A New “Frontier”

It’s Friday! I cannot tell you all how thankful I am the end of the work week has arrived. This blog has become my “third job” of sorts, trailing behind my real job as a School Certifying Official at ASU and my second “job” as a graduate student. Trust me, I am not Wonder Woman, in case you all were wondering how I do it all. In balancing out these responsibilities and my home life as a wife and mother of a 4 year old, there are many things I sacrifice. While the list below is not exhaustive, it’s a tiny glimpse as to how I live my life now:

-Skipping the gym (most days, anyways)
-Cleaning the house…haha (sometimes)….my husband has really stepped up in this department.
-Social outings (these are rare during the school semester)
-Haircuts (I love my hair stylist but I get my hair done about once every 6 months or when I can remember)
-Non school essential reading (Honestly, I just turned in two books I checked out back in September and kept renewing as I couldn’t “find” time to read them. I selfishly held onto the third because it’s about kids and preschool transition. My kid is starting kindergarten in the fall; I am in need of guidance.)
-An updated budget (I’m afraid to admit when I backtracked for the fall semester, I stopped keeping the budget “current” in September. Must not make that mistake again.)

Yes, I have a self deprecating sense of humor. I do love what I do, which is trying to be a bit of everything. I don’t sit still well, unless the task calls for it. I am eager to socialize and learn. I am fascinated by people and so, I love to hear their stories.

Writing for this blog is challenging in the sense, I am communicating on various fronts. My platform is certainly to support America’s Post-9/11 female service members and veterans. I want to encourage them to share their stories and to find a creative way of supporting female veterans in higher education (i.e. my eventual goal of the Shirt Stories project). Sharing these details is important in furthering my work. However, I also like to write freely about various veteran issues I discover along the way. One of the best lessons I learned last semester is that I can have insider and outsider status, congruently, for the populations I belong to (i.e. being a female veteran, being a Marine veteran, being a Post-9/11 veteran, being a 1st Marine Division Marine, being a 3rd MAW Marine, etc.). There are, and always will be, many hats I can wear.

However, I do feel that my purpose is better served if I also launch a specific Facebook page. I have the freedom to write longer posts on my blog but this new “frontier” will allow me to engage more in conversations with other veterans and civilians who are interested in my mission.

You can now find me at http://www.facebook.com/shewearsdogtags.

Thanks for coming on this journey with me!

~Cheryl

Disabled Veteran Service Dogs

This weekend, my family and I had the opportunity to meet a disabled veteran who has a service dog. My four-year-old daughter was thrilled to see a dog at the restaurant we went to and like most occasions, eagerly ran over to visit. Up until this point, we hadn’t explained to her that not all dogs are pets and she managed to pet the dog on the head before this conversation unfolded. The gentleman we met was very nice and took things in stride as I explained to her a working dog is like a person who is working and you must allow the animal to do its job. Since she was informed she wasn’t allowed to pet the dog, she choose to sit next to the Army veteran and stared, with great glee, so she had a good viewpoint of Hock, the dog.

I didn’t ask the man what his name was, but for his privacy, if I had, I also wouldn’t reveal it as I didn’t ask his permission to share his story. As such, I will share non-personal details. It’s always a little funny when veterans meet one another because we talk to each other in such a casual way I don’t see often among civilians. We talked about our service (his in the 80’s and ours Post-9/11) and joked about how he’s encountered adults who disregard the “Disabled Veteran” service jacket his dog wears to inform people his dog is not a pet, but a service animal.

Before we parted ways, he told us welcome home. I know many people might not realize it, but a simple sentiment like “Welcome Home” because we both deployed is much more meaningful than the “Thank you for your service” given generically to us for our veteran status.

It’s a rare occurrence for me to encounter a veteran who has a service dog. I found information on the VA’s website that while they don’t provide a service dog themselves, they do evaluate whether a veteran would benefit from the companionship of a service dog and connect approved veterans through their Prosthetics and Sensory Aids Services. The VA pays for the animal, if approved, its training, and veterinary care to assist veterans.

Pretty awesome, huh?

And I also found information about an organization called Patriot Paws that provides mobility service dogs and PTSD dogs to veterans free of charge. I am not quite sure how many organization out there provide service animals but it is interesting to see how accessible the information is online regarding service dogs for our veterans.

Interpretations: Popular Military Films & War Portrayals

American Sniper came out recently; I haven’t seen it yet. There is significant discussion going on about the portrayal of Chris Kyle especially considering that parts of his memoir, which I also have not read, have come under fire as well. Currently in my Women of Courage class, we are discussing how women are portrayed in military films, not specially war films, and I know this film, interpretively, would be a great addition to our discussion.

