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.)

 

 

 

 

June: PTSD Awareness Month & A Brief Look Back

Please don’t take my extended absence from writing as a sign that I am not interested in continuing my veteran (and more specifically, female veteran) awareness efforts.  During my recent absence I have attended to moving into my recently purchased home.  You can read about that journey–should you be interested–at my other blog, Builder Grade and Reclaimed.  The other large factor contributing to my absence has been my concern over the increasing violence in Fallujah and knowing that while I served in Iraq and Fallujah was in our area of operations there is nothing I can truly say as an American that speaks fully to the horror Iraqi citizens currently face on a daily basis.  It is also hard not to feel a bit ashamed that I am quite privileged–enjoying the fruits and discussing the frustrations of homeownership for the first time–in the midst of such chaos, particularly when I see the large number of affected children.

In doing what I can given my current status as an amateur writer I wish to speak to you all about the fact June is PTSD Awareness Month.  In the most recent couple of months I’ve begun to notice more articles that discuss the mental toll war takes on refugees and their disjointed access to support services.  As a veteran, I cannot help but notice the focus on PTSD as it relates to war veterans and the stigma associated with treatment.  Furthermore,  the more recent shooting at Pulse in Orlando adds another layer to how violence plants the seeds for lifelong hurt in the community.  I was stunned when I read about how first responders were dealing with the constant ringing of cellphones as they conducted their work at the crime scene and I realized I,too, need to broaden my perception of who is affected by violence locally  (city, state), regionally, nationally, and globally.  We do not always know the victims firsthand but we may know friends or family members of the victim or feel our shared identity allows us to empathize with their situation, perhaps it even brings up the hardships in our own past.

The older I get the more I realize it’s ok to talk about my own struggles with anxiety as it relates to fireworks and veteran deaths.  The two issues are markedly similar to my first deployment experiences of frequent mortar fire and daily deaths of service members.  I can tell you daily life is not always a challenge for me the way it is for other survivors (war, sexual assault, weather-related catastrophe, domestic violence, mass shootings, and so forth).  The research I invested earlier this year crafting my applied project took a significant emotional toll on me but it’s coming close to that time of year where the celebratory use of fireworks by others makes me cringe.

After experiencing fireworks last year in my old Gilbert neighborhood on the 4th of July and then again for New Year’s the trepidation for the upcoming Fourth of July has been building and for that reason I decided to open up about my issues.  I don’t know what my new neighbors are like and if they will shoot off fireworks from our shared driveway the way the former neighbors did.  I don’t know if individuals in this neighborhood and the neighborhoods surrounding us will subject me to a marathon four-hour ‘celebration’ on New Years that will bring on a series of chest pains and hours of anguish.  I cannot imagine what the Fourth looks like but I am nervous already about potentially losing a whole night’s sleep and still needing to go into work the next day.

I am exceptionally aware of the fireworks season when it crops up: local vendors set up stands on their vehicles on the side of local roadways and local stores clean floorspace for variety packs of fireworks for nearly every budget.  While others plan fun for themselves, I’m counting down the days until I suffer through a particular hell I never imagined I’d be back in.  In war after a mortar attack, I had a purpose and so I trudged through my tasks because my work helped keep people alive.  A daily mortar attack here and there became normal and I adopted a casual brush off of this experience.  So long as we looked around and everyone was ‘ok’ things were normal.

Looking back on my past, I am now rather grateful fireworks were–and are–such a rare exposure.  I lived in the barracks for most of my Marine Corps career and so I did not encounter fireworks there.  When I moved off base–residing in Oceanside–fireworks weren’t a concern either.  From the alley of our home in Cody, Wyoming I could see the large public fireworks display off in the distance which I find enjoyable but none of my neighbors lit fireworks down the street.  (To be honest, I also don’t know if it was permitted either but I am grateful my exposure was limited.)  During the time I lived with my in-laws in Mesa and later in ASU’s family housing I also did not contend with fireworks.

So please know for the duration of June 24th to July 6th–the time period in which the use of fireworks is permitted here–I will be more on edge as I wait to see with what frequency my neighbors use fireworks.

In also addressing the 2006 versus 2016 comparison I’ve promised you, below is one of my previous entries from 2006.  I know I am off a day but I didn’t write as much in 2006 as I thought I did.  However, this time period of entries is a good one because it gets close to when I left for my second deployment with 3rd MAW, serving on the deployment under MAG-16.

