Thanksgiving 2014

Cousin Time
Cousin Time

I am delayed in saying Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, but I was happily enjoying some vacation time in Texas. I went with my family to visit my older sister, her boyfriend, and their newborn daughter. It’s been years since my older sister, Leslie, and I were privileged to spend time together for the holidays. I think the last time we were together for any holiday might have been high school.

During my military service, I missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family in 2004 and 2006 due to my deployments.

Below is a photo from the first deployment that shows how efforts were undertaken to provide a comforting atmosphere to our deployed service members on holidays. I did not take the photo myself but was given this image and many others as a collection from Nathan shortly prior to leaving Iraq in 2005. I had several 35mm disposable cameras on hand for the deployment and for some reason, I never thought to take photos of certain places like the chow hall.

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I feel very privileged now as a civilian to have the freedom to visit family for the holidays. I am not the best at sitting around and relaxing, but it is nice to do so in the company of family. We enjoyed a very simple home cooked traditional meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, deviled eggs, and stuffing. Thomas and I picked up a pecan pie and a cherry pie from Sprouts to contribute to the meal.

My husband spoiling his baby niece.
My husband spoiling his baby niece.
Little squishy squish and myself
Little squishy squish and myself
Avery, her Auntie, and baby cousin
Avery, her Auntie, and baby cousin

Before we left Texas, we went out to breakfast with my sister at Cracker Barrel.  We made some tentative plans for a late summer/early fall visit in 2015. Being that we are the closest family to each other, I know how meaningful it will be for our daughters to grow up and see each other every couple of years, given their only child status. We had a good laugh about how my older sister once desired a big family like the one we grew up in and we shared with her how we entertained the idea of a second child for about six months after Avery’s birth.  Life seems a little easier when you are the parent on an only child, in my opinion.

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And because the heart of my project is never far away, I have some fun background information to share. I don’t believe I’ve mentioned before that I come from a military family. My dad was a sailor for 15 years and I think my mom would get a kick out of the fact three of her four daughters also gravitated towards military men as partners. Leslie’s boyfriend previously served in the Army; my sister, Megan, recently married her love, who serves in the Coast Guard; and as I’ve previously mentioned, my husband is a Marine.

On our trip home, I tried to remain vigilant to markers of military service. I encountered an older man wearing a Green Beret Foundation shirt. I also noted two cars with U.S. Air Force Retired stickers; one car with a U.S. Navy Retired sticker; and one car bearing a Semper Fidelis sticker.

I love my state.
I love my state.

 

The Veterans Project: Added Insight

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On November 13th, I attended The Veterans Project on ASU’s Tempe campus. The Director of our center, Steve Borden, and our Military Advocate, Joanna Sweatt, were two of the four veterans who shared their stories on stage. Their stories are drastically different from the plight of AJ and his wife whose stories were the focus of Basetrack Live, which I saw earlier this semester. As audience members, we were privileged to hear the voices of service members who are called POGS (Persons Other than Grunts), a derogatory term bestowed upon support services individuals by infantrymen who feel that their service is honestly superior to the rest. Things are changing and the Marine Times recently wrote about this internal conflict.

I can’t entirely fault infantrymen for this language because Marines often feel our service is superior to the other service branches. I think it is exposure to one another’s service that ultimately teaches us how our viewpoints are wrong. We walk around with an essentialist approach until we are taught to see others in a different light. At work, I am building many friendships with former sailors, airmen, and soldiers as well as infantry Marines, who I rarely interacted with while on active duty. We are playful with each other in our discussions about how respective service branches are better. However, we are constantly building camaraderie in our veteran community and building a new sense of family for ourselves.

Chandler: Homes on the Homefront

Tonight’s blog entry will be brief. It’s not that I do not care about keeping things up-to-date, but I have a 5-7 page paper due on Thursday and I’m in a position to tackle more prep work for a presentation due on December 1st and two papers due the first week of December as the semester comes to an end.

However, I wanted to share something exciting. Thomas and I have struggled to find viable homeownership opportunities given our reality of being a one-fixed income family with multiple irregular “incomes” courtesy of the VA, which are not recognized as income for the purposes of qualifying for a home mortgage. Recently, we were informed about the Homes on the Homefront organization, which is a partnership to supply donated (i.e. previously bank owned homes) to veterans, mortgage-free. That’s not to say there are no costs involved or requirements to live up to, but this organization is presenting our newest opportunity to potentially step into homeownership.

