Advocate Amie Muller

In light of my recent conversation about re-opening my claim with the VA about my chest pains, I write to you today to share an article about Amie Muller.  She is a veteran I never heard of until I read about her death but her role as an educator discussing burn pits in Iraq is a conversation we must continue to move forward.  I am putting the story in here directly for your convenience and I implore you to share it with others this week.  The article can be shared via social media directly from military.com’s website.

Burn pits are something I’ve heard of, but the items I’ve burnt are on a significantly smaller scale which is why I’ve never looked much into where all the burn pits were located.  Here are some places that I stopped at or lived at over the course of the two deployments where burn pits were located so it is very possible to understand now why the medical personnel marked environmental exposure on my post deployment health assessment.

  • Camp Al Asad
  • Camp Al Taqaddum (Camp TQ)
  • Camp Fallujah
  • Camp Ramadi
  • Kuwait

My Marines and I would burn documentation, including letters from home, and printer cartridges which are so simple compared to the mass burning at burn pits.  (Other than these items, Corporal Vaughn–one of my work peers–and I burned Captain Brock’s cover and holster.)  Marines I met have worst stories; these individuals have burned feces in the earlier days of the Iraq War but this is the first time I’ve read a personal story about health consequences from living around burn pits.

The story about Amie, shown below, is taken directly from military.com.  The Star Tribune article about her battle is available here.  Again, please read and share.  She was an advocate for others in sharing her story and it doesn’t take much for us to continue what she started.

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Writing About Your Life: Intimate Details

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I know it’s not normal for you to get an updated post from me this time of time but I am at home with my sick daughter and now that I’ve sent her off for an afternoon nap, it’s time for me to enjoy some “me time” which translates to writing.  It may not be what I do best [yet in my life] but it’s one of the best things I enjoy.

When I started this blog back in 2014, I mentioned something that probably did not come off as an intimate detail in my life.  I mentioned how, back in 2004, one of the Corporals at my unit told me not to write a book about Iraq.  Now, as a thirty-two year old, I cringe more when I think of that asinine statement.  There is not a single soul in this world that deserves to tell me what to do with my life.

I think war narratives are important, even if I haven’t liked all the ones I’ve read.  The point is not to get rich.  The point is not to be famous.  The point is to convey a slice of history that can be lost otherwise.  The point is to capture sights, sounds, people, and places that are changed in the moment and hopefully influence people to take a more nuanced approach to understanding war.

As impossible as it is to whittle down what I learned in graduate school, one of the best lessons I came away with is uncovering the extent of how society ignores, belittles, and underreports the achievements and lived experiences of women.  We are not shadows of living beings; we are living, too.  I say society in this reference in speaking specifically to American society however there are many teachings that shows us women compared to men are often given less notice.

I write to you all today to tell you I will write my book.  I will write it regardless of whether it gets published.  I will write it because there will never be another moment in time that mirrors this experience.  I will write it because there are numerous others who could gain something from this type of storytelling.  I will write because a song I heard recently made me think of this experience and the amount of emotional connection I have to that point in my life.

I will not forgo a personal achievement because another human being has such set opinions against writing war memoirs.

If you’re wondering about that song, below are the lyrics:

“Every Little Thing” (Sung by Carly Pearce)

The scent that you left on my pillow
The sound of your heart beating with mine
The look in your eyes like a window
The taste of your kiss soaked in wine

Every little thing
I remember every little thing
The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting
Of every little thing

Guess you forgot what you told me
Because you left my heart on the floor
Baby, your ghost still haunts me
But I don’t want to sleep with him no more

Every little thing
I remember every little thing
The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting
Of every little thing
I remember every little thing
The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting
Of every little thing

They say time is the only healer
God, I hope that isn’t right
Cause right now I’d die to not remember

Every little thing
I remember every little thing
The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting
Every little thing
I remember every little thing
I’m haunted by the memories of
Every little thing
The high, the hurt, the shine, the sting
Every little thing

The Final Reveal: An Alternative View of Operation Iraqi Freedom

I am very proud to say my applied project is complete.  Revisiting the American casualty information, the most painful part of the research process, took nearly the whole semester.  I cannot begin to tell you how many times I had to step back from the process.  Before building this applied project, I never spent a substantial amount of time looking at the narratives of my fallen comrades.  Given my past work on activity reports for our area of operation, I spent 12 hours a day, 7 days a week viewing data on killed and wounded personnel (friendly forces, civilian, and enemy).  While I’ve previously talked to you all about Captain Brock I forced myself to sort through the data for the total 553 American military personnel killed from August 13, 2004 to February 25, 2005.  The images below are courtesy of MilitaryTimes Honor the Fallen.  One of the hardest stories to learn, when I investigated the issue further was the death of Corporal Paul Holter because he died by the thoughtless actions of a fellow Marine.