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Veteran Vision Project is Coming to ASU

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We are inching closer to Devin Mitchell’s visit to Arizona.  He will photograph Arizona State University staff, faculty, and students to celebrate their statuses as veterans,  photos that will later be shared publicly as part of our Salute to Service events.

Am I excited?!  Yes!!!

Devin has done a fantastic job photographing veterans across the country and I am delighted he was interested in photographing veterans from the institution he attends. Nancy Dallett, from the Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, has partnered with many wonderful ASU personnel–too many new names for me to mention at this time–who are also equally interested in seeing Devin’s vision elevated further.  I am happy for my tiny link in this whole process.

I registered on the Veteran Vision Project website and am waiting confirmation on whether I’ll be photographed. This time has given me the opportunity to reflect on how I wish to be portrayed as a civilian.

I think this objective is probably the hardest thing to focus on; I can have potentially one snapshot–a singular message–to share with the world. Do I present it to veterans? Do I present it to civilians? Do I code it as a private message to those I love? Is it possible to make it something just for me although it’s public? I haven’t made a decision on my civilian outfit yet, but I’ve already decided that my desert camouflage uniform is what I’m most comfortable wearing for my military photograph because I identify more with my war service than my garrison service.

My military identity is simple, compared to my civilian identity.   There are rules on how to wear a military uniform and certain expected behaviors when wearing a uniform. There is a proper placement for my rank. There is a proper way to wear my MCMAP (Marine Corps Martial Arts Program) belt, gray by the way. I didn’t devote too much time to martial arts during my four years. My boots are still laced left over right and a single dog tag still hangs off the laces, but I tuck it in under the eyelet holes. (I can’t recall when I stopped wearing my medical alert dog tag; I’m allergic to amoxicillin but the medical dog tag is larger than my regular identification tags and uncomfortable to wear in my boots.) I’ll wear my dog tags, like I do every day. (New readers will probably be amused I took up wearing my dog tags–one of my signs of military service– again late last year to gauge how much people recognize me as a veteran, to spark a conversation.) I won’t wear my cover, if photographed, because I will be indoors and I’m not on duty.

For now though, thank you for following this journey.  I am always astonished by the number of opportunities that are presented to me as a result of serving this country and I appreciate the platform to share my story.

Sincerely,

C

Summer 2015: Successes and Stressors

Thank you for your patience on updating this blog.  Like many other Americans, there are many times where I juggle more responsibilities than I seemingly have time to juggle such commitments.  One such commitment was a 6 week long summer course.  My 4.0 GPA did not remain intact, but I managed to work full time and make progress on my graduate degree.  Only 12 credits left to go!!!

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Once again, I owe a great deal of my success to my in-laws.  My mother-in-law watched my daughter every day after her preschool ended for the academic year.  As well, my in-laws took my daughter on their vacation out of state.  This blessing freed me up to focus more on my studies.  As well, our daughter gains the benefit of connecting with our extended family.  She truly enjoyed the time with her grandparents and one of her aunts, cousins, and great grandmother.

Today I wanted to talk about an issue I was hesitant to discuss on July 4th: fireworks.  While there is no such thing as a typical veteran and his or her response to fireworks, my feelings about July 4th encompass a greater stress.  My friend, Bart Carroll, and one-time high school boyfriend, was murdered on this day back in 2002.  I gathered that day with many who knew him to watch fireworks.  To me, it was a way to honor his memory.  For many years, I’ve enjoyed watching fireworks to continue this tradition, but I’ve enjoyed this privilege with some set off distance from most fireworks displays.  I lived in places where individuals could not shoot off fireworks in their neighborhood or it was not popular in the community to do so.  As well, when we lived in Cody, Wyoming, our back alley provided an unimpeded view of the city’s fireworks display so I never watched fireworks close up there.

This year, with our move to Gilbert, Arizona, I decided to walk around my new neighborhood the night of July 4th.  Sometimes I juggle my feelings that I’ve proudly lived up to fulfilling Bart’s unfinished mission and other times, I feel I should have done more to serve.  Pockets of neighbors gathered to hold their own fireworks displays.  Given my past comfort with fireworks, I thought going out and seeing the fireworks would give me some comfort as hearing the fireworks’ report without the sight of them was an unsavory reminder of the mortar attacks from my first Iraq deployment.  (Note:  I don’t expect civilians to understand this feeling and honestly, I am glad it’s not a common experience for Americans to know what mortar impacts feel like.)

