Salute to Service: Both Sides of the Camera

Devin's Masterpiece
Devin’s Masterpiece

Everyone,

Thank you for the long delay since my last post.  I did not envision it would be a month long wait, but life–as always–creeps in at funny moments. Last month, I was fortunate to be photographed for the Veteran Vision Project and the image is what you see above. I will do my best to speak further on this wonderful experience this week, but for now, I recommend you check out ASU’s reporting on the Veteran Vision Project and Salute to Service. My daughter and I are even featured in the “Salute to Service” video.

In touching base on my extended absence, in the last few years, October has become a busier month for me and each year, those responsibilities seem to multiply.  This year, I attended the NAVPA (National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators) Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.  As most of you know, my day-to-day responsibilities as a School Certifying Official entails spending a significant amount of time processing students’ GI Bill® benefits.  Given our increasing student population, I am discovering more and more I get to play a part advocating on students’ behalf.  The NAVPA Conference was my opportunity to learn about the advocating that occurs at the public policy level and network with other School Certifying Officials. As well, I learned about potential changes coming in the future.

On top of this wonderful professional opportunity, today I participated on a panel discussion with three other female veterans.  Each of us served in either Iraq or Afghanistan and we talked about key issues such as reintegration challenges, feelings about military service, and how our lives have changed upon separation from our respective service branches.  This panel was a further extension of a panel I participated in as part of the Women of Courage class taught by Dr. Rose Weitz this spring.  I am very honored Dr. Weitz asked again if I would participate in such a collaboration and this time, the panel occurred outside the classroom and was live streamed for our online student population.  As someone more comfortable behind the scenes, I am learning more and more how important it is at times to be visible publicly, especially given the level of “invisibility” surrounding women veterans.

Talking today about the sexual harassment I experienced during my active duty time was  part of revealing to the audience those invisible issues one sometimes encounters.  In fact, much of this behavior was very visible to members of my peer group and instigated by fellow coworkers.  I want to be very forward in saying none of my leaders made degrading comments about my person (body type, sexuality, etc.) but I also did not feel comfortable sharing with them, back then, how those comments/assumptions/derogatory remarks made me feel.  There were things that came up to my leaders’ attention but as the sole woman at my unit, I did not want to discuss these matters especially in such a hierarchal setting.

As a veteran now, I understand I have greater liberty to engage in vertical and horizontal forms of communication whereas during much of my service conversations happened vertically given the chain of command structure. My voice can be heard more equally now that I don’t fear peers will ostracize me for calling them out for their poor behavior.  I was not willing to discuss one such matter on videotape today but I talked to Dr. Weitz earlier this year about a particularly challenging experience I dealt with during a relationship where I felt there was no good solution to what occurred.

The person I dated back then had left our hotel room door unlocked and invited his friends over, without my permission.  I was absolutely horrified when these two Marines came over into what should have been our shared private space and I had a bare minimum amount of fabric covering my body.  The fact a man I trusted violated my privacy as a human and more importantly as his partner has certainly left a lifelong impact.  I would not call the situation sexual trauma because I do not feel the situation is the same as being raped, but it is most certainly one of the most disheartening examples of sexual harassment.  As well, everyone involved was a Marine and given the poor rapport I had with the leadership where I was at, I did not feel comfortable either talking to someone about the situation.

When I discussed today the impact sexual harassment has on body image, this instance is one of the examples that comes to mind.  Although I enjoyed being a modest person before this instance, I am certainly more insistent now on being modest in my appearance.  Other women who’ve dealt with sexual harassment may feel the same way; honestly, I’ve never asked.  Once again though, my response is not to speak on behalf of all women, nor all women in the military. It is egregious though in so many ways that society teaches men that women’s bodies are for their enjoyment and that any pain they may cause is negligible (or nonexistent).

Today was nice though; it was a reminder this situation, like some others, is part of my past but I always have the power to shape my future. Today, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my combat deployments and listen to my peers share their stories. Sharing my personal grief was but a small portion of the talk.

