Suicide Prevention Month: The Power of Observation & Reflection

http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ThePowerof1.aspx
http://www.veteranscrisisline.net/ThePowerof1.aspx

As I begin to touch on the sensitive subject of suicide prevention–and I am not limiting this conversation to our veteran community–please know I am grateful to you all each and every day for being part of my audience. Years ago, I was told not to “write a book” as I prepared for my first deployment.  This unfortunate statement haunted me for years.  It stymied my trust to share–outside my trusted circle of friends and family–what it’s like to serve because I would be subjected to potential trolls just waiting to pounce on my flaws, mistakes, and gender.  This fear creeps in as we draw closer to sharing my Veteran Vision Project photo.  Already I see nasty comments made to other recently shared photos on the Veteran Vision Project Facebook page.

Let’s remember for (hopefully) more than the few seconds it takes to comment that we’re looking at real people.  The individuals portrayed in these photographs are not actors and actresses portraying characters, but living through their own experiences, not ones scripted for them.  They are not models paid for their time but people who may want to send a message to others or people who want nothing more than a family photo that merges the past and present.  Both are perfectly acceptable reasons to participate in Devin’s project.  Devin Mitchell photographs these individuals because it is work he loves doing and yes, his book will sell: he deserves to profit from his work.  I hope it is successful long after we all pass from this earth.

He is uncovering the details of military service tucked in the margins of history: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), MST (military sexual trauma), suicide attempts, and issues of hate geared towards same sex couples and transgendered persons.  He also showcases individuals in their happiest moments: expecting children, their new careers, or donning collegiate graduation attire.  America needs someone like Devin to remind us the gap of understanding between civilians, service members, and veterans is due in part because we choose–quite often–to not see the full picture, to not inquire beyond our perceptions.

On this note, I share two different observations and reflections on the same situation: a Marine committed suicide outside my barracks on Camp Blue Diamond in 2004.  (I made some rash judgements in my initial journal entry and it’s important to share my failings as a person here, too.We all make mistakes, but we have the power to change, and should strive, for the better.)

(Saturday) 18 Sept. 2004  

Another day gone in Iraq.  On a day to day basis, it doesn’t even feel as though I’m in a combat zone and then I’m brought back down to Earth.  Earlier this week, maybe on Tuesday, we had a Marine commit suicide.  He shot himself with his own rifle in one of the portajohns outside my barracks, only nineteen years old, too.  It has been weighing on my mind and I’m disgusted and disappointed that he thought his life wasn’t worth living.  Besides the fact, he was only here two weeks and for the most part we see no action here at Camp Blue Diamond (Ramadi, Iraq).

I have started to shift my focus because I know there’s nothing [anyone] can do now and worrying is only hurting me.  I will never know why he thought his life was so shitty to die (kill) himself.  As Marines, we are just suppose to be better than that.

We also had two mortar impacts on base on separate days.  One day a Corpsman took minor shrapnel to the leg and walked himself to BAS [battalion aid station] and the other attack happened last night. I was on guard outside my work and I heard this loud boom, louder than the sound of thunder.  It impacted on base.  Usually when it’s off base it vibrates the buildings and the sound isn’t as loud.

No Marines got injured last night, which is good.  I do reports all day long and someone is always KIA [killed in action], WIA [wounded in action], and that includes enemies, too.

29 Sep 04

A Life Wasted is Still A Life Remembered

Today is Wednesday, but here in Iraq it is yet again another Monday.  All days are Mondays and typically called “Groundhog’s Day” as well by those that have seen the movie of reliving the same day, day after day.  I consider it Monday as Monday is that dreaded day of the week after a wonderfully nice, rested weekend (or any weekend for that reason) because that feeling is how I feel in Iraq.  Being stateside was the “weekend.”  I [had] so much time that I did not know what to do and most of it was wasted on being lazy, sleeping in, and waiting for the weekend to end.

Although my life was “wasting away” back there because I wasn’t actively involved in trying to better myself, by PT or classes, it wasn’t until here that I truly learned how someone could waste their life away.

Iraq makes you think in ways you may not have thought of before.  Each place is different and luckily I have been blessed here.  I enjoy a relatively safe camp I stay at equipped with solid living quarters [versus] the tent that other service members reside at in other camps, a chow hall where I only have to watch out for spoiled milk instead of consuming the usually, unpalatable MRE [meals ready to eat], and I have a meager gym where I can keep in shape.  These commodities are a rarity in some places and being that we are in the technological age, I also have access to phones and the internet, something unheard of in the days of Vietnam.  Yes I am blessed.  For all the good things in my life, I am still here in a “war” and have seen some of what it can do.