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I intentionally looked for information on individuals who died specifically within the Al Anbar Province; units would have sent us this casualty data along with the number of wounded persons in the same incident.  For this reason, the American service member casualties represents the most accurate reality of the deployment because I could sort through each narrative to find the right dates and province. Eight individuals who were wounded in the Al Anbar province died outside this area (one passed away in Baghdad, 2 passed away in Germany, and 5 passed away stateside) and so were not included in my applied project.  There are a number of deaths that read as potential suicides although the cause of death is not stated as such.  While I do not mean to come across as insensitive to the families, there is such a struggle maintaining intra- and intercultural conversations regarding suicide and each time we hide the circumstances surrounding our loved ones’ passing, we further exacerbate the social stigma.  For the most part I did not label any service member’s death by circumstance in my presentation because many simply state ‘enemy action’ as the cause of death, particularly for the Marine Corps, whereas more of the Army narratives list a specific weapon type.  I do not know how to make any useful connection (or know if there is one) about this difference.

It was equally as important to look for information on wounded American service members.  While I don’t know what types of injuries qualified for record purposes, I did not make an analysis about that lacking data in my applied project write up.  Once again, in providing the human toll of war, my purpose was to align the numbers that might represent what we would have “seen” coming across our desks.  For this reason, the data is incomplete for my purposes but provides greater context because it is not limited by day or province.  However, I reigned the numbers back in by only showing Army and Marine Corps data since these branches made up the majority of our area of responsibility.  iCasualties.org provided the necessary data for this segment of the applied project.  Unlike the American deaths, it was not a struggle to collect this information.

The more I moved away from American data and my experiences, the easier it was to review the hard data.  Iraqbodycount.org provided the second most substantial amount of data and also the second most accurate representation of that deployment reality. However, I have more work to do in understanding the individuals who made such a site possible.  We all carry our own biases and while I may question who is listed as a civilian, their assessment–from the construction of the site and language utilized–lends itself more to who do we count as our enemy?  From this site, I gathered information that was only specific by month and year.  For this reason, my applied project included more data than I had planned for but I could not break it down into daily numbers as was available for the MilitaryTimes casualty information.  I wasn’t able to find Iraqi civilians wounded from the same time period through Iraqbodycount.org.  I think it’s very important that Iraqbodycount.org acknowledges why this issue is complex.  A 2003 article on their site, Adding Indifference to Injuries, is just one such online article that addresses this problem.  Outside of my research for this project, I do know there are many others trying to undo this marginalization, like the Costs of War Project.

The gaps in piecing together the data cannot be overlooked but they can be explained. None of the numbers alone on any side though reflects accurately on the war.  The connections between social systems, the breakdown of such systems, and learning another culture’s values on the fly shape our perceptions of war and incidents of all scales and frequency happen out of emotional responses and intentionality.   (I would say this statement is true of all matters not just war.) These are not the only intersecting factors, but as narratives become known, these issues are more visible.  I would highly recommend  the HBO mini-series Generation Kill as a good representation of pulling these issues together.  There are not a lot of war genre shows or movies that I can tolerate about Iraq;  however, this one shows aspects of Marine Corps culture that I appreciate.  Additionally, I appreciate how concern for Iraqi civilians is represented and how those individuals who do not express concern for Iraqi civilians is also represented.  We must be willing to acknowledge that both types of individuals exist not only in our military but also in our nation.

It is also important to mention I am not pro-War or anti-War.  I think to say something as controversial as war is 100% right or wrong in all situations is not an educated statement.  While it is not my place to tell others what opinions to have, I will work to respect both sides of the spectrum so long as individuals throughout the spectrum understand a difference of opinion is a difference of opinion.  Opinions are neither right or wrong.

