Would You Like to be Part of the Team that Fills in the Blanks?

I’m dropping in today to give you all some important news and to ask that some of you join me on a unique journey. As part of my ongoing Notice of Disagreement claim with the VA (Wouldn’t you know we are past the year mark now?!) I made the decision to continue investigating my deployment on my own. I’ve had nothing but time and I figured anything I learned could find its way in the memoir I am building to help broaden discussion about modern deployments and help me discuss service with those who visit this blog. Today, I am writing to inform you I came up empty-handed.

It is important to let you know why I am empty-handed and how we can resolve this matter. I am not asking you to contribute to help my VA claim. I have an avenue to help with that matter (when and if it becomes necessary, which I’ll discuss a bit later in this post). I am asking you–if you’re one of the qualified Iraq veterans I’m looking to find–to share a bit of your journey because our government is doing everyone a great disservice by not having these records already.

I left Iraq in 2005. Thirteen years have gone. If there were viable records, we are out of the woods in regard to operational security. I can understand my government keeping the casualty reports and significant activity reports under wraps during an operation to protect individual units’ safety in country, but I honestly thought I’d learned something about my deployment I didn’t know before beginning this new path.

So what was this path?

I put in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request. I figured if any organization had something useful this was where I needed to go. Old news articles haven’t been helpful since the data isn’t easy to gather or necessarily aligned with my deployment. Then again, other sites like the DoD’s website gives the larger picture but it doesn’t allow individuals to break down the casualty information for their respective purposes.

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In 2016, when I provided my Final Reveal of my graduate applied project, I came to you all with incomplete data. I am not embarrassed by my lack of progress, but frustrated. How many of the 31,958 wounded military casualties belong to my first deployment? The service members who died during my deployment made up 6.2% of the total deceased for OIF. My job was to process the activity reports that came in from units with this information and yet, two FOIA requests have produced nothing. IMG_5411

This reality is NOT the fault of either the U.S. Central Command FOIA office or the U.S. MARCENT FOIA office. The individuals who worked with me on the matter have been great and I am glad I took a risk to place a FOIA request. The Central Command office couldn’t locate records and encouraged me to take a chance and reach out to MARCENT (Marine Corps Forces Central Command). The second FOIA request is what really opened a door for me.

I learned the Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) Casualty Branch is the record keeper of the Personnel Casualty Reports. This information is what can aid me if the VA comes back yet again and doesn’t believe me about my deployment work and the casualty information my unit handled. Apparently, the VA claims representatives can contact HQMC Casualty Branch if they want to confirm casualties from my deployment. So, while we put in a pin in that for me, I do hope for anyone in similar circumstances you now know you have another avenue to get the VA informed by having the VA contact your service branch’s Casualty Branch.

I want you to know my FOIA Coordinator at MARCENT went two steps further than I expected. She coordinated with the specific FOIA office for 1st Marine Division. Their office has no records. In the depths of the email, I was presented a gift,an article, I am sharing with you today. The article shared with me is Peter Sleeth’s Lost to History: Missing War Records Complicate Benefits Claims by Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans. I do not know if our unit records were intentionally destroyed or wiped clean from computers but it is truly a shame our service branches did not leave behind records that can aid veterans, help educate the academic community, and build the transparency with the general public.

I do not think it is appropriate to stop at this step.

I know my fellow veterans (and perhaps active duty personnel) who served in the Al Anbar Province from August 9,2004 to February 25, 2005 can help reconstruct the history of this deployment. This project won’t allow us to have an official record of the deployment, but it will fill in the blanks. For anyone who wants to contribute, I will set up a new tab on my page soon specifically to reconstruct the deployment. I would like anyone who wants to share some information to do so at their comfort level although I provided a guideline below. I expect this process will be quite slow but I am ok if this project takes us years to complete. I think it’s worth it to honor the truth of our experiences.

At a minimum, here’s what I am hoping to compile, but again, I am open to more information:

Date of Injury:

Type of Incident:

Location in Iraq (city or military base, if known):

Branch of Service/ Rank:

Gender:

If you’d like to join me in this endeavor, please email your date of injury information to shewearsdogtags@gmail.com and feel free to share this post with other individuals you served with in Iraq. Thanks for listening and being willing to share your story.

~Cheryl

 

November Reflections

Today marks the anniversary start date of the second assault into Fallujah.

