Are You Even a Veteran?!

The question in the subject line was honestly asked of me today:

Are you even a veteran?!

It is inappropriate to give the entire context of the conversation, but a fellow veteran made this statement–asked this question of me–quite condescendingly.  At the tail end of an insanely busy week, it was the last question I expected/wanted to hear in my day.  I understand it was a rhetorical question and he didn’t quite expect me to answer in fact that I am. (The anger/frustration/hurt in my voice was not concealed.  At what point did our society give up on teaching and reinforcing good manners?!  When did insolent behavior become so commonplace?!  And is anyone else paying attention to how eager people are to act this way over the internet and on the phone?!)

I do not know this person well enough to understand how much his comments were part male privilege and/or veteran entitlement.  Let’s give this person the “benefit” of the doubt and take male privilege off the table for a moment–let us assume he wasn’t making two digs at me, but just the one:

His veteran status is more important (in his eyes/mind) than my personhood, my assumed non-veteran status.

This issue infuriates me greatly.  While I may crack jokes about Marines being better than Airmen, for example, I leave many of these comments in-house, with fellow veterans whose camaraderie I enjoy.  Some will playfully chide in return that Marines are crazy, just look at the crap we put up with compared with our sister service branches.  We do earn each other’s respect.  I don’t put down my peers who did not deploy; the more I learn about my peer group the more I understand how luck/leadership/health/various other factors contributed to my ability to deploy and their inability to deploy.  My infantry peers also respect me and don’t derogatorily called me a POG (person other than grunt).

Years ago, I made the natural assumption almost everyone who was in the military during my 4 years of active duty would equally deploy.  This notion made sense to me.  We were (and are) in a post-9/11 where terrorism occurs in expected and unexpected places.  I expected everyone who served after 9/11 would serve overseas in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and it was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ they would deploy.  I am learning more now–as a veteran–military life and service experiences are more diverse than my naive expectations.

Veteran entitlement though is an issue that eats our veteran community from the inside out and ruins our collective relationship with our civilian communities and other veterans.  I didn’t expect to come across this attitude. It runs counter to another veteran type I see–veterans who are placed in the most dangerous environments, who do the best with their resources, and care highly for their teams.  Most veterans will fall along the spectrum from highly entitled to highly altruistic, just like their non civilian counterparts.  Today was just my encounter with a highly entitled person who thought it was appropriate to bring me down and there are many more like him in the world.

This attitude is not how veterans should behave.  I’m sorry for anyone who experiences this person on a daily basis or in a casual encounter like I did.  No one should behave this way as part of their daily interactions.  Veterans are trained to be our nation’s best and some, unfortunately, never (or rarely) take that message to heart.

My goal is to not act like this veteran namely because I know better.  I am a Post-9/11 veteran.  I am a Marine veteran.  I am an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran.  I earned my veteran status but I did not forget my status still comes with expectations.  I am a representative of my service branch and I have an equal burden and responsibility to behave appropriately in public.

Operation Iraqi Freedom 2-2
Operation Iraqi Freedom 2-2
Operation 5-7
Operation 5-7

Life Insurance: A Real Necessity

We’re all going to die some day.  It’s not something we enjoy talking about–or planning for–but it will happen.  Some of us have short times here on earth and others live well into their 100’s.  Planning for the inevitable falls on us–or for those of us too young or indigent–someone else must plan and set aside funding for burial expenses.

Normally, I would not write about such a topic.  People don’t really like being reminded that they are going to die or that their loved ones will eventually die.  I am with you all in this regard and more so because of how often death has touched my life starting with my mother’s passing in 2000.  Death, though, has not stopped there.

On my first deployment, my family tried to spare me this burden and delay notifying me my Uncle Duke passed away.  On this same deployment, my dad’s (stepfather, legally) father passed away.  My work also suffered the burden of losing one of our own, Captain Brock.  I didn’t think about what difficulties my family members may have undergone if sufficient life insurance was not in place, because it’s not something we (and certainly, many families) discuss or want to discuss.

