Pre- and Post-Deployment Health Assessments: Modern Deployment Exposures and Experiences From an Iraq Veteran Perspective

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Last week, I heard back from the VA.  Yet again, they don’t consider my chest pains to be service-connected.   This reality kind of floored me.  I actually opened up to them in my December 2016 claim and while it might sound silly to say such a thing, in 2007, I kept things simple.

I didn’t tell them about Captain Brock dying.  I didn’t tell them about my kind of work.  I didn’t emphasize my exposure to mortars, although that information was part of what I listed in my records about different types of exposures while in the Marine Corps.  Back then, I was dealing with chest pains and I knew I didn’t have them before I served.  They started at the tail end of my first deployment, continued after I returned, and remained a part of my life through separation.  I just needed the VA to understand at my point of separation the chest pains were still ongoing and I felt they were related to my service in Iraq in OIF 2-2.

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If I had realized what a miserable experience it is dealing with the VA on the disability compensation side of the house, I think I would have pushed harder to find the right medical support while I was in.  For the few times I was willing to subject myself to medical about this condition, every person wrote ‘non cardiac origin’ for the pains but no one wrote in a diagnosis or suggested getting additional feedback on my situation.  What’s more infuriating is the parts where it reads ‘exercise induced stitch.’  Seriously, in the twelve years I’ve dealt with these pains only the primary care provider I’ve dealt with most recently has delved further into this issue and offered different suggestions because the pains were getting to the point they were destroying my quality of life during waking hours and would interrupt my sleep.

For over a year now I’ve wanted to have a conversation with you all about the Pre-and Post-Deployment Health Assessments and I think with this other VA encounter, I have the right foundation for this discussion.

The VA does not know our deployments the way we do and part of the problem is also the way the system requires ticking off boxes, ineffectually asking and not asking the right questions.  The forms we complete do not necessarily represent the types of situations we may encounter; let’s be honest here, the VA will never have records from the Marine Corps and/or the US government that 175 United States service members died during my deployment and these numbers best represent the information I was feed every day as part of my work in our operations center. I only know this information because I was determined to find a way to discuss my deployment, to shed light on other aspects of war no one seems to look closely at but is an important job all the same. I am only privileged to know this much of the extent of my deployment thanks to Military Times data.

In cases like mine my work was classified secret so how was I suppose to honestly fill out the forms?  As well, even if I could be honest, there also is not a sense of privacy to complete the forms properly not that I would have trusted completely it in full disclosure.  On my first deployment, I was the only woman on my team so I felt implied pressure to not be the “weak link” and during the second deployment a lot of stress from the first deployment crept up that I was not willing to discuss with my command.  Nor was my situation helped by the fact my chest pains occurred on deployment and yet again, no real resolution came out of getting them checked out.

My apologies I currently do not have snapshots of my first deployment paperwork.  eBenefits is being quite a disappointment and again not allowing me access to my military records.  The next time it’s available, I’ll try to download all my copies so I can share those details with you.  For now though, we can press forward using information from my second deployment documentation, the pre-and post-deployment health assessments.

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This form was filled out on July 11, 2006
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It’s kind of funny I still had my maiden name on my pre-deployment health assessment.  I was already married by then.

I’ve cut off segments of the documentation as my copies contain my Social Security Number but for greater clarity on this issue, below are fuller snapshots of the pre-deployment health assessment form that existed during my period of service.

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Below is the updated version of the Pre-Deployment Health Assessment Form:

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The revamp of the Post-Deployment Health Assessment is also of great concern to me, and I think all veterans of this era should consider how the inadequacies of the earlier form shape what sort of service/deployment experience is considered valuable, dangerous, and potentially traumatic.  The forum in which service members were offered to complete their forms is equally as important.  I can remember completing the first form in a classroom with a number of guys, classroom style as though we were taking an examination for a grade.  It was really a matter of “everyone’s got to do it”.  You fill out your form by hand and turn it back in.  You don’t want to get called out for your answers and you just want to make it back home.

I don’t recall completing the Post-Deployment Health Assessment at the end of my second deployment but most of the handwriting is distinctly mine; there are only a few segments where the medical personnel filled in information.  Coming home was very rushed that time.  I can remember meeting my husband and his mother and sister at the Sheridan, Wyoming airport but I cannot remember who picked me up in California.  I remember having issues with my military gear being stuck on the conveyer belt and an older gentlemen picking up my pack like it was nothing, hoisting it up so I could tuck my arms into the shoulder pads and settle it on my back.  (To everyone who was part of my transition home, I do not make this statement about not remembering your support lightly.  Coming home was that much of a blur.  I didn’t have a moment to catch my breath and will still say that process didn’t start until I left 3rd MAW in late May 2007 for terminal leave.)