November 2004 was the single worst month for us on deployment and I am always a bit hesitant to discuss the situation. I do not wish to add additional grief to family members who lost their loved ones fourteen years ago by opening a discussion that borders on invading their right to private grief. It is therefore important to mention reviewing the casualty information associated with my deployment is a difficult task for me. I first looked at the human toll of my deployment back in Spring 2016 when I prepared my graduate applied project and on two other occasions, one to further open up war discussion regarding intentional harm and accidental circumstances and the last to help explain to the VA why my deployment circumstances lead to an absence of medical documentation relating to anxiety-induced chest pains. I am fortunate I had a supportive group throughout this process because it was (and is) stressful to be reminded we couldn’t save any of these individuals. While my feelings about losing our service members in no way equates to how loved ones feel about losing their family members, in sharing my sentiments I hope it is understood I write for transparency purposes and to honor our fallen.

Each person we lost could have gone on to be one of the veterans our nation will honor this weekend. I make this solemn statement in the hopes my fellow veterans understand the chances we’ve been given to live life fully. It also serves as a gentle reminder our war veterans wear the label ‘veteran’ differently. It is a matter of luck we made it home. Some did not receive a warm welcome home, like our Vietnam veterans experienced. Others came home physically, emotionally, or mentally broken or found their personal lives falling apart. The ‘beauty’ we associate with homecoming may not have been beautiful for them at all. The charity associated with this weekend is both a blessing and an awkward circumstance. As some veterans roadmap their weekend to hit up each free drink, meal, or service offering of their liking, some of us will likely pick a quieter weekend routine.

I am among the latter group. I do not find the gluttony of veteran discounts appealing. It gets under my skin and makes me feel ashamed. I see veterans (and/or their family members) who complain about long waits and limited selections at franchise restaurants although I also know our most disenfranchised veterans equally are benefitted by the community efforts doled out this month. I do not feel I need the courting of my community because I was (relatively) well cared for by receiving an array of benefits during my service followed up by the robust education benefits earned through my honorable service. The generosity of the organizations offering a discount is not the problem; it’s the way we’ve come to view the opportunity as an entitlement.

If I let you see November 2004, in its incomplete picture, you get a different sense of who I am and why pandering for free food and services bothers me. I gathered this information about my deployment from the Military Times’ Honor the Fallen website back in 2016. As someone working in the command element, I know I felt like I was running on fumes at times while we pulled twelve hour days and I cannot begin to imagine how my brothers serving in Fallujah felt. Again, this is an incomplete list as it does not include the names of Iraqis inadvertently caught in the crossfire of our forces and the insurgents in Fallujah or any other part of our area of operations in the Al Anbar province.

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Wikipedia condenses the operation better than I’ve found in different bits and pieces around the internet. From their site, the second assault in Fallujah, Operation Al Fajr (or Operation Phantom Fury, as it was briefly known) is broken down as follows:

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Retrieved from Wikipedia, Second Battle of Fallujah

I do not mean to be brutal to my fellow veterans who enjoy a feast of drinks and food on Veterans Day. It just does not have meaning to me and I would like to see, if someone will partake in such activity, that he or she also meaningfully contribute to our veteran community over the weekend.

When I was deployed, I could not share the details of my deployment–and the constant killing and wounding of people–to my family. Instead, I could share the hope I felt about one day returning stateside. Over the course of November 2004, I wrote eleven MySpace entries for my family and friends expressing an eagerness to love fully and plan a wonderful life upon my return and separately, I wrote 4 private journal entries–3 about Iraq and how things were looking with the second assault into Fallujah and one to mention Yassar Arafat died. Back then, I was just living in the moment and I think now as a veteran, I realize how much more important it is to use our experiences and agency in a thoughtful manner.

I didn’t always realize how lucky I was to come home. That was a difficult matter for me back in 2005 and I have become better at forgiving myself for the ways I abused my body back then. In many ways, one of the best life decisions I made was to start working with student veterans back in 2013. I want to continue reminding veterans they should find some way to make another veteran’s life better. Our service to each other should not end when our military commitments expire. Sometimes, my family and I have been fortunate to donate money to different causes that serve veterans. This year, I am trying something new.

Tomorrow I am volunteering with the Town of Gilbert for their Veterans Day ceremony. I have never contributed my time to a public ceremony. It is an awkward position for me stepping out from behind the computer as I like behind the scenes work and/or academic  settings where it is quieter and more controlled. If I can take this baby step though and get outside my comfort zone, I know you can, too.

I encourage you to please find something this weekend (or this month, if your weekend is already jam-packed) to serve veterans that is outside your norm. Think about your life experiences, your proximity or distance to veterans, and the need for positive veteran transitions. Serve where you are and let the experience be as private or as public as you feel comfortable but serve with an open heart.