My husband found this image on Facebook on the 4th.  Just a little true....
My husband found this image on Facebook on the 4th. Just a little true….

Seeing the fireworks didn’t ease my discomfort at all, like I hoped.  In fact, it was more unnerving.  I wasn’t able to anticipate when fireworks would go off because there were numerous gatherings in my neighborhood and everyone had their own tempo for setting off their novelty items.Our local news, like other news outlets, ran a story about this issue. (As a related note, I even heard some fireworks go off this morning between 5 and 6 am on my walk with our dog although such actions are outside the timeframes when individuals can use fireworks.)

Do I feel it necessary to put up the sign below in my yard?  No.  I am not bothered by all fireworks.  My neighbors’ ground displays were beautiful to witness, but the report (see illegal fireworks below) was upsetting.  In fact, last year, when my husband and I watched one of the larger fireworks display from our vantage point of Studio Movie Grill in Scottsdale.  We had gone to see Maleficent, the movie ended just in time for us to be greeted by a fireworks display outside the theater, and we caught sight of several fireworks displays on our drive back to Mesa.  Distance helps keep this practice enjoyable for me.  We even lit off some of the non permissible fireworks (shown below) when we visited family in Wyoming.  But we controlled our environment to make the experience enjoyable.

Some veterans put this sign up in their yards to remind their neighbors to be respectful in their revelry.
Some veterans put this sign up in their yards to remind their neighbors to be respectful in their revelry.

I also took the time today to look at what Gilbert’s rules are for fireworks.  Turns out my neighbors held some displays not permissible under Gilbert’s laws.  This might be an issue of being ignorant of the law, which certainly is no excuse, but below are the images available showcasing what individuals can light off during permissible dates.  Personally, I hope people realize the $1,000 penalty for using illegal fireworks is not worth the risk.

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 5.10.27 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 5.10.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 5.11.02 PMFireworks aren’t permissible again here until Christmas Eve, so I have months to relax again until fireworks become (potentially) an issue again.  My daughter is of an age where she wants to watch fireworks, but thankfully is also young enough to not typically stay up late enough to see any displays.  We’ll address this issue as she grows up so we find a healthy balance for our family.

~Cheryl

PTSD and Collegiate Life

IMG_5810 IMG_5811 IMG_5812 IMG_5813This week kicked off a series of Salute to Service events among the different ASU campuses.  It is a privilege to attend many events as an employee but also in my role as an ASU veteran student. I was most excited and nervous to attend the staff/faculty awareness training on Tuesday regarding PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). ASU does amazing things to bring attention to veteran issues and I hope the non-veteran staff and faculty understand the impact their service has to returning veteran students.

Dr. Adam McCray, a clinical psychologist, who works at the West Valley Vet Center led the training and brought up key points I don’t think non-veterans may be educated about; he gave me permission to share his intellectual property (shown in the photos above).

Honestly, there can be a lot of stressors when individuals return home from a deployment.  I had my fair share with deteriorating relationships (a romance and family troubles), family deaths/illnesses, financial burdens, and taking on a new role at work when I became a Non-Commissioned Officer.  I’ve discussed with my ex, Nathan, before about how there was some counseling we should have gotten, but as Marines we chipped away at our own troubles.

There is a bit of a double-edged sword regarding receiving help.  Service members are taught that help is available and that they should use it; we are also taught to look for troubling behavior among our peers and subordinates and to get them access to help (Note: I said get them access.  We are taught that we are not a substitute for professional medical assistance.)  However, there is also the stigma of receiving help.  As a Marine, one of the significant issues I encountered is the perception of being a malingerer by going to medical. I’ve felt this way about Marines I’ve known and have also worried that I may be perceived as such should I get an appointment that conflicts with my training schedule.

Another significant issue is the lack of quality care.  I cannot say my experience is indicative of what all service members face but there were times that I felt my care was shoddy.  In particular, I reached out to an Ob-Gyn on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar regarding an issue and she tried to tell me what I was experiencing was normal and tried using her own gender as a reason why she wouldn’t let me have an ultrasound.  That and she tried to push NuvaRing on me as a means of birth control. At that point, I sought medical care at Camp Pendleton and found a male doctor who honored my request for an ultrasound.  One of the best things I found in the service with having male doctors is they cannot say they know through their own experience something I am going through since they do not have the anatomy to support those statements.