My chest pains are the only thing I shared with the VA as a serious issue in 2007 and again, I am making the choice to share so much personal information because I don’t necessarily see our system getting better if there is a significant gap between what people expect their service to be like and the reality of the experience.  I hope by cracking open an issue like poorly constructed pre-and post-deployment health assessments provides a lenses for organizations like the VA to understand where they must also take a step back and learn from veterans what deployments are like.  I also hope current service members look at their needs before the needs of the organization they serve; at some point, we all leave the service and our personal health cannot take a back seat because we didn’t want to look like malingers/didn’t want to lose camaraderie/didn’t want to let down the team when a medical issue should have prevented us from deploying.

When I also decided to share with the VA this go around the fact I’ve dealt with tinnitus in the last few years and for a shorter duration, moments of hearing loss, I expected to have them listen.  I thought it was fairly reasonable to be ‘heard’ since I have recorded mortar exposure in my records but never sought treatment because I didn’t notice anything wrong at the time.

Right now my hearing is not to the point where I’ve lost full functionality and I sincerely hope it doesn’t degrade further but the hearing loss does scare me. (The tinnitus, on the other, is mostly annoying and only occasionally causes pain.)  These issues make me realize I cannot continue to take my hearing for granted and I should plan more for down the road if it degrades to the point where hearing aids might be needed.  For now though, I am pretty good about asking people to repeat themselves when I need them to and I remind my daughter to come into the same room if she wants to talk to me.  (She tries to yell from upstairs but I’m going to miss a lot of what she’s jabbering about so I make her come down and talk to me anyways.)

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I am already past my bedtime (Seriously, it’s 10:45 pm!!!) but in closing, take a moment to look at the October 2015 form.  It is much more inclusive.  (Please excuse the fact I cannot obtain a good snapshot that shows on each page the form is not to be handwritten.)

I will continue my saga with the VA another day.

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America in Times of Conflict: She Went to War

Good afternoon, everyone.  The video for the Chandler Public Library’s America in Times of Conflict: She Went to War panel I served on March 11th is now posted.  I consider myself still somewhat of a beginner when it comes to public speaking and as such, have not watched the video yet.  I think if I do and see how nervous I was, I might not be willing to share it with you all today.  (I love written storytelling but I am dipping my toe into the territory of oral histories.)

I agreed to be a panelist to show support for my dear friend, Nancy Dallett.  She is the Assistant Director of the Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement at Arizona State University and she is quite passionate about oral histories.  She knew a past misstep with another oral history project left me somewhat reluctant to take on another but the way this project was shaped is what changed my opinion on the matter.  What I do like about a panel is the interpretative distance the moderator plays with the panelists.  She directs the conversation and keeps it in check, but her influence on what is stated via certain questions is tempered by the panelists.

I am quite proud of the types of questions asked of my fellow panelists and I.  Often times, I feel it is hard for us as women to be asked truly valuable questions outside the context of victimization.  I get stuck with questions that tiptoe around or center on the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the military service branches and while I think it is important not to minimize those social problems, I think it is quite valuable our society continues to also see the professional opportunities for women in military service and the opportunities they can have post-servicing to enhance their lives and their family legacies.  Situations like the recent nude photo sharing being discussed in the news   can impact the willingness of women to join and/or to have their families’ support when considering service in one of our military branches.  (The ‘Marines United’ nude photo sharing scandal came up as one of the questions asked by our audience.)  As a female veteran, I want people who hear and participate in these conversations to understand any person (man, woman, or child) can be victimized at any point in his or her lifetime; it is more imperative we look for ways to make our society safer through education and awareness for everyone, not just groups of people or individual persons, and to instill appropriate punishments on the perpetrators so as to give the best measure of justice to the victim(s) of heinous deviant acts like this photo scandal.

Again, I want to reiterate the questions asked were quite considerate so as to not give you the wrong impression the panel was skewed far to the victimization spectrum of women’s issues.  General themes included our motivations for service, expectations of what Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam were prior to serving overseas, the reality of our living/working situations abroad, and concern over whether we thought our service had a positive impact in our lives.

Fair warning, the video is lengthy.  At almost two hours, you might want to set aside time to listen to it in its entirety or skip around for shorter conversations.  My daughter asked a question of me near the tail end of the audience Q& A section (proud Momma moment here!) so I hope you her piece of the presentation.  I didn’t expect she would actually have something to ask although she did ask before the panel began if it was necessary.

Take care and enjoy.

