The endeavor I set for myself to write a memoir about Iraq conflicts with a lot of life responsibilities. I work 40 hours a week. I am a wife. I am a mom. I am (also) a dog mom. I am a graduate student (again). I am a friend, daughter, and sibling. I am a coworker. I am a homeowner. I write in an often cluttered workspace that signifies my relationships with others. There are dishes, laundry, bills, phone calls (or text messages, Facebook notifications, etc.), and regular house cleaning silently screaming for my attention along with the bodies that reside in the same house as me.
When I write, I constantly cross two worlds. I face Iraq and stateside life circa 2004 to 2005 as it exists in preserved packages (photo album, journal entries, and souvenirs). I also navigate over my current life, a house cluttered with dog toys and empty or partially filled coffee mugs. I might get a hundred words on the page reconstructing my deployment before I realize some nagging household responsibility gnawing at me. I must try and ignore household responsibilities that infringe on my writing time and space. I am not a full-time writer who can send everyone away off to school and/or work all the time nor can I afford a hotel stay for uninterrupted writing time. I am creative though with my resources.
Yesterday I took a PTO day and used almost 2.5 hours strictly for writing. I set the stove timer in hour increments. My goal was to write about my most difficult feelings after returning home from Iraq in 2005; in fact, I confided to a close friend recently I’ve contemplated this writing assignment at least ten times in the past three years. The trajectory of this memoir originally was to only focus on the deployment, but now I feel doing so robs the reader of seeing the experience full-circle. I owe the reader a sneak peek at life back stateside.
I have a plethora of Myspace entries from back then chronicling my return and the whirlwind first few months home. My life was a mess and it’s not surprising, I was also a mess. I was bitter and heartbroken. I was exhausted from constantly switching gears. I was academically competitive and frustrated when I couldn’t outperform others. I returned home in March but by sometime in June, I was on a break from drinking alcohol. My journal entries went from happy to angry to grateful in a cyclical pattern and I wasn’t too shy to name names on who pissed me off on certain days. Mostly, I was lonely. Homecoming was a short-lived happy experience and a lot of days after were empty.
I’m not sure yet I can fully encapsulate the social isolation, but it explains why I desired returning to Iraq. I felt needed in Iraq and at home, I no longer felt that way. I was just there because the deployment was over. I made the rounds seeing family and college friends before jumping back into training schools (Technical Escort followed by Corporals’ Course) when the logical thing would have been to slow down. It’s probably most important to mention I didn’t have a best friend the way I expected I would when I returned home. I think that’s why I’ve changed a lot in how I treat others.
It’s not as though I ever felt I had to take First Marine Division’s “No Better Friend” to heart; I loved having close connections with my friends growing up, but I didn’t have a consistent confidante in my life after returning home. The Myspace entries make that issue evident. Yesterday’s writing session also made me realize much of those journal entries are too “in the moment” to share. My thoughts are messy. I had moments of high school drama. I rambled for the sake of filling my time. As much as I wish I wrote more yesterday, I know it’s important to discover my sense of loss was connected not just to the deployment but going through a period in my life where “best friend” friendship was lacking. I cannot think of any other time in my life where I felt I was missing a best friend.
I am not one to share pieces of the memoir in progress, but I’ll close with just a few things on how I’m building this part of the book. I recognize some parts will be rewritten a lot but at this point, I do not feel I could use anything directly from the May 2005 to July 2005 journal entries concerning a failed relationship. The hot and cold “He loves me, he loves me not.” sentiments I felt at the time can be spelled out better if shared from a teaching perspective. There are three journal entries (June 23, 2005; June 24, 2005; and one from July 5th, 2005) worth folding into the memoir as my raw conversational voice covering this time period. Lastly, I am on the fence about how much I want my audience to see me as alone during this part of homecoming.
Today’s post is not entirely related to my usual writing but for probably the past year I’ve had a string of recurring dreams that I feel might be important to share. Dreams are not something I talk about too often and looking back I think there are only two entries where I’ve laid out what dreaming has been like for me after my first tour in Iraq. In December 2015, I decided to share the nightmaresI had during the Fall 2015 semester of my first graduate program. In the other entry from June 2017 I decided to talk about the other dreamsto include those I’ve experienced about losing teeth.