One of the last pieces of information which was the most difficult to find was that for insurgent forces killed and wounded.  Again, like the data for American wounded, Iraqi civilians killed and wounded, I am confronted with the reality none of this data is transparent enough for me to correlate it with my deployment.  For this reason, it is impossible to say I’ve truly given my audience the knowledge they need to understand the enormity of the situations specific to the deployment.  Instead, I’ve given the next available answers.  From a 2007 USAToday article, I found this last piece of the deployment puzzle.  A 2007 Stars and Stripes article shows this information broken down more clearly. I would recommend checking out the latter article as I’ve had trouble on numerous occasions with getting the USAToday article to display properly.

My journal entries which are significant to understanding the deployment are embedded throughout the applied project.  I do apologize for the fact the ones at the latter part of the presentation might seem exceedingly long.  I was concerned the longer entries might be hard to read if they were shown for a shorter period of time but several individuals mentioned they could read faster than the pace of the presentation.  While I won’t make every entry I’ve ever written public, there are strong conversations from my past that will always be worth remembering.  The journal entries I shared were carefully chosen for what they mention about the violence in Iraq with respect to my work and the indirect fire we experienced on base; my positive and negative responses to the dangers; and my feelings about my friends, family, and my place in the Marine Corps.

As this blog progresses further, I will continue to provide you all with comparisons between 2006 and 2016 and 2007 and 2017 to show how my life has changed as my Marine Corps career ended and my current life looks now.  I cannot promise a lot other than a continued interest exploring and discussing today’s military culture, especially as the role of women changes.  I am equally interesting in conducting more research about the broader implications of Operation Iraqi Freedom and sharing my finds with you all.  Lastly, because my schedule has opened up significantly, I am looking to read more academic articles and popular books about our military.

I want to thank you all for following along on this journey so far and I look forward to sharing more again soon.  If you are interested in looking at some of the articles I used for toward the applied project, they are listed below.  All were accessed through ASU’s libraries using JSTOR.

Tina Mai Chen’s (2004) Introduction: Thinking Through Embeddedness: Globalization, Culture, and the Popular

Liam Corley’s (2012) “Brave Words”: Rehabilitating the Veteran-Writer

Liam Kennedy’s (2009) Soldier Photography: Visualising the War in Iraq

 

Sincerely,

Cheryl

 

 

At Work, At Home, At Play: What’s Revealed in Service Member Photography

Good morning, everyone!!!  Ahhh…quick breather.  January is almost over. In the brief span of time that’s transpired since the term began, I have made substantial progress focusing on my applied project.  This progress is due, with great thanks, to Dr. Beth Swadener, who has facilitated a writing seminar; my peers in Dr. Swadener’s course; Dr. Rose Weitz for her continued support and acceptance on my applied project committee; Nancy Dallett for being a wonderful sounding board and constant companion in my work life; my peers in my SST course this semester; and most certainly, my friends and family who stand by me during this crazy adventure, both academically and through this blog.

Today’s blog is built on one of the materials that will find its way into my applied project. Recently, I found Liam Kennedy’s 2009 article, Soldier Photography: Visualising the War in Iraq.  The article is available through the following stable URL:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/40588076

If you do not have access to this resource via an academic library, like I do with ASU, the download costs $34 or you can read it online by registering for a JSTOR account.

Getting back to today’s discussion, I think Mr. Kennedy brings up some excellent points about why service member (my preferred term versus his term, ‘soldier’) photography is aiding a better global discourse on the understanding of war.  Below is a great insight he adds to how the communication process regarding ‘war’ has changed over the decades:

“The Vietnam War was the first televised war, the first Gulf War was the first satellite war (CNN’s war’) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the first digitised wars” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 819).

So, why is the change in communication important?

In a nutshell, the answer to this question is this correspondence teaches us the reinforcement of cultural perspective and operational burden in war, both operational security and trauma sustained by service members (Kennedy, 2009).

