Thursday, December 20, 2012

If the world ends, at least I'll have been in a book

A while back I wrote a poem. Or, I wrote something that maybe kinda sorta a little bit resembled a poem. (Hey, I write nonfiction. The extent of my poetic knowledge is Where the Sidewalk Ends. But sometimes content just begs to written in a different way.) On a whim, I submitted my poem-ish thing for publication in an anthology of veteran writing. And to my surprise, it was accepted!
Look! My name's in print!
Just before Veterans Day, my poem, as well as a short essay, were published along with the work of 60 other veterans in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors. I may be slightly biased, but it's a pretty amazing collection, featuring writing from both veterans and their families, spanning from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan, covering the experiences of medics to infantrymen to staff officers.

I'm still reading through the pieces—I have to take war literature in small doses—but every essay, story and poem hits me in a deep, intimate way. Regardless of the era or the battlefield, there's a thread through each; a raw, emotional something I can relate to. It's once again a testament to the veteran connection. And to the power of art to bring people together. 

It's easy to feel isolated by your unique experiences; we need reminders like this to show that we're not so alone, after all.

Veterans and non-veterans alike, I encourage you to check out Proud to Be. It's available from the Southeast Missouri State University PressBarnes & Noble, or Amazon.

Since the rights revert back to me (and since I'm a shameless self-promoter), here's a sample of the content, my first published poem:

          The Soldier’s Two-Step
Barely five feet tall, she does not hunch under sixty pounds of body armor and supplies.The girls in rags run up to her, tell her she is strong. “No,” she says, “You are strong.” And she is right. And so are they.
She cries into a pink pillowcase she brought from home. For a son’s broken heart, a daughter’s birthday, an anniversary, missed. Dancing between two worlds; her partner the cold barrel of a gun, music the hollow tones of war and hollow, cheerful voices on the phone. This is the melody of loneliness.
The women ask why. Why the risk, the sacrifice? Why do you care? “All mothers are the same,” she tells them, “It doesn’t matter what language you cry in.”
The men don’t ask, they demand: more buildings, more money, more time. She carries the promise on her small shoulders; sharp-edged expectations of two countries. This is the burden of hope.
 In her absence, the broken heart mended, birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated. She is haunted by all that she missed and all that she left, unfinished, behind. The little girls’ faces in her little girl, the purse where armor should be.
From boots to high heels, from gun to spatula, from Humvee to minivan, she keeps dancing. Because they need her to. And because she is strong.

To celebrate the launch of the anthology, several contributors read their pieces for a packed house at a poetry center in St. Louis. Watch a video compilation of the event:

Check out these news stories, reviews and posts by contributors:
The Missouri Humanities Council publication announcement
review that quotes my poem! Legit!
Thoughts from the fiction contest winner Monty Joynes--who wrote his winning story, chronicling a medic's first days in Vietnam, 34 years ago!
Reflections on the anthology and launch by contributor Jan Morrill, who wrote about her uncle's World War II service

Proud to Be is the first issue of an ongoing anthology series. Submissions are now being accepted for Volume 2 in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, photography, and interviews with warriors. All military personnel, veterans and military family members are eligible. Send in your work now!

Proud to Be is published in partnership by The Missouri Humanities Council, Warriors Arts Alliance and Southeast Missouri State University Press.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Of Ballots and Bullets: An ode to voting in America

I know it’s been a while since my last post, but did you really think I’d miss out on the opportunity to be snarky and inflammatory during election season? Fear not, my friends.

Perhaps this post would have been more fitting prior to Election Day, but I guess I was too distracted by the bombardment of political advertisements whenever I walked/drove/watched TV/listened to the radio/went online that for a while I was really struggling to view myself as an intelligent, free-thinking human being capable of making my own informed decisions, let alone writing about them.

Civic duty swag!
Anyway, all sarcasm aside (for now), in the wake of the election, I feel the need to draw some comparisons. This year was my first time ever voting at a polling station. As a college student attending school out of state, then as a military member stationed across the country, I’ve always voted by absentee ballot. My conclusion: it was easy. I ignored the campaign ads and celebrity endorsements (as much as possible), watched debates, did research online, walked half mile to the polling station, checked some boxes, got a sticker, then went home and watched Quantum of Solace until the news had actual legitimate grounds for announcing some results.

