverage was family time in the Johnson household. I remember cheering when Dan Jansen finally stayed on his feet to win speed skating gold, when Kerri Strug stuck a one-footed vault landing to ensure the women’s gymnastics team the top spot on the podium, when local 16-year-old swimmer Megan Quann made brash predictions of beating the world’s best 100M breaststroker on the world’s biggest stage – and then did.
With two parent athletes, two athlete siblings and my own delusions of swimming grandeur, Olympic fandom is in my blood. I love the grace and athleticism. I love the stories of struggle and perseverance, of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds. I love the unity among teams and among nations. I love the badass, muscle-bound, tougher-than-nails athletes who can’t help but cry when their national anthem plays. I love the theme music. I love Bob Costas.

I never saw Bob in winter 2010. From a grainy Armed Forces Network satellite feed on a TV in the corner of the Forward Operating Base Gardez chow hall, I caught snippets of curling and women’s hockey – the only two events that seemed to play during meal time (and, unfortunately, not my favorites). I didn’t watch Evan Lysacek become the first U.S. male figure skating champion since 1988, or Lindsey Vonn win the first ever U.S. gold in women’s downhill skiing. I didn’t hear any inspiring rags to riches stories, or see a single medal presentation. Perhaps worst of all, I couldn’t share favorite moments with my parents and siblings.

More than a sharp break in a lifelong tradition, missing the Olympics was a reminder of everything else I was missing. It was a realization that life moves fast, and in America, in Vancouver, around the world, it was moving without me. I missed a year of holidays, a year of news (Swine Flu! Haiti Earthquake!), a year of pop culture (who is this Gaga person and what is she wearing?), a year of technological advancements (what happened to two dimensional entertainment? Do they still make cell phones with buttons?), a year of people and places I love growing and changing. Without me.

I by no means regret volunteering for my deployment, so you could say I don’t regret, as a result, missing 349 days of life. And I guess I don’t. In some ways, though, I’m still working to make peace with it. Not only did the world change, but so did I – we spent a year growing up separately; we’re still getting reacquainted.

But I suppose in the same way time pulls you apart from people, places and experiences, it also stitches you back together.

In two years, I’ve seen several 3D movies and upgraded (and become hopelessly addicted) to a smartphone. I’m caught up on current events. Lady Gaga’s crazy outfits on magazine covers no longer freak me out. I no longer freak my nieces out. I’ve had the kind of quality visits with family and friends you can only have when making up for lost time.

And for the next two weeks I’m going to get reacquainted with my childhood Olympic tradition – only this time my viewing will be technologically-enhanced with a flatscreen TV and the power of DVR!

Living proof that change isn’t always bad . . .


Okay seriously...what is she wearing???
Lady Gaga (AP)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Welcome Home, veterans! . . . wherever you are

Way back in January, St.Louis became the first city to host a Welcome Home parade honoring veterans of the Iraq war. Six hundred vets turned out to march for a crowd of an estimated 100,000 supporters. That was the good news.

Then came the bad: despite the obvious success in St. Louis, politicians – and even military leadership – denied the requests for a national Welcome Home parade in New York. They voiced concerns that a national parade would be “inappropriate” and “premature” with troops still deployed to Afghanistan and other regions. (Then the city hosted a parade for the New York Giants after their Superbowl victory two weeks later . . . don’t even get me started.)

Without national endorsement, the Welcome Home movement was left to rely on grassroots support from local civic leaders and veterans organizations like the Iraq andAfghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). It has been snowballing . . . slowly . . . with many of the obliging cities expanding the effort to honor both Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Yesterday the snowball rolled through Portsmouth, NH. Since it’s showing no signs of coming to Boston, and that Portsmouth is just a hop, skip and massive liquor outlet away, my veteran-boyfriend Colin and I made the trip.

There was a decent turnout. The main downtown streets were lined two or three spectators deep. Business owners stepped outside to cheer as we passed, and families waved from porches and balconies.

Among the marchers were three bands, three (four?) honor guards, two beauty queens, a motorcycle-riding American legion contingent, The Shriners (complete with clowns and mini convertibles), a sizable group from the Boston chapter of the Veteran’s for Peace, a handful of local National Guard soldiers, and behind a banner near the front, those the parade was hosted to honor, the Iraq and Afghanistan vets . . . all 10 of us.