(NOTE: If I have many any mistakes regarding a service member’s name spelling or rank, I offer my sincerest apologies. I worked to transcribe this information dutifully from Military Times’ Honor the Fallen in 2016, but again, it was a difficult assignment for me. Opening up each bio and seeing someone who had previously been ‘nameless’ to me made the loss a fresh wound. Any mistake is mine, and mine alone.)

MOS School: The Path I Chose

Becoming a Marine is one matter, but it is equally as important to discuss our individual roles in the Marine Corps. All jobs are important regardless of organization, but when the average person thinks of the Marine Corps an Infantry Marine is who they usually think of. I cannot blame them for their viewpoints because representation plays a significant role in our knowledge of the world and the people within it.

When I made the choice to step in the recruiter’s office, I wanted a new path in life. I wanted to serve in my late friend’s place after his murder. I felt I could volunteer and become a Marine, finishing an enlistment (or longer) in this role. While he chose explosive ordnance disposal as his military occupational specialty (MOS), I opted for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense. I was adamant I did not want admin or supply because–although I knew next to nothing of the Marine Corps–I felt these would be roles women were naturally pushed towards. I liked the idea of Combat Camera but I was not confident I was as proficient as I needed to be to serve in this capacity.

When I reviewed the job description for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Defense, which transitioned to Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense, it intrigued me. I shouldn’t be so surprised because this was after 9/11. I saw an immediate need, other people I knew supported the idea, and I met the ASVAB score for this particular responsibility.

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MOS school was more of a challenge than I expected.  My typical academic study habits and strengths did not serve me well. I left high school with a 3.75 GPA but having the cadre criticize us when we chose not to study and micromanage other aspects of our training left me feeling drained. The 24/7 mentality of being a Marine from boot camp, MCT, and MOS school (later followed in different ways in the fleet) was a real struggle for me. I like having a separation of my work/academic life from my personal life and it was nearly impossible to find during training.

I felt out-of-place especially with our female instructor who was highly critical of the fact I was dating a Marine outside our schoolhouse. MOS school was more an exercise in misery than an opportunity for me to become more embedded in the Marine Corps.

This is a hard reality to reflect back on, particularly because I wanted to serve to honor my friend.  Unfortunately, I learned early on that my maturity would not translate to being treated as an equal and my desire to “walk away” and feel at home at the end of the day wasn’t going to happen.

I learned to adopt a “learn it,” “regurgitate it,” and “brain dump it” way of behaving to get through schoolhouse life. This attitude is not conducive to longtime learning, but I hit the markers I needed to in order to graduate. To this day, I will tell you, I always wished I learned my MOS better. The knowledge was not an easy thing for me to learn, and years later, I cannot recall the basics. Practical application exercises were just as difficult as understanding the knowledge areas. Aside from not being a natural fit for my job, I was starting to feel like I would never fit in as a Marine.

As difficult as it was to integrate into the schoolhouse, it was an interesting time period in my life. I saw historical events through a different lenses, seeing the darker side of science and technology not truly discussed in lower level academic classrooms. We got a grittier version of historical events, learning more about how humankind created destructive products and gear to combat such threats.

If I can leave you with one good recommendation on this topic, it is to read The Biology of Doom: The History of America’s Secret Germ Warfare Project.  As well, I would also like to encourage each of you to stay open-minded in your learning process. It is not conductive to only learn things that show a positive representation of your country and culture.

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Me (on the left) and a former friend who was attending the MP (Military Police) training school at Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri.
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One of my former NBC roommates (on the left) and I during our training. FYI, I just borrowed the glasses for the photo.
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Roger Castleberry, one of my classmates. Unfortunately, he was killed in Iraq, but he was a pretty neat person to come across in my training because he choose to lateral move into our MOS. Sometimes, it’s great as a young Marine to come across individuals with more experience who are easygoing and prove the Marine Corps is more multi-faceted than instructors let on.

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One of the Marines I met in training who I am still friends with to this day.

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I do not have photos from our most important training endeavor when we walked through the Chemical Defense Training Facility. Prior to walking through the building we ran a practice walk-through outside so we understood how to safely walk through the building. We also tested our masks to ensure everyone had a functioning product prior to commencing our training exercise. The live nerve agent training was an event that felt quite surreal; it was hard to believe as we stood around and watched our instructors bring out containers with the agents those weren’t simulated products. Thankfully, nothing went awry and we performed the necessary tasks asked of us. The experience certainly taught me to trust my equipment, but I have not always found it easy to instill that trust in others.