I was in Afghanistan for the 2009 Presidential and Parliamentary elections. It was only the country’s second “democratic election,” and the first election that was supposed to be completely Afghan-led. In Paktya province, my unit and the units we were stationed with played a “supporting” role—helping spread information on the election process and candidates and countering insurgent anti-election propaganda through our "radio in a box" systems, the only thing close to mass media in Afghanistan; assisting with training and mission planning for the Afghan security forces; providing reconnaissance and back-up security at the polling sites for several days after they’d been set up, during the election, and post-election while the ballots were counted and transferred to regional, then national sites; coordinating supplies, like tens of thousands of water bottles, for the security personnel at the sites.

Roughly 80% of the local population was illiterate. There were 140 presidential and parliamentary candidates. On the ballot, each was designated with a set of symbols, which had to be explained by representatives from the election committee, who traveled (or attempted to, or didn’t attempt to because they were threatened by insurgents) to outlying areas of the province on educational missions.

For weeks leading up to the election, insurgents passed out night letters—threatening messages left in homes or villages in the middle of the night warning people against voting—and broadcasted propaganda and threats on mobile radio stations that always disappeared before we could track their locations. Threats ranged from chopping off voter’s fingers, which were dyed blue after votes were cast, to chopping off heads.

In Paktya's capital of Gardez, the Taliban claimed responsibility for a coordinated suicide bombing attack on government buildings that left five people dead, calling it an attempt to disrupt the elections.

On Election Day, the government ordered a media blackout in an attempt to prevent news of violence from dissuading potential voters. I sat in our operations center biting my nails. We had teams standing by for Quick Reaction Force convoys, ready to leave at a moment’s notice to defend against an attack or provide medical support. The screens at the front of the room scrolled through threats picked up by military intelligence, and showed grainy surveillance footage of local villages. I kept waiting to see a building explode. I kept waiting to hear the whistle of incoming mortars or gunfire. I kept waiting for Hell to break loose.

It never did. We fared better than we feared. But still, there were more than 50 attacks throughout the province.

And violence was the problem we were planning for, but it wasn’t the only problem. Afghan law requires 27% of parliamentary positions to be held by females. But in conservative areas like Paktya, many women couldn’t vote without being escorted by a male relative. Not surprisingly, female voters were sorely underrepresented.

Post-election, there were widespread allocations of voter fraud, ballot stuffing and intimidation. In some of Paktya’s villages, the number of votes cast dramatically exceeded the number of citizens. The legitimacy of the election was questioned, and a runoff election was scheduled between President Karzai and his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah.

A month later, we would have to do the whole thing again.

Conveniently, in the way government operations are often convenient, the end of the election coincided almost exactly with the beginning of Ramadan. In order to observe this tradition, many of the Afghan security personnel abandoned their posts. The polling sites were left unsecured.

Ultimately, there was no runoff. Abdullah conceded because he saw the system as too corrupt with no hope of a legitimate election.

I wondered how much the average citizen knew. Were they aware of the fraud? The potential for a runoff? That Karzai had been reelected? Did they have access to enough information to even know their stake in the matter?

Though Afghan citizens are starting to gain access to outside information through mediums like our radios, much of their programming is produced by the government. And their main source remains what it has been for hundreds of years: the local mosque.
So many options . . . so little time!

I often tell people that they should never rely on a single source for news. There is no such thing as completely fair and balanced. Every organization is targeting an audience, lobbying for ratings. Every message, directly or indirectly, is communicated with the intent of eliciting a certain feeling or response. So in the wake of this election, amidst the mudslinging that is still going on not only about candidates but also about FOX/CNN/MSNBC, I just have to say that I’m grateful to have access to the full spectrum. I’m grateful to have mass media at my fingertips, in whatever format I prefer. I’m grateful to have the option to wade through as much or as little information as I chose.

And, though I certainly don’t exercise it as much as some of you (you know who you are!), I’m grateful for the opportunity to disagree, to debate, and to complain. You see, in the military you don’t have that option. Military members cannot express political opinions because they represent the military.