Dreams aren’t something I remember very often. As I mentioned in the past for several years I dreamt about losing a mouthful of teeth all at one time; these were the dreams I’d remember. I know people sometimes say dreams of losing teeth are related to fears about death, and maybe they are right. Occasionally, I might dream of seeing my mother or maternal grandmother–both deceased–but by and large, I didn’t recall any dream outside of those losing teeth until I started my first graduate program. The stress of school responsibilities triggered a series of dreams from the first semester through the last about something service connected (although not from my actual deployments) and/or close people in my life.
This issue made me exceptionally nervous to begin a second graduate program. I did not want to fall back into terrible dreams and I shared this concern with a dear friend of mine who encouraged me to not let that way of thinking prevent me from pursuing an educational goal. Thankfully, she was right that it wasn’t likely to be the same. Although I have dealt with some service related (again, not directly my military service) dreams, they do take a different form.
The self-care routine I started in late 2015 is paying off in that department. The dreams I’ve had, instead of being violent and exceptionally stressful, tend to be more confusing about choices before me. In one, I had to explain to a fellow Marine some of my triggers so I wasn’t unnecessarily startled. In another, I was completing physical fitness tests to see if I was qualified to serve as a Marine officer while (in the dream) expressing doubt about whether that’s what I wanted to do in life. The dream I had last night is not like either of those scenarios.
In last night’s dream I found myself in a home I realized my parents purchased and I was upstairs in a young woman’s bedroom; her possessions revealed she was maybe late teens to early twenties. While I cannot see it, I know the entire home is devoid of furniture save for this one room. What’s particularly odd is the two other similar versions of this dream I find I am in the same scenario but the room is switched. In one, it’s a playroom full of unused childhood toys and in the other, it’s a formal family living room complete with the usual furniture. In all three dreams, the other rooms are bare. Somehow, I’ve comprehended the original tenants sold the home this way to my parents and the furnished room–whether it’s the young woman’s bedroom, the living room, or the children’s playroom–signifies some sort of trauma to the other family. The room is left, shrine-like, for me to explore.
That’s what creeps me out.
As an adult, I am walking through this home with no real concept of where it is or why I am the only one there, but my task is to get through these spaces. It feels eerie in the dream. I’ve recognized many times I walk through other parts of the home intentionally avoiding these spaces. It is apparent each time that the rooms have been abandoned for years, but I’ve gone out of my way to not touch the furnishings and I don’t pick up the clutter I find in the children’s room or the woman’s bedroom. Until last night.
In this version of the dream, I notice a series of cupboards and some light shining into the room. The cupboards have been covering up a series of windows. While I take notice of this information, I make a mental note to remove them at a later time and look at the room in its current state. There are new objects that shouldn’t be there. My mind recognizes my daughter and my sister-in-law’s kids were playing here. I can’t remember everything new that I saw, but I do recall an open five gallon bucket of paint and I fear the kids will destroy something valuable in the room. Now I cannot avoid cleaning up the room because the kids have been here.
I start by assessing the room. The bed is made and carefully layers with sheets and what might be a crocheted blanket. The blanket is a warm almost mustard yellow color and one of the most noticeable items in the room. There are books everywhere dominating the room. Some are paperbacks and others hardbound. A collection of posters and hand drawn artwork line the walls. There honestly isn’t much for empty space anywhere, but it is not a hoarding situation. This room was a happy space.
The first thing I do is start removing the personal artwork from the walls. The pencil drawings are family portraits I’m guessing by the way the people look and the writing scribbled across them that I cannot read. I’m struck by the sensation of pulling the paper off the wall, the feel of the construction paper in my hands. (I had to look at Office Depot’s website to share with you the items securing the paper to the walls are silver T-pins like the kind teachers use in their classrooms.) As I start to disassemble this woman’s room by going through her personal effects, I am struck by how emotional this process is and I no longer focus on the new items in the space. I find a hardbound book with recent water damage to its dust cover. I am relieved upon removing the dust cover the book underneath is undamaged.
This is where the dream ends. I notice a flash of light and wake up.