We applied for a home listed in Chandler and are now awaiting the 4-6 week review process. Below are some photos of this home, address is undisclosed. The home is located in a good school district and would provide a shorter commute for myself and for Thomas once he starts law school. I will be a bit of a nervous mess for the upcoming weeks, but the positive thing is even if we aren’t chosen, another deserving veteran will be and we aren’t out any money as part of this process.

~Cheryl
Chandler Home Backyard

Chandler Home Dining Space

Chandler Home Entrance

Chandler Home Exterior

Chandler Home Kitchen

Chandler Home Living Room

Chandler Home Outdoor Space

Chandler Home Side Yard

Chandler Living Room

Remembering Fallujah

I’m a few days late, but I wanted to share my sentiments on how proud I am that so many Marines gathered recently to honor each other and our fallen Marines that served in the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004. The Marine Times has a wonderful article about this reunion.

I served at Camp Blue Diamond, outside of Ramadi, during that time in 2004. Our command sent some of our Marines over to Camp Fallujah to stand up a Command Operations Center over there and I was not one of the ones to go. Originally, the operation was called Operation Phantom Fury, which I found awesome, and it was disappointing to me when the name was changed over to Operation Al Fajr (New Dawn). However, it was still an exciting and busy time at Blue Diamond to do our respective jobs and as a group, present PowerPoint presentations for the Commanding General. When I started work in the Command Operations Center in August, Major General James Mattis was in charge and later, this responsibility shifted over to Major General Richard Natonski. As a Lance Corporal (E-3) at the time, I was far too shy to ask Mattis for a photograph, but he was just as spectacular in person as he is portrayed in the media. Towards the end of my deployment, a couple of us got our pictures taken with Natonski but I never received a copy.

There was so much activity going on in November, I can hardly recall a thing, but I remember when we saw the image of First Sergeant Kasal being led out of a house known as the Hell House with the assistance of two junior Marines. He was severely injured but he still kept his finger straight and off the trigger of his pistol. It’s such an iconic image. As Marines, this image motivated us greatly.

After I started work at ASU, I was honored to meet one of the Marines,RJ Mitchell, who fought in Fallujah in 2004. I never knew I’d have the honor to meet a stranger who served in Iraq at the same time I did. We discussed recently that November 13th was the anniversary of the Hell House in Fallujah. I was told by another friend of ours that RJ was still in the house when First Sergeant Kasal was leaving the building.

One of the things that made me pretty nervous in Iraq was constantly seeing the numbers of friendly injured or KIA (killed in action) in our activity reports. Some of my friends’ jobs required they leave the wire and go to different areas around Iraq; it was hard to not know who would make it back and I took goodbyes seriously each time they left. I also felt a sigh of relief when they returned to base safely.

I know not everyone was going to make it home, but it is a true blessing to meet someone like RJ. He survived some of the most serious fighting in Fallujah and his actions helped others to make it home.

The Marine Corps’ Birthday & Veterans Day

Yesterday was, and will always be, one of my favorite days of the year.  I get to run around saying “Happy Birthday” to my Marines and future Marines, as is the case with the NROTC cadets I saw running around doing 239 laps to celebrate the Marine Corps birthday.

I brought in a cake to celebrate.

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This year was also the first year I was personally given presents for my husband and I.

Pretty nice little gifts, huh?
Pretty nice little gifts, huh?

Starbucks surprised our office by coming in with some cartons of free coffee and pastries to honor our military service. Some of my work study students got in on a photo op but I slipped away so as to not be roped in. I don’t mind having my photo taken but I tend to have a lazy eye when a flash is involved and most public photo opportunities I encounter almost always involve flash photography, so I like to not be involved. I don’t like to look drunk in my photos, especially when I haven’t been drinking! (Don’t let the little bottles of booze fool you. Those are still on my counter waiting to be opened.)