So because I’m no longer beholden to those guidelines, I’ll just say this: Very few people would argue that there’s nothing wrong with our current system, and there were definitely things that frustrated me about yesterday’s election. The fact that the two-party system has become paralizingly polarized. The fact that the poor economy was supposedly the #1 issue, but $6 billion was spent funding campaigns. The fact that my polling station was plastered with campaign signs for a particular candidate for senate, but not a single sign for the other. The fact that one of the local ballot initiatives lumped veterans benefits in with unemployment and welfare, and called for supporting these “assistance programs” with cuts in military spending. (Am I the only one who finds funding veteran programs by cutting active military programs ironic? “Military spending” includes troop support programs, healthcare and protective measures . . . and those—along with “excess” manpower that certainly never feels excess, especially to those who lose their jobs after serving faithfully and being promised retirement benefits—are usually the first things to go. It’s not as simple as just bringing troops home. There is necessary, and expensive, post-war support. But that’s another blog post for another time.)

I vote because I can, and because it’s my duty and privilege as a U.S. citizen. But I also know that voting isn’t enough, that one man or woman can’t make everything perfect and certainly can’t make everyone happy. And instead of complaining (or, okay, sometimes while complaining), I choose action. I choose to educate and advocate, and to look for—and make—opportunities to stand up for what I believe in, because I’m pretty damn fortunate to live in a country where I can do that.

So thank you to those of you who voted. You have earned the right to be excited/angry/vindictive/controversial. Just remember that rants and raves are usually just rants and raves. And whatever you’re ranting or raving about, please take a break on Sunday to thank those who have willingly given up their own rights to do so in order to protect yours. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Lessons in bureaucracy...and sweet, sweet VICTORY!

One big lesson I learned in the military is that nothing is ever as easy as it should be. Getting paid, taking leave, submitting a briefing for a meeting—everything was drowned in extra layers of bureaucracy. My Army instructors at pre-deployment training were fond of saying, “It’s not the right way, but it’s a way.”

Thus, another big lesson I learned was perseverance. I needed to get paid, take leave and submit briefings for meetings, so I waded through the red tape until I could.

Sometimes it sucked. (Extra administrative stress is exactly what you need when preparing for war). But you know what I’ve learned since leaving the military and entering the “real world”? Sometimes that sucks too.

Sometimes a process like waiving school health insurance because you get comprehensive coverage through the VA hospital is not as simple as filling out the waiver form, showing your VA ID, having a VA representative call the school, or even providing examples of legislation that identify VA coverage as fulfilling the state insurance requirement.

And sometimes it would be easier to give up.

But then, two weeks, two in-person visits, two identical forms, and three phone calls later you receive a response like this that makes it all worthwhile: 
Dear Lauren,  
After reviewing the Veteran's Administration Health Care Program in reference to State requirements of comparable coverage, we have determined that although your program does not meet each individual requirement, you are provided with access to the necessary coverages, and the Health Care Program covers the costs of the requirements which aren't included (specifically emergency care). I have processed your waiver request for the Emerson Health Insurance and Health Services Fee and the charges have been removed from your account.  
I want to thank you for taking the time to send us the information you did regarding the Health Care Program. In order to make our policies clear for future Veteran's with this coverage, we will be revising our website to include the VA Health Care Program under acceptable comparable coverage for waivers.
The VA is a strange entity that straddles the line between the military and the real world. Therefore, it comes with a certain amount of built-in confusion—a knowledge gap, as with so many military issues, on the civilian side, and a perpetual inability for the government to keep up with the need to educate. Caught in the fray are the veterans, left to struggle through frustration and ignorance in order to use their earned benefits.

Until the government effectively takes control (lots of rolls of red tape away, I'm sure), I guess the task of bridging the gap is left to grassroots educators, like me.

So here’s my advice: persevere. Do your research, and throw it in their face (tactfully, of course). Kick and scream (tactfully) until you get what you’re entitled to. Eventually, you’ll get it. And you just might make it easier for those who follow.

For any MA vets struggling with insurance waiver issues (Hi! Thanks for reading!), here’s some helpful legislation:

When filling out MA State Taxes, there is an option to select U.S. Military (including TRICARE and VA coverage) to satisfy the requirement for minimal credible healthcare coverage.  