I am sheltered here, as a female, and do not go on patrols where our Marines can encounter any array of weaponry used against them to include IEDs [improvised explosive devices], rpgs [rocket propelled grenades]. mortars, and other such things.  Getting to my camp here, I still faced the possibility of seeing such things, but I lucked out.  No excitement, no casualties.  Sadly boredom has taken on a new role in my life.  It tells me that nothing is happening that can cause harm to Marines or myself.  I can say today that here, bored is what you want to be.

Boredom can cause you to think though and I work too much to do much of it.  The schedule is a twelve hour day, seven days a week, and on top of it all, I spend my mornings running and usually get various odd tasks accomplished at night.  For me, it’s the best way to pas[s] the time and not to think of the fact that I am in Iraq.  I still think of what happens to my Marines here and how some of them never quite will make it home to tell of what they’ve seen, but there will be a flag draped coffin where a Marine should be standing. [Please know, this last sentence is more haunting to me now; I made it months before my watch officer was killed on 2 February 2005.]

Their ages vary and their stories are never the same.  Back home wives and children, siblings, and parents, who have no answers that satisfy why their loved ones were lost, are left behind.  Posthumously honored medals, ribbons, and ranks cannot make up for the life that is lost.  Fellow Marines can piece together memories from Iraq for the family but they are bound to be hesitant as to share the often horrendous details that led to a fellow Marine’s death.

I haven’t yet encountered losing a Marine as KIA and I pray I never will, but here in Iraq we still lose Marines, and in this case, by this Marine’s own hands.  I have heard some people call his action selfish, sad, and others are almost indifferent as it is another death locked into the experience of being in a combat zone.  One could blame his actions on a lack of leadership attention, depression, boredom, hormone imbalance, but we will never know.  It’s what we do know that’s gruesome.

Only a few weeks ago, in the middle of the night this Marine went out by himself, weapon in hand, because our weapons follow us everyone.  This Marine holed himself up in a portajohn, about the only private place one could find here, and decided to end his life.  His age: nineteen years old.

After his rifle went off, Marines rushed out there, from what I was told, to discover a fellow Marine committed suicide.  In the mi[d]st of it all, accountability was being taken to see who it was as the Marine was quite unrecognizable.  I didn’t even know of this incident, which happened several feet outside my barracks, until the next morning.  I feel almost guilty because I slept peacefully through it all.  [Dear audience, please remember, I was pulling 12 hour shifts.]

Hearing about the suicide the next day was strange.  I found it too hard to believe because we had a good camp, tucked away from major violence, and then this happens.  I walked by that portajohn the next morning to find it duct taped up with a sign declaring it secured, a used up chem light still hung on the door, a dried blood trail on the bottom ledge, and a piece of combat camera equipment that was either a lamp or other gear that reflected light.

The details I still remember as two of my roommates are in combat camera, one of whom had to be on scene and took photos of the suicide victim.  She called him unrecognizable, appearing to be “Chinese”, although his ID photo showed he was not of an [Asian] background.  No one could tell at first who he was and the whole scene of it was shocking.  The image that I think of is of Pvt Pile from Full Metal Jacket, but I would never want to see those photos to see if I was correct or not.

I think of the fact that  this Marine that I know only as a “suicide victim” left behind so much in his life.  I would be wrong to say he’s selfish because I don’t know the inner turmoil he dealt with that caused him to take such drastic measures.  He didn’t know the resources he had available, nor the countless Marines that would have gladly taken out a pack [of] cards and played a game with him or smoked a cigarette with him if he smoked.  I don’t even know his name but I will remember someone who had so much to live for if he had only known.  Even if he goes unremembered by many here, I will never forget he was a person.  He was a Marine.

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I don’t know why I went back and wrote further about the Marine’s death, but I’m glad I did.  I didn’t realize then how much power it could have today, eleven years later.  Suicide is still a prevalent problem with veterans (and service members).  Our civilian peers should also not be overlooked.  Their lives mirror many of the same struggles and personal tragedies (bullying, sexual trauma, etc.).  These communities can (and should) work together to prevent the loss of any one person from suicide.  Touching even one life is a monumental difference in this world.

