Monday, November 23, 2015

$h!t the military taught me

I recently took a rite of passage to adulthood: I got a job in retail. Contrary to the warnings of many of my peers (who completed this rite years ago), I’m actually really enjoying the experience. Sure, customers can be picky, rude, and ungrateful. Sometimes it’s hard to keep smiling and stay cordial. But I appreciate being pulled from my solitary writerly cave and into daily social interaction. It’s refreshing to focus on something completely different. My coworkers are awesome, and meetings always involve pizza.

Not counting internships and work-from-home gigs, this is also my first job since leaving the service. Working in the “real world” has helped me realize many of the lessons I took from my time in the military. 

So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m compiling a list of gratitude. In the spirit of the military, I made it into an acronym: PAEAP, which you can remember with this Thanksgivingy phrase: People Always Eat Amazing Poultry.


I used to be perpetually late, regardless of what time I was supposed to arrive (but especially in the morning), where I was going or for what purpose. I didn’t mean to be late. I’d give myself ample time, I wouldn’t dawdle; I’d just hit a time warp and suddenly need to leave five minutes ago. In my college freshman English class, I was downgraded from an A to an A- because I had too many tardies. (The classroom was in the building next to my dorm, and the class started at a very reasonable 10am . . .)

The military beat lateness out of me.  Mornings were popular. Schedules were tight, and delaying a meeting or sneaking in late risked earning the commander’s wrath. Though a tad hyperbolic for my line of work, I took the saying to heart: “If you’re early you’re on time, if you’re on time you’re late, and if you’re late you’re dead.” Anyone who knows me knows I’m still not a morning person. But I can rally if I need to. (Incidentally, I also credit the military for indoctrinating me to black coffee.)  


Life in the military is often trial by fire. You’re expected to learn quickly, frequently with little or no instruction, sometimes in high-stakes situations. My deployed position was in many ways make-it-up-as-you-go; Information Operations for use in counterinsurgency/nation-building efforts was a new application. All doctrine was based on Vietnam-era kinetic warfare (direct enemy engagement). There were no standard operating procedures. Our guidance was vague—to the point of, to quote a colleague’s commander, “Sprinkle some IO dust on that.”

The expectation isn’t to instantaneously know the best way to accomplish the mission, but to figure out a good way. Initiative can mean asking for help, using the resources at your disposal to make an informed decision, making a “command decision” (a judgement call), or all of the above. It does NOT mean panicking, wallowing in self-doubt, or being paralyzed into inaction. I use these skills almost every day—particularly these last few weeks as I learn the ropes of a new service-oriented industry. If all else fails, I remember one of the unofficial tenants of public affairs: If you don’t have actual confidence, have pretend confidence.


The military expects its members to operate with what they call “a sense of urgency.” Everything you do, whether it’s cleaning your weapon or cleaning your plate, should be done as efficiently as possible. There are a bajillion checklists, fill-in-the-blank templates and step-by-step guides to make this easier. In some situations, though, circumstances call for time-saving procedural deviations (see Adaptability/Initiative).

Speediness often comes into conflict with my perfectionist inclinations—I’ve had to learn to balance my high personal standards with what is reasonable to accomplish effectively in a timely manner and with available resources. Each customer may not have flawlessly gift-wrapped purchases, but they’ll be satisfied, and I can move onto the next customer rather than keeping him/her waiting.


I’m a natural pushover and avoider of confrontation. Governed by emotions and drawn toward peacemaking, I'd prefer to get walked on than make waves. Public affairs is kind of a wave-making entity. I often found myself a lowly lieutenant in a meeting with high-ranking leaders who were focused (understandably) on the immediate tangibles of a situation. PA was an afterthought, when the shit hit the fan. In order to pre-empt mass confusion and/or media and community outrage, I had to proactively speak up and assert my position as the subject matter expert, even when I felt anything but. As a supervisor and ranking officer, I also needed to stand up for my Airmen. I was the buffer between their wellbeing and demanding customers.

Though the stakes are lower in small business retail, my actions still represent the company. I’m still the (actively learning) subject matter expert. Confrontation remains mildly nauseating for me, but I’ve learned that the anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. More often than not, long-term benefits are worth temporary discomfort.  


Most situations are preferable to living in a warzone. Being yelled at by a persnickety customer is a hell of a lot better than being yelled at by generals and/or Afghan government officials. Interactions carry very little risk of inciting an international incident. In all likelihood, no one will be injured or killed. As my husband is fond of saying, “At least they’re not shooting at you.”

As always, I’m thankful to be spending the holidays with loved ones and grateful for all who have worked and continue to work to make that possible.

If you're shopping this weekend, please be kind to your salespeople!


Monday, November 9, 2015

A Veterans' Day Challenge

November is always a busy month for my husband Colin. A former Army infantryman and Afghanistan vet, now a college professor, veteran advocate, and award-winning poet, he spends the weeks around Veterans’ Day engaging with veteran and non-veteran audiences to raise awareness, increase understanding, and encourage support—his efforts, to borrow a popular tagline, to “bridge the gap” between the communities.