14. What is required for a student to obtain a waiver from the SHP plan for alternative coverage?
The student must submit a waiver application to the school and certify, in writing, that he or she has alternative coverage, the name of the entity offering the plan, the policy number or member identification number, the name of the subscriber or primary enrollee and the relationship of that person to the student, and a statement that the coverage is comparable to the coverage required under a SHP. The waiver request must be on a form supplied by the institution, and may be submitted electronically.

15. What is considered "comparable coverage" necessary to obtain a waiver from the SHP?
The health plan must provide reasonably comprehensive coverage of health services, including preventive and primary care, emergency services, surgical services hospitalization benefit, ambulatory patient services, and mental health services; and be reasonably accessible to the student in the area where the student attends school.

According to the Mass Student Health Insurance legislation Section 3.05, waivers can be given to students with MassHealth coverage. VA coverage is acceptable for the MassHealth waiver, and qualifies veterans under state and now federal legislation as comprehensively covered 

UMass, the state's university, declares that veterans are eligible for health insurance waivers (See Waiver Eligibility).

And good luck.

Monday, September 17, 2012

DON'T Free Bradley Manning: A rejected Op-Ed for your reading enjoyment

One of the great things about having a blog is that when I write an op-ed no one wants to publish, I can post it here! While I pay my writerly dues and amass a collection of rejection letters, I'm glad I can subject you, dear loyal readers, to what the masses will never see. I welcome questions, comments, recommendations to find a new field of study . . .

Here is the latest: 

DON'T Free Bradley Manning

On Sept. 6, protestors took to the streets in Boston and more than 30 cities nationwide to demand the release and pardon of Bradley Manning, the 24-year-old Army intelligence analyst who faces possible life in prison for charges of releasing secret military information through the WikiLeaks website in 2010. 

Outside the local Obama headquarters downtown, the Boston protestors carried signs and distributed handouts with the slogan “Blowing the whistle on war crimes is not a crime.”

As a former military public affairs officer, I agree with this slogan, and I agree with the principle of Manning’s actions—his intentions to, as the Bradley Manning Support Network website states, “inform the public and promote ‘discussion, debates, and reforms.’”

However, Manning’s methods were illegal, reckless and potentially dangerous, and for that he should be held accountable.

Bradley Manning (AP)
I‘m no stranger to the flow—or lack thereof—of government information. In fact, the strategic “spinning” of information, and my role as a spinner, in part drove me to leave the service. Now a civilian, I relish the freedom to speak candidly and to openly express my opinions.

But there are certain things I will never discuss, because such information could endanger my military comrades and hinder foreign relations. All veterans must bear the burden of selective silence.

Despite Manning’s obvious security breach, the Bradley Manning Support Network website stresses that “Not a single person has been harmed by the release of this information.” Though some officials are more wary, general consensus seems to assess the damage as minimal. For that, we are fortunate.

Some of the documents released on WikiLeaks dealt directly with my nation-building unit in Afghanistan. These items were classified for a reason; they addressed ongoing operations and investigations of insurgent activity. If this information had landed in the wrong hands—hands linked to the subjects of the operations and investigations—the U.S. personnel named in the documents could have faced serious danger.

Furthermore, classified communication can reveal military “tactics, techniques and procedures,” the exact processes for planning and executing operations. Enemy knowledge of these systems could easily jeopardize their effectiveness, and again, put those involved at risk.

Manning’s charge of “aiding the enemy” refers to his knowingly making such information available to the enemy by enabling its posting on the internet, a resource to which any audience has access.

These actions equate to treason. Treason is punishable by death. Intent is irrelevant.

Like Manning, during my time in the military I saw information that I felt belonged in the public domain. The American people deserve the opportunity to make informed decisions about a war they support with resources, sons and daughters. But a delicate balance exists between transparency and operational security. When tipped, this scale can compromise military and bureaucratic missions.

To assert that the military walks this line well would be brash. The military has a process for releasing information, but as in many dealings with the U.S. government, this process can be frustratingly long and painstaking, more difficult than it should be. Far too often, officials withhold information unnecessarily, even against regulations.

In these instances, we need people with courage like Bradley Manning. America entrusts our military with upholding the highest standards of conduct, with using resources wisely and supporting our collective best interests. The media and whistle-blowers serve to maintain accountability.

