Seasons of Repair and Growth

Hey there!

I took a break recently from memoir writing. It wasn’t entirely planned but I’m in a class that’s more difficult than I expected so the easiest thing to take off my plate was extra screen time. My eyeballs are pretty tired nearly every day from work and school work that places me behind a computer.

Life has calmed down a bit after the New Year’s fireworks, but I am still learning to navigate life–and triggers–here with an eye on building supports along the way. I am not sure if you’re familiar with the idea of instructional scaffolding but this approach has become evident in how the trajectory of my post-deployment care routine and coping has changed over the years.

As resistant as I was to the idea of having others’ support along the way, it has helped me manage chest pains related to anxiety and work out a better routine while working, going to school, and trying to maintain a social life. The more I’ve been able to identify things that bother me, the better I am at minimizing the stress these things add to my life.

I realize my life, particularly after leaving the Marine Corps, has included seasons of repair and growth worth discussing today.

2007 and 2008 were probably more reparative years than seasons of growth. I left the Marine Corps in July of 2007 so I wasn’t completely cognizant some of my Marine Corps habits weren’t helping me on my way back into civilian life. I joked recently with extended family about the competitive nature of drinking in the Marine Corps, but that’s a good example of unproductive habits.  I also harbored a deep resentment of medical professionals given my lackluster visits with medical while serving. I did not have a proper diagnosis regarding my chest pains and I was not confident in the civilian professional who concluded stress played a role in their presence.

2009 to 2012 were significant years of personal growth. As I stepped away–not entirely willingly–from employment, I had the opportunity to build my life in other ways. I mostly lost access to my military community because we were not located near a Marine Corps base and I kept in touch with friends via Facebook. It was a good time period to be surrounded by friends in similar life phases as mothers, college students, and future mothers. While I was pretty vulnerable living in an area not surrounded by my own family, I found my footing in the classroom and learning to serve others by building my culinary skills and using this gifts to build my community. Food culture is a means to gather and learn from each other and honestly, I’ve learned a lot about myself because I’ve failed more in my culinary pursuits than I have in an academic classroom setting. I was blessed my friends were willing to try my new creations and many of those friends are still part of my extended family today.

2013 was a difficult year for me. Nothing seemed to be going right for me and I was pretty bitter my first year out of college did not produce the opportunities I expected it would. I was naive to think holding two bachelor’s degrees would serve as an insulating layer against life’s problems. The year did pick up as I found a role working with veteran students and it invigorated me. I also managed to start improving some personal relationships which restored my confidence.

2014 was the start of a significant transformation in my life on a financial and educational level since I returned to academic, entering my first graduate program and utilizing the Post-9/11 GI Bill® that helped reduce the burden employment had placed on my family.

2015 became another season of repair for a myriad of reasons. Ten years after my first deployment, this year brought on a lot of the same personal challenges I felt after my first tour in Iraq and coincided with the city of Ramadi being taken over ISIS. I was–and am fortunate-my support circle stuck by me. I had the chance to see I don’t have as many “fair weather friends” in my life that I encountered with some people back in my Marine Corps days. I recognize not everyone wants to handle the stress of Marine Corps life–friendship or otherwise–and it’s easy to see the same struggle in the veteran community. Some people walk away and never return. The people who stuck by me the most this year have helped make the years since some of my most productive.

2016 proved to be a strong year for me (for the most part) as I completed my graduate applied project and learned more about my deployment than I ever expected I would. I am not saying it was an easy endeavor as it brought a lot of personal issues to the surface, but I found strength I didn’t know I had. The first six months of this year were exceptionally tough as I figured out a new area in my life after losing a friend in November 2015.

2017 and 2018 were both years where repairing my life and growing from adversity occurred. I made the decision to stay in higher education for my professional career but moved from being student-facing to a behind-the-scenes capacity. This change in work environment allowed me the breathing room I needed and the autonomy I wanted in this particular role. Working from home has provided an unplanned bonus when we faced a series of unexpected and expected veterinary expenses with the added burden of  dogs convalescing from surgeries.