Mostly, I wanted the audience to see I am a success story because I served my country. There are (and will likely always be) tangible rewards for military service. I am fortunate to enjoy the fruits of my commitment and the efforts of my fellow veterans and veteran organizations who labor to keep those rewards available for future generations to come.

Respectfully,
Cheryl

Veteran Vision Project is Coming to ASU

cheryl_night01

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

The Journey Home: A Decade Later

I’ve chosen the wrong space on campus to sit and reflect on the fact 10 years ago, I left Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq to begin my journey home.  The overhang of the building magnifies the sound of students surrounding me…

Ok, I left my space to find a slightly quieter one outside. I don’t know if the architects of the W.P. Carey building realized the overhang would reverberate sound as bad as it does, but the cacophony is unbearable.  To me, at least.

Getting back on topic, in ten years, so much as changed since I left Blue Diamond.  I got promoted.  I got married.  I went on a second tour to Iraq.  I returned home safely again.  I left active duty.  I started my college education again.   I moved to Wyoming.  I gave birth to my daughter.  I graduated college.  I left Wyoming and moved to Arizona.  I became employed.  I was unemployed.  I resumed employment again.  I became a graduate student.

I sit at this computer today a different woman than who I was ten years ago. Back then, I loved a different person than the man who became my husband.  We were an inseparable part of each other’s existence from basically the day we met.  We didn’t plan on being partners, but we quickly became each other’s best friend.  Before my deployment ended, we made plans on how life would be post-deployment.  Like others before us, we weren’t quite aware of how difficult the transition home could be.  Our respective individual burdens interfered with our ability to sustain that relationship.

In fact, I’ve never been so angry with one person in my entire life as I was with him during this transition.  It’s not entirely his fault.  My support system back home, which I expected him to be a part of, was quite broken. I let go of the relationship at the point where I was tired of living up to everyone else’s expectations of me.  I was tired of feeling like my voice was ignored.  I was sick of feeling like my needs as a person were less important.  The relationship was a casualty of so many other things gone wrong and it took me a long time to realize it was ok to let go.  That first year home, one of my favorite songs to ease my mind was Three Doors Down “Let Me Go.”

The following lines reminded me of how I felt:

I dream ahead to what I hope for

And I turn my back on loving you

How can this love be a good thing

When I know what I’m goin through

It took time to realize that I didn’t know what I was asking him to commit to back then.  In particular, I was asking him to make me a priority and move out to where I was when he had two kids who hadn’t seen him in months.  As a mother now, I cannot imagine someone making the same demands of me.  When my daughter hugs me in the morning after I drop her off at school, I feel like the most important person in the world.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t earn a lot of money, that my husband and I don’t own a home, or that I see her in the few hours of my day that I’m not working.  She loves me because I am her mom.  She doesn’t want anything other than some time with me, a hug and a kiss here and there, and the chance to show me things she finds important.

I don’t regret the short time Nathan was my boyfriend.  I did not seek out someone to share my life with when I was in Iraq.  I worked 10 am to 10 pm on day shift, which later transitioned to 10 pm to 10 am on night shift.  On several occasions on day shift, my crew also was tasked with filling sandbags.  Only near the end of the deployment when I switched to night shift did I have a partial workday once a week.  Sleep was a priority to me.  However, it was nice having simple routines like going to the gym with him or eating dinner together.  Only after hearing Jason Aldean’s “Tattoos on This Town” did I find a song that got to the heart of this experience together; the chorus below is just a small picture of the beauty within the song.

It sure left it’s mark on us, we sure left our mark on it
We let the world know we were here, with everything we did
We laid a lotta memories down, like tattoos on this town
Like tattoos on this town

Post resumed at home———————————————————————–

Originally, I didn’t see the music video.  Most times, I despise watching the videos, which often don’t do the songs justice in my mind.  This one just so happens to mirror in a way our experiences.