Still, one can blow a whistle without abusing sensitive information. Unfortunately, Manning did the right thing the wrong way.

The Free Bradley Manning campaign considers their subject a hero and a scapegoat. They express concern that Manning’s potential life in prison sentence and his treatment during pre-trial incarceration at Marine Base Quantico, which included extended solitary confinement, will serve to intimidate future whistle-blowers.

On the contrary, Manning must be an example of punishment befitting actions.

We cannot set the precedent that good intent justifies law-breaking, that lack of perceived damage negates the known potential for damage, and that there exists an acceptable level of treason.

I hope Manning’s actions do bring about international debate and reform. And I also hope his methods are penalized accordingly.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


The candle warmed my face. It was a breezy night, one of the first that really felt like fall, and the flame danced and sputtered in front of me. Other candles came to life, bathing the gazebo an eerie glow. I thought how strange it was that this was the first Sept. 11 I’ve observed by lighting a candle.

I guess that’s how it’s done in the civilian world.

Each Sept. 11 on the Florida military base where I was stationed, life stopped for a moment. No one was too busy to pause and remember. But there, we had reminders every day—our camouflaged uniforms, the Rotator shipping out a new group on deployment, bringing a group home. The routine absence of family and friends. The memorial outside the chapel, the plaques in the air park, the streets bearing names of those who would never return.

When I was in Afghanistan, we held a remembrance ceremony on the helipad—the only space large enough for our formation—ducking from dust and gravel kicked up by the rotor blades of incoming helicopters. We didn’t have to work to remember there, either; each of our lives hovered in the aftermath. If we got too comfortable, there were 17 faces to bring us back, watching us from behind frames on the conference room wall, under a sign that read "Fallen Comrades of Paktya Province."

Out here in the real world, reminders are scarce.

Even I often get distracted. I stress about schoolwork and my new internship and the cat hair that clumps in the corners of my living room. Then I see a news report on Afghanistan. Or another name. Or something unexpected that brings me back to camouflage and dusty helipads and faces on a conference room wall.

Sometimes it’s more comfortable to forget.

Today, flags flew at half mast, and the TVs at my gym streamed footage from 11 years ago. But traffic swirled around our little vigil, students chatted and laughed on their way to class, the metallic bing! of bat-on-ball rung out from a baseball game across the park.

There weren’t enough candles to fill the star etched into the gazebo floor. I wished there were. With two empty tips, it looked like a feeble effort; a tribute made and then hastily forgotten.  

I knelt at one edge and tipped my candle, letting a drop of wax stain the concrete. I set the base of the candle on the drop and held it until wax merged with wax and it stood upright on its own. The crowd thinned. The moment had passed.

Adjusting the shoulder strap of my knapsack, I walked down the gazebo steps, back into the real world. I turned once before leaving.

My candle was lost in the collective glow, a small marker of light, of stillness on a busy city night. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Heroism vs. Awesomeness

UPDATE - 8/21/12: Thank you, US Weekly, for proving my point:
Now available on news stands and in the collective American psyche!

So the Olympics are over. This is probably a good thing, both for my sleep schedule and my fitness level. Yes, besides its sedentary nature, roughly four hours of nightly couch-sitting also inspired me to snack . . . the irony of watching world class, zero-body-fat athletes while gorging on popcorn and Twizzlers is not lost on me. For the last two weeks, I relished these things because I love the Olympics. And because I could. Unlike 2010, when I was in Afghanistan - something I discussed in my last post.

This year’s Olympics were everything I’d imagined, full of triumphs, disappointment, Michael Phelps, happy tears, tears of joy, very young-looking Chinese gymnasts, surprising upsets, patriotism, unity, and, as often happens, controversy.

One of the big stories of the Games was the discovery that any medals U.S. athletes bring home and the associated prize money are subject to taxation. The headlines were bold. The reactions, mixed. Sure, some said, their winnings are income and should be taxed accordingly. Others, like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., asserted that Olympic athletes shouldn’t be penalized for representing their country. Sen. Rubio went so far as to introduce a bill that would exempt Olympians from being taxed on their winnings. 

Missy Franklin, with expensive hardware
On both sides, among the media, bloggers, and comment trolls, many called the athletes heroes. Many, like Yahoo sports blogger Chris Chase, compared them to the military.