I am fortunate that I do not have many medical issues as a result of my service, but it is still awkward at times telling people I suffer from stress-induced chest pains.  It’s not a normal part of my conversation but if I suffer a chest pain and grimace, I let someone know what’s going on.  I was unable to get them properly diagnosed when I was in for a few reasons.  One, I was very hesitant to seek a lot of medical treatment for them because I knew it could interfere with my ability to attend training opportunities to further my career.  Second, I felt the assistance I was getting wasn’t giving me the answers I needed.  On my second deployment, I had chest pains for numerous days in a row so I did inform my command about them and went to medical.  I had a chest x-ray done and EKG’s which did not reveal any abnormal patterns.  Although I had chest pains for several days, I did not experience any during the EKG’s and matters were further complicated by the fact the adhesive on the monitors wasn’t sticking properly because of the high heat exposure.

When I separated from the service, I had such little documentation regarding the chest pains that I was told there was no service connection.  While I don’t feel I need disability assistance to cope with these, it is (and was) frustrating to be told they weren’t service-related. They developed shortly after returning from my first deployment and persisted pretty regularly (on a weekly basis) through 2008.  When I focused more on exercising in 2009, they abated to more to a monthly basis.  I am fortunate to manage them easily right now through exercise.  This year, I noticed what has reduced the severity and the frequency of attacks further is weight lifting.  The chest pains are almost non-existent when I keep a steady routine of weight lifting (and not the CrossFit kind) and combine it with some form of low-impact cardio and some running, when possible.  I had one maybe two through the spring and summer and they’ve only recently resurfaced this fall.

Unfortunately, this semester I haven’t kept up with my workout routine as much as I would like.  It has resulted in experiencing chest pains more often.  I do what I can to manage my stress when my schedule feels too hectic to include a workout.  Sleep is a big contributor to managing my stress and I am proud to admit I love to go to bed at 9, although now it’s usually more like 10 or 10:30.  I am also very vocal to my husband about when I need extra assistance around the house so I don’t feel the majority of the burdens fall on my shoulder.

And while I am tempted to not admit this, it’s important to share that from time to time, honestly a little bit of alcohol goes a long way to calming me down.  I rarely drink, usually a glass or two a month is more than sufficient.  However, there are 4 or 5 times a year when I really get bothered by people, family included.  In those moments, exercising or reading just don’t seem sufficient to help me unwind.  When I feel there is too much going on in my personal space or too much demanded of me, I will have a glass or two of wine to relax.  I don’t like prescription medications and willingly choose not to take anything for anxiety/stress because exercise works pretty effectively for me. I allow myself those extra indulgences of alcohol because I am pretty stringent the rest of the time.

College is more difficult for me this time around because I am juggling more responsibilities.  I work 40 hours a week (and sometimes more) whereas as an undergrad, I stayed home with my daughter and my GI bill was our second income.  My husband goes to school full-time and works 25 hours a week and it amazes me how little time we seem to have left for family activities after I get home from work.  I tried to add a female veterans writing workshop into my schedule but its location down in Phoenix meant the one night I attended, I got home at ten.  I didn’t attend the three other sessions offered in October.  It’s hard to bow out of commitments but with the amount of activities (including homework) I cram in- commuting to Tempe, working all day, attending class two nights a week-I was entirely too overwhelmed.    I took one evening off from class to catch up on other things and to relax and I broke down crying one night before a separate class after two weeks of constantly being on-the-go.

I know my Marine Corps life was harder in some ways but I also juggled less.  I worked closer to my job, especially on my deployments!  My walk to work took less than five minutes the first go around and the drive on the second was probably the same.  I had meals provided to me; chow hall meals may not be the best but sometimes, there are happy surprises.  For most Sundays of the first deployment, we were treated to crab legs as a dinner option.  I said yes every time.  The New England girl in me was thrilled at this simple luxury.  Our operation tempo required 24 hour work environments  as well the first time which meant when I showed up to work, there wasn’t a backlog of things to be done.  I cannot say the same currently as a civilian as we are running with less than a full-staff and I dislike falling behind in my work.

However, I know I am incredibly fortunate and privileged to work where I do, in the position I work.  My job is not contracted so I don’t face constant worries over unemployment.  When my GI Bill expires, I can rely on an employee tuition waiver to offset the cost of my education.  ASU offer family housing, so there are cheaper rental options available as a married student and which we take advantage of while we save for a home.  My supervisors and peers are great and when I need a moment to vent, I have a handful of supporters.  My college experience may not be typical but I understand more than most some of the unique challenges facing veterans in the classroom.