One of the most difficult things is encountering Marines resistant to annual training. I am not a confident public speaker anyways so teaching classes always made me feel uncomfortable (and still does). I like work behind the scenes and I had inadvertently chosen something that would put me in a public element on a number of occasions in my short career. I felt my confidence was harder to build when senior Marines, for whatever their reasons, would be rude and disruptive to our work. I had one Marine in particular that made some commentary about a different style mask when I worked with 3rd MAW. I felt he made the remark to make me look incompetent and thankfully, I had a senior Marine on my side who shut him down and publicly indicated that mask was no longer in use.

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Me (front left) with some of my fellow Marines on our graduation day.

As I continue to share my experiences please remember I am an imperfect person who served in the Marine Corps. I was not particularly skilled in many areas like my peers. I lacked military bearing (and still lack it). My judgment bit me a couple of times, in quite big ways. I marched terribly (whether I was leading or following). This place is an intimate look at the Marine Corps, through my eyes. I have been just as difficult at times with other Marines as others have been to me, and I acknowledge my failures as a leader. I try not to make those choices again.

As I bring this entry to a close, I am fortunate with my educational background I met the criteria to serve as a CBRN Defense Specialist. It allowed me the opportunity to serve a different role in Iraq. There is a tenacity I brought to my work in the Command Operations Center I don’t feel everyone can do. It is emotionally taxing work, and it is not visible the way infantry work is seen by our culture. The jobs are connected and it is not a matter of pride that guided my work but a dedication to my fellow Marines. In the years that have passed, I’ve only met a small handful of Marines who served in Iraq the same time I did. It is an honor we contributed in different ways to keep our Marines safe and I am happy I found a purpose in my Iraq role I never felt in my stateside duties.

It is always possible I would have served in Iraq if I had chosen a different MOS in the Marine Corps, but it’s not something I could say definitively. Each choice we make opens a door to certain possibilities and closes doors to others. The path I chose brought a number of Marines into my life who are still here by my side years later but most of the people I met in the schoolhouse are names but nothing else to me now. The few who I remain in contact with are excellent people and it is a joy to know life is treating them and their families well.

I am also happy I walked away from this job in the Marine Corps. It wasn’t something I did particularly well, and as one of my current classes is discussing in our assigned materials, sometimes we must leave certain jobs to others so we can serve in more appropriate roles for our strengths.

 

 

 

 

Life After Iraq: Building a Sustainable Partnership

On more than one occasion I’ve heard, “Freedom has a taste the protected will never know.” At one time, I was the protected. The year before I served in Iraq, it did not register, even after I began to meet Marines and one Corpsman shortly before my own Iraq tour. I met people who had been shot and likely shot or killed insurgents. There are many stories I am sure they have to share that I never learned. I embraced them wholly like I would any other person I sought as a friend and companion. I smiled a great deal and appreciated the opportunity to meet these Iraq veterans before I deployed. I didn’t have an understanding of what they had been through, having not experienced it, but we went through life the way friends normally experience it. We’d hang out, maybe drink a little, and complain about barracks rules and so forth. I was a happy person, going out to the movies, dinner, and/or local areas of interest. Just soaking it in as I had any other experience growing up, just being in the moment.

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Being dorky while packing for Iraq (August 2004)

My husband never met this version of me. Some days, that’s the hardest thing for me. He gets a close glimpse of that me several days into a vacation or after a few glasses of wine. He might see it as we relax with fellow veterans at a formal gathering, and he’s definitely a step closer to seeing that me for some of the Marine Corps balls we’ve attended together. On a daily basis though, he gets the quieter me. Not necessarily quiet, but contemplative. I see life differently now.

I came home from Iraq in March 2005 and he joined my unit around May. My husband met me shortly after the high of returning home ended and I grew quite disenchanted with my life as a Marine. Seriously, it was the worst time anyone could have wanted to date me; I was having a terrible year and started to take it out on everyone around me. My life was in disrepair when we met. Like Taylor Swift’s lines from “Delicate” he entered my life when “My reputation’s never been worse, so you must like me for me.” I felt like an outsider around my family, I had been talked down to and treated like a consolation prize by guys I tried to date after Iraq, and things at work weren’t going well. After Iraq, I spent a month on Recruiter’s Assistance in Rhode Island, a month (roughly) at Technical Escort school in Huntsville, Alabama, and a month at Corporal’s Course (spanning part of August and September) where I was jealous Marine Expeditionary Unit guys got to leave to assist in areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. I was burnt out on doing everything for everyone else and feeling invisible and not visible enough.