We recently discussed the article, Bombshells on Film: Women, Military Films, and Hegemonic Gender Ideologies by Stacie R. Furia and Denise D. Biebly; while it was only written in 2009, numerous other military films were produced recently that add another dimension to the conversation. Among them are Unbroken (2014), The Imitation Game (2014), Lone Survivor (2013), and now, American Sniper (2014). I appreciate the fact Unbroken delves quite deep into the psychological trauma of prisoners of war. Louis Zamperini passed away last year but I feel his story was told in such a way, he would be proud of all the people who recreated those experiences in such an accessible form. My husband has also hooked me on the show, Sherlock, so it was wonderful to see Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turning in The Imitation Game. I was quite disheartened to hear he was subjected to chemical castration for being gay. While I have seen the first two movies, wrapping my head and heart around Lone Survivor and American Sniper is a bit more difficult.

I saw a tiny portion of Lone Survivor when my husband watched it at home. I left the room. I don’t know if I could stomach watching the film. The researcher in me knows I should try, but then again, I am no ordinary researcher. I worked in Iraq and was privy to intelligence regarding our enemy KIA’s (killed in action) and friendly KIA’s, to include my officer, Captain Sean Brock. It’s one thing to view war through the eyes of a civilian spectator in a movie theater and another one entirely to be in the middle of it. Granted, I wasn’t kicking in doors and I didn’t serve as a sniper, but living in urban combat zones with some of the modern conveniences (phone centers, fast food restaurants, etc.) presents some unique moments of hyper vigilance and complacencies.

Other films not mentioned in the paper include Stateside (2004), Jarhead (2005), and The Hurt Locker (2008). The Hurt Locker did not interest me and Stateside was less than memorable. However, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jarhead with my junior Marines when it opened in theaters. I bought several of them tickets to the film and we crammed ourselves in the last few seats upfront. It was one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen despite what I felt was a hurried ending. My favorite scene is where they are playing football in MOPP (mission oriented protective posture).

I looked up what other movies provide interpretations of military service. Oddly enough, I found a film called Camp X-Ray (2014), which I’ve never heard of before. Kristen Stewart plays the main character who serves as a guard at Guantanamo Bay, but it’s hard to imagine her as a soldier. I know my opinion is colored by the fact I am not a fan of the Twilight series; maybe the actors and actresses from those movies have gone on to better roles,but I find it awkward that she always looks disgruntled.
camp x ray

Maybe I’ll watch the film so I’m making a fair assessment of the movie and her skills. However, if I had my pick of actresses, I think Jennifer Lawrence, Troian Bellasario, or Ellen Page would have been great choices as leading actresses. I can think of most female Marines I’ve encountered and I could easily seeing those three women, based on the characters they’ve played, being believable as servicewomen.

A “New” Kind of Beauty Pageant

This weekend, my favorite Marine roommate, Sarah, shared that there is a Ms. Veteran America pageant and the event benefits homeless female veterans and their children. I can’t believe I am just now hearing of this organization. I cannot speak on behalf of all female veterans, but it is scary to face homelessness. When I struggled to find unemployment in 2012, we had more support in place than other female veterans in my position. We spent a total of seventeen months living with my in-laws, but the time period from July 2012 to December 2012 was the most humbling; we ended that year with $500 to our names as we drained our savings in our effort to avoid filing for bankruptcy. Although we still haven’t realized our dreams of homeownership, we are living in an affordable, safe neighborhood that meets many of our needs. Everyone should be so fortunate to have one of their very basic needs, such as housing, met and it’s great to see an organization fighting hard to make that situation more of a reality for some of our hardest hit veterans.

Crash Landing: PTSD, Alternative Treatment, and Secondary Traumas

Crash Landing

Last night I attended a film screening on campus for Crash Landing, a film produced back in 2005 about Canadian combat veterans, their PTSD experiences, and the lack of support they face in their civilian environments. Despite serving two tours in Iraq, this is the first time I’ve heard about the film. Visually, it layers on news footage, personal interviews, and dialogue that all work together to showcase that PTSD differs from person to person. Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Afghanistan were among some of the combat zones described by the interviewees.

There were many moments that evoke empathetic responses and also reminded me of some of my own experiences. It is a rare experience to hear veterans who suffer from high levels of PTSD share their stories in a public format. I applaud them for their courage; mental health issues seem to be a difficult chapter for the Canadian forces on the same level as it is for American veterans and not surprisingly, their VA system hasn’t quite effectively managed these needs as well.

