Saturday, December 31, 2011

Time flies when you’re keeping resolutions!

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. For one, I suck at keeping them. Then I feel bad. And no one likes to feel bad. But I also believe that if you really want to change something, why wait until January 1st? Like the saying goes, “No time is better than the present!”

That being said, I do like the symbolism of a new year: a fresh start, a clean slate, and, I suppose, a proverbial fire under your rear if you really need one to get you going.

If ever in the Life of Lauren there was a time for fresh starts and clean slates, it was New Year’s 2011. December 30, 2010 was my official last day as an active duty Air Force officer. Thus, I began 2011 as brand-spanking-new civilian. FREEDOM! No work. No title. No responsibilities. No obligations. (And no house, no concrete plans, no paycheck, eeek!)

I didn’t make any official New Year’s resolutions, but if I had, they could have been these:

1. Figure out what I want to do with my life. While I’m still working out the finer details (like how to make a living . . .), I know with 100% certainty that I want to be a writer. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m supposed to be a writer. If you believe in “finding your calling,” I’ve found mine. A career change is always a leap of faith. But sometimes it’s worth it to follow your passion.

1.5. Get accepted into a grad school program in support of said career choice. Check! (Thanks, Emerson!)

2. Make up for lost time with family. Call me old fashioned, but I’m the kind of person who actually likes my family and enjoys spending time with them. Don’t let the fact that I’ve – twice now – chosen to move to the other side of the country fool you. I really do like them. Maybe even a lot. They have always been my biggest supporters, my confidants, my voices of reason, my shoulders to cry on. I hated the geographic separation from Florida and I hate it from Boston. I hated it most from Afghanistan, where “just a phone call away” didn’t really apply. Sure, we had email (as long as a storm didn’t knock out the connection). Sure, I had cards and pictures taped precariously to the plywood wall above my bed that sometimes unstuck themselves and scattered over me while I was sleeping. Sure, we had static-filled, 12-hour time difference phone calls placed from a crowded office where no conversation was really private. Maybe it was the stress, or the danger, or the sheer distance, but during that year away, I ached for my family in a way I never had before.

So, when my conversion from Air Force officer to grad student included an eight month transitional period, I jumped at the chance to move back home. (Wait, you lived with your parents for eight months?! you ask. By choice?! I did, dear readers. And it was wonderful.) I watched chick flicks with my mom, went house hunting in Boston with my dad, bonded with my beautiful baby nieces who previously had no idea who I was beyond my face in photographs. I stashed all my life’s belongings in my parents’ garage.

And I healed. There’s no Band-Aid like family.

3. Discover who “Civilian Lauren” is. With a massive life change (and no uniform to wear every day, no institutionalized code of conduct, etc.) comes a bit of an identity crisis. Again, I’m still working out the finer details, but this I know:
- Civilian Lauren has bangs. She likes to wear nice, tailored clothing and high heels. Except for sometimes when she just wants to wear pajamas all day.
- She likes to speak her mind, even when people around disagree. If she has a strong opinion about something – and she has quite a few of those, it seems – she’s not afraid to show it.
- She’s feisty, emotional, sometimes irritable (especially when she’s hungry or tired), and a bit moody. But overall, I think she’s pretty cool.
- She’s a veteran. Sometimes she likes to talk about that, sometimes she doesn’t. (It’s a big can of very slippery worms, after all.) But she has accepted it as part of her identity – all the good, bad and ugly parts of it. And she’s proud of it, too.

4. Be thankful. I know it sounds trite, and I won’t get too much into it (you can read more in my other posts), but thankfulness was definitely a theme of 2011. Though they came with a price, with sacrifice and some baggage I still struggle to carry, I’m thankful for the decisions I made to join the military and to go to Afghanistan. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had and the worldliness I’ve gained. I’m thankful for the veteran’s organizations and programs that are helping me learn to carry my acquired baggage gracefully.