I woke up because there is a thunderstorm in progress. The lightning was real and it is quickly followed by thunder. As hard as I try to go back to sleep–while I don’t want to enter back into the dream that just ended–I can’t. The sound of thunder often startles me like mortar attacks so I lay in bed waiting to go back to sleep, but I can’t get this dream out of my head. It’s more upsetting to me than it should be and I don’t know how to explain the sense of loss cleaning up this room.
Originally, I was planning on sharing the dream only with friends and family but I think others might relate. I don’t know if this dream is haunting me because I’ve been working on my memoir or made a lot of changes this past year. I recognize the dream, compared to the past ones, is more important because something changed in the pattern of the dream. I wanted to save something of value before it got destroyed by the carelessness of children. Looking back on the dream, I didn’t look to scold the kids for being in the room and return to my habit of avoiding the space. I also didn’t search for anyone to help me go through the items to sort through what could be donated, trashed, or kept for sentimental reasons.
I realized I just needed to go through the room and I started to tackle that project last night.
A friend opened up to me recently about her admiration towards me putting my life out there for others to learn from and her sentiments make me happy. It is not an easy thing to open up my heart, talking about the good and the bad, knowing that others may misunderstand my words and/or criticize my life or life choices. When I speak of my experiences, I am also telling stories about my family, past boyfriends, former coworkers, or supervisors. Each person has a right to be angry, indifferent, or pleased by being included, but I worry about being judged and sometimes I worry about the risk to my professional non-writing career.
The thing is I love to write. It is my release in this world. It is my quiet time to contemplate. For this reason, don’t find it odd I kept a journal during my recent Huts for Vets trip. The organization provided us with some small stapled journals, a handful of lined and unlined pages to unclutter our minds at our discretion. I was not hesitant to pick one up and found space to write at bedtime, in the morning before others joined me at the large dining table, and after meals. There is a joy in the social norm others do not open up personal journals. In this setting, I made my identifiably mine by leaving my pen or phone sitting on top; it’s a simple gesture to ensure it was not mistakenly picked up and read.
I didn’t write real complex observations. I did not want to attach an academic research mentality towards this hiking trip, but I wanted to reflect on the shaping of the community. Everywhere I’ve been the food, language, clothing, etc. says something about our location, needs, group values, and so forth. The details cement us in a particular space and time. Frequently throughout our trip we talked about “our tribe.” I love that feeling. We adopted each other from the very beginning and it’s an important quality we can all bring to other aspects of our lives. We can always “adopt” people into our close circle of contacts. We do not owe it to others to say why we bring others closer to us–why we cherish them. We just bring them in, as though they’ve always been a part of us.
This week has brought with it a variety of conversations requiring me to reflect on my connectedness with others. I found some people I don’t know as well as I thought, and their actions also indicated the same. In other interactions, I found people still know me well and remember conversations I spoke from the heart and the words remain valuable to their lives. That makes me happy. I want my friends to feel I’m someone who is here for all their days, not just the good ones. I also found this week I can show others a side of me I don’t let everyone see and I did so through sharing some of my musical tastes. The thing is we are always under constant transformation, and some people want to be part of that process and some don’t.
Those closest to me recognize how hard building my memoir has been as a matter of reopening old wounds, an investment of my time, and as a matter of representing the Marine Corps and American society. I’ve started and stopped this process so many times. In particular, I found myself struggling building one vignette because I had to see myself and the other person in that moment and how we couldn’t talk properly to each other and how that conversation tore down some trust we had with each other; writing that scene meant finding the right writing space. I sat outside two summers ago, knowing the triple digit Arizona temperatures would keep others outside my “writing bubble” so if I cried thinking about that loss I had time to compose myself before returning to work. As much as I don’t like to be embarrassed publicly, I really hate to let others see me cry. I don’t like being that vulnerable.
The thing is I needed another break from memoir writing. For all the healthy aspects of confronting the past and saying I survived it, I repeatedly have had to look at my personal failings, how trauma radiates out in multiple directions, and how isolated I was after my first deployment. My life was falling apart the first six months I was home. I don’t like talking about how self-destructive I was back then, but I was actively killing myself one bad decision after another. It’s a difficult thing to talk about how much I hated myself. I blamed myself a lot for my life falling apart and I wanted to go back to Iraq to escape it all.