For all the points where I agree with the film in showing daily struggles, revealing tipping point experiences, and coping mechanisms, I was frustrated and irate with how the after action panel disintegrated into an argument over the proposed use of cannabis as an alternative treatment for PTSD. There was a medical representative who stated there are only 2 FDA approved drugs to treat PTSD and one of them was described as commonly being employed to suppress sexual urges in incarcerated pedophiles. I understand her frustration that this drug with its side effects harms the reintegration of service members/veterans. However, there was a panelist who made such an improper display of himself that he hurts the viability of cannabis as one such alternative treatment, others being things like art therapy. Although I am not usually a vocal audience member I flat out interrupted him at one point to comment that the language he uses will cause people to view him as a pot smoking teenager and it’s important to consider his approach when discussing cannabis as an available treatment.

I am very open in the fact I’ve never tried cannabis. My dad regretted drinking and smoking pot so much during his high school years that it never interested me to try this recreational drug. As well, I’ve found the smell of pot smoke makes me nauseous. It is so highly irritating that should I later in life require cannabis as pain medicine over morphine, I would ask for it in some edible form. I cannot tolerate that smell. However, I am not above depriving others of their preferred form of medicinals; for two surgeries I’ve had I was prescribed Perocet and Vicodine and the drugs make me too tired or nauseous to eat that I cannot take them. I’d lose too much weight to be healthy.

There is a secondary get together tomorrow regarding alternative treatment (i.e. the potential of cannabis to treat PTSD) but I am not interested in attending. I do not wish to be in the company of the panelist who is likely to once again exhibit poor behavior because he lacks a full understanding of his position as representing other veterans and certainly veterans with PTSD. However, there are many insights I would like to share regarding my feelings as a combat veteran, the film, and cannabis as a form of medicinal treatment:

1. Employment Opportunities

One of the older audience members brought up the fact not all jobs will allow you to use cannabis. My husband and I also discussed this point further in depth today. Many veterans are attracted to government jobs and local law enforcement jobs where you cannot use drugs, to include cannabis. I interned for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service back in 2011. If I had pursued this career option further, one of the biggest selling points to this agency as a potential employee in my background is my lack of criminal involvement or experimentation with drugs. It’s important to also point out NCIS only picks roughly 150 interns a year and I was fortunate through hard work and good behavior to prove myself worthy of one such slot. If I sat around and talked casually about smoking pot to cope with PTSD, the door to that employment opportunity would have closed up quickly.

2. Secondary Trauma

The film should affect everyone a little differently. Some audience members might have a harder time watching the movie because they or one of their loved ones suffers from PTSD. Some veterans might be angry to see other veterans complain about their plight in life, especially veterans who have been directly shot at, have seen their friends killed, or who have had to kill an enemy combatant. Seeing the film might bring up bad memories and cause anxiety, which manifests itself in many forms. One of the things I wish I had seen in the film was individuals with different levels of anxiety and PTSD. The film focused on persons who suffered from severe forms of PTSD and I feel it once again perpetuates this myth that PTSD is always debilitating. Members of the audience went back and forth about their concerns about, “Is PTSD a death sentence?” and really, there is no right or wrong answer. Someone people might take their lives, some may not. There are so many factors that influence reintegration and also secondary traumas people face that make their lives feel meaningful or stressful.

For me, I struggled to fall asleep and stay asleep last night not so much by watching the trauma evident in the film but by adding another activity into my already packed schedule. I know a big part of managing my stress responses involves getting a regular amount of sleep and extra activities can make it difficult for me to relax and fall asleep or stay asleep. My preferred routine is to go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 6am. I haven’t held this routine for quite some time now but I know when I can, I feel like I’m at my peak performance.

3. The Fraudulent Claims Factor

I am not the only veteran to acknowledge that not all veterans act with honor and fraudulent claims bother me. I have much research ahead of me to unveil what information is available regarding veterans who claim disability for the sole purpose of upscaling his or her standard of living. Check out the VA disability compensation information is and you’ll see why I get bothered by people who fake disabilities for the purposes of cashing in on their military service. There are veterans who deserve treatment and every time someone abuses the system, he or she is taking away from their deserving peers.

The veterans portrayed in the film are but a small number of Canada’s armed forces but I was shocked to see they were involved with a $150 million lawsuit against the Canadian government. I do not deny them their suffering but I am curious at the extent of the lawsuit. Were others involved in the lawsuit who wished not to be filmed? I also wonder if these individuals were ever to receive a settlement would they consider how their benefit might harm the funding available to serve other veterans. There is so much to know and explore, but I would have enjoyed further information. In spite of my persistent chest pains, I could never imagine suing my government for my suffering. Once again, they are pretty well managed by diet and exercise but my curiosity was peaked at the end of the film.