In a time of financial crisis, foreclosures, unemployment and debt controversy, I’m thankful to be debt-free, that I had the luxury to be able to leave my job and take a leap of faith, that I have the resources to be a homeowner. Sometimes the post-Afghanistan cynic in me tries to convince me otherwise, but in a time of protesting, political/religious/athletic scandals and bad news splashed across every page of the newspaper, I’m thankful that there are still a lot of GOOD people out there; GOOD news and GOOD things about being an American. (And, incidentally, I’m thankful for freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and freedom of the press. Those are pretty cool, too). And in a time of so many broken, dysfunctional, strained relationships, I am, of course, thankful for my wonderful family and friends.

Huh, maybe I'm better at keeping resolutions than I thought?

Now, looking forward on this eve of another symbolic fresh start, my unofficial non-resolution list-of-things-to-think-about/work-toward-in-2012 is as follows:

1. Have my condo “visitor ready” at all times. a.k.a. be more organized. That’s on my list in some form every year. . . (Reference comment about not keeping resolutions)

2. Work on those finer details from 2011 non-resolution #1. Writing contests and literary journal submissions? Freelancing? A publishing internship? A wealthy benefactor and/or a scratch ticket addiction? We shall see, my friends!

3. Ditto for 2011 non-resolution #3. Namely, I want to learn to manage that irritability and moodiness, balance that cynicism. I want go through that baggage and throw out any bitterness that got stuck between my socks and undies. And I want to keep talking (and writing) about the veteran thing. I think that's important. Plus, most of the time it feels pretty good in the end.

4. Continue to be thankful. ALWAYS!

5. Limit my intake of Twizzlers, chocolate and Cheetos. Seriously. This is just ridiculous.

Cheers to that!

Wishing everyone a blessed 2012! If you’re making New Year’s resolutions, best of luck. (If not, maybe you can help me eat my junk food?)


Friday, December 23, 2011

There's no place like home for the holidays

Earlier this week my mom and I were reminiscing . . . A year ago we were driving across Texas. Like, all of Texas. In one day. We were in the midst of a cross-country trek from Florida to Washington, from my Air Force career to civilian life. On our stopover in Lake Charles, LA we had told my dad, my grandparents, “We’re hoping to make it to El Paso tomorrow.” They told us we probably wouldn’t make it that far. So, of course, we had to.

The next day, our third 16-hour leg in a row, we raced the rain, loopy and exhausted, through Southern California. The next day we peed in a snow bank on the side of I-5 when an accident closed the highway for two-and-a-half hours. But then we were home. We were home for Christmas.

The year before, I was also traveling, but the destination wasn’t nearly as welcoming. I spent Christmas morning at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany en route back from my two weeks of mid-tour deployment leave. Sometime later, I stumbled through the dark to board a bus in Kuwait on what may have still been Christmas, or may have been the 26th, or may have been New Year's for all I knew. Then I was back in Afghanistan.

I love everything about the Christmas season: the music, the lights, the fresh pine tree smell, Gingerbread Lattes at Starbucks. But at its heart – and I think this is why I love the season so much – Christmastime for me has always been about family.

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around family Christmas traditions: Meandering down the neon-tinted walkways with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins at “Zoolights,” flashing LED critters crisscrossing our path. Laughing as we try to find space on an increasingly overcrowded Christmas tree; a time capsule of ornaments – there’s my Baby’s First Christmas, the snowflake from the year my parents were married, the starfish I picked up for them in Florida. Every year we wonder just how long that Hershey’s Kiss has been in that Reindeer ornament’s pocket. Every year we leave it there. I remember watching A Christmas Carol (always the George C. Scott version!) until I could recite nearly every line. Then there was the time my brother came downstairs to find actual coal in his stocking. My parents exchanged confused glances (“Maybe there really is a Santa?!”) until their gaze settled on the perpetrator, my brother-in-law, who gave himself away with a chuckle. I remember the smell of roast beef wafting through my grandparents’ house, the star of Christmas Eve dinner, and trying desperately to save room for the red and green layered jello waiting in the fridge for dessert. Then, when bellies were full (and pants buttons undone) and empty stockings were re-hung by the chimney with care, I remember reading from “A Cup of Christmas Tea.”

In 2009, from the air over the Middle East, I tried not to think about the fact that those traditions were taking place without me. After all, I had chosen not to go home on leave. The thought of a frenzied, bittersweet not-quite-Christmas was too much to bear. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave again. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice. Was it a selfish decision? I missed my twin nieces’ first Christmas. I missed my grandfather’s last Christmas.