The last day I saw him was ten years ago today.  We visited each other four times that day, had dinner together in the chow hall with its newly built pizza oven, and I ran into a friend from MOS (military occupational school).  Below are the two photos from that day; do note as well, selfies weren’t the norm.  I was rocking it ‘old school’ having someone else take my photo. 🙂

Murphy and I outside the chow hall.
Murphy and I outside the chow hall.
Nathan and I outside the "frat house" (his unit's barracks).
Nathan and I outside the “frat house” (his unit’s barracks).

I didn’t write a journal entry that day as I was incredibly exhausted.  Although I was promised a liberal amount of free time to plan for the convoy, I was unfortunately tasked with random things like attending a ceremony.  I cannot recall who it was for because I honestly did not care one bit to be there.  Leaving the base that night via convoy, I was so exhausted that I kept falling asleep periodically even though my weapon was Condition 1.  Note, that’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do.  It’s where you have a magazine inserted and a round in the chamber.  It’s a horrible thing to admit as a Marine as well, but a Sergeant I knew stepped up as a leader and kindly told me it as ok to take my weapon to Condition 4 (chamber empty, magazine removed).  The last thing certainly anyone wants is to accidentally shot themselves with their own weapon or worst still, to shoot someone else by accident.  I can say that after I took my weapon out of Condition 1, it was easier to stay awake.  I was more nervous about something bad happening and not being prepared to respond.

Weapons Conditions

Condition 1-safety on,magazine inserted, round in the chamber, bolt forward, ejection port cover closed

Condition 2-Does not apply to the M-16 Service Rifle

Condition 3-safety on, magazine inserted, chamber empty, bolt forward, ejection port cover closed

Condition 4-safety on, magazine removed, chamber empty, bolt forward, ejection port cover closed

My husband didn’t know me when I returned from Iraq.  We didn’t met until a few months later; I think in May, but we only started to date in October of 2005.  Later this year, we will celebrate our 9th wedding anniversary.  In our 9 years of marriage, I’ve worried at times about how much we can love each other.  When I deployed to Iraq the second time, we were married less than a month.

It’s taken a lot of time to trust that we can work through anything.  I never experienced that commitment before; I didn’t know it would mean loving each other when we hated how each other was acting, or picking each up after setbacks or illness.  He is patient in the times where I am frustrated by a multitude of things, namely technology and my weight.  He reminds me that I am a good mother when I feel that I do not have enough time to devote to my daughter because I work more to provide financially for the future.  In these times, I am reminded that we choose to make a life together, we agreed to make decisions together, we signed up for the miserable and the mundane.  He is a partner I didn’t know would find me and love me for every flaw, every quirk, every bad mood, and every sly smile.  I do not have to be perfect to earn his love.  He makes me feel safe in ways I didn’t expect I would feel.  He will never understand the journey that existed prior to our meeting but in small ways, sharing this experience is important to where I am today.

Then & Now Series: 9 January 2005 and 2015 Edition

I started a Myspace binder years ago of the journal entries I wrote from late 2004 to late 2007, which covered many transitions: relationships, changes of command, getting married, leaving the Marine Corps, and preparing for college. As eager as I am to engage other women in sharing their stories of choice, I am always a bit hesitant to share pieces of this journal. There are intimate details of people I’ve loved, my anxiety regarding coming home, my desire to get back to Iraq, and my struggles to have a private life in the face of being a female Marine.

In high school, I didn’t date much and as I considered myself to be on the periphery of popularity, I enjoyed certain freedoms regarding the few relationships I did have. I didn’t fear some other chick trying to steal my boyfriend. I was known more for my athleticism and bookish manners than my attractiveness so I didn’t attract the boys who wanted nothing more than to get into my pants. No one pried into how far I did or didn’t go with my boyfriends. I am very thankful in high school that my private life was private and I could share the details I wanted to but others were not privy to information that was none of their business.

Unfortunately, military life is not that way. Women make up such a small component of the Marine Corps and our dating and/or married status make us fodder for all sorts of inappropriate attention, comments, and behavior. My experiences are no different. Thankfully, I was treated well by a variety of men in my life-Marines I knew before becoming a Marine, Marines I served with, and the Marines I’ve met since, but there were those moments I could have done without and I will share more details of those unprofessional situations in a future post.