Homecomings: Snapshots & Realities

Hmmm…so lots of good things went down last week, but the short work week was insanely busy.  I added more social events to my weekly plans than I would normally accommodate, which meant I’m recovering from sleep deprivation this week.

Devin Mitchell made himself at home when visiting Memorial Union--it was so great meeting him!
Devin Mitchell made himself at home when visiting Memorial Union–it was so great meeting him!

I had a great time meeting Devin Mitchell, photographer for Veteran Vision Project, for starters.  I promise once my photo is finished, I will share it with you all.

Ehren Tool treated us to a show--he made several cups on site out of a 25lb. block of clay!
Ehren Tool treated us to a show–he made several cups on site out of a 25lb. block of clay!

I also met Ehren Tool who came to ASU recently.  Please know I will devote a whole entry to him here soon–probably this weekend.  I checked out his gallery talk and there’s so much I want to digest before sharing my thoughts.

Last week was also Marine Week!!!  My family went to the exhibits at Mesa Riverview Park.  I am proud of all the Marines who worked the event–their efforts were flawless.  While I love all my Marines, I especially love seeing the Silent Drill Platoon perform.  However, the exhibits started at ten and by noon, my five-year old had enough of the heat.  She didn’t care the Marines performed without talking–that they tossed rifles in the air–she just wanted to leave.

IMG_7581 IMG_7582IMG_7592I mention my–happily–busy week because I enjoyed being a participant of each but also because they touch on different aspects of homecoming for me, in literal and figurative ways.

Today, I came across the image below (and many others) through MSN and it made me realize I’ve wanted to discuss the notion of ‘homecoming’ for awhile–scraping below the surface meaning of the word.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 8.06.26 PM

In the simplest sense “returning home” is a neutral and somewhat vague concept.  It can apply to a person and/or group; it also doesn’t matter–in the context of the definition–where the individual (or group) had been but their destination–home–has social value.  Home can also encompass many different places, depending on the individual or group.  The definition is also a little less vague in the fact it limits homecoming to a singular event.  Lastly, and I want to hinge on this key point, homecoming is overwhelmingly used to describe the occasion in the positive.  The four insights I just gave you for ‘homecoming’ provide some talking points about why homecoming is a difficult term to associate with military service.

Home–as a destination–is what matters.

I love the concept of ‘home’ but it’s different once you leave, potentially good and bad.  The landscape will change over time, the people will change over time, the social setting will change over time.  Will ‘home’ still feel like home after weathering these changes? In my situation, home has a short lifespan of feeling comfortable.  I can weather home (Rhode Island) for about a week before feeling antsy for my normal routine.  My physical home is enjoyable when I’m not reminded of the slew of chores to maintain my residence.  I feel incredibly embarrassed to complain about having a roof over my head knowing that so many do not.  I should find more simple joy in what is, even when it does not live up to my standards.   I also think the current Syrian refugee crisis added a further layer to the conversation: what if you never get to go home?  It’s difficult to watch so many people treat these refugees (and refugees, in general) as less than human.  There is so much space in this world and so much potential for peace, prosperity, and creativity if people opened up their ‘home’ nations so that others may have a safe place to call ‘home.’

What is home?

Home can be a place/feeling/a person.  I often fail at captivating my audience about why Iraq will always feel like home to me.  I saw so little of it and yet, in my heart, I feel it is a beautiful nation undergoing years and years of great tragedy.  It is also home because of a love/respect/deep friendship that happened there.  The reality of my situation is I left ‘home’ then and returned to the States, a place that no longer felt like ‘home.’  When I describe home now, I typically use the word in two ways.  I describe Rhode Island as home; it’s where the majority of my family lives.  I describe my residence as home because that’s where I live.  Iraq is my past home and I’m bothered that terrorism is still rampant there.

Homecoming as a ‘singular’ event.

I’ve had many homecomings, usually in the sense of high school dances but also trips back east and returns to the States, once after a trip to Cape Verde and twice from deployment.  Homecoming in the military sense would describe my arrival back at Camp Pendleton after the first deployment and my arrival in Sheridan, Wyoming after the second deployment.  Those happenings were less positive (see focus on this issue below) than portrayed say in the images above.  Homecoming–for me–has been a process and not a single event here and there.  In October, I can add another lenses to the notion of homecoming when I attend training in Nashville, Tennessee.  More to follow on that issue later.