I wasn’t sure it was possible to have a successful relationship while serving because the situation for me was a bit like living in a fishbowl. A week before I went on my first date with my husband I thought about everything from the year and a half prior. While some guys I worked with were married or in a longterm relationship, I couldn’t seem to make anything stick. I most wanted a partnership to work out and I was in this season of waiting for someone to fight for me and see me the way I wanted to see him, as a longterm commitment; at twenty-one years old, it was a bit embarrassing I could serve in Iraq longer than the length of any relationship to date. With a sense that my career choice was incompatible with dating, I basically resigned myself to the notion I’d be single until my contract ended in 2007.

And then something funny happened. I went on a non-date that became our first date.

I was a woman who served in Iraq with a male partner who hadn’t. I had a feeling others would make the situation awkward, that others would emasculate him when nothing more than our timing of entering the Marine Corps changed who went to Iraq and he hadn’t. I knew well enough, too, being two years older that someone would have something to say about our age difference. No one seems to care when an older guy dates a younger woman but when the shoe is on the other foot, boy do people share their opinions. I also knew being one rank above him and working in the same unit, the situation was ripe for scrutiny.

For the first time, I was truly interested in keeping my relationship under wraps so we could figure out things for ourselves. I needed privacy to make the relationship successful and privacy, in case it wasn’t. While I cannot say we made all the right choices (and no one does), looking back, there are some important things I learned from the failed relationships that are probably more important after having served in Iraq. Our relationship didn’t stay under wraps too long as one of our peers informed our chain of command we were dating, but after a rough start, we made things work on our terms. In building a successful relationship after Iraq, here’s what’s been working for us:

Keeping conflicts offline. I don’t like being badmouthed in person, but being in the middle of a social media fight is worse. Instead of two or three friends, acquaintances, or strangers being privy to a disagreement, imagine having 100, 200, or 300. Everyone has an opinion, and they aren’t always helpful. I had a hard time in 2005 getting caught in “he said, she said” situations. I never had someone antagonize me online and for once, I fought back and said nasty things,too, because I was angry and disappointed. Those things should have been stated privately. An online fight hurts a relationship. It hurts rekindling a relationship. It degrades friendships. It does (or can do) damage to one’s professional reputation. As such, I try to be mindful of not airing our bad moments, unless I do so in jest.

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Find Your Strengths. I am the emotional one and he’s the practical one in this household. Neither of us will get 100% of what we want all the time, so it’s good to find a middle ground and that’s not always planned. For example, I was deployed to Iraq a second time during his first birthday with us as a married couple. I purchased a replica Scottish Claymore (a type of sword) online and had chosen a particular hilt. As it turned out, that option wasn’t available but I didn’t know it before I deployed and my husband was contacted just before his birthday so the company could find out which alternative option would work for the purchase. I was bummed my surprise was ruined, but he took it in stride and selected something he appreciated it.

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Communicate. Things were pretty easy when we were (and are) together in-person. We can talk, interpret each other’s body language, and work through disagreements and praise each other easily. Text messages and emails complicate things. I don’t always like talking about things after Iraq that bother me, so I am pretty guilty of sneaking those conversations into text messages. It might be a way to open up the conversation and the more confident I feel discussing something, the less I use indirect communication as a crutch.

The hardest thing about indirect communication is feeling like one is understood. I remember how awkward our emails were when my husband’s tour was extended and divorce packages came in left and right for his unit. We spent the first 16 months of our marriage apart and it takes a lot of digging down deep to not be upset over every missed phone call, short emails, or communication gaps when communications are shut off so families notifications can occur through formal channels. It’s hard to push through a brand new marriage worrying that it might fail before you ever really experience what it has to offer because you see others failing.

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Every Relationship Is Different. I was not the more socially outgoing person in past relationships. To this day, I am still surprised by how outgoing I come across when my husband and I go out because I used to be the quiet one watching all the activity and occasionally saying a few things. I’m an introverted person which has made discussing my post-Iraq challenges a slow process. Aside from a few close male Marine veterans and my husband, I don’t give most people a great view of the most difficult days after my first deployment. My husband supports me when I’m willing to share my thoughts outside our small shared circle of friends. He’s attended some public presentations with me–with our daughter in tow–and has never criticized how or when I choose to share this part of my life.

