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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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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“Spring Break”: Then and Now (2005 & 2015)

March and April are slated to be busy months for me, busier than usually. As such, please accept my sincerest apologies for writing infrequently and for how this trend will continue for a bit longer. I recently finished up my “A” session course, turned in a midterm for my Women of Courage class, and my “B” session Grant Writing course picks up next week. Essentially, my spring break has disappeared. Not that spring break exists much as a social construct for working adults. I am fortunate though that other opportunities are opening up thanks to some personal connections. I am making strides with my “awareness” t-shirt ideas. I’m keeping those under wraps until I have some trademarked prototypes available.

I figured today is a good day to present a “Then and Now” series entry.  I wrote quite frequently after I came home from my first deployment.
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Please forgive me for how I referenced ‘recruiting duty;” I should have specified recruiter’s assistance, but I may have done so in other journal entries.

In my “2015” life, I have some updates, not really good for me, but great for other veterans. A family was matched with the Chandler, Arizona Homes on the Homefront Homes. We figured by this point we weren’t the recipients since so much time had passed, but it is helpful to have the confirmation. We continue to pare down our debts and it’s quite possible we can purchase a home later this year. I’ll keep you posted on that front when the time comes. Recently as well, I was also informed that my artwork for SVA’s Warpaint was not selected as one of the top pieces. However, it will be shown in Washington D.C. later this month. My tuition and fees are paid in full by my Post-9/11 GI bill benefits, so it is less relevant that I did not win the scholarship. I am happy though my artwork will be displayed.
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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.