In this article, Chase chastised the government, “you can't make an exception to athletes representing our country in the biggest event in the world? It's not unheard of: Military members are exempt from taxes when they're deployed in a combat zone.”

I don’t know if Sen. Rubio’s bill will pass, and frankly, I don’t care. My argument is not for or against taxation of Olympic winnings. My issue is the military being used as a measuring stick to assess athletic sacrifice and accomplishment.

This discussion provides interesting commentary on modern American priorities and perspectives. Perhaps the real question is not over earned benefits, but over our collective perceptions of what constitutes a hero.

We throw the word “hero” around a lot. I’m guilty, too. When I was little, I thought Julia Roberts was beautiful and talented; therefore, she was my hero. In high school had my own swimming heroes to go with my own Olympic dreams. That guy who proudly defied convention and rocked the purple Mohawk, studded leatherjacket, fishnet stockings and combat boots – for a minute last week, he was my hero. “Hero” has become so commonplace it’s almost lost its meaning.

So let me ask you: is athletic accomplishment true heroism, or closer to awesomeness?

As Sen. Rubio said in a statement, Olympic competitors “dedicate their lives to athletic excellence.” To make such a commitment is impressive and admirable. But dedicating one’s life to athletic excellence cannot be compared to dedicating one’s life to selfless service. Sacrificing in pursuit of Olympic dreams cannot be compared to sacrificing to protect a nation’s freedoms, to save a buddy’s life, to save a stranger’s life.

The Olympics is the biggest stage for athletes. For military members, the biggest stage is a life-and-death battle that can happen at any time, where bullets are flying, explosives are set, the humvee is on fire and the driver is trapped inside, a live grenade just landed a few feet away.

There are no improvised explosive devices buried in the sand of the beach volleyball court. Kayaking through whitewater is pretty badass, but it’s not on par with driving a humvee through an ambush to get the wounded back to base for emergency medical treatment. Running faster than anyone in the world is impressive, but not the same as running through live fire in 60+ pounds of body armor, having already been shot in your bulletproof vest, having already pulled a buddy to safety; running and rescuing another wounded buddy from two Taliban soldiers trying to drag him away, dragging him yourself back to safety while returning fire, and dressing his wounds, with no regard for your own life.

Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta
U.S. Army
The latter is what Salvatore Giunta did in 2007 in Afghanistan. He was awarded a Medal of Honor. But Guinta, like many military members, doesn’t see himself as a hero.

He told VanityFair, "I did what I did because in the scheme of painting the picture of that ambush, that was just my brush stroke. That’s not above and beyond. I didn’t take the biggest brush stroke, and it wasn’t the most important brush stroke. Hearing the Medal of Honor is like a slap in the face. I don’t think you know what I did. I didn’t do shit."

And the ChristianScience Monitor,“In this job, I am only mediocre. I’m average” . . . ““If I’m a hero, every man that stands around me, every woman in the military, everyone who goes into the unknown is a hero,” he says. “So if you think that’s a hero – as long as you include everyone with me.”

If we’re talking numbers, an Olympic gold medal nets $25,000 in prize money - that’s about Guinta’s annual base salary while he was deployed to Afghanistan as an E-4. Giunta was 17, the same age as four-time gold medalist Missy Franklin, one of the “heroes” of the Games, when he swore an oath to defend his country. At 27, Michael Phelps has more Olympic medals than any athlete in history. At 27, Guinta is still haunted from watching his friends die.

People make sacrifices every day. Some sacrifice social life to work their way through college. Some sacrifice time with their children to put food on the table. Some sacrifice time and social life and other young-person aspirations to pursue athletic excellence. All sacrifices are noble. 

But we should be more careful about what we call heroic. 

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.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The limits of “therapy”: Some writing on not writing

I left the Air Force, I moved across the country, I enrolled in grad school, I started a blog to write about war. But I never said writing about war was easy.

I said it was therapeutic. And it was. Until it wasn’t.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when that shift occurred – I think it’s been shifting for a while – but it manifested itself in a very unattractive emotional breakdown last week. In the midst of my crying/nose blowing/self-pitying incoherent sob-infused mumbling, I had an epiphany: writing about painful experiences is painful.