I didn’t think of what arrangements Captain Brock’s wife made for him; thinking back, I’m assuming he had the maximum Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance, which is $400,000 and he may also have been covered under the $100,000 Family Servicesmembers’ Group Life Insurance.  Thomas and I had this spousal coverage on each other while we were both active duty.

As active duty service members we each had $400,000 worth of SGLI, although when Bart was killed in 2002, his mom told me SGLI had been $250,000 and unfortunately, from her, I learned his parents were not listed as beneficiaries which meant paying for his burial costs without this financial support.  I don’t know about all life insurance plans, but ours recommends reviewing the beneficiaries at least one a year.  Based on my conversation with Bart’s mom, I made sure my parents were listed as my beneficiaries when I was single or dating because they would bear the costs of my burial.  I didn’t update this information again until I was married.  It was updated yet again when we had my daughter.  Should we later adopt, I would update my plan again.

When individuals get out of the service, they can get Veterans Group Life Insurance up to the maximum amount of SGLI they had while serving.

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I imagine someone on the outside would assume these numbers are unnecessarily high, but life insurance can help with more than just the bare necessities of funeral planning and for many people, life insurance that just covers burial costs is not enough.  Inadequate life insurance and no life insurance at all can be devastating for people who lost their family’s sole (or higher) source or income.  The Granite Mountain Hotshots’ lawsuit settlement is just one example of why life insurance planning is an absolute necessary.

However, this conversation is not limited to just replacing an adult’s income.  When I worked for Pinal County, I had the privilege to learn a little, informally, about the handling of birth and death certificates.  A peer there told me about the life insurance policies she has for her children.  I also carry a policy for my daughter, so we would not be financially crippled should the worst happen and we are faced with her burial costs.

The reason I decided to write on this subject today is because I learned via Facebook a 2003 graduate from my high school recently passed away.  I do not know the circumstances of his death, but his family is struggling to pay his funeral expenses.  Given his age–thirty years old–I wonder why he didn’t have life insurance.  Did he think it wasn’t necessary?  Was he barely scrapping by?  A donations request was sent out and donations are coming in to help reduce the burden on his family, but I wonder if it will be enough.

Depending on what options a family explores, burial expenses can be overwhelming (funeral, travel, flowers, etc.).  I took a personal finance class with the University of Wyoming and the following from Garman and Forgue’s Personal Finance (9th ed.) is a useful needs-based assessment:

-Final expenses

-Income-replacement needs

-Readjustment-period needs

-Debt-repayment needs

-College-expense needs

-Other special needs

*Add all these totals together and subtract government benefits and current life insurance assets to get the total life insurance needed.

And while I don’t feel like tackling the whole life insurance and term life insurance debate, I will say I purchase term life insurance.  It’s just appropriate for my life right now.  My premiums are not ungodly which is great since my paycheck is smaller than what I made while on active duty.  My last premium, in fact, was due the day I learned this former student had passed away–if this new is not an incentive to get life insurance (or to make a timely payment), I don’t know what would be.

When I die, I know I want a simple service and I want to be cremated.  I think it’s such a waste (for me anyways) to have an elaborate casket and flower arrangements.  Cremation is less costly and I’m not a big fan of flower arrangements.  After my mother’s death, our house was littered with so many flower arrangements.  These beautiful things competed with each other–in small bunches, they smell beautiful but the combination of them makes an odd urine type smell.  The only flowers that really stuck out in my mind as beautiful were the ones sent by my mother’s former employers from when we lived in California.

As an early warning, when I do die, people are welcome to leave letters on my grave and tuck them in the earth. I will greatly appreciate it if people donate their money to a charity instead of spending that money on flowers.  After two deployments, I can also say I don’t want my family to waste my life insurance money on remembering me.  It’s money for them to maintain their dreams and to keep their basic needs met so they are not burdened unnecessarily whenever it is my time to go.

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.’