Homecoming-facing the past, present, and ‘pain points’

I mentioned earlier homecomings are thought of as positive events, but what about when they aren’t?  Your story–pain and all–is marginalized in history.  Not too long ago I watched Fort Bliss per one of my professors’ recommendation.  There are tough moments in the film, which I will discuss one day, but this story provides a truer glimpse that homecomings are not always beautiful singular events.  Not everyone is greeted by their families; in familial units torn by divorce, as depicted in the film, who knows is your child will embrace you or be present when you step off the bus?  I didn’t have my family waiting for me when I came home from the first deployment, but my unit was there–they were my family–but even my social network there was incomplete.  Returning from the second deployment, I was embraced by my husband and his family, but once again, my family wasn’t there.  Sometimes, it’s very difficult being the adventurer in the family.  Everyone stays in their comfort zone in Rhode Island.  I journey home time and time again, bearing the financial burden and emotional toll of not seeing my actions reciprocated.  In the last few years, especially as I recovered financially from unemployment, I haven’t made the journey home.  I don’t want to cough up $2,000 or more for flights, hotel rooms, meals, and so on because I know it’s a huge dent to my savings and I have zero desire to put those expenses on a credit card, unless it was an emergency.

I know I’ve given you more to digest today than I normally do and in odd fashion, started on a positive note and ended on more serious thoughts.  There is always a happy thought in my day, despite my seriousness.  To prove it though, please enjoy the cute Prickly Pear image. below.  I use these stickers all the time on Facebook; Prickly Pear stickers are my stickers of choice for Facebook messenger.  They always put a smile on my face.

~C

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Veteran Vision Project: Sentiments of a “Model”

My Little One and I
My Little One and I

Yesterday’s photo shoot with Devin Mitchell (Veteran Vision Project photographer) went so well, I wanted to share my feelings about it. I won’t divulge exactly how the photo was laid out, although I did discuss it with my local peer group (perks for those who work with me and for whom I work for) because this is such a big deal for us. Devin did a fantastic job putting the finishing touches on my general concept. The photo above is an after shot my husband took of Avery and I.

In encouraging others to participate as models, let me say, Devin does not direct how something should look or feel. His interest and his heart are for allowing your message [whatever it may be] to shine. I indicated what room we would be photographed in, the items I was interested in having in the shot, and I picked my uniform, my civilian dress, and my daughter’s clothes. Devin managed the logistics for us, because he has the eyes as the photographer on where things (and us) had to be moved to make best use of our space. He listens and he notices. He found a better arrangement for our artifacts I had not considered as I was looking through the situation as the subject and how controlled I see my everyday life.

In sharing details of my life and what I want both stories to say, Devin figured out what I could not see.

As well, I want to touch on Devin’s professionalism. He has done a great job tackling multiple assignments and when the one before mine was running over time, he called me right away to discuss his scheduling conflict. He also asked my permission to bring over two of my ASU colleagues, which we didn’t originally plan for the photo shoot. My anxiety crept in a little because ASU has lots of employees–trust me I do not know them all–and I wasn’t sure what the vibe would be like meeting them on the spot for something so personal. Taking to heart the notion of Semper Gumby (Always Flexible), I once again trusted Devin and opened my home as well to my fellow ASU peers. It turns out I already knew one, Kevin, and I met Ben. Both were respectful and had a good time hanging out with my husband and daughter while I changed over from my civilian dress into my desert camouflage uniform and pulled my hair up so it was up and off the bottom edge of my collar per regulations.

Trust me…it sounds like it should be easy to change over, but not when shoulder length, layered fine hair is involved. On top of those issues, I had spent probably 45 minutes or so curling my hair, spritzing it with product, and re curling the sections that fell flat as I curled other sections. I expressed decided against a sock bun although that was the way I wore my hair when I was in, except for the time period where I cut my hair short. That time period was post my first deployment and I donated the hair to Locks of Love. Although I had a period of instruction in boot camp on how to do either the sock bun or a French braid, I never mastered a braid until after having my daughter. (Thus far, I’ve learned to do a French braid, Dutch braid, waterfall braid–barely–and a fishtail braid, although it’s difficult for me to do on my own hair.) I asked Devin to not photograph the back of my hair…there were some wispy pieces, which have always been a problem for me. I was constantly critiqued for my hair at boot camp.