Okay, that wasn’t really an epiphany… it’s pretty self-explanatory: Writing a personal account of a traumatic event means reliving, re-engaging, re-imagining said event. Of course it sucks! But writing also means processing, intellectualizing, making peace with the event, essentially ripping off the Band-Aid and exposing the raw wound so it can be treated properly. So you can heal.

Writing is proven effective in promoting healing after trauma – proven through my personal experiences and through legitimate scientific and psychological research. Cognitive Processing Therapy, one of the main methods currently being used to treat PTSD in military veterans uses writing as a key component; it’s a direct antidote to the PTSD tendency of “avoiding people or experiences that remind you of an event.” (My boyfriend, Colin, chronicles his personal experiences with Cognitive Processing Therapy in a blog series for

What I realized, though, as I writhed on the floor of my boyfriend’s car (seriously), is that there’s a limit to how much healing can take place within the delicate balance of reimagining and intellectualizing. Too much of the former too soon following the event, or within too short of a timeframe, and the brain can’t progress to the latter.

Looking back, I think I tipped the scale during my final assignment last semester. I wrote a piece about my first experience with death in the military; a friend was killed when the aircraft he was piloting crashed in Afghanistan. Understandably, it was a hard piece to write. But the event had been gnawing at me . . . I knew I had to process it, and writing was the best way I knew how. It was painful, but I had a deadline, so I gutted it out, vomited everything up on paper. As happens with vomit, the result was a bit messy.

Armed with feedback from my class, a few weeks ago, I set out to clean up the mess. But I couldn’t. Literally. Not only could I not write any more about the event, I couldn’t even think about writing without feeling physically ill. When I wasn’t feeling ill, I was feeling terrified because I was reminded of the last time my psyche forced me to stop writing – In Afghanistan, when I slipped into my own version of the Dark Ages and wasn’t sure I’d ever find my way out.

The emotional breakdown came later, when the same ill feeling crept into other efforts at other pieces. From there it was a short leap to doubting the validity of my future plans, cursing my lack of focus/motivation/organizational skills, the malicious cycle of getting upset over getting upset, dubbing myself a failure, writhing on the floor of my boyfriend’s car.

They say if life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But what if you don’t like lemonade? What if you’re allergic? What if you can only drink small doses and life just so happens to give you a crapload of  lemons?

Maybe I need to wait for my lemons to ripen a bit (though patience has never been my strong suit). Maybe I should just throw some away, try some apples instead.

Maybe I shouldn’t be mixing school (or indeed, my future livelihood) with “therapy.” Maybe I shouldn’t put so much pressure on myself to be productive (and gag the inner voice that keeps telling me it’s the whole reason I’m here!). Maybe I need to stop defining productivity in terms of numbers of pages – and numbers of pages that directly apply to my now very scattered and incoherent thesis project idea (see previous parenthetical).

Maybe I should forget about maybes and what ifs, have a glass of wine and go to bed.

If it was that easy – if anything was – this blog would be pretty lame. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The real world sucks

Last week I took a overview class on the publishing industry, hoping to learn more about my future job prospects. I learned (among some other legitimately cool/enlightening things):

1. My prospects suck.
2. Anyone who wants to write for a living is crazy.
3. Anyone who wants to publish, edit, design or print books for a living is also crazy.

Amidst the discussions of business planning and finances, which seemed to strategically coincide with my monthly bill-paying routine, and the arrival of a health insurance statement, and the planning (ie. budgeting) for an upcoming trip, my head was spinning with numbers. A head full of numbers is always an unsettling feeling for someone who’s used to working with words, but on this particular occasion, it really hit me: Being an adult sucks.

When it comes down to it, I’ve never been an adult before. Sure, I grew up and went to war, but I did it in a bubble. A military base is essentially a small city, full of like-minded people telling you what to do, where to go, what to say, and how to dress. I was part of a well-oiled machine which, in exchange for my blood, sweat and tears, would provide me with everything to meet my basic needs. Right out of college I had zero debt, a steady paycheck, a housing allowance, healthcare benefits, free moving services, a gym membership, a work wardrobe, access to religious advisors/career advisors/education advisors, and all-expense-paid trips to lovely vacation destinations like Afghanistan.

