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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What It Means to Share My Story

10 years ago I found myself in a combat zone, my choice.  Being the only female on my team was not my choice but that reality reflects the demographic nature of the Marine Corps; according to the Women Marines Association, women made up 7.11% of the Marine Corps in 2012.  Several significant and tragic, while not all, milestones regarding female Marines are available here for viewing.

During the course of my deployment, I met someone who would become my best friend and also, boyfriend.  Let me preface by saying, relationships are not condoned in a combat environment and I received my fair share of flak for having a significant other overseas.  More so, I received negative attention for being a female in a relationship.  

The only outside person whose opinion on the matter that mattered to me was that of my Master Sergeant, MSgt Macaulay.  He and I had the closest thing one could describe as a heart-to-heart about my relationship and in that moment, he was both a superior and a father figure.  Our conversation was, and will, remain private.  He was tactful, honest, and direct in his approach, but also respectful of the fact I am my own person.  As a Marine, I admired his leadership style then and now.

Although I’ve shared my deployment experiences with friends and family over the years, I’ve always been a little hesitant to share publicly about the relationship aspect because I open myself up to criticism.  What made the matter trickier is that the relationship eroded rather quickly upon returning stateside and there’s this lingering sentiment by others that well obviously it wasn’t going to work out.

I am the first to admit we had numerous obstacles in the way of the relationship including the fact that although Nathan and his ex were legally separated for 2 years, the divorce process took much longer than we anticipated.  (By the way, take a breath.  I know you want to now that I’ve divulged more information than you were expecting.)  I do not consider myself a “home wrecker” or anything of the sort for dating an individual going through the divorce process.  Others would disagree, but my story is what it is and there’s no changing the variables involved.

Coming home from Iraq did not live up to my expectations not only because Nathan and I struggled with not only our failing relationship but our own individual post deployment issues.  I came home early because my grandmother’s cancer was no longer in remission and on top of seeing her in failing health, I also got news shortly after returning home that my student loans were sent to collections.  Fun times, I tell you.

I spent five years not talking to Nathan after the relationship ended, which still surprises me given the fact I remained friends with two other ex-boyfriends post-split.  In the meantime, I got married in 2006 and welcomed a baby girl in 2010.  Around the same time, Nathan sent an unexpected email regarding our combat deployment.  In return, I submitted a curt response back to Nathan (and had a conversation with my husband regarding the matter) and we went back to our separate existences.

My position at ASU brought me back to veteran issues and confronting my two tours in Iraq.  An opportunity to meet Professor Mark Von Hagen, who is now the Director of the Office of Veteran and Military Academic Engagement, gave me the opportunity to share my story in a way that felt safe and nonjudgmental; although he was teaching a class “Oral History: America’s Most Recent Wars”, I was more comfortable sharing with him the three years’ worth of journal entries chronicling my Marine Corps experience.

Nathan is mentioned in roughly a year’s worth of entries in one form or another, so it was important to discuss the matter with him directly.  3 years had passed since the last email communication and I didn’t expect a warm response.

That was late last year.

In roughly the year since then, quite the transformation has occurred.  We honestly discussed for the first time the stress we were under upon returning home from Iraq.  We talked about what it meant to be each other’s best friend in a place where being mortared was a common occurrence.  We talked about our relationships and for me,  I could understand the burden he went through being separated from his children.  There’s a lot of freedom I got back in my life by being “reunited” with Nathan and it’s really helped my ability to explain why and how I get frustrated by things others might find trivial.

We last saw each other in person when I left Iraq on February 25, 2005, but taking the chance to resuscitate our lost friendship has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

(Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq, 2004)
(Camp Blue Diamond, Iraq, 2004)