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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Looking Back: Progress on the Applied Project

We are nearing the midterms part of the semester and I am already falling a bit behind on those objectives I set out with you all in January.  I do not make time for the gym as much as I should and looking at my last post, which was 18 days ago, I am not keeping up on this site as much either.  Today, I’m tackling both.  I knocked out 40 minutes on our indoor bike and as I close out my day, I write to speak with you all about my applied project.

Writing about my history has not been an easy task.  This focus opens up a number of issues which I have not fully shared previously with my family, for one, and second, I am always burdened with how to share the experiences of others.  For my situation, this matter is complicated because those individuals died many years ago.  Like many other veterans, I do acknowledge survivors’ guilt for what it is in my life.  I simply lived through numerous occasions where our base was mortared (on the first deployment).  I also safely traveled through our area of operations without being ambushed; hit by an improvised explosive device (IED), a vehicle born IED, or rocket propelled grenade; nor did I encounter snipers along the way.  There is no way to describe the moments of safety in my deployment as anything other than sheer luck.  For my readers of faith, please understand why I do not say that it is by God’s grace because I feel, in small part, to say so also implies that God does not love his other children who perished.

The other reason this task presents some difficulty on my part is I have not revisited this information fully in years. For the duration of my first deployment, I spent twelve hours a day receiving word that people died or were injured.  In some cases, we received updated information that our wounded later died as a result of their injuries.  The best news I ever received came from our Lieutenant Colonel who informed my team our work prevented a unit from being ambushed.  This incident represents one of my greatest achievements and I greatly appreciate everyone’s efforts to do their jobs that day.  I am fairly certain I never recorded in my journal about the matter out of concern for operational security, as I consciously chose to do for many such occasions, with some exceptions such as Captain Brock’s death.  I was very honored though as a Lance Corporal to have a Lieutenant Colonel come over to let us know our work was so valuable.

As I open up the pages of my past hopefully my audience understands what it takes to share those experiences.  My research is heavily reliant on data available to me through MilitaryTimes, Iraqbodycount.org, and other resources such as BBC.com.  It will likely not encompass all the lives lost, on all sides, but is the closest possibility of this needed transparency.  I make this statement not as a fault of my research, but to remind everyone the limitations I work through.  Being reliant on the system keeping of others has given me some insights into the values of different organizations and additionally, witness through reporting sources the grief of families.  I am also seeing names, faces, ages, and backstories through the associated press articles on Military Times.  These new details are painful reminders of the past and also inspirations for the future.

Social media sites are a great way to express new meanings attributed to veterans, our storytelling, and in today’s time, our lived experiences in war.  I am also very hopeful that perhaps such honesty will invoke others to adopt a more liberal attitude towards many disadvantaged groups, especially war refugees.  I made the choice to serve in a war and I also knew I had the freedom to leave that region at the end of my tour, both times. More importantly, I was fortunate to make it home alive.  Again, both times.

Around the world, in so many places, individuals of all ages struggle because they live in war torn regions.  I cannot attest to their experiences but I can use my lens as a war veteran to share my story.  Perhaps in doing so, I can encourage others in my community, locally and globally, to understand why we should be listening to more of the narratives that come out of war than how organizations present those matters.  Organizations are not affected by war the same way people are. Organizations “see” and “shape” the crisis, but people live (or do not live) through those experiences.  Their stories matter.

At Work, At Home, At Play: What’s Revealed in Service Member Photography

Good morning, everyone!!!  Ahhh…quick breather.  January is almost over. In the brief span of time that’s transpired since the term began, I have made substantial progress focusing on my applied project.  This progress is due, with great thanks, to Dr. Beth Swadener, who has facilitated a writing seminar; my peers in Dr. Swadener’s course; Dr. Rose Weitz for her continued support and acceptance on my applied project committee; Nancy Dallett for being a wonderful sounding board and constant companion in my work life; my peers in my SST course this semester; and most certainly, my friends and family who stand by me during this crazy adventure, both academically and through this blog.

Today’s blog is built on one of the materials that will find its way into my applied project. Recently, I found Liam Kennedy’s 2009 article, Soldier Photography: Visualising the War in Iraq.  The article is available through the following stable URL:

http://www.jstor.org/stable/40588076

If you do not have access to this resource via an academic library, like I do with ASU, the download costs $34 or you can read it online by registering for a JSTOR account.