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One of the items he sent to me in the early part of my second tour in Iraq

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Support Takes Many Forms. Years ago, I don’t know how much I would have opened up about my particular role in Iraq. I did not realize how much it would impact my worldview or how much certain things would come back to me after I started working with veterans and lived somewhere with regular fireworks. In the early stages of our partnership, he made sure I had creature comforts to help me feel better during my second Iraq deployment. I had a care package of my favorite pillow, some tv show dvds, a beloved outfit, photos, a digital camera, and Sobe Adrenaline energy drinks. He built our first home with furniture from Walmart. He wrote to me about the first apartment he picked out for us, how it looked, and unpacking my belongings from the barracks to ready our first home. He picked up souvenirs during his deployment to show me I was missed and appreciated. I am not a materialistic person but it was beautiful to receive things that made him think of me from nations I’ve never visited.

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Camp Pendleton, CA circa 2008

We learned how to manage a household together. We learned how to parent together. We learned how to be students together. We learned how to talk politics and religion together. We learned good and bad financial moves together. We learned to move (on multiple occasions) together and to equally despise moving companies for the things they broke or ruined. We learned to laugh and debate together.

But the simple things matter most. We walk together, literally and figuratively.

We get out of the house, out of our bubble, and appreciate our surroundings and explore our opportunities.

I never imagined someone would want to walk through so much in life with me, and actually stay when he sees me on my worst days. He didn’t get the young woman who smiled all the time, the person who was protected from (some of) the ugliness of this world. Instead, he got the most resilient and tenacious version, he got the warfighter and the war veteran.

I got a new best friend October 14th, 2005 and with the new journey, a newfound freedom to become someone I didn’t realize I could be.

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Post-Boot Camp Training: Marine Combat Training

Back in June of this year, I gave you all a few sneak peeks into behind the scenes life at boot camp using my letters from July, AugustSeptember , and October 2003. I know it’s time to also share photos from follow-on training opportunities. I am also including my journal entry on the my experience at Marine Combat Training with minor editing. My apologies for the poor quality of the photos. I took these on disposal 35mm cameras and now that I no longer have a scanner, I photographed them using my iPhone and had to crop the images manually (and obviously, you can see in some of these, I was lazy and didn’t bother cropping the images so you do not see the top of my kitchen island.)

Take care and have a great Friday, everyone.

~Cheryl

Marine Combat Training

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The woman on the right was also one of our instructors.
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Another instructor. I believe he was the senior Marine in charge of us.
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One of our instructors, Cpl Bevens. He’s the only instructors’ name I can recall.

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I couldn’t wait for the chance to launder my camis; these things look so disgusting from being out in the field.

24 December 2003

 

It’s been awhile since I graduated from Marine Corps Recruit Training Depot Parris Island, S.C. (October 10th) but I’m still learning how to be a Marine.

Since the time I left Parris Island, I have traveled to Camp Lejeune, N.C. for Marine Combat Training (actually conducted at Camp Devil Dog and in-processing and out-processing at Camp Geiger) or MCT.

MCT lasted for twenty-one days, of which two weeks were actually spent out in the field. In that time period, I’ve been the dirtiest I’ve ever been in my life. Unlike most of my fellow Marines, I only had two pairs of camis I could wear in the field whereas they had four. My woodland cover was broken from boot camp so I threw it out expecting I could purchase a new one at MCT. Unknown to me at the time, Camp Lejeune had no covers in my size so the only uniform I could wear was the desert camis until I got a cover at the end of my training from one of my instructors.

 

In the field we really had no facilities to wash our camis, although I got desperate and washed one in the shower with me. There is nothing that could really explain how disgusting we got. I resorted to buying enough underwear so I could just throw them away at the end of the day. We kept wet wipes on hand and used them in place of a shower at times (the females at least had ice cold showers for the duration of our field experience) and stocked up on the toilet paper from our MRE’s since the bathroom facilities lacked it.

You’d think most of us females would be uncomfortable being dirty around the males, but after awhile we just didn’t care; it didn’t quite matter was there was little we we could do to fix our situation. And MCT, in itself, was an experience simply for the fact it was the first time we worked with the opposite sex [in the Marine Corps]. As a result, we heard stories of how desperate some of the Marines got and how they resorted to sex in the woods or the portajohns.