(If you have any tips on how to improve my presence as a panelist, I’d love to hear back from you.)

 

 

 

 

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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Turning 33

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My Mini Me and I Out at Dinner Tonight

Good evening, everyone.

My entry will be quite short.  I am currently in the middle of crafting a post about recently going back through the disability claims process with the Department of Veterans Affairs but it is appropriate to take a break to share that today is my 33rd birthday.

I am very blessed to make it to 33 years of age.  I came home from Iraq the first time on my 21st birthday and my birthday has taken on a different meaning since that important transition.

Like my 2005 birthday, I did indulge in some alcohol.  Back then it was beer and cranberry vodka shots (Not a good idea…I repeat a horrible freaking idea…don’t repeat my mistake…seriously, do not make this mistake…you’ll puke a lot) and tonight I enjoyed a new Chardonnay at one of my favorite places, Bar Vinedo.  I made the adult decision to stop at reasonable point, made easier by the fact I’m completing the Fighter Diet and have a horrible ability to tolerate alcohol right now.

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I like to keep my birthday festivities to quiet small gatherings.  My daughter changed my plans further today when she asked (last night to her dad) about hanging out with me for the day in lieu of attending school.  How do I say no to such a cute request?! I threw out plans I had today to enjoy being a hermit while she and my husband were in school, completing my lower body workout and cardio routine, reading from Mind Over Money: The Psychology of Money and How to Use It Better, and taking a nap.  Yes, I had great ambitions as an adult for birthday indulgences!!!

I still kept to my Fighter Diet workout routine, mostly because I wanted to not feel guilty about indulging for dinner (dessert was not planned at all!).  I like working out.  Do I always want to work out? No.  However, it is great seeing the progress I’ve made and I know I’ll continue to make progress with mostly healthy eating habits and sticking to a solid workout routine.

Instead of hanging out with my fellow Marines in the barracks drinking horrible drink concoctions, my husband, daughter and I went out to dinner after I spent the day in my daughter’s company doing kid friendly things (splitting lunch and a cookies and cream monsoon, hanging out at the playground, and completing homemade craft projects).

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Cookies and cream monsoon with coffee from the Agritopia Coffee Shop.

I am very grateful I took today off from work.  My birthday is one of those days I quite enjoy a quiet respite from my typical hectic pace.  This year, I enjoyed it even more since I stayed up late watching an few episodes of Gilmore Girls with my family and additionally, my daughter camped out on the couch with me depriving me of a full night’s sleep.

My day ended with a fabulous grilled cheese and prosciutto sandwich, some of my favorite french fries, and this delicious dessert which I’ve been hesitant to order before because it has banana ice cream. Chocolate Mousse+pecan crust+chocolate ganache+ brûlée banana ice cream covered in salted caramel + chocolate drizzle on the side=How did I not order this item earlier? (Yes, my fear that it would be too banana flavored.)

Good night, everyone.  I hope your day turned out as well as mine and when your birthday rolls around, it’s just as wonderful.  I owe many thanks to everyone who loves me and wished me a happy birthday in text message, Facebook posts, voice mails, emails,and so on.

I have a great support system.

~Cheryl

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Pecan Chocolate Torte ($7)….It’s better than birthday cake.

 

 

 

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

Tattoo Reveal

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One of the photographs that served as an original inspiration for my tattoo

The day has come…I am very proud to reveal to you all my tattoo.  This personal journey was worth the wait and more importantly, the money.  Tattooing is not a cheap gift to one’s self.  I am very thankful Justin Nordine from The Raw Canvas in Grand Junction, Colorado is only a short flight away because I absolutely love his style and know already that I will be commissioning another piece with him down the road.

When I initially provided a deposit, I had in mind a negative space tattoo which in some way incorporated ‘freedom’ written in Arabic.  I knew with my year timeframe to fruition I could hone the desired result and certainly events over the past year changed my opinion about how I saw this piece and how I saw my body.  There’s a lot to say about my experiences during OIF 2-2 and because I am no longer in the Marine Corps, I am not limited to placement or size of a tattoo to stay within regulations.  I did not know when this journey started what the finished product would look like although I did know I was finally ready to commemorate my military service.

The images I provided Justin as we got closer to my appointment included:

  • A photograph of the Euphrates River (to emphasis an important blue to include in the color work);
  • A photograph of the 1st Marine Division logo (again to emphasis an important blue);
  • A door located on Camp Blue Diamond (for the scrollwork);
  • A photograph of Peruvian lilies (the meaning of these flowers are friendship and devotion); and
  • I discussed the dual names attributed to the second assault into Fallujah (in lieu of an additional photograph).

