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.

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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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

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

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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.