MCT was harder than I expected. We didn’t PT (physical training) as I thought we would (which sucked in itself since I gained fifteen pounds from the fattening MRE’s) but did hikes instead. I’ve never been terribly good at hiking (even in boot camp) but this time I had to lug about sixty-five pounds on my back for a ten-mile and a fifteen-mile hike. I was sick for both of them and ended up falling out on the fifteen mile hike. I later got remediated was told to pack pillows in my MOLLE pack and we marched around Camp Geiger.  [Seriously, I am so embarrassed looking back on this experience to admit this situation, but I’m not sure who told us to pack pillows but they obviously didn’t get about us doing the hike properly…just needed it done, I guess.]

We also got to use a lot of weapons which was weird to get acclimated to since all I shot before was the M16. We got to use weapons like the .50 cal, M203 grenade launcher, the AT4 (with training round although we got to see one of our instructors shoot off a real one), hand grenades, and squad automatic weapons. I still enjoyed shooting the M16 the best. WE did some close range combat shooting (fifty yards or so) at paper targets. The grenades were cool though, although we duck behind a wall after throwing them. It would have been interested if from a distant we could have watched them when other Marines were throwing them.

And of course, as part of our training, before we could even use the weapons we did have to learn about them just as we did with the M16. I don’t remember much of it because I haven’t studied any of it since leaving MCT but basically we learned the nomenclature, the range and the effective range of the weapon, and distinguishing features of the weapon like rates of fire. The weapons are pretty bad ass. We learned about smoke grenades, incendiary grenades, and CS grenades.

Well, I got to go now. Need to shower (gotta love being able to do that) as I’m planning on going to the Brook’s Christmas Party. Later on I hope to see J. to give him his present. I got him Ka-Bar 100 years commemorative USMC fighting/utility knife. It’s such an awesome looking knife. I’m sure he’ll like it as he and his brothers say you can’t go wrong with weapons. he said he got me one because I don’t own one so I’m sure he’ll be surprised when he receives one from me.

Movie Watching with a Significant Other

I’m taking a little detour from my usual writing today. During my last memoir writing sessions, I read through several entries written from June 2005 to September 2005 and skimmed some from September through December 2005. While I think I’ve covered this subject a little here and there, I do not know how much I’ve reinforced how deployments were times in my life that I fell behind significantly on popular culture in the form of movie going. I worked so much during my first deployment, I never thought to check and see if our recreation center had movies for everyone to watch as part of their off hours activities. During the second tour, I worked a regular shift, but my husband sent me boxed sets of the shows, “That 70’s Show” and “Monk,” that I would occasionally watch with my coworkers.

Unexpectedly, in my life, movie watching became a particular pastime with my husband and I, starting in our dating years. We started working together approximately May 2005 but went on our first date October 14th of that year. I caught some movies that year with friends like “Constantine”, but on September 15th, I wrote this excerpt in a larger Myspace entry reflecting on lost love and what I wanted in someone to be my partner.

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I thought about sharing these sentiments last week but being so close to the anniversary of September 11th and also with September being Suicide Prevention month, I was hesitate to share something so lighthearted. This week it feels ok to take a detour.

I am not a passionate person when it comes to moviegoing. I grew up as one of four kids and later one of six when my step siblings joined my life. It was far too expensive as a family to see movies often and I never imagined as an adult seeing movies would become a regular part of my life. Serving in the Marine Corps and having a pretty substantial regular paycheck due to little debt and no one to support gave me more discretionary income than I think most of my friends in college had around the same time.

When my husband came into my life, a common weekend date routine for us was a trip to Barnes and Noble, a dinner (or two out) and a movie, when and if something we’d like was out in theaters. It’s funny, too, that periods of our military service are reasons why I remember certain movies instead of certain movies reminding me about us also serving at the same time. We saw “Jarhead” with our fellow Marines in November 2005 in the worst seats in the theater. As CBRN Marines, the scene where the guys play football in MOPP is one of my favorites.  The movie, “WALL-E,” stands out for me as we watched it in our hotel room during the 2008 Marine Corps ball weekend in Anaheim. We were experiencing fires in southern California and were advised to stay indoors. We had some great room service which was a delight after the catering for the ball disappointed me. Honestly, who serves apple pie for dessert when the occasion is the Marine Corps birthday?!

2008 Marine Corps ball
2008 Marine Corps ball

 

Movies have continued to play an important part of our weekend activities. By and large, I like comedies and Thomas encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone to see Marvel and DC Comics movies. He put up with watching “Memoirs of a Geisha” with me because I loved the book. We both were pained by the excessive frolicking in the woods during “The New World” and I think every other person in the audience was just as disappointed by the excessive length of the film. It needed more editing. I was embarrassed for a bit by picking out two movies that disappointed us that for a short while, I stopped recommending movies for us to watch.