4. “Broken” is Not At All How You Should Talk About Our Veterans

I am not broken. I do not like anyone calling our combat veterans “broken.” We are not pieces of china that fell on the floor. Some of us may suffer from traumatic brain injuries, others have PTSD, some may have dealt with military sexual trauma, etc. These events in our lives do not make us broken. Stop using this inappropriate term. You don’t call someone battling cancer ‘broken’; you have the wherewithal to say “He or she is dealing with cancer” and as such, should show the same respect for our veterans. It’s a big deal for them to share the issues they struggle with; General Mattis gave a speech about not giving in to this broken label and some of the flak I had with the film screening was the use of calling veterans ‘broken.’

I will always have a sense of awe when it comes to General Mattis. I had the privilege of working as part of a team creating briefs for him when he served as the Commanding General of 1st Marine Division and he is as blunt as everyone points out. Marines adore him and for good reason. He cares about mission accomplishment and he cares about Marines. He is not out winning the hearts and minds of politicians who don’t fight in the wars. He did an exceptionally good thing as a leader of Marines to remind all of us that we are not broken despite outsiders who might call us such. As such, it is important when a documentary focuses on veterans and/or their families that a certain amount of consideration comes into play to not describe them as ‘broken.’

Then & Now Series: 9 January 2005 and 2015 Edition

I started a Myspace binder years ago of the journal entries I wrote from late 2004 to late 2007, which covered many transitions: relationships, changes of command, getting married, leaving the Marine Corps, and preparing for college. As eager as I am to engage other women in sharing their stories of choice, I am always a bit hesitant to share pieces of this journal. There are intimate details of people I’ve loved, my anxiety regarding coming home, my desire to get back to Iraq, and my struggles to have a private life in the face of being a female Marine.

In high school, I didn’t date much and as I considered myself to be on the periphery of popularity, I enjoyed certain freedoms regarding the few relationships I did have. I didn’t fear some other chick trying to steal my boyfriend. I was known more for my athleticism and bookish manners than my attractiveness so I didn’t attract the boys who wanted nothing more than to get into my pants. No one pried into how far I did or didn’t go with my boyfriends. I am very thankful in high school that my private life was private and I could share the details I wanted to but others were not privy to information that was none of their business.

Unfortunately, military life is not that way. Women make up such a small component of the Marine Corps and our dating and/or married status make us fodder for all sorts of inappropriate attention, comments, and behavior. My experiences are no different. Thankfully, I was treated well by a variety of men in my life-Marines I knew before becoming a Marine, Marines I served with, and the Marines I’ve met since, but there were those moments I could have done without and I will share more details of those unprofessional situations in a future post.

The Lonely Soldier....I could do without the generic label of soldier to define service members, but let's hope the rest of the book is  good.
The Lonely Soldier….I could do without the generic label of soldier to define service members, but let’s hope the rest of the book is good.

There is a book called The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict I’m tasked with reading for one of my courses this spring for which I will share with you one of the few situations where I was sexually harassed by a superior who was probably too dumb to realize the inappropriateness of his actions. Although we are equally raised to be cognizant of inappropriate language, I feel he missed this message based on how frequently our shop talked freely about their sexual exploits or fantasies.

For a variety of reasons, I know it is important to share some of the more private moments of my life. I cannot encourage others to share their stories if I am not equally vulnerable. We cannot ask others to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do, so I must lead by example. I am cautious in sharing the few journal entries I am sharing today for a variety of reasons. These were entries shared with friends and family at a time in which my ex, Nathan, and I were very serious about our relationship. We had talked of marriage but never moved forward with any plans for an engagement. Many people, including my family now, did not know these details. I try not to compare one relationship to another; one relationship failed and the other survived. There is no one single factor that contributed to these situations but a series of events that extinguished what Nathan and I had and what Thomas and I were able to begin. While I would not be bothered with my husband being friends with his exes, I understand the natural societal reaction to these postings is highly likely to be negative.

My courses have taught me one of the biggest risks we face in our research and findings is how it affects the target population. I want the stories of female veterans to be heard and as such, I cannot sanitize the truth to make it more acceptable. As a woman sharing this story, I will probably be criticized by a variety of people for engaging in a combat zone relationship. I was probably already criticized for previously dating someone legally separated from his wife. I will probably be criticized for sharing publicly how much we liked each other now that I am a married woman with a child of my own. I will probably be criticized more for the fact I am friends with this ex. My list could go on and one but the criticism over and over again results not from my actions but from others’ perception on what is socially acceptable behavior for a woman and for a woman in certain relationships.