I want to bring up something really important that I don’t always acknowledge and should acknowledge. I don’t entirely like freebies offered to veterans. I make some exceptions. I do enjoy, and don’t turn down, free t-shirts honoring military service. I received an ASU Salute to Service t-shirt last year and one again this year. Last year’s shirt was fairly simple, but this year’s design brought things up a notch:

The design on the back of the 2014 ASU Salute to Service t-shirt
The design on the back of the 2014 ASU Salute to Service t-shirt

I also didn’t mind that some Starbucks workers brought down some goodies to share with our office. They were polite, did their little photo op, and I was pleased to see how happy everyone was by this unexpected display of generosity. Although marketing was involved on the part of Starbucks, which is part of the critical thinking my classes’ recent discussions on public pedagogy, now is not the time or place to describe these attributes.

Coffee and baked goods courtesy of Starbucks as a thank you to veterans for their service.
Coffee and baked goods courtesy of Starbucks as a thank you to veterans for their service.

What I do not engage personally is the free dinner offers by various restaurant chains. Many of my friends and peers choose to do so, but it is not something my husband or I are comfortable with for personal reasons. He and I paid full price for our dinner last night, breakfast this morning, and a snack this afternoon. We specifically targeted restaurants that were not offering veteran deals, although we were surprised this morning by Biscuits Cafe’s menu statement.

Military discount for those who want it!
Military discount for those who want it!

My husband told me before about some Yelp reviews for Biscuits Cafe and some individuals were bothered by the fact Biscuits Cafe, which used to do a 15% discount for veterans and active duty personnel, only had a 10% discount. I am disappointed by such an entitlement attitude. Civilian businesses should not feel compelled to provide a discount to veterans; if they choose to do so, they should do so out of the generosity of their own hearts and because it aligns with their business practices and values. Maybe Biscuits Cafe came under some hard times and found it easier to reduce the benefit discount offered to veterans rather than to cut corners elsewhere. Who knows and by no means should they feel it necessary to explain their business model to myself or others.

There is a serious problem my husband and I do see with providing an equal reward to veterans for their service. It is making the assumption that all veterans are deserving of recognition for their service. Civilians may not always consider the fact some veterans leave the military because they committed heinous offenses. An easily recognized example is Lynndie England and the other soldiers in her unit who tortured prisoners at Abu Gharib. Can you imagine being the waitress having to serve that woman a free meal on Veterans Day?

If you do not know who Lynndie England is, just Google her name and check out some of the stories written about Abu Gharib.

As Veterans Day draws to a close, I want to mention that I have continued to wear dog tags as part of my social experiment. I have done so since October 3rd. No one commented on them last week, yesterday, or today. As you can see from the photos below, I wear my dog tags with any outfit in my wardrobe.

Pre-veterans day festivities (Sunday, November 9th)
Pre-veterans day festivities (Sunday, November 9th)

I was wearing an open button down with my sequined tank top earlier today, but the dog tags were still highly visible.
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I was hesitant to do so today, because I was concerned people would see it as a desperate move to get some extra veteran entitlement. Oddly enough, no one asked me about them. I was another face in the crowd. The upside to the situation is my family had a great uninterrupted outing this afternoon with a coworker of mine and her husband. My husband and I also kept true to our desire to pay full price for our food purchases even though there are numerous veteran freebies being offered today.

PTSD and Collegiate Life

IMG_5810 IMG_5811 IMG_5812 IMG_5813This week kicked off a series of Salute to Service events among the different ASU campuses.  It is a privilege to attend many events as an employee but also in my role as an ASU veteran student. I was most excited and nervous to attend the staff/faculty awareness training on Tuesday regarding PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). ASU does amazing things to bring attention to veteran issues and I hope the non-veteran staff and faculty understand the impact their service has to returning veteran students.

Dr. Adam McCray, a clinical psychologist, who works at the West Valley Vet Center led the training and brought up key points I don’t think non-veterans may be educated about; he gave me permission to share his intellectual property (shown in the photos above).

Honestly, there can be a lot of stressors when individuals return home from a deployment.  I had my fair share with deteriorating relationships (a romance and family troubles), family deaths/illnesses, financial burdens, and taking on a new role at work when I became a Non-Commissioned Officer.  I’ve discussed with my ex, Nathan, before about how there was some counseling we should have gotten, but as Marines we chipped away at our own troubles.