My entry back into higher education with the pursuit of a Master of Public Administration is a blessing and a burden at times for the additional demands it adds to my weekly routine with the additional benefit coming at the completion of the program.

To juggle the demands over the last few years, I’ve coordinated more with non family members to mitigate stress in my life, particularly those episodes that increase the chest pains I experience.

While I started working with a great nurse practitioner back in 2012, we only started working on a plan in 2016 to combat the chest pains. I was pretty fortunate to coordinate with her through last year until her and her family moved out-of-state. Another civilian care provider has helped me think about my deployment in new ways that has not only aided me in school but helped me cope more productively with the regular fireworks seasons in our area. Her insights have also helped me think of how to share my deployment experiences with others. The fireworks notifications from the local fireworks company that runs most of the public displays were pretty regular until my point-of-contact left.

The reality is I am a veteran who has had more coordination with non-VA resources with the exception of VetSuccess on Campus at ASU than regular support from the VA. The trajectory of the situation has meant finding other educators to determine why my post-deployment health issues exist and how to deal more effectively with them. With the initial involvement of these persons in my life, I have also learned how to advocate for my own needs, including updating my disagreement with the VA’s decision. (“Funny” story by the way, the VA’s website states it takes approximately 12-18 months for a Notice of Disagreement decision but when I logged into my account yesterday, the internal site indicated it takes approximately 13-30 months.)

I am fortunate with the tools I’ve been given and the people who serve as coaches and support crew to get to the point where I am in my life. The last few years I’ve found a good plan of action to help reduce the frequency and severity of chest pains. This pathway was something I was initially against but the patience of my former nurse practitioner changed my opinion. She was quite patient and willing to let me slowly check out my options because I have not always felt confident with medical professionals I’ve dealt with previously.  I’ve been asked about my deployment and why it strikes a sense of duty in my work now and been reminded I am not responsible for things outside my control. This avenue has been important because it helps me identify when I start to experience a panic attack in anticipation of or during fireworks. With the inconsistent fireworks notifications this past year, I am also more willing to reach out to others to avoid future surprises.

In high school, my mother left me a journal sharing her insights that she saw I was like her in having trouble relying on others. She mentioned that “we all need a helping hand once in a while” and for me to work on my self-confidence. So this entry is me sharing that same message to you all. Our lives are full of good seasons and bad seasons. My mom told me confidence would take me to places I never imagined.

Let my mom’s words help you out today:

“God has you here for a reason, everything has a purpose good or bad.”

Look at your seasons and the people who cross your path. There’s a reason for them to be there.

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Curating the Past

Writing a memoir continues to be a top priority for me. As we enter 2019, I want to inform you my first draft should be finished this year.

Up until recently, I worked through my writing sessions using single spacing and finally caved in this past Thursday to make it double spaced. As a result, I am sitting at 130 pages with my last writing session. It might sound weird but it was easier for me to start when I wrote with the single spacing. I found it easier to identify patterns in my writing I wanted to keep and where certain sections needed greater emphasis on conversation or building the scene. As a young writer, I must admit I don’t have a clue about how to get the final result published but that’s a concern for down the road after I edit a few drafts for content and final formatting.

The writing process is not always easy and I made it more difficult in my choice of subject. This book covers war in a different light and I am working to be fair in my observations but honest in my viewpoints. There are a lot of things that don’t deserve a word on the page and would be an absolute waste of readers’ time and my effort. I also encounter some difficulty in how I present people and conflict. A number of the authors I’ve been reading make it known overtly in their guidance or subtly in what they share that memoir is not the place for certain behaviors. It is an absolute lie to craft a version of the past to make the narrator look better and/or to use this medium as a way to get back at people. For this reason when I present a situation where I felt hurt, I am more selective in what I share and think through why I shared that information.