Getting back to today’s discussion, I think Mr. Kennedy brings up some excellent points about why service member (my preferred term versus his term, ‘soldier’) photography is aiding a better global discourse on the understanding of war.  Below is a great insight he adds to how the communication process regarding ‘war’ has changed over the decades:

“The Vietnam War was the first televised war, the first Gulf War was the first satellite war (CNN’s war’) and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are the first digitised wars” (Kennedy, 2009, p. 819).

So, why is the change in communication important?

In a nutshell, the answer to this question is this correspondence teaches us the reinforcement of cultural perspective and operational burden in war, both operational security and trauma sustained by service members (Kennedy, 2009).

For many reasons, I have taken for granted the ‘freedom’ I enjoyed to share my deployment experiences with friends and family members with almost instantaneous feedback.  On many occasions, it took me several saved drafts on MySpace to craft a post for my loved ones but the next time I logged in, I would have some responses to my situation.  These messages sustained me when snail mail was lacking.  I knew my family cared for me, despite their beliefs about war–in general–and about my war, specifically.  One of the best benefits to this freedom was corresponding with loved ones who also operated in different areas of Iraq, at the same time.  I cannot discount how important it was to know friends were safe despite being located in close proximity to indirect and direct forms of combat engagement.

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Kennedy, 2009, p. 827

With respect to both deployments, I didn’t take a significant amount of photos.  I used several disposable 35mm cameras for Operation Iraqi Freedom 2-2 (1st Marine Division deployment) and had both disposable cameras and a digital camera my husband sent over for the second deployment, Operation Iraqi Freedom 5-7 (3rd Marine Aircraft Wing where I deployed with Marine Aircraft Group-16, known as MAG-16).  I would aptly agree with Kennedy that ‘tourist’ photography describes the majority of photos I took for both deployments, like many of my peers’ photographs.  The landscape is different, the ‘feel’ of the base, while it retains aspects of American culture, is a smaller version of American consumerism.  Camp Blue Diamond had a small internet cafe crafted out of a trailer with plywood dividers to give individuals some sense of private conversations.  A PX (Post-Exchange) also crafted out of a trailer provided a small array of necessary items, like service chevrons, and coveted items, like snack foods.

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After all these years, I still have my M & M’s bag. Look at the production and best by dates.
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My view heading over to Camp Ramadi (2004).

When it comes to photographs of my self, I have very few.  Because it is significantly still a taboo subject to date in a combat zone, I only had one photograph using my cameras of my boyfriend and I together on my first deployment the day I left Blue Diamond, February 25, 2005.  The others I have of us relaxing with Marines from his work were taken by him or members of his unit.  For my second deployment, the best photos of me at work and at play were compiled into a unit video.  Unfortunately, my computer does not take good snapshots from the video.  I will try to find another way to acquire those photos to share.  There was a great one of me in one of the chairs in the palace in Baghdad and I look incredibly tiny.  See…again…that tourist tendency.

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Bringing new meaning to paper money.
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I tried not to infringe on the privacy of my peers, so these are the few photos inside our barracks (Camp Blue Diamond).
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Rules of engagement…in case you were interested.

I do regret not taking more photos because there is so much to learn from those experiences.  Camp Al Asad was essentially a small city unto itself (and likely, retains some of those features).  We had a Subway, coffee shop, Pizza Hut, and Burger King, a barber shop, and many trinket shops, just on our side of the base alone.  I was too nervous to travel the rest of the base by myself.  Instead, I spent much of my second deployment walking to the internet cafe set up in the operations center.  My (mostly) solitary walks provided me the opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty that is Iraq, with its limited infrastructure.  Sunrises and sunsets are incredible.

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However, as important as it is to discuss our visual representations at war, we must equally discuss coming home.  Below are some brief snapshots to show how transition is discussed (as of 2005).

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Additionally, please enjoy a small peek at what my barracks life looked like in early 2005.  It was a pretty spartan existence compared to the 1,400 sq. foot home I occupy with nearly 10 years’ worth of furniture, artwork, scrapbooks, etc. that make up my current life. I lived in one of the barracks on the Camp Margarita area of Camp Pendleton near the Subway.