With writing, I have to find a way to tell the story without beating myself up all over again. I have the life I have now because I had to say “no” to certain people, things, and professional opportunities. That being said, I’ve spent time this week also realizing it’s not entirely fair of me to just write about my first deployment. By doing so, I sell this idea I’ve only grown from that first tour in Iraq. The thing is I grew a lot from the second tour in Iraq. I was dreadfully unhappy with my time in the Marine Corps and I walked alone, literally, so much around Camp Al Asad being alone with my thoughts. If I wasn’t working, I spent as much time away from my peer group as possible. I went to the gym and I walked to the command computer center (or the internet cafe used by everyone in our area) to work on classwork and to email home. I was bidding my time until I could leave the Marine Corps. That story needs highlighting, too.
For now though, I will be returning to weekly memoir writing to cover my time at Camp Blue Diamond. The demands of this process will mean I might not check back in here for a month or two other than to mention how the memoir writing is going. I am finding time to look over Letters From Vietnam edited by Bill Adler and yesterday, I received a manual from Huts for Vets that I also think will be valuable to help me trudge through writing the big emotional parts of the deployment and homecoming process.
My desire to participate with Huts for Vets grew less out of a desire to connect with nature, but an awareness I needed a new challenge in my life. Not too long ago, I learned about an amazing female Marine veteran, Kirstie Ennis. Her story of resilience after enduring a helicopter crash in Afghanistan and undergoing multiple surgeries including a below the knee and above the knee amputation inspired me to question why I retreated back to my own comfort zone. I could not recall any significant challenge I set before myself other than to complete a Spartan race in 2014. I knew in my heart if she could literally and figuratively climb mountains after enduring her amputation surgeries, I could find the motivation to push through what amounted to a marathon of hiking and walking over a period of four days.
The timing of the trip also served me well. I live in Gilbert, Arizona and from June 24th to July 6th, my community permits local residents to use fireworks. Although the idea is for them to use ground-based fireworks and sparklers, many people continue to shoot fireworks that explode in the air. I encountered mortar attacks at a small base, Camp Blue Diamond, in Iraq from August 2004 to February 2005. Currently, fireworks with report in close proximity to my home (around a mile or less) still remind me of mortar attacks from that deployment.
After being selected as a participant, my mission included upgrading my physical fitness routine, picking up needed supplies, and reading the packet Founder and Executive Director of Huts For Vets, Paul Andersen, sent to each of us for our literature discussions. Our meals, transportation needs, and shelter accommodations were covered in full, but I think it is important to share everyone’s individual cost varies greatly based on what hiking clothing and gear one already possesses and/or is willing to borrow from others. Those details are not to be overlooked in the planning process. Our team, in particular, was dealing with triple digit temperatures days prior to our Aspen flight; the night before our flight, my weather check indicated Aspen would be 88 degrees when we landed. With such a temperature difference, I brought more warming layers than someone who lives in a cooler climate might bring along for summer clothing.
People close to me–and readers who follow my blog, shewearsdogtags.com–know there are certain triggers related to my first deployment. I am not as shy to talk about those matters as I once was, and of equal importance, I did not realize some things were issues when I was still on active duty in the Marine Corps. The past few years, thanks to lessons learned in my graduate program at Arizona State University and some close colleagues there, I began unpacking my service experiences. This year’s journey with Huts for Vets is a continuation of that process. During this trip, I discovered Huts for Vets focuses on empowerment, nourishment, and companionship in its offering of wilderness therapy to veterans like me.
One of the best things to encounter upfront in this experience was the sense none of us were “broken” in the eyes of Paul and the rest of the HFV team. A common problem veterans encounter in media representation is the depiction of the broken veteran, and this idea is largely focused on war veterans. Trauma is not a dirty word in the HFV realm. The team embraced us and added us to their large family without hesitation. From the warm greeting at the airport to a relaxing picnic and walking tour around Aspen before starting our evening at the newly established teepee base camp, everyone greeted us sincerely and ensured we were empowered to maximize the effects of our time in nature away from technological distractions.
No details were overlooked. The team had oxygen, trekking poles, a large supply of potable water, and even a steripen so water collected from local streams could be sterilized during our hikes. As a novice hiker, and someone unfamiliar being in such a high elevation, I found myself in the role of a student. On more than one occasion, I was at the back of the group. I slowed down to catch my breath often. Instead of being embarrassed at my lack of expertise and slow pace, I had the opportunity to listen to and watch the natural world unfold around me. The calming roar of the stream. The buzz of bees lured to flowers. Paul encouraged us as well to touch the trees and dip our fingers in the water to fully embrace our settings. The world was ours to explore.