But there’s nothing I can do about that now . . . Except never miss another Christmas.

And I don’t plan to. I know I’m lucky to have that option. Not everyone does. I’m thrilled – so thrilled! – that so many of the men and women serving in Iraq will be reunited with their families in time for the holidays. But I also know several military families who will still be celebrating traditions without a parent, child or sibling; or whose traditions will be tainted by loved ones preparing to deploy shortly after Christmas. And like my grandfather’s, there are some voids that will always feel especially empty this time of year. Christmas was his favorite holiday, too.

Last year it hit me that our traditions have changed. Grandpa’s absence was profoundly felt. The twins’ presence took center stage. My siblings and I have moved away, and celebrations rarely take place on the actual holiday anymore; they happen when everyone, or most everyone, can be there. (5th of July, anyone?) But it also hit me – hit me with a force compounded by 24-months without a Christmas gathering – that when it comes down to it, traditions don’t really matter. All the stuff people get into such a stressful tizzy about over the holidays doesn’t matter.

You see, I only vaguely remember the presents I received. I don’t think it was roast, but I really don’t remember what we ate for dinner. I don’t remember how clean or dirty the house was. I don’t remember what anyone wore. I just remember the warmth and love and joy of being together. Of being home. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I really, truly believe that’s what the Christmas spirit is all about – those warm fuzzies.

This year, I want nothing more than warm fuzzies. I want nothing more than to watch the twins faces as they unwrap their gifts (they’re old enough now to enjoy the gifts themselves, not just the wrapping paper!) I want nothing more than to be Auntie “Wowen.” I want nothing more than to see my grandma smile. I want nothing more than to sip from a mug of hot spiced wine while Christmas music plays softly in the background and my family laughs in the foreground.

I wish you all warm fuzzies this holiday season, too. If you’re with family and friends, be thankful, for you are blessed. And for anyone who’s going through a hard time or remembering a loss, may those warm fuzzies soften your burden.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

"But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, 'God bless it!'"
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why didn't I take the blue pill?!

I have a deck of cards filled with “Would you rather…?” scenarios. The cards ask scintillating questions such as, “Would you rather spend a 24-hour period hearing car alarms in your head –OR– the sound of a dentist’s drill?” and “Would you rather write ‘I am an idiot’ 10,000 times without stopping –OR– suck 75 thick milkshakes through a narrow straw without resting (no need to swallow all the shakes)?”

Here’s a question that’s not in the deck: Imagine you have an injury. Would you rather ignore it and let it heal, but be left with a nasty scar that sometimes spasms unexpectedly with sharp pain –OR– pick off the scab every time it forms, making the wound fresh and raw again, occasionally pouring lemon juice or some other stinging substance into the exposed wound; but thus enabling the wound to heal completely (or as completely as possible, with perhaps some light scarring)?

Back in September when I first started grad school, I chose option 2. I turned in my first workshop piece, 10 pages detailing my initial therapy session after I returned from Afghanistan; all my fears, anxieties, and confusions. All my baggage. I had known my classmates for approximately a day. And I showed them my wounds, let them watch as I ripped off the scabs. I might as well have offered them lemon juice.

As if that wasn’t enough, I did it again and again over the next four months, with two more workshop pieces, two papers, and many candid discussions. Because that’s what personal nonfiction writing is all about; turning yourself inside out, exposing your scars and imperfections in a way that’s honest and (hopefully) resonant.

And when it comes down to it, that’s what healing is about too. Then you patch up the wounds and turn yourself right-side-out again and the scars aren’t quite as visible; like the inside stitching along a seam. If, on the other hand, you ignore those wounds, though it may feel better initially, eventually they begin to fester. There’s a word for that . . . oh yeah, its denial. Usually nothing good comes from that.

I was a bit in denial when I first arrived in Boston for grad school. And I was afraid. Afraid of going “back there;” of digging back into that dark part of my life. Afraid of opening myself up, of the negative response I might receive. Thankfully, I received a tremendously positive response. And in submitting that first piece, I started chipping away at a barrier – a barrier I need to get through to heal, and also to be the writer I want to be.