Military life certainly has its cons. In typical fashion, these are the things I noticed most while serving. There were midnight recalls; contingency responses; high-stress, high-profile assignments; working long hours, holidays and weekends that made it difficult to find time to utilize many of the available services. Next to trendy, chic civilian women, I felt frumpy in my camouflage and boots – a uniform that essentially declared me “Property of the U.S. Air Force.” And of course there’s the whole Afghanistan thing . . .

But I didn’t realize until now how, in many ways, my life was so comfortable. Sheltered. Meandering somewhere between childhood and independence.

Then came war.

People say war makes men out of boys. If to be a man is to carry a country’s expectations on your shoulders, to live on the edge of death, to witness the cruelty mankind is capable of committing, and to question everything in which you believe, then yes, this statement is true.

Thus, the military both inhibits the transition to adulthood, and forces it.

And what comes after? What happens to these “men” when the bubble pops?

I left the military still fresh from my baptism-by-war. I can’t say the rug was ripped out from under me, because I stepped off the rug. But that’s how it felt. My only foundation was military-made, and was shaken by my deployed experience. Afterward, I had nowhere left to stand.

Unemployment is a common post-military landing place. In 2011, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran population had a 12.1% unemployment rate, compared with 8.9% among their civilian counterparts. After eight months as part of that statistic, I chose grad school.

The lack of structure in an academic environment both excited and overwhelmed me. So did my expanding wardrobe. (I take, on average, 40 minutes and five outfit changes to get dressed in the morning.)

Most things about civilian life intrigue me, but my shrinking bank account is just plain scary. I’m not used to seeing all those red numbers, with so few black ones to counteract. Apparently I’m not alone. A recent article on reported that “veterans ages 29 or younger have average monthly expenses that exceed their net income by $880 as well as average credit card debt of $7,234.” YIKES!!

Granted, financial woes are not just a veteran problem. These are tough times for many. However, I’m sure a lot of of these veterans are, like me, struggling to reinvent ourselves outside the military bubble. When you take the cog out of the machine, the machine still runs. But the cog is useless.

We’ve outgrown the military, but in our circuitous route to adulthood, we failed to keep pace with our civilian peers.

I like to think of myself as pretty responsible, though I’ve been known to go on an occasional shoe shopping binge (justified under "non-combat boot footwear diversification"). I like to think of myself as pretty low maintenance, though past boyfriends and my dad, who lugged around an entire suitcase full of aforementioned diversified footwear when I moved to Boston, might disagree.

I’ve never made a budget because I’ve never had to. Just another lesson I’m learning the hard way out here in the real world.

I gave up a comfortable life in exchange for uncertainty. I didn’t realize how difficult, how complicated, how uncomfortable the transition would be. But for me it’s worth it, because I seek other comforts: expression, creativity, peace of mind, fulfillment, a cute wardrobe. A life that is mine.

And a winning lotto ticket.

Actual magnet from Lauren's fridge

Monday, May 28, 2012

Today, I cry

Sometimes I look at old pictures. Sometimes I listen to songs – you know the kind, the ones that “take you back.” Sometimes I grab a pint of ice cream and a box of Kleenex and put on the saddest movie in my chick flick collection. Sometimes, like today, I dig through articles and watch videos honoring men who died too soon.

Because sometimes I just need to cry.

Sometimes they keep me up at night – spiraling memories and should-have-beens. Sometimes I shut them out, tuck them away again on the other side of Sometime, and drift into happier dreams. Sometimes I summon them, to trace the outlines of a friendly smile, an eye roll, an early morning jog, a final salute to a passing hearse.

Because sometimes I’m afraid that if I don’t remember, no one will.

Sometimes I write. Sometimes my pen hovers over blank pages. Sometimes the words flow freely – into a tribute, a memory, the everything and nothing I can give.

But sometimes, it’s never enough.

Sometimes I just need to cry.

This Memorial Day I honor:
Maj Randy Voas, KIA Oct 8, 2010
Capt Ryan Hall, KIA Feb 18, 2012
Lt Col JD Loftis, KIA Feb 25, 2012
And all those who made the ultimate sacrifice

Maybe someday I’ll be able to remember without being sad. Maybe I won’t. But maybe that’s okay.