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The Marine Corps blanket covers my bed.  It was given to me by a former substitute teacher, who served previously as a Marine officer.
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With some of my first deployment earnings, I purchased my first desktop computer.
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Ah, the spartan life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stepping Into Combat Roles: An Outsider’s View

Today’s post will be one of many down the road regarding the future of women in infantry roles.  My insider perspective of being a woman who served as a United States Marine is useful in this discussion, but not the only perspective.  I am more of an outsider on this topic, looking in with you all, and you must understand I do not speak as a subject matter expert.  I did not take on the challenges numerous women have since integration testing began. Nor did I participate in something as uniquely different  as female engagement teams the Marine Corps employed or the cultural support teams like the women featured in Ashley’s War during my time in.

For several months now you all know I’ve been caught up in my own civilian identity working a full-time job and attending graduate school part-time.  These responsibilities eat up much of my free time and sadly, my focus on the news has waned greatly since November.  My efforts to fully study the conversations about integration testing have been quite partial at best.  I am torn at times between wanting to be fully invested in the dialogue and struggling to also focus on other areas of military life and veteran challenges for my program.  I am interested though to see exactly how women’s roles progress in the military and will follow along as my current schedule permits.  There will be some positive (and like always, negative) results as the military adapts to its new expectations, but hopefully everything is skewed more towards the former.

For today though, I wanted to share my feelings on a recent article in the Marine Corps Times, the details being provided for your convenience in full below.

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I am not one of those women who would have stepped up to the challenge Corporal Remedios Cruz did, which is why I find the integration testing to be so interesting. Before I served, I wrote a paper on the possibility of women in combat roles, but never thought Direct Combat Exclusion would be repealed.  For my entire life, women have not been authorized to serve in direct infantry roles.  When I enlisted, infantry (and some other military occupational specialities) was off limits, but I was not bothered or resentful I couldn’t serve in the infantry.  For anyone who knows me well, even if I was a guy, I don’t think infantry would be my chosen profession.  Instead, I found an equally (and always) challenging role for my life in being a Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Defense Specialist.  Like Cpl Cruz, I didn’t know if I had what it took to serve in my desired role, but I went out, tried, and successfully passed the standards set for that particular military occupational specialty (MOS).

It was through this choice (and completing many objectives) that other doors opened up for me and I served a greater purpose for the Marine Corps because I was seen as a Marine and not the female Marine.  Now, I wasn’t always so lucky to be see as a Marine first and a woman second, but we’ve discussed that scenario many times over.  I am proud of all the women who have tried the integration testing, even those who did not successfully pass the qualification standards.

I think what’s important for individuals–inside and outside of military circles–to see and appreciate is the devotion to duty expressed by service members attracted to infantry roles (and thus far, integration testing). A service member who wants to be in the infantry and can make the same standards will usually serve well in that role. The physical demands are greater, the teamwork coordination issues are more significant, and the weapons knowledge (and gear to carry) are heavier burdens.  You really must want it and that lifestyle.  While the article focuses on a single Marine in this case, each participant (and those in similar Army training) deserves respect for her participation.  Each volunteered with the full knowledge she could train (and potentially succeed) without necessarily EVER being bestowed the honor of serving in the infantry.

Regardless of where things go from here, I hope the lessons learned are intently studied for years to come.  A quick change is not always the best change, but baby steps should not be overlooked either.  All change starts somewhere.  I wish all the women who participated in integration testing the best at weaving that infantry training in their leadership.  I hope all the men who worked and/or work alongside these women appreciate the effort, spirit, and abilities of each woman who met the same standards or scored higher.  I will applaud from the sidelines, because I am not interested in accomplishing the same feats but I can appreciate the hard work and devotion went into these achievements.

Coming up here soon, I want to tackle a completely different topic and that’s the talk about integrating Marine Corps boot camp…stay tuned.

(SPOILER ALERT…I’M VERY MUCH AGAINST IT.)

~Cheryl

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Homecomings: Snapshots & Realities

Hmmm…so lots of good things went down last week, but the short work week was insanely busy.  I added more social events to my weekly plans than I would normally accommodate, which meant I’m recovering from sleep deprivation this week.