Writing responsibly is important. I am using different resources to see how I can remain accountable while also being creative. I don’t have the same leeway (in my opinion) to write this book the way I do my blog. I have situations where I must show off other people to explain what I was going through which might mean showing off a private encounter no one expected to become public knowledge. This reality is why I lean heavily on books and music to think of how other creative persons have explained parts of their own lives.

I slowed down on my research reading this past year the more I’ve invested in my writing and college classes. Here’s a small snapshot of what I can remember offhand as having a few tidbits that inspired my stories or provided the motivation to push through an area I was struggling with, like the labeling of chapters.

I also found some poems and a few chapters invaluable (although I am ashamed to admit I have a number of partially read books still on my reading list, to include the ones listed here.)

I am probably not giving credit to every work I looked over last year. I guess it’s just important to say what inspires us is not always closely related to what we choose to write about but it gives us a fresh lenses through which to view our own experiences.

Music has a different power for me over books in how it influences my writing. Sometimes, the lyrics speak to my heart. Other times, the energy or solemn mood reminds me of a time where I needed something quiet to fall asleep to or that song that spoke to my anger needing an outlet. Music has a beautiful way of evoking memories and the songs listed below are not fully representative of all the songs that help me in my writing but are some that will continue to serve me in this next stage of my writing.

I have some work ahead of me this weekend, but thanks for stopping by. This might be my only check-in for January but feel free to check out my Instagram @she_wears_dogtags if you need a small conversation fix before I write again.

 

 

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Lessons Not Learned

Last month, I sat down with you all to talk about the second assault into Fallujah and its place in my deployment work and why, years later, it continues to frustrate me that other veterans become greedy little children on Veterans Day trying to collect every little gift they can. I am not writing today to recant those sentiments. I am writing today out of a sense of duty for the other service members we lost during the second assault into Fallujah and the other casualties we suffered in December 2004. Today is the fourteenth anniversary of the last day of Operation Al Fajr (Operation Phantom Fury) and again, I would like to remind everyone I am simply one voice regarding our nation’s war involvement. You may agree or disagree with my sentiments, but if you choose to share your opinion do so in a professional manner. We all deserve respect.

A string of current events doesn’t lead me to believe our nation is any closer to being on the right path again regarding lessons learned about war, not only for our nation but for its impact on the global community. President Trump is withdrawing U.S. service members from Syria and Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis offered his resignation and today our President publicly shared his choice for replacement, reducing the amount of time our current Secretary of Defense has remaining in his role.

I want to use a song I feel approximately tackles the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in as Americans. If you’ve never listened to Rise Against’s “Survivor Guilt” the timing couldn’t be better. Those that serve–to include our international military brethren serving honorably–are disproportionately carrying the burden of war that we do not assign to everyone and flippant politics are not helping us prepare for the future of war and reducing the risks associated with troop withdrawal.

For the thirty U.S. service members we lost in December during my first deployment in Iraq, their lives mattered and as a service member who returned home, I have an obligation to ensure others know of their sacrifices and our nation takes proper steps in the future to ensure we are more accountability to our warriors, their families, and our partners. Please take the time as this year closes out to keep the families of the fallen in your hearts because while you and I have the privilege to gather and hold our loved ones, these families are incomplete and our nation is still struggling to learn from these losses all these years later.

I know I may not change your mind about also honoring the lives of all persons who died, but if we can start reducing the barriers between U.S. service members and veterans and the general public, we can at least start to undo some of the damage the current political landscape is taking on our respective communities. It starts with something as simple as reducing the ‘othering’ that is all too common now which is not having a single positive impact on the world. As people, our decisions impact not only those we care for but those outside our peripheral view.

The situation we find ourselves in is not simply a matter of Republicans against Democrats but people ignoring historical events and repeating our mistakes. The human toll is not something we should continue to overlook and accept as normal because it’s inconvenient to do things with greater accountability from start to finish, regardless of where one’s involvement starts, and then use an option like pulling out to fix the situation and pat oneself on the back. The people we lost deserve better and so will future warriors and those that serve beside them.

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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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