There is a bit of a double-edged sword regarding receiving help.  Service members are taught that help is available and that they should use it; we are also taught to look for troubling behavior among our peers and subordinates and to get them access to help (Note: I said get them access.  We are taught that we are not a substitute for professional medical assistance.)  However, there is also the stigma of receiving help.  As a Marine, one of the significant issues I encountered is the perception of being a malingerer by going to medical. I’ve felt this way about Marines I’ve known and have also worried that I may be perceived as such should I get an appointment that conflicts with my training schedule.

Another significant issue is the lack of quality care.  I cannot say my experience is indicative of what all service members face but there were times that I felt my care was shoddy.  In particular, I reached out to an Ob-Gyn on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar regarding an issue and she tried to tell me what I was experiencing was normal and tried using her own gender as a reason why she wouldn’t let me have an ultrasound.  That and she tried to push NuvaRing on me as a means of birth control. At that point, I sought medical care at Camp Pendleton and found a male doctor who honored my request for an ultrasound.  One of the best things I found in the service with having male doctors is they cannot say they know through their own experience something I am going through since they do not have the anatomy to support those statements.

I am fortunate that I do not have many medical issues as a result of my service, but it is still awkward at times telling people I suffer from stress-induced chest pains.  It’s not a normal part of my conversation but if I suffer a chest pain and grimace, I let someone know what’s going on.  I was unable to get them properly diagnosed when I was in for a few reasons.  One, I was very hesitant to seek a lot of medical treatment for them because I knew it could interfere with my ability to attend training opportunities to further my career.  Second, I felt the assistance I was getting wasn’t giving me the answers I needed.  On my second deployment, I had chest pains for numerous days in a row so I did inform my command about them and went to medical.  I had a chest x-ray done and EKG’s which did not reveal any abnormal patterns.  Although I had chest pains for several days, I did not experience any during the EKG’s and matters were further complicated by the fact the adhesive on the monitors wasn’t sticking properly because of the high heat exposure.

When I separated from the service, I had such little documentation regarding the chest pains that I was told there was no service connection.  While I don’t feel I need disability assistance to cope with these, it is (and was) frustrating to be told they weren’t service-related. They developed shortly after returning from my first deployment and persisted pretty regularly (on a weekly basis) through 2008.  When I focused more on exercising in 2009, they abated to more to a monthly basis.  I am fortunate to manage them easily right now through exercise.  This year, I noticed what has reduced the severity and the frequency of attacks further is weight lifting.  The chest pains are almost non-existent when I keep a steady routine of weight lifting (and not the CrossFit kind) and combine it with some form of low-impact cardio and some running, when possible.  I had one maybe two through the spring and summer and they’ve only recently resurfaced this fall.

Unfortunately, this semester I haven’t kept up with my workout routine as much as I would like.  It has resulted in experiencing chest pains more often.  I do what I can to manage my stress when my schedule feels too hectic to include a workout.  Sleep is a big contributor to managing my stress and I am proud to admit I love to go to bed at 9, although now it’s usually more like 10 or 10:30.  I am also very vocal to my husband about when I need extra assistance around the house so I don’t feel the majority of the burdens fall on my shoulder.

And while I am tempted to not admit this, it’s important to share that from time to time, honestly a little bit of alcohol goes a long way to calming me down.  I rarely drink, usually a glass or two a month is more than sufficient.  However, there are 4 or 5 times a year when I really get bothered by people, family included.  In those moments, exercising or reading just don’t seem sufficient to help me unwind.  When I feel there is too much going on in my personal space or too much demanded of me, I will have a glass or two of wine to relax.  I don’t like prescription medications and willingly choose not to take anything for anxiety/stress because exercise works pretty effectively for me. I allow myself those extra indulgences of alcohol because I am pretty stringent the rest of the time.

College is more difficult for me this time around because I am juggling more responsibilities.  I work 40 hours a week (and sometimes more) whereas as an undergrad, I stayed home with my daughter and my GI bill was our second income.  My husband goes to school full-time and works 25 hours a week and it amazes me how little time we seem to have left for family activities after I get home from work.  I tried to add a female veterans writing workshop into my schedule but its location down in Phoenix meant the one night I attended, I got home at ten.  I didn’t attend the three other sessions offered in October.  It’s hard to bow out of commitments but with the amount of activities (including homework) I cram in- commuting to Tempe, working all day, attending class two nights a week-I was entirely too overwhelmed.    I took one evening off from class to catch up on other things and to relax and I broke down crying one night before a separate class after two weeks of constantly being on-the-go.