Devin Mitchell made himself at home when visiting Memorial Union--it was so great meeting him!
Devin Mitchell made himself at home when visiting Memorial Union–it was so great meeting him!

I had a great time meeting Devin Mitchell, photographer for Veteran Vision Project, for starters.  I promise once my photo is finished, I will share it with you all.

Ehren Tool treated us to a show--he made several cups on site out of a 25lb. block of clay!
Ehren Tool treated us to a show–he made several cups on site out of a 25lb. block of clay!

I also met Ehren Tool who came to ASU recently.  Please know I will devote a whole entry to him here soon–probably this weekend.  I checked out his gallery talk and there’s so much I want to digest before sharing my thoughts.

Last week was also Marine Week!!!  My family went to the exhibits at Mesa Riverview Park.  I am proud of all the Marines who worked the event–their efforts were flawless.  While I love all my Marines, I especially love seeing the Silent Drill Platoon perform.  However, the exhibits started at ten and by noon, my five-year old had enough of the heat.  She didn’t care the Marines performed without talking–that they tossed rifles in the air–she just wanted to leave.

IMG_7581 IMG_7582IMG_7592I mention my–happily–busy week because I enjoyed being a participant of each but also because they touch on different aspects of homecoming for me, in literal and figurative ways.

Today, I came across the image below (and many others) through MSN and it made me realize I’ve wanted to discuss the notion of ‘homecoming’ for awhile–scraping below the surface meaning of the word.

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In the simplest sense “returning home” is a neutral and somewhat vague concept.  It can apply to a person and/or group; it also doesn’t matter–in the context of the definition–where the individual (or group) had been but their destination–home–has social value.  Home can also encompass many different places, depending on the individual or group.  The definition is also a little less vague in the fact it limits homecoming to a singular event.  Lastly, and I want to hinge on this key point, homecoming is overwhelmingly used to describe the occasion in the positive.  The four insights I just gave you for ‘homecoming’ provide some talking points about why homecoming is a difficult term to associate with military service.

Home–as a destination–is what matters.

I love the concept of ‘home’ but it’s different once you leave, potentially good and bad.  The landscape will change over time, the people will change over time, the social setting will change over time.  Will ‘home’ still feel like home after weathering these changes? In my situation, home has a short lifespan of feeling comfortable.  I can weather home (Rhode Island) for about a week before feeling antsy for my normal routine.  My physical home is enjoyable when I’m not reminded of the slew of chores to maintain my residence.  I feel incredibly embarrassed to complain about having a roof over my head knowing that so many do not.  I should find more simple joy in what is, even when it does not live up to my standards.   I also think the current Syrian refugee crisis added a further layer to the conversation: what if you never get to go home?  It’s difficult to watch so many people treat these refugees (and refugees, in general) as less than human.  There is so much space in this world and so much potential for peace, prosperity, and creativity if people opened up their ‘home’ nations so that others may have a safe place to call ‘home.’

What is home?

Home can be a place/feeling/a person.  I often fail at captivating my audience about why Iraq will always feel like home to me.  I saw so little of it and yet, in my heart, I feel it is a beautiful nation undergoing years and years of great tragedy.  It is also home because of a love/respect/deep friendship that happened there.  The reality of my situation is I left ‘home’ then and returned to the States, a place that no longer felt like ‘home.’  When I describe home now, I typically use the word in two ways.  I describe Rhode Island as home; it’s where the majority of my family lives.  I describe my residence as home because that’s where I live.  Iraq is my past home and I’m bothered that terrorism is still rampant there.

Homecoming as a ‘singular’ event.

I’ve had many homecomings, usually in the sense of high school dances but also trips back east and returns to the States, once after a trip to Cape Verde and twice from deployment.  Homecoming in the military sense would describe my arrival back at Camp Pendleton after the first deployment and my arrival in Sheridan, Wyoming after the second deployment.  Those happenings were less positive (see focus on this issue below) than portrayed say in the images above.  Homecoming–for me–has been a process and not a single event here and there.  In October, I can add another lenses to the notion of homecoming when I attend training in Nashville, Tennessee.  More to follow on that issue later.

