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.