Writing (or talking) about personal stuff is hard. It’s emotionally draining. When I shut my laptop after an evening of writing I feel emptied out; exhausted with the effort of coaxing images from a closed-off corner of my mind, spinning them into words and pushing them from my head through my muscles and bones – with a long layover at my heart – before they finally patter out into my keyboard.

But it’s also strangely therapeutic. To flush out that corner of my mind. To not be in denial. (They say that’s the first step to recovery, right?) When I see the words on the page they seem tangible. Manageable. Not so overwhelming after all.

And perhaps most significantly, people appreciate that honesty.

Because in order to truly connect with someone, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and you have to trust. That’s something on some level I’ve always known, but struggled to accomplish behind adolescent insecurities. And while there’s a trust in the military – an incredible life and death kind of trust – it’s physical more than emotional. It’s an understatement to say that vulnerability isn’t exactly encouraged in the military.

So grad school represented a bit of an aligning of the planets for me – a time when I needed that connection desperately, when I was in a place where it was offered, and when I was finally mature enough to handle it. My classmates and I bonded over our vulnerability. Sometimes we joke that our classroom discussions are like group therapy. When you’re all inside-out together, no one has reason to be ashamed.

As I look back on my first semester of grad school, that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.

Here’s some other stuff I learned:
- You can walk pretty much anywhere in Boston. It is not recommended to do so wearing heels or Converse tennis shoes.
- The green line is never on time.
- Crosswalks are merely a suggestion.
- On average, it takes approximately five MFA students approximately 10 minutes to figure out how to divide a restaurant bill. We could write you a dissertation on the quality of the food, but don’t ask us to do math . . .
- Cheetos, Twizzlers and chocolate DO NOT constitute a balanced meal. But they really do help me write papers.
- Writers and cats seem to go hand-in-hand. (An informal poll that I just ran in my head shows a disproportionate number of my classmates have cats. But then again I’m not great at math.)

Thanks to my amazing colleagues at Emerson for your honesty, feedback, support and inspiration. I’m looking forward to working with you for the next 83% of the program! (That math is right, trust me).

Oh, in case you’re curious, I would opt for the dentist’s drill and the milkshakes.

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.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coming home

The Air Force always felt like a dysfunctional family. We had the “crazy uncles,” the “black sheep,” the “lost causes,” nurturers and disciplinarians. We bickered and picked on each other, sometimes out of affection. A few of my relatives drove me nuts, but most of them I loved. They understood me like no one else could; we shared blood that ran red, white and blue.

But there were too many mouths to feed; no one ever got enough. And I was starving. So I left. I became “the one that moved away.” I had to forge my own path, get away from the pressures and expectations embedded in the family structure.

I’m glad I left. I have room to breathe now, and I’m not clamoring for leftovers around the dinner table. For the first time in a long time I’m satisfied. But I’m also lonely. I don’t like being an orphan, but I know I can’t go back.

This weekend I found a wonderful compromise. I attended a family reunion. Well, to be precise, I met a bunch of estranged distant relatives I never knew I had at a Women’s Veterans Retreat. It was a hodgepodge group: different ages, backgrounds and services, but all veterans. I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me.

But it was like coming home.

It was the same, familiar dysfunctional family without the dysfunction. It was the military without the barricades of rank and bureaucracy. And there was PLENTY to eat.

Like my Air Force family, veterans have an instant bond that you can only get from shared experiences. We’ve all “been there, done that.” They’re relationships forged on the battlefield, even if it’s different battlefields at different times.

Unlike active duty, a veteran bond is raw. We need each other. We need each other to rip off the Band-Aids hastily patched over wounds from abusive relationships so they can be cleaned and properly treated. We need each other to examine the scars that remain; to compare scars and realize that we all have them. Each has a story. We need to tell our stories. We need to give advice, to get advice. To just listen. We need to laugh and vent and curse and hug and cry, stay up too late, eat too much and dance foolishly around a campfire. Things normal families do.

But we are not a normal family. Normal families don’t understand us. That’s why we need each other.

To my new family: Thank you. You are strong and beautiful, and I love you all in an irrational way that seems impossible since I’ve only just met you. I look forward to getting to know you all better – and healing together.

To the people who made the reunion possible (Project New Hope, There and Back Again and MA Women’s Veterans Network): Thank you for all that you do. You guys are awesome, and mighty good cooks!