Homecoming-facing the past, present, and ‘pain points’

I mentioned earlier homecomings are thought of as positive events, but what about when they aren’t?  Your story–pain and all–is marginalized in history.  Not too long ago I watched Fort Bliss per one of my professors’ recommendation.  There are tough moments in the film, which I will discuss one day, but this story provides a truer glimpse that homecomings are not always beautiful singular events.  Not everyone is greeted by their families; in familial units torn by divorce, as depicted in the film, who knows is your child will embrace you or be present when you step off the bus?  I didn’t have my family waiting for me when I came home from the first deployment, but my unit was there–they were my family–but even my social network there was incomplete.  Returning from the second deployment, I was embraced by my husband and his family, but once again, my family wasn’t there.  Sometimes, it’s very difficult being the adventurer in the family.  Everyone stays in their comfort zone in Rhode Island.  I journey home time and time again, bearing the financial burden and emotional toll of not seeing my actions reciprocated.  In the last few years, especially as I recovered financially from unemployment, I haven’t made the journey home.  I don’t want to cough up $2,000 or more for flights, hotel rooms, meals, and so on because I know it’s a huge dent to my savings and I have zero desire to put those expenses on a credit card, unless it was an emergency.

I know I’ve given you more to digest today than I normally do and in odd fashion, started on a positive note and ended on more serious thoughts.  There is always a happy thought in my day, despite my seriousness.  To prove it though, please enjoy the cute Prickly Pear image. below.  I use these stickers all the time on Facebook; Prickly Pear stickers are my stickers of choice for Facebook messenger.  They always put a smile on my face.

~C

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Crash Landing: PTSD, Alternative Treatment, and Secondary Traumas

Crash Landing

Last night I attended a film screening on campus for Crash Landing, a film produced back in 2005 about Canadian combat veterans, their PTSD experiences, and the lack of support they face in their civilian environments. Despite serving two tours in Iraq, this is the first time I’ve heard about the film. Visually, it layers on news footage, personal interviews, and dialogue that all work together to showcase that PTSD differs from person to person. Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Afghanistan were among some of the combat zones described by the interviewees.

There were many moments that evoke empathetic responses and also reminded me of some of my own experiences. It is a rare experience to hear veterans who suffer from high levels of PTSD share their stories in a public format. I applaud them for their courage; mental health issues seem to be a difficult chapter for the Canadian forces on the same level as it is for American veterans and not surprisingly, their VA system hasn’t quite effectively managed these needs as well.

For all the points where I agree with the film in showing daily struggles, revealing tipping point experiences, and coping mechanisms, I was frustrated and irate with how the after action panel disintegrated into an argument over the proposed use of cannabis as an alternative treatment for PTSD. There was a medical representative who stated there are only 2 FDA approved drugs to treat PTSD and one of them was described as commonly being employed to suppress sexual urges in incarcerated pedophiles. I understand her frustration that this drug with its side effects harms the reintegration of service members/veterans. However, there was a panelist who made such an improper display of himself that he hurts the viability of cannabis as one such alternative treatment, others being things like art therapy. Although I am not usually a vocal audience member I flat out interrupted him at one point to comment that the language he uses will cause people to view him as a pot smoking teenager and it’s important to consider his approach when discussing cannabis as an available treatment.

I am very open in the fact I’ve never tried cannabis. My dad regretted drinking and smoking pot so much during his high school years that it never interested me to try this recreational drug. As well, I’ve found the smell of pot smoke makes me nauseous. It is so highly irritating that should I later in life require cannabis as pain medicine over morphine, I would ask for it in some edible form. I cannot tolerate that smell. However, I am not above depriving others of their preferred form of medicinals; for two surgeries I’ve had I was prescribed Perocet and Vicodine and the drugs make me too tired or nauseous to eat that I cannot take them. I’d lose too much weight to be healthy.