Putting on my full uniform (minus a cover, what civilians call a hat…not on duty, not wearing a cover) again was an experience. I last tossed on boots and uts [utilities] for a camping trip awhile back. It’s been 8 years since I wore my uniform as I would wear it for work. My utility bottoms felt huge; I had to look at the size tag to ensure I didn’t have my husband’s trousers. I was 108lbs. when I left the Marine Corps. I now weigh 112lbs. and there was still plenty of room for a second one of me in those trousers! The full experience of getting dressed “for work” again was striking. I measured the proper placement for my brand new chevrons on Monday–no room for error. Thank you to Sgt. Grit for getting my items to me on time. I ordered the chevrons, an extra gray martial arts belt–which surprisingly now has velcro on the inside–and boot bands. The martial arts belt ended up being unnecessary as my husband located my old one. No problem with an extra belt though…it will always come in handy on camping trips!

I felt like a completely different woman again coming downstairs in my uniform. Avery’s never seen me dressed that way. As well, I also wiped a full face of makeup off I had on specifically for the civilian photo–primer; two kinds of concealer; three different kinds of mascara; gel eyeliner; and a lip stain. For everyone who knows the daily me, I do not invest 45 plus minutes of doing my hair or don this much makeup in my every day life, with the exception of special occasions. Yesterday was about making a statement on so many levels, even if not all messages will be recognized by all audience members. Photographing myself as ‘flawlessly beautiful’ versus my ‘barely there make up beautiful’ was an important message for me to convey based on my feelings about society and makeup.

I will save my discussions about the context of my photo for when it becomes available. Now that the nerves have (mostly) gone away, I will report I am happy I took this leap. I put myself out there to make my statements, all important in different ways. More so, I am happy to support Devin who is doing great things with the Veteran Vision Project. Once he gets his book is published, I am definitely purchasing a copy!!! I can’t wait to have his time capsule of history as a treasure in my home.

Semper Fidelis, everyone.

~Cheryl

Veteran Vision Project Photo Shoot Planning

The Day Before
The Day Before

It’s almost time to don my combat boots again! Devin Mitchell, creator of the Veteran Vision Project and fellow Arizona State University student, is coming to my home tomorrow to create a one-of-a-kind image blending my past and my present life.

The stories I wish to share are not fully set into stone.  I’m torn between a couple concepts (all of which are important in their own ways) but I’m trying to see my messages from the audience’s perspectives.  Everyone exposed to this image will be affected in some way and there is no way to gauge how the combined story will be interpreted by strangers and my own family (parents, aunts and uncles, and dearest friends). There are valuable lessons to pass on and statements to be made.  All of Devin’s photographs, I’m realizing, are memoirs in themselves, with or without the entanglement of words.  I’m stepping out of my comfort zone here to be part of that time capsule Devin is creating of our nation’s veterans (and active service members).

Yesterday I finished reading Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell Your Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory and I was struck by the author’s acknowledgement memoirs give us the space to unburden ourselves but also–at times–invades the privacy of others, most importantly those that sometimes do not want their secrets shared.

As humans, it’s impossible to share our stories without also in some way sharing details about the people in our lives–loved ones, enemies, and so forth.  It’s not my place to say I have the authority to share some secrets, but there are some stories I don’t want to be lost in history, particularly my family history and the collective history of the Marine Corps, which means publicly acknowledging others who do not know me.  The message will be blatant to those people and their privacy may be interrupted but I cannot say with 100% this interruption will occur.

In an age of many things “going viral” I am ok with the fact if the photograph Devin takes becomes popular.  He does spectacular work to unfold and redevelop the conversation as it pertains to our nation’s veterans.  His work presents the veteran (and active duty) community and their family members in a more theatrical/realistic/justice promoting light than what mainstream media typically is willing to invest of their time and effort.  I am barely touching the surface of what Devin is able to do based on the rapport he develops with his participants, but he is nothing short of amazing.  What I don’t wish to see (and hope does not occur) is media badgering of someone I wish to reach out to using this photograph (and by extension, other persons closely associated with this individual).

Please know I am making plenty of intentional choices in what’s photographed (and excluded) from my photo shoot.  Not all the decisions will be mine as well.  Devin is the photographer and understands things I don’t when it comes to how everything will come together.  I fully trust his judgement and skill set; he has done well in the past to honor our veterans so I trust him with my story.  Another important distinction for the audience is my husband’s expressed decision to not be photographed.  This is his choice and no statement must be made regarding his personal preference.  Lastly, my artifacts are very personal.  If anyone hears nasty comments about what I’ve chosen to share or others’ perceptions of me, please do not share these sentiments with me.  I know well enough not everyone in this world likes me as an individual or that they will like how I present my experiences.