America In Times of Conflict: Creating Peace From Conflict

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Yesterday, I volunteered with a handful of other veterans to be part of a local community collaboration sharing our stories interwoven with pieces of The Odyssey for Odyssey Home: A Veteran Performance.  The Chandler Public Library held this event called Creating Peace From Conflict at the Chandler Center For the Arts in partnership with Arizona State University and Veterans For Peace.  We also had Veteran Vision Project photos on site for attendance goers to see along with the individual narratives associated with each photograph.  Once the footage is available, I’ll provide the link.

This collaboration starting off with group drumming and continued with our storytelling mixed with selections from The Odyssey.  A few musical pieces were played by Guitars for Vets and another veteran, Ahmad Daniels was there as a representative for Veterans For Peace, also sharing his story.  I know the event was scheduled to conclude with audience engagement, sort of a Q&A opportunity.  I only stayed for the Odyssey performance as I had another engagement in the afternoon and with today being my daughter’s birthday, I wanted to make headway Saturday on some other issues I’ve currently slacked on.

The theme of the performance was homecoming and I am quite thankful the event started with the group drumming.  While I did not choose to drum (I am embarrassed by my lack of rhythm) the sounds that filled the room reminded me of the wonderful performance given by citizens of Sao Vicente when I visited Cape Verde in high school.  My peers, teachers, and I landed to a beautiful musical performance at the airport that reminds me still music is a thread shared globally; we may not always understand each other’s words and actions but music binds us in such a spiritual way.

I loved being reminded of a place that was my home for a short period of my life.  Three weeks may not be an eternity but it’s sufficient time to be welcomed as a stranger, treated like a daughter, and remembered as a friend.  I am forever grateful for that experience and everyone who welcomed us into their country, their homes, and let us savor their culture that we might never have experienced in our lives had our paths not crossed.

Cape Verde airport
The airport in Sao Vicente

I think I was better able to embrace my role as a participant yesterday feeling like I was welcomed to this group much like how I was welcomed into Cape Verdean life.

My cohort of veterans included an ASU professor, my close friend and fellow ASU student, and a future student.  For our individual tales, we provided the audience a better glimpse of ‘homecoming’ as experiences shaped by individual perception and built a bridge that homecoming is not exactly a single finite moment in time, but a process.  I focused on the more immediate aspects of coming home to family tragedies and feeling like I did not fit into my life stateside.

I think a vital part of the construction of this storytelling was how well Robin Rio and her students shaped the music performance.  I met Robin back in the fall of 2014 when I started my graduate degree at ASU.  She is an Associate Professor with the School of Music and the Director of ASU’s Music Therapy Clinic.  I interviewed her to gain a better understanding of ASU’s chapter of Guitars for Vets.

Looking back, I did not ask great interview questions, but I think we all have moments like that in our lives where our place as students does not necessarily provide us a sufficient lenses to see and understand the larger context of our community because we are also shortsighted about more immediate concerns like passing a class, juggling work, and testing our fit with fellow students.  Seeing Guitars for Vets on campus though did inspire me to get out of my comfort zone about trying a musical instrument.  I purchased a Taylor guitar awhile back and now, with my reduced commute, can commit more to my goal of learning the acoustic guitar.  (Maybe I’ll be able to play a song before the year ends!)

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This talented bunch just wow me; there’s so much musical talent in this group. I cannot wait to share the performance so you can understand how beautifully they play.

 

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.)

 

 

 

 

Suicide Prevention Month: The Power of Observation & Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

(Saturday) 18 Sept. 2004  

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

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

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

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

29 Sep 04

A Life Wasted is Still A Life Remembered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veteran Vision Project: Sentiments of a “Model”

My Little One and I
My Little One and I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Semper Fidelis, everyone.

~Cheryl

Veteran Vision Project 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