The physical intensity of our trip’s three hikes required proper nutrition. This area of life is something I lean heavily on others for assistance. I learned to cook and bake after leaving the Marine Corps, but I still tend to eat poorly at times out of laziness. The trip offered me the opportunity to see we can still eat well (i.e. not relying on MRE type meals) while on an outdoor adventure and utilizing less resources than I have in my home kitchen. The food prepared for us by Frances, Wendy, Tait, and Jake demonstrated an attention to using a combination of local foods with health in mind. Some new things I tried for the first time included a small bit of non-spicy kimchi, chickpea miso soup, and peach-apricot juice.
Coming together to eat family style is an important part of the experience. We ate breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner together. For brevity’s sake, I will not include all our meal photos in this blog entry, but I am including a number of photos. Everything we encountered was quite unexpected. I am amazed by the food knowledge shared during this trip and the combinations of foods I would not naturally think to try at my kitchen table.
I noticed early in this adventure we are a group of avid readers. Some people would rattle off their favorite writers during our nightly conversations and a number of participants brought books with their other possessions. Gathering for our literature readings, we found valuable insights that (sorry) I cannot share as the discussions as meant to stay with our group. The consideration extended to each other during our talks is something I think we need more of in our society; in spite of serving at different times, in different capacities, and in different areas, no one argued his or her service was more valuable than another’s. It was far cry from our very competitive society, to include inter- and intra-service branch rivalries.
This trip also showed me there is an opportunity aside from building new personal connections to continue working on improving pre-existing relationships. Three participants were familiar to me prior to this trip although we haven’t seen each other in a while. I thought we knew each other well enough prior to the start of this trip, but I started to open up to them more as the weekend trip unfolded. While I find it easier to write about my deployment and some of the ways it’s continued to impact my life, a difficult area has been talking about how it impacts my work with student veterans. The time afforded to me on this trip to talk about my work with my peers in such a casual setting was something I didn’t realize I needed.
One of the most important experiences I didn’t expect was the opportunity to spend part of my hike down from Margy’s Hut alone. Again, I would not describe myself as a nature person. I worry about bears. I worry about bee stings. I worry about getting lost. After stopping to photograph a few flowers (and ironically, a bee given my fear), I fell behind others in the group. Paul and I hiked down for a bit before he stopped to dawdle, as he indicated later to our group it’s something he likes to do, forcing me to go a stretch by myself. For that short stretch, I had to work on my confidence and along the way, I appreciated the little bits nature shared of herself. The air was perfect. I experienced quiet I haven’t known in years. The trail was overgrown in one area by flowers forcing me, against all logic, to walk through an area covered by at least a dozen bees. I powered through, giving them their space, and none attacked me. I was merely a visitor in their space except to the one bee who landed on my hand and I returned him or her safely back to a flower. The bees let me safely pass until I was reunited with my peers at the end of the trail, and we ended our ten mile hike down with a surprise visit by a doe eagerly eating clover along the edge of the parking lot.
The trip would not be the amazing experience it was without the contributions of my fellow veteran participants; Nancy Dallett (Assistant Director of the Office for Veteran and Military Academic Engagement at Arizona State University) for her efforts to bring the opportunity to us all; and everyone involved with Huts for Vets that I met on this trip (Paul Andersen, Erin Wilkinson, Tait Andersen, Jake Sakson, Col. Merrit, Dan Glidden, and Don Stuber). A special shout out also goes to our videographer, Krysia Carter-Giez. To watch her in action lugging her camera around during the hikes, standing on her feet for hours at a time, and her patience covering our interview sessions was incredible. I am a nervous interviewee, but she helped make this entire experience more comfortable. She is an invaluable part of the team whose presence behind camera probably does not afford her as much recognition as she deserves.
I will not forget the adventure I was afforded, and I hope by sharing a small bit of my experience, other veterans who could benefit from Huts for Vets would embrace the same opportunity to wander through the wilderness. Oddly enough, it was less wild than I expected; I (almost) felt right at home.