For many reasons, I have taken for granted the ‘freedom’ I enjoyed to share my deployment experiences with friends and family members with almost instantaneous feedback.  On many occasions, it took me several saved drafts on MySpace to craft a post for my loved ones but the next time I logged in, I would have some responses to my situation.  These messages sustained me when snail mail was lacking.  I knew my family cared for me, despite their beliefs about war–in general–and about my war, specifically.  One of the best benefits to this freedom was corresponding with loved ones who also operated in different areas of Iraq, at the same time.  I cannot discount how important it was to know friends were safe despite being located in close proximity to indirect and direct forms of combat engagement.

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Kennedy, 2009, p. 827

With respect to both deployments, I didn’t take a significant amount of photos.  I used several disposable 35mm cameras for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2-2 (1st Marine Division deployment) and had both disposable cameras and a digital camera my husband sent over for the second deployment, Operation Iraqi Freedom 5-7 (3rd Marine Aircraft Wing where I deployed with Marine Aircraft Group-16, known as MAG-16).  I would aptly agree with Kennedy that ‘tourist’ photography describes the majority of photos I took for both deployments, like many of my peers’ photographs.  The landscape is different, the ‘feel’ of the base, while it retains aspects of American culture, is a smaller version of American consumerism.  Camp Blue Diamond had a small internet cafe crafted out of a trailer with plywood dividers to give individuals some sense of private conversations.  A PX (Post-Exchange) also crafted out of a trailer provided a small array of necessary items, like service chevrons, and coveted items, like snack foods.

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After all these years, I still have my M & M’s bag. Look at the production and best by dates.
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My view heading over to Camp Ramadi (2004).

When it comes to photographs of my self, I have very few.  Because it is significantly still a taboo subject to date in a combat zone, I only had one photograph using my cameras of my boyfriend and I together on my first deployment the day I left Blue Diamond, February 25, 2005.  The others I have of us relaxing with Marines from his work were taken by him or members of his unit.  For my second deployment, the best photos of me at work and at play were compiled into a unit video.  Unfortunately, my computer does not take good snapshots from the video.  I will try to find another way to acquire those photos to share.  There was a great one of me in one of the chairs in the palace in Baghdad and I look incredibly tiny.  See…again…that tourist tendency.

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Bringing new meaning to paper money.
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I tried not to infringe on the privacy of my peers, so these are the few photos inside our barracks (Camp Blue Diamond).
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Rules of engagement…in case you were interested.

I do regret not taking more photos because there is so much to learn from those experiences.  Camp Al Asad was essentially a small city unto itself (and likely, retains some of those features).  We had a Subway, coffee shop, Pizza Hut, and Burger King, a barber shop, and many trinket shops, just on our side of the base alone.  I was too nervous to travel the rest of the base by myself.  Instead, I spent much of my second deployment walking to the internet cafe set up in the operations center.  My (mostly) solitary walks provided me the opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty that is Iraq, with its limited infrastructure.  Sunrises and sunsets are incredible.

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However, as important as it is to discuss our visual representations at war, we must equally discuss coming home.  Below are some brief snapshots to show how transition is discussed (as of 2005).

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Additionally, please enjoy a small peek at what my barracks life looked like in early 2005.  It was a pretty spartan existence compared to the 1,400 sq. foot home I occupy with nearly 10 years’ worth of furniture, artwork, scrapbooks, etc. that make up my current life. I lived in one of the barracks on the Camp Margarita area of Camp Pendleton near the Subway.

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The Marine Corps blanket covers my bed.  It was given to me by a former substitute teacher, who served previously as a Marine officer.
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With some of my first deployment earnings, I purchased my first desktop computer.
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Ah, the spartan life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Honoring WW II Veteran Lucy Coffey

Last week, one of my instructors provided our class with information regarding the passing of Lucy Coffey, America’s oldest female veteran, .  I must admit I am not always as knowledgable about our veteran community as I would like to be, but learning about Lucy Coffey’s service in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps is interesting.  I hoped I could find her Bronze Star citations.  So far, I’m not coming up with anything, but I’ll keep looking.

The world loses a lot of history with her passing at 108 years of age, which once again reinforces what I’ve discussed about veterans sharing their stories.  We have a very finite amount of time to educate others about who we are, our contributions to our service branches, how our service affects ourselves and lights a path for others to follow.  I hope her story continues to inspires others.

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”-George Elliot

Image courtesy of PBS.org
Image courtesy of PBS.org