Here I am in 2015, January 9th still subject to negative stereotypes based on my sexuality as a woman and the role women are expected to fulfill. Oftentimes, I go to work, I make the decision to not wear much makeup. I know society favors, and the beauty industry thrives, on telling women that a made up face makes us beautiful and hides our imperfections. Let me tell you, my skin breaks out easily from most foundations and even some tinted moistures and very often, I find these products further magnify the issues I see as problems–adult acne and dry skin (I do live in the desert). I enjoy being the girl-next-door kind of beautiful. I only require mascara, some slight blush, lip balm or chapstick, and some moisturizing products to feel glamourous. These few items allow me to look more awake when I’m tired but are not so heavy that if I touch my face, the look comes undone. This “face” is my beautiful.

As I am not in the Marine Corps anymore, I have more freedom to be an individual. I’m dying my hair red for the first time in my life. Although I could have done so in the Marine Corps, we are restricted to hair color choices that are “natural” for our physical appearances. For example, it would not be appropriate to have the chunky blonde highlights nor would the service allow me to do the ombre colors that are very popular today.

Here is a reverse ombre hairstyle photo I found on the internet.
Here is a reverse ombre hairstyle photo I found on the internet.

My hair was also restricted to being up and off the bottom edge of my blouse collar, which is part of the reason I am still most comfortable wearing my hair up as opposed to being down. My daughter and I are enjoying one of our particular mother-daughter outings on Saturday as I get my hair dyed and cut and she gets hers trimmed. She has already requested some pink for her hair and thankfully, my hairstylist has hair chalk for her which washes out easily.

And on the news front, I got a limited glimpse today about a standoff in France in which a few terrorists and quite unfortunately, a few hostages, were killed. I was incredibly busy at work and so I didn’t get to stop to watch the news in full. I hope tonight to watch the news and learn a bit more about what’s going on. It sounds as though it might be related to the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo, but I’m not entirely sure.

Take care everyone,
Cheryl

Below is who I was back in 2005, still deployed in Iraq:

10 years ago today...
10 years ago today…

Where Terrorism and Freedom Collide: The World Says “Je Suis Charlie”

The world watched today as innocent civilians were murdered in brutal fashion by three terrorists, one turned himself in and two remain at large. While all acts of terrorism should rightfully be condemned, it is especially disgusting to see civilians attacked because radical persons are offended by religiously offensive cartoons. The world will change in the wake of the loss of these persons. It changed in the duration of the last moments of the lives of the fallen, it changed in the hunt for the suspects, and it will change again when the murder trials begin. Unfortunately, other radicals will be inspired by today’s action, but thankfully, so many more are inspired to say that they abhor terrorism. Je suis Charlie, they say, in regards to the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and its staff targeted today.

Terrorism and freedom collide. It happens over and over again in history. That’s not to say the people who died today deserved to die. They did not. They did not deserve to be victimized for their life’s work, in spite of how this work offended others.

There is a false sense of security we all, non-radical Muslims included, are lulled into when we believe we are safe from such attacks. I don’t want to go into detail about my beliefs regarding tactics, strategies, and the role of complacency and vigilance in preventing victimization and being victimized. There are things I know and believe based on how I was taught as a United States Marine. No one is perfect at preventing themselves from becoming a victim of any number of crimes, especially terrorism. However, we should not cower in fear. Being afraid to live lets terrorists (of all sorts) win.

We should mourn the passing of every person who died today, just as our hearts have mourned other terrorist victims. Their lives were snuffed out in cold blood. Children will grow up without their parents. Spouses will go on without their partners. Life dreams will never be fulfilled. A business has suffered the incredible loss of valuable team members. A nation has seen terrorism creep under its doorstep and invite itself in.

I wanted to write recently about the end of the war in Afghanistan but clearly, today’s terrorist act proves that terrorism is an insidious weed that crops up time and time again. Its locale changes. Tactics change. Victims have new names and new faces. Terrorists are replaced by new followers. But we can take terrorism down at its knees because terrorism is oppressed when the world stands united and says, no more.

It is a daily battle to combat terrorism and it’s not always easy, but it requires people to live their lives. Enjoy each day you are given. Seek out work you enjoy and keep good company with your family, friends, and peers. Seek out new challenges and great adventures. Do not be afraid to fail because that is how you learn and thrive. Enjoy your privileges and seek to make them available to others. Equality requires us to recognize the disenfranchisement of others, empower them, and find ways to reduce social injustices. It is a global effort to cut the bloodlines that feed terrorism, but it is up to ordinary citizens to take the first steps. The more steps we take together, the more victories we make. Do not be afraid to make the world safer for yourself and your respective communities.