The Lonely Soldier....I could do without the generic label of soldier to define service members, but let's hope the rest of the book is  good.
The Lonely Soldier….I could do without the generic label of soldier to define service members, but let’s hope the rest of the book is good.

There is a book called The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq by Helen Benedict I’m tasked with reading for one of my courses this spring for which I will share with you one of the few situations where I was sexually harassed by a superior who was probably too dumb to realize the inappropriateness of his actions. Although we are equally raised to be cognizant of inappropriate language, I feel he missed this message based on how frequently our shop talked freely about their sexual exploits or fantasies.

For a variety of reasons, I know it is important to share some of the more private moments of my life. I cannot encourage others to share their stories if I am not equally vulnerable. We cannot ask others to do what we ourselves are unwilling to do, so I must lead by example. I am cautious in sharing the few journal entries I am sharing today for a variety of reasons. These were entries shared with friends and family at a time in which my ex, Nathan, and I were very serious about our relationship. We had talked of marriage but never moved forward with any plans for an engagement. Many people, including my family now, did not know these details. I try not to compare one relationship to another; one relationship failed and the other survived. There is no one single factor that contributed to these situations but a series of events that extinguished what Nathan and I had and what Thomas and I were able to begin. While I would not be bothered with my husband being friends with his exes, I understand the natural societal reaction to these postings is highly likely to be negative.

My courses have taught me one of the biggest risks we face in our research and findings is how it affects the target population. I want the stories of female veterans to be heard and as such, I cannot sanitize the truth to make it more acceptable. As a woman sharing this story, I will probably be criticized by a variety of people for engaging in a combat zone relationship. I was probably already criticized for previously dating someone legally separated from his wife. I will probably be criticized for sharing publicly how much we liked each other now that I am a married woman with a child of my own. I will probably be criticized more for the fact I am friends with this ex. My list could go on and one but the criticism over and over again results not from my actions but from others’ perception on what is socially acceptable behavior for a woman and for a woman in certain relationships.

Here I am in 2015, January 9th still subject to negative stereotypes based on my sexuality as a woman and the role women are expected to fulfill. Oftentimes, I go to work, I make the decision to not wear much makeup. I know society favors, and the beauty industry thrives, on telling women that a made up face makes us beautiful and hides our imperfections. Let me tell you, my skin breaks out easily from most foundations and even some tinted moistures and very often, I find these products further magnify the issues I see as problems–adult acne and dry skin (I do live in the desert). I enjoy being the girl-next-door kind of beautiful. I only require mascara, some slight blush, lip balm or chapstick, and some moisturizing products to feel glamourous. These few items allow me to look more awake when I’m tired but are not so heavy that if I touch my face, the look comes undone. This “face” is my beautiful.

As I am not in the Marine Corps anymore, I have more freedom to be an individual. I’m dying my hair red for the first time in my life. Although I could have done so in the Marine Corps, we are restricted to hair color choices that are “natural” for our physical appearances. For example, it would not be appropriate to have the chunky blonde highlights nor would the service allow me to do the ombre colors that are very popular today.

Here is a reverse ombre hairstyle photo I found on the internet.
Here is a reverse ombre hairstyle photo I found on the internet.

My hair was also restricted to being up and off the bottom edge of my blouse collar, which is part of the reason I am still most comfortable wearing my hair up as opposed to being down. My daughter and I are enjoying one of our particular mother-daughter outings on Saturday as I get my hair dyed and cut and she gets hers trimmed. She has already requested some pink for her hair and thankfully, my hairstylist has hair chalk for her which washes out easily.

And on the news front, I got a limited glimpse today about a standoff in France in which a few terrorists and quite unfortunately, a few hostages, were killed. I was incredibly busy at work and so I didn’t get to stop to watch the news in full. I hope tonight to watch the news and learn a bit more about what’s going on. It sounds as though it might be related to the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo, but I’m not entirely sure.

Take care everyone,
Cheryl

Below is who I was back in 2005, still deployed in Iraq:

10 years ago today...
10 years ago today…