I didn’t realize how much I was asking of Justin when I provided these images but during our phone consultation we touched base on making a new memory.  He reminded me I am commissioning a piece of art.  I had been putting so much pressure on finding the right way to speak to the complicated nature of the deployment and he reminded me quite gently that I knew what the tattoo meant and if a concrete representation was important that he might not be the artist for me.  I think his willingness to have this conversation so I was happy with the final product is very important and because his talent truly speaks for itself I made the decision the tattoo did not need to convey all these things.  This opportunity was the first time I allowed someone so much control over something I would carry with me for the rest of my life and I am happy with this adventure.

After providing additional images to Justin for review, I waited until our meeting to see his creation.  Originally, we discussed doing an upper arm piece and he crafted a sprig of black sketched lilies capped by a geometric pointillism design which pays tribute to my appreciation for Islamic architecture.  Behind the flowers, a beautiful wash of colors included green, blue, rose pink, and orange.  The orange, by far, is the color that fascinated me the most.  It was so unexpected.  Since he had layered images of the sketched flowers and the pointillism separately I was able to see how the design could be easily altered to fit my forearm which didn’t need a cap like the shoulder.

I do have a tendency to carry extra weight in my upper arms (which I never noticed until I was pregnant with my daughter!) and was a bit worried if I don’t always maintain my upper body physical fitness consistently, my tattoo might not look the way I want it to look over time.  However, my forearms always look pretty nice even if I don’t hit up the gym regularly and I was very happy to see how the flowers complimented my body structure.  He was right that by having the piece of my upper arm I could control who saw it but by having it on my forearm it is available for public display; this decision is not a light one to make depending on who you are and the industry you work in or may choose to consider for professional opportunities.  For me, I am past that stage in my life.  I wanted my tattoo to be a highly visible work of art I see and share daily with others.

My journey is unique and I am grateful for Justin’s ability to give me a beautiful way to honor that experience.

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July 2016

What a month!  It’s not over yet but it has been busier and more stressful, complete with more opportunities and challenges.  My nervousness over how fireworks would make me feel morphed into a bigger stress response than I imagined.  As a result, I have logged my chest pains to keep track of them for an upcoming appointment with a cardiologist.  Looking back, the 14 days of chest pains just gets exhausting.  Thankfully, they are not all day long but once I do have an episode I do worry if I’ll have another attack during that day.  While I have been extremely reluctant to seek medical assistance/further diagnosis about my chest pains the reality is after eleven years of suffering through them, sometimes I cannot manage them effectively on my own.  I do find it difficult to carve out sufficient exercise time which keeps them in check.  Separately, the sensation of these pains has changed over the years and I know that issue alone is pretty significant to go back to seek medical advice and assistance.

During the Fourth of July, I found it possible to avoid most of the fireworks.  My husband and I went to the Keg for a late dinner and walked over to the movie theater in the San Tan mall.  Unfortunately, some very overzealous individuals started shooting off fireworks before it was even 9 o’clock.  I had some high hopes we could miss the fireworks that night in its entirety but not so much. Although I will be flattening the conversation significantly, being around fireworks does not upset me so much because it reminds me of the constant danger I was in while serving in Iraq.  That sucks but it wasn’t the worst thing.  It is a struggle because it is a reminder of the worst mortar attack we had which killed my officer.  The sound of that attack is something that is seared in my memory more than any other one event.  It is a struggle because I know I survived that attack and while so many of us knew Captain Brock we couldn’t save him.  The Quick Response Force couldn’t save him.  The Medevac crew couldn’t save him.  We all–his Marine family–were powerless against an indirect weapon and the rest of us came home.

My daughter asked me recently why I didn’t die in Iraq.  She asked this question of me after seeing the Eyes of Freedom memorial while I attended the WAVES conference (Western Association of Veterans Education Specialists) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I had no answer for her other than that I was fortunate.  Even then, it’s not a full answer.  I was moved to the night shift in December of 2004.  As such, I was at my barracks the day Captain Brock was hit outside our work.  That day, it could have been almost anyone who worked in that building or it could have been no one.  I was at my home talking to my grandmother on the phone and the blast was something that was easily felt from my location.  It made the most terrifying sound of all the mortar impacts we took.

I know other war veterans understand why carrying survivors’ guilt is hard.  We have the rest of our lives to carry the burden of those who didn’t make it home.  Our existence, our homecoming, is tinged with the reminder we were granted years deprived of our peers.  We will think of the accomplishments they didn’t get to enjoy; we will think of the children they didn’t have; and we will think of the fact their families will never be the same.

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Eyes of Freedom
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Eyes of Freedom

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