Since I’m not as awesome or poetic as Colin and I’m not joining in on the whirlwind, I’d like to propose a Veterans’ Day challenge: 

The Halloran family collection of war literature
This week—or this month, or whenever you’re able—engage with three veterans’ stories. Choose any format: read, watch, listen, interview (some suggestions included below); with any veteran, of wars past or present.

Why three? Because no two veterans are the same; a single narrative can’t possibly capture a comprehensive portrait of what it’s like to be a veteran. Neither can three, but my hope is that your perspective will expand ever-so-slightly in different directions. Hopefully, too, you’ll like what you see/read/hear, and continue to seek different narratives far beyond Nov. 11.

In the next few days you’re bound to get word of local Veterans' Day readings, lectures and discussions; radio and TV features and interviews; and commentaries online or in your local paper. Take the time to check out one (or three!)

Here are a few other suggestions (this is by no means a comprehensive list—if you have a favorite veteran narrative or know of a good resource, please share in the comments):


  • Do you have a veteran friend or relative? Ask about his/her experiences. I could sit cross-legged on my grandparents’ floor all day (or at least until my legs fall asleep) listening to their World War II stories (they were married right before Grandpa shipped off with the Navy; their brothers shared a foxhole in the Battle of the Bulge!). Keep in mind, though, not everyone is comfortable sharing. Be respectful. Don’t pry.
  • There are nonprofit veteran organizations all across the country, many which rely on volunteer support. Here in Boston, for example, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans seeks volunteers for serving meals and job skills advising/mentoring. Spend a couple hours providing tangible assistance while also getting to know a local veteran.

  • As you can tell from the photo, Colin and I have a rather extensive collection of war literature. Whether your interests are fiction, biography, memoir or poetry, historical or contemporary, drama or satire, there’s something (or many somethings) for you. Have you been meaning to read Tim O’Brien’s classic The Things They Carried or Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment? What about books-turned-blockbusters like Unbroken or Black Hawk Down? Interested in female veteran stories? Check out memoirs by Kayla Williams, Tracy Crow, or Jane Blair; Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield; or the anthology Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq.  
  • Several other military anthologies feature a wide variety of writing by male and female veterans and family members: Fire & Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, and Red, White & True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present.
  • SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT: Sample poems from Colin’s books are available online here and here, and you should read his awesome interview in The Rumpus (in which he discusses war lit and veteran/military writers).


  • Hollywood loves war films—the combination of physical and emotional drama is ripe for the big screen. Though many obviously have a degree of Hollywoodization, they still provide a powerful, engrossing window to war. From classics like Apocalypse Now to contemporaries such as American Sniper and Fury, there are oodles to choose from. Colin and I just finished the absolutely stunning mini-series Band of Brothers, and I can't recommend it enough. Despite the different jobs, locations and eras, we both found elements we related to—that's the mark of a great war story! 
  • The Telling Project, an organization that brings veterans together to tell their stories for a live audience, just released a documentary. You can watch online or see a live production.
  • Carthage University is wrapping up performances of the Afghanistan/ Wisconsin Verbatim Theatre Project, a theatrical production created from word-for-word veteran narratives. You can view a recording of the performance here. (Full disclosure: I was interviewed as part of the production process.)


  • Historians, journalists and military families throughout history have made an effort to preserve veteran narratives through interviews, and many are publicly available. The Library of Congress Veterans’ History Project has an extensive searchable digital archive. Your local archives, libraries and veteran/war museums also likely have oral history collections available in-person and/or digitally (consult the Archives Library Information Center or use your good friend Mr. Google—there are resources everywhere!).
  • NPR has several great veteran interview broadcasts available, like this World War II collection. Be sure to browse through the Related Stories at the bottom of the page.
  • The Veteran Artist Program recently launched a podcast of interviews with male and female veterans from a variety of services and specialties working in all sorts of artistic fields. Learn about a Marine comic, an Army Special Operations musician (who played with Nirvana!), a Cultural Support Team soldier now working as an art therapist, an Apache pilot/author/singer, and many more! 


Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Brief Rant

I was going to post this on Facebook, but figured I owe this neglected thing some attention. Plus, if someone googles “assholes” or “douchbaggery” maybe they’ll stumble upon this little blog.


I have a veteran friend who’s in grad school. She just started a new semester with a new crop of students who don’t know about her veteranness, and, like many vets, she doesn’t necessarily advertise it when making introductions. So she enters the classroom and kindly expresses her need to sit on the perimeter of the room—a need driven by deployment-related anxiety—and another student points to a seat in the middle and rudely suggests, “Why can’t you just sit in that seat?” My friend says she can’t and moves that desk to the perimeter. And the other students laugh and make fun of her

Really, people? In grad school, where everyone is supposedly at least a somewhat mature, mostly completely brain-developed adult? 

Lack of veteran context aside, so someone has a quirk—any quirk—must you be all Douchy McAsshole about it? 