I know my Marine Corps life was harder in some ways but I also juggled less.  I worked closer to my job, especially on my deployments!  My walk to work took less than five minutes the first go around and the drive on the second was probably the same.  I had meals provided to me; chow hall meals may not be the best but sometimes, there are happy surprises.  For most Sundays of the first deployment, we were treated to crab legs as a dinner option.  I said yes every time.  The New England girl in me was thrilled at this simple luxury.  Our operation tempo required 24 hour work environments  as well the first time which meant when I showed up to work, there wasn’t a backlog of things to be done.  I cannot say the same currently as a civilian as we are running with less than a full-staff and I dislike falling behind in my work.

However, I know I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to work where I do, in the position I work.  My job is not contracted so I don’t face constant worries over unemployment.  When my GI Bill expires, I can rely on an employee tuition waiver to offset the cost of my education.  ASU offer family housing, so there are cheaper rental options available as a married student and which we take advantage of while we save for a home.  My supervisors and peers are great and when I need a moment to vent, I have a handful of supporters.  My college experience may not be typical but I understand more than most some of the unique challenges facing veterans in the classroom.

 

 

Dreams Versus Reality

Yesterday, my ex, Ryan, posted a link on Facebook to images from a website called justWarthings.  The images are just incredibly and very thought-provoking.  The Army veteran, Casey,  who created the site takes images from justgirlythings and shows a war/service related scenario that depicts the same sentiment.

Casey’s responses to his audience’s questions is interesting as well.  Some people antagonize him for being critical of the young girls’ self-centered aspirations and a lot of materialistic goals, but he has a point.  He is entitled to his own opinion about the matter and he is very specific as to why.  I love the following statement he makes on his site:

“I think it really says something when the biggest stresses for a lot of teens is whether or not they got the right flavor starbucks and colored iPhone.”

Sometimes, I am no different than those teenagers even though I’ve served two tours in Iraq.  I get a little ticked that I order something and get the wrong thing in return.  However, it’s partially based on the fact that I am spending my money on something and I expect to get what I purchased. It’s also based on the fact that I expect others to try to do their job well.  I do try to not act this way when I order food and get the wrong meal.  Earlier this year, I was a bit mortified when the waiter at Brio took away a plate of entirely edible food because he brought over the wrong dish (and I already cut into it).  I would have gladly paid for the omelet and eaten it.  It’s important to mention, too, that on our table was an advertisement for No Kid Hungry and I know the uneaten omelet was destined for the trash.  A perfectly good omelet that I cut into and was willing to eat.

Instead of a “Just Girly” batch of dreams, I do have a Pinterest Bucket List.  I just deleted two items on this list because I needed reminding that those “goals” were unimportant.  One was to win a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret.  The other was to regain my flat stomach.  The rest of my dreams remain here.  Please note, there is a dream on there to write a book-mentioned as a memoir.  That dream is meant as a memoir for my family and not a piece of writing for publication.  My grandma mentioned before about wanting to write her memoir.  She never accomplished that dream and our family lost a lot of details about her personal history that certainly shared the generations of our family.  I don’t want my family to miss out on the written knowledge about my history, their history, and the history of the world I lived in.

Below are some of my dreams:

Visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.  I must go at least once in my lifetime.
Visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. I must go at least once in my lifetime.
Our world has a responsibility to never forget the horrors of WWII.
Our world has a responsibility to never forget the horrors of WWII.
Purpose and happiness are more important than a high paying income.
Purpose and happiness are more important than a high paying income.
8 years and counting.
8 years and counting.
I helped an acquaintance not too long ago with $40 to help pay for her groceries.  It's not entirely the same thing but I know she has fallen on hard times and needed someone to look out for her.
I helped an acquaintance not too long ago with $40 to help pay for her groceries. It’s not entirely the same thing but I know she has fallen on hard times and needed someone to look out for her.