Our silliest movie adventure was probably the time we ended up seeing “27 Dresses” in theater. We purchased tickets for something else and were misdirected to this theater. When the film began, we contemplated leaving but we sat through the film.

I’ve lost track of all the movies we’ve seen over the years, but I’ve found this person who stands beside me treats me how I wanted to be treated all those years ago, like a princess. He’s helped me cope with anxiety from my first deployment and unpacking those experiences for academic endeavors, building my claim with the VA, and in my work with veterans. We sent love letters and emails when the Marine Corps kept us apart. During one anniversary, he picked up some of our favorite things from Blue Wasabi, including my favorite soft shell crab. I cannot recall the many Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks films we’ve enjoyed over the years. He started a family with me and to give you a small peek into our family life, he was the one to master swaddling our daughter in her infancy. Our first adventure playing in snow was during our June 2006 adventure to see his family in Wyoming. We played in snow along the side of the road. We don’t live in an area where we rake our leaves, but we’ve done it before in Wyoming. Walks make up the majority of our exercise habits. We walked our dogs around the neighborhood during our apartment living days; we traipsed around town in Cody, Wyoming even around those uneven sidewalks damaged by tree roots; and it is really only the summer here in Arizona that keeps us from daily walks. We may like some pampering experiences but a lot of our best days are hanging around which doesn’t cost a thing. And how do I know he loves my family like I do? He helped my parents surprise my daughter and I when we planned our Disney trip last year. He lends an ear when I need support about how to a better sibling to my sisters and brother. He listens to me when I feel like a failure as a mother.

Thanks for joining me for this little detour in writing today. I’m not ready yet to do homework and wanted to share a little positive story this morning.

Have a great Sunday!

World Suicide Prevention Day

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In the past, I’ve touched on September being Suicide Prevention month. In no way have I been the best educator on suicide prevention but I’ve opened my heart and platform to join others in reducing the stigma associated with mental health and suicide ideation, prevention, attempts, and victims. It is the single most difficult subject which I write about and therefore, I do not write about it often.

For the past ten days I’ve wondering should I write? This year, in particular, the world has lost a lot of average people like you and I and there was an outrage that followed the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Some people were angry that privileged people who succumbed to their demons absorbed so much attention. I think what gets lost is that it was so easy for many people to feel a sense of loss because we’ve grown to know their names and faces, their stories have transformed our own ways of understanding the world and our identities. It is not that their deaths were more important; it was the fact that so many of us felt like we lost a family member, not a public face.

I think this is how we need to understand suicide within our individual cultures and between our cultures. We experience a lot of the same stresses, underlying health conditions, and at times, add traumatic experience(s) on top of an already burdened life, that starting over seems impossible. Each community member in trouble is someone who needs treatment as one would treat a loved family member. There should not be judgement for “failing,” for expressing self-doubt, for “taking the easy way out.”

I am just as guilty for making those mistaken assumptions. I felt that way when news reached me a Marine committed suicide outside my barracks in Iraq. I slept through it. I was too wrapped in my own sense of self to understand I did not know him, I did not know his past, and I did not know what ailed him to think he had no way out of it. It took time to understand and feel compassion and I believe if I grew up in a different world that did not shame people the way we have towards someone who has struggled with suicidal thoughts or attempts or lost a family member this way, I would not have made those harsh initial judgements.

But we can start over today. All over the internet and perhaps in your local newspaper, you will find stories of survivors. Take a small chunk out of your day to understand someone else’s life. Read one of these stories. It is difficult for the reader but it is more difficult for the person who has chosen to share his or her story of struggle. He or she is no longer a statistic, but a face and a name.

Last month I learned National Geographic would be covering the story of a suicide survivor. The photos are graphic so think of your surroundings and what you need to read and see someone transformed by trauma. If you cannot finish the article today, thank you for attempting to change your current viewpoint surrounding suicide. I do not judge you if it may take you several tries to read her story and see the photos. (I still cannot bring myself to watch a number of war movies, so I have my own fires to walk through.) Honestly, I’m sweaty just thinking about reading the story from beginning to end and I’ve only skimmed it as I write to you today.

On my deployment our chaplain said to us, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Please keep this advice in mind for any struggles you have and for the struggles of those around you. We do not always see our problems as temporary, but suicide is 100% preventable. When our communities take the time to share a difficult subject like this, it is because there is power in numbers.

Support each other. Educate. Help someone feel valued today. You never know the difference you can make until you try.