There is a secondary get together tomorrow regarding alternative treatment (i.e. the potential of cannabis to treat PTSD) but I am not interested in attending. I do not wish to be in the company of the panelist who is likely to once again exhibit poor behavior because he lacks a full understanding of his position as representing other veterans and certainly veterans with PTSD. However, there are many insights I would like to share regarding my feelings as a combat veteran, the film, and cannabis as a form of medicinal treatment:

1. Employment Opportunities

One of the older audience members brought up the fact not all jobs will allow you to use cannabis. My husband and I also discussed this point further in depth today. Many veterans are attracted to government jobs and local law enforcement jobs where you cannot use drugs, to include cannabis. I interned for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service back in 2011. If I had pursued this career option further, one of the biggest selling points to this agency as a potential employee in my background is my lack of criminal involvement or experimentation with drugs. It’s important to also point out NCIS only picks roughly 150 interns a year and I was fortunate through hard work and good behavior to prove myself worthy of one such slot. If I sat around and talked casually about smoking pot to cope with PTSD, the door to that employment opportunity would have closed up quickly.

2. Secondary Trauma

The film should affect everyone a little differently. Some audience members might have a harder time watching the movie because they or one of their loved ones suffers from PTSD. Some veterans might be angry to see other veterans complain about their plight in life, especially veterans who have been directly shot at, have seen their friends killed, or who have had to kill an enemy combatant. Seeing the film might bring up bad memories and cause anxiety, which manifests itself in many forms. One of the things I wish I had seen in the film was individuals with different levels of anxiety and PTSD. The film focused on persons who suffered from severe forms of PTSD and I feel it once again perpetuates this myth that PTSD is always debilitating. Members of the audience went back and forth about their concerns about, “Is PTSD a death sentence?” and really, there is no right or wrong answer. Someone people might take their lives, some may not. There are so many factors that influence reintegration and also secondary traumas people face that make their lives feel meaningful or stressful.

For me, I struggled to fall asleep and stay asleep last night not so much by watching the trauma evident in the film but by adding another activity into my already packed schedule. I know a big part of managing my stress responses involves getting a regular amount of sleep and extra activities can make it difficult for me to relax and fall asleep or stay asleep. My preferred routine is to go to bed at 9pm and wake up at 6am. I haven’t held this routine for quite some time now but I know when I can, I feel like I’m at my peak performance.

3. The Fraudulent Claims Factor

I am not the only veteran to acknowledge that not all veterans act with honor and fraudulent claims bother me. I have much research ahead of me to unveil what information is available regarding veterans who claim disability for the sole purpose of upscaling his or her standard of living. Check out the VA disability compensation information is and you’ll see why I get bothered by people who fake disabilities for the purposes of cashing in on their military service. There are veterans who deserve treatment and every time someone abuses the system, he or she is taking away from their deserving peers.

The veterans portrayed in the film are but a small number of Canada’s armed forces but I was shocked to see they were involved with a $150 million lawsuit against the Canadian government. I do not deny them their suffering but I am curious at the extent of the lawsuit. Were others involved in the lawsuit who wished not to be filmed? I also wonder if these individuals were ever to receive a settlement would they consider how their benefit might harm the funding available to serve other veterans. There is so much to know and explore, but I would have enjoyed further information. In spite of my persistent chest pains, I could never imagine suing my government for my suffering. Once again, they are pretty well managed by diet and exercise but my curiosity was peaked at the end of the film.

4. “Broken” is Not At All How You Should Talk About Our Veterans

I am not broken. I do not like anyone calling our combat veterans “broken.” We are not pieces of china that fell on the floor. Some of us may suffer from traumatic brain injuries, others have PTSD, some may have dealt with military sexual trauma, etc. These events in our lives do not make us broken. Stop using this inappropriate term. You don’t call someone battling cancer ‘broken’; you have the wherewithal to say “He or she is dealing with cancer” and as such, should show the same respect for our veterans. It’s a big deal for them to share the issues they struggle with; General Mattis gave a speech about not giving in to this broken label and some of the flak I had with the film screening was the use of calling veterans ‘broken.’

I will always have a sense of awe when it comes to General Mattis. I had the privilege of working as part of a team creating briefs for him when he served as the Commanding General of 1st Marine Division and he is as blunt as everyone points out. Marines adore him and for good reason. He cares about mission accomplishment and he cares about Marines. He is not out winning the hearts and minds of politicians who don’t fight in the wars. He did an exceptionally good thing as a leader of Marines to remind all of us that we are not broken despite outsiders who might call us such. As such, it is important when a documentary focuses on veterans and/or their families that a certain amount of consideration comes into play to not describe them as ‘broken.’