To other orphans: Come join us. We’re ready to welcome you home.

And to my old family: I still love you guys (well, most of you). But you can clean out my room now.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Veteran's Identity

I figure a good place to start is the question of identity . . . a good place, but an extremely complex one, especially for veterans. We’ve been talking a lot about identity in my graduate program. I’m studying creative writing (I know, I know, about as far away from the military as you can get). In order to be a good writer, you have to know who you are, know where you stand. Without that foundation, your writing has no purpose, no direction. It makes sense for non-writers too.

The great James Baldwin advised, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

Okay, so from whence did I come? It was a question I answered in checked boxes on my graduate school applications:

Citizenship: U.S. Citizen
Race: Caucasian
Gender: Female
Education history: Bachelor’s Degree
Years of work experience: 4-6
Ever been convicted of a crime: No
Are you interested in financial aid? Yes please!

Supposedly this amalgamation creates a rough picture of my “identity.” Then comes the kicker:

Are you a veteran of the Armed Services: Yes

What does that box say about me? Is there a set of values/principles/stereotypes that goes along with the label of “veteran?” I’d like to hope they’re positive traits. What about if I check the box next to “disabled veteran?” What stigmas come along with that?

I have to admit, when I moved to Boston a huge part of the allure was that no one knew me as a “military person.” That had been my defining trait for more than four years. Well eight years, really, if you count ROTC. (And before that I was in high school and no one knows who they are in high school). So it’s fair to say that for my entire adult life, up until about a month ago, my identity was largely wrapped up in the military. I competed in triathlons, I went to church, I baked awesome chocolate chip cookies, I was a doting mother of cats, but when it came down to it I was an Air Force Officer, first and foremost. My first name was “Lieutenant” or “Captain.” I wore the same clothes every day, styled my hair the same way every day. On duty and off, the values, rules and time commitments influenced what I did, where I went, who I associated with – my identity as I knew it.

So when I separated and moved across the country to a place where no one knew me (except for the few people who looked at the boxes on my application), I had something I’d never experienced before: a clean slate. I could literally be anyone I wanted to be. I could dye my hair! I could wear platform heels and gaudy jewelry! I could order a margarita with lunch, then join a protest rally! I could walk around Boston with a British accent and no one would be any wiser! I could just be a student.

A part of me wanted to leave the military identity completely behind. Don’t get me wrong, I had some great experiences in the Air Force, but I guess I was tired of it defining me. I know I was tired of it. But the bigger issue was it came with baggage. Why did my prospective Boston friends need to know, for example, that I spent nine months in Afghanistan and – depressed and disillusioned – started to question everything I believed in? Why did they need to know I’d been in therapy since redeploying in March 2010? Why did they need to be exposed to all these newfound passions, annoyances, random-outbursts-to-strangers-who-push-the-wrong-political-button? I don’t look like a military person any more. It would be so easy just to cover everything up with some fabulous new persona.

But alas, life isn’t easy. Especially when you’re in a creative non-fiction writing program where you sit around a table and lay out your baggage for everyone to rifle through. Discussions are fueled by our inner most secrets – the conflicts and decision points that feed into our identities as people and as writers.

When it came time for me to share, I was terrified. Not only was my façade busted, but I had no idea how everyone would react to me as a baggage-toting veteran. When I was in the Air Force I lived in a small southern military town. The exact opposite of Boston. My classmates were mostly coming from similarly opposite environments. How would I be received?

To my tremendous surprise and relief, my fears were unfounded. People found me interesting. They wanted to know more. They thanked me for my service, and for sharing my story. That in itself was a lesson worth blogging about.

I’m going to keep sharing. And while I do I’ll wrestle with the bigger issue: in this gray area between the military and civilian worlds, where, exactly, do I fit? Like it or not, my military service will always be a part of me. I can’t – and shouldn’t – shut it out, but I don’t want to be consumed by it either. Somewhere in the middle is the delicate balance of my identity.

Once I figure that out, I can tackle the second half of Baldwin’s quote and decide where I want to go from here.

Source Cited:
Baldwin, James. (1962). “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” The Fire Next Time. New York, NY: Random House, Inc.