That’s right. The only forecasted parade in the entire New England region was able to draw a whopping 10 people.
Photo by Nathan S. Webster
In Nov, 2010, I joined IAVA for the national Veteran’s Day parade in New York City. Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans marched, along with thousands more from World War II, Vietnam, Korea and Desert Storm. Hundreds of thousands of spectators crammed the sidewalks along 5th Ave. The parade was broadcast nationally. Still new to my “veteran” status, still fresh from my deployment, the turnout, the sentiment, everything left me awed. It felt good to be appreciated.

It was good to be appreciated in Portsmouth, too, but the feeling was more complicated. (Blame the cynicism that inevitably moves in when the deployment haze wears off.) I can’t help but be disappointed by the veteran turnout. Granted, New England is one of the most underrepresented regions in the military, but I know for a fact there are at least 11 of us out here. I understand not everyone could make it to Portsmouth, not everyone knew about the event, and certainly not everyone is the parade-marching type. Parades are awkward (to wave, or not to wave?), especially with such a small crowd of marchers – yesterday, I felt uncomfortably spotlighted. As a collective, though, I like to think the 10 of us represented thousands more. Maybe we helped put faces and names to a generation of veterans, to paint a picture for a community that otherwise would be left to paint their own (or to leave a blank canvas, as so many do).

Most veterans don’t seek attention, because most veterans don’t see themselves as heroes. For them, parades may seem glitzy and unnecessary. Many veterans rightly feel they’ve given enough; no need to waste precious hours parading through a community that hesitates to offer support beyond a handshake or a wave.

But if no one lends their face, their name, their story, we will remain but a string of policies and numbers. If civilian acknowledgement goes unacknowledged, we risk negating the effort, however ostentatious, however small.

Those were my thoughts yesterday, until I returned to Boston to learn that while we were marching, sevenU.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. And I wondered how many of the Portsmouth spectators would see the headlines, how many would picture the faces behind the names, how many would feel a pang of grief – the ripples of lost innocence, lost potential – how quickly they would go back to their own unscathed lives.

I wondered how I was any different, when I had spent the day getting sunburned, networking, and drinking beer.

Now that 24 hours have passed, the cynicism has faded, as cynicism tends to do, and I’m left, while not satisfied, at least grateful.

I’m grateful for New Hampshire Governor John Lynch for supporting a parade on his soil, and to all those who took the time on a beautiful Sunday afternoon to stop and wave, make signs and holler “thank yous”. I got chills when an older gentleman in a Vietnam Veteran hat issued us a crisp salute. He was never welcomed home, and he personally made sure that we wouldn’t suffer the same disgraceful fate. He knows the last thing this nation needs is another generation of disenfranchised veterans.

I’m grateful for the young people who represent the 99% of this generation that hasn’t in any real way been affected by war, for taking a moment to acknowledge the 1% who have.

I’m grateful for the parents who, in some small way, helped show their children what it costs to be free, and how to be thankful for those who pay.

I’m grateful for the handful of my fellow Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who collectively could piece together a jagged history of a decade and two theaters of war.

I’m grateful for the three bands, three or four honor guards, beauty queens, motorcyclists, clowns and mini cars, the Veterans for Peace, and everyone else who marched along with us.

I’m grateful for the bagpipes. Bagpipes are always cool.

Perhaps I’m giving everyone too much credit. Maybe I’m not giving them enough. I just hope that someday I can stand along a parade route, bitter and crotchety though I may be, and welcome home a new generation of veterans with a crisp salute.

Because there will be a new generation of veterans. As much as I’d love to – and do – join my fellow veterans who advocate peace (that perfect, idealistic, utopian state), I know that war is inevitable. Sovereignty, freedom, life is a constant shifting of power and control. Whether foreign or domestic, there will always be a call to serve. Whether by volunteer or requirement, there will always be an answer.

We can only hope there will always small tokens of thanks, like parades, to acknowledge the sacrifice that will always come with it. 

View additional parade photos by Nathan S. Webster here.