I was recently a guest in my husband’s college freshman English classes, talking about narrative distance and empathy in writing memoir/personal essay. I said something that’s applicable here—a super sophisticated and eloquent analogy along the lines of: “Everyone has shit. Some people’s piles are just bigger or more smelly.”
People are different. Sometimes people are weird. Sometimes people have things bubbling under the surface that you know nothing about. Get over it. Or at least have the decency to save the laughter and gossip for behind closed doors


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Response to American Sniper demonstrates vast spectrum of war experience

I’m cleaning, like I do when I’m anxious. My husband Colin is thinking about shoes.

“Women and children,” he says. “You determine their intent by their shoes.”

We saw American Sniper earlier. All through the movie I fidgeted, like I do when I’m anxious. Colin sat rigid. Now he’s thinking about shoes.

“Women have no cause to wear shoes with tread,” he says. “So if they are, they are far more likely to blow you up.”

I say something like, “that makes sense,” because it does, and because I don’t know how else to respond. I often don’t know how to respond when Colin’s brain is in Afghanistan. I know his mind needs to dwell there for a while. It bounces between mountain passes and desert, between quiet conversations and the rumble of Humvee motors, or gunfire. Often it fixates on the suicide bomber who rammed his truck into Colin’s convoy. The young Afghan boy caught in the explosion. Colin’s gunner, his friend, engulfed in flames.

My brain goes to Afghanistan sometimes, as well, but to another time, another location, another mission. Colin served as an infantryman in 2006. My role in 2009-2010 as part of a nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team was largely bureaucratic. However, when we met in 2012, Colin and I connected through our disparate war stories. We talked. He lent me his then-unpublished manuscript of war poetry. I shared an essay about redeploying. Our writing, our experiences, were drastically different. But they were also the same.

I discovered this connection, too, with my mother, who served as a nurse in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. When I came home from Afghanistan, despite the decades, borders, and job duties that separated our wars, Mom and I found common elements weaving through each deployment, and the aftermath.

In the weeks since its release, American Sniper has generated heated discussion of many colors: respect and admiration for what Chris Kyle and his family endured, attacks on his character, praise for the film’s raw and intimate portrayal, admonishment for lack of political context, rebuff for the use of the mythical/hero formula and appreciation for the same.

Perhaps the most impassioned debate comes from within the veteran community. I’ve seen numerous articles and social media posts from veterans proclaiming that the movie did not accurately represent their time in the military or in Iraq. Many express the valid concern that this contemporary war film will become the contemporary war film and will shape (or perpetuate) public opinion. Others rejoice that the movie has spurred conversation, regardless of the nuances.

The response mirrors war itself. War is a spectrum. Or more accurately, war is a complicated graph of various separate but related spectrums: of danger and comfort, of excitement and fear and humor and absurdity and friendship and guilt and shame and pride.

Veterans easily point fingers at those who had it worse, or better, or different.  We elevate some to the top of the heroism hierarchy. The rest are left muddling somewhere in the middle.

Kyle’s war certainly more closely resembles Colin’s war than it does mine. Still, Colin never engaged in urban combat (“urban” isn’t a term associated with most of Afghanistan). Colin worked directly with the local population, rather than viewing them solely through a rifle’s scope. He didn’t deploy multiple times. He didn’t leave a family at home.

But the movie left him thinking about shoes.

“I shouldn’t be sad,” Colin says. “I didn’t even come close to doing what Kyle did. But I did more than most, so it’s not like I feel insufficient. I don’t feel depressed. I just feel sad.”

I feel sad, though for different reasons. I’m remembering being on the other side, when my mom deployed and left me behind. I’m thinking about all the things I might have done differently in Afghanistan, all the things I might have done better. I’m trying to figure out what “better” would have been.

I’m also worried about Colin, because I’ve seen his sadness spiral deep and dark and lasting.

No, Kyle’s war was not Colin’s war. It wasn’t my war, or my mom’s war. It wasn’t anyone’s war but Kyle’s. Yet his narrative contains threads Colin and I, and many other veterans, can latch onto.

For the general public, American Sniper provides one perspective. One perspective, from one man, in his unique personal circumstances—and filtered through a Hollywood lens. One perspective cannot come close to a full representation of war.

But it helps.

As long as we have war, we need discussions of war, stimulated by literature, film and other mediums. The public bears responsibility for consuming and engaging with this art, in all its forms, from all its sources: veterans, journalists, civilians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

However, the onus is on veterans, too: for producing it. In order for the public to listen, read, view, veterans must speak, write, create. If we hope to achieve an environment in which veterans can have comfortable dialogue with non-veterans, where discussions of war are candid, not taboo and not sensationalized; if we hope to bridge the oft-referenced “civilian-military divide,” we, the veterans, must lay the groundwork. We must stop the finger-pointing and heroic hierarchies. We must put aside the pride and stubbornness and self-sustaining ideas that one type of soldier has more right to tell his or her story than another. We must welcome all narratives: familiar, traditional, and not. 

More narratives facilitate both a greater public understanding of war and increased opportunities for each individual veteran to find a story—or a thread—to which he or she can relate.

“I’m sad,” Colin says again. “I don’t quite know what to do with that.”

Eventually, he settles on sleep. The next morning he decides to join a support group at the VA.