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Exploitation.

February 4, 2014
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The latest State of the Union address and the Super Bowl were the worst examples of military exploitation I’ve seen in quite a while. And before you tell me I’ve got to relax, know this: Veterans are under fire. Benefits are being taken away, treatment and care are being denied (there are too many stories and links for this one, look it up yourself), VA care is mediocre at best and takes longer than it should to provide care and access, veteran unemployment rate is higher than the national average, Force Shaping is in play (meaning that service members nearing retirement can be forced out before they can retire and get benefits), and suicides are at an astonishing level (these numbers don’t include family members either). All the while they are being told to suck it up. After sucking it up – nay, embracing the suck- for their entire military careers. So watching huge corporations and, worse yet, the POTUS (and FLOTUS) exploit veterans as a way to gain positive benefits for themselves is the very definition of exploitation.

The State of the Union address made me uncomfortable and angry. Why? Because a veteran who sacrificed more than I an comprehend was trotted out in front of the very people who voted to cut his retirement benefits, to applause. That applause was earned, fought for, and well deserved, but coming from our representatives in D.C? It meant nothing, because they didn’t and don’t value what he did, what he gave up, what he stands for. They care about re-elections, money, lobbyists, and a whole slew of unimportant things, but make no mistake: They do not care about veterans. Which is why the COLA cuts passed with nary a protest. Which is why no real action is being taken to improve the VA system. Why Force Shaping is the thanks being doled out to those who volunteered to serve when our nation needed them, just in time to prevent them from collecting retirement benefits. No pause, saying, perhaps screwing over veterans who have already served isn’t the best idea (or fair, or ethical) given that they’ve all been at war for 12 years, I bet there are ways we could actually help them. (There is another rant to be had about their claims that younger veterans can make scads of money right now because they are in prime working age so they don’t need the COLA money- never mind that those benefits were already promised, their time has been served, and all veterans- though especially those dealing with much more serious injuries, mental and physical, from war time- have a much, much harder time finding post-service employment, but I’ll let someone else tackle that another day.)

The Super Bowl gifted us with an atrocious ad from Budweiser. No, the parade featured wasn’t atrocious, it was heartwarming. Even I can admit that. And sending him and his wife to the Super Bowl wasn’t atrocious either. But using the feel good (and hard earned, intensely emotional, and frankly difficult) moment of homecoming as a way to sell beer? That IS atrocious. Because it only benefits Budweiser. And it feeds into the disgusting Reunion P0rn that allows the rest of the world to feel good about homecomings without any of the emotional baggage, fear, worry, and struggle that goes into making those moments so sweet.

And lets not forget the tribute to our military shown at the Super Bowl, which had its heart in the right place. But seeing Michelle Obama and Jill Biden saying all the right things about how great our military members are rang so hollow and, again, made me angry. Because, despite her claims and efforts to help military families, I’ve not heard the FLOTUS speak out once against the COLA cuts or Force Shaping or even better standards for the VA system. That isn’t to say she hasn’t done good work for military families, but we need someone to stand up with us on these bigger issues, and she isn’t.

What it all boils down to, for me, is that these groups, companies, and politicians are shamelessly using the military to gain good well while doing absolutely nothing to help them. Clearly veterans (and their families) are struggling. They sacrifice, the volunteer, they suffer, and then they get the bare minimum in return. (This is hyperbole, yes, there are benefits, however many of these promised benefits are coming under fire and being diminished, or are so hard to gain access to they become moot.)

Budweiser is exploiting us. Kay Jewelers is exploiting us. The POTUS is exploiting us. The list goes on. They are parading us out to make everyone feel all warm and fuzzy about how amazing our troops are, how much they sacrifice, and how proud they make us. But they are doing nothing to actually help. The POTUS agreed to cutting the retirement benefits of veterans who have already served their contracts. How is that helping? He promised to fix the VA system but has done nothing. Budweiser claims to help veterans but their programs are paltry at best, especially for a company that saw almost $40 BILLION in revenue last year alone. Kay Jewelers doesn’t mind playing the deployed spouse card to get you to buy a necklace, but the best they can do for veterans is offer a measly discount. The FLOTUS got to say glowing words about how amazing our military members are in front of the largest audience on television, yet she has not enacted meaningful changes regarding the biggest issues facing veterans.

So, here is the real question: Why do so many military members and families fall all over themselves with praise for companies and individuals that are clearly exploiting them?

I ask this in all seriousness. I watched Twitter and Facebook explode with messages of goodwill and thanks from military families to Budweiser and the FLOTUS during and after the Super Bowl. Same with the POTUS after his State of the Union address. We are earnestly giving heartfelt thanks to the very people who are exploiting us. Thanking the very people who are merely saying the right words, showcasing the happy reunions, and reaping the good will while doing nothing to help veterans or their families. In some cases, these people are actively hurting the veteran community! WHY ARE WE PRAISING THIS?

Are we that starved for attention that we can’t help but beam with pride whenever anyone mentions us or gives us the time of day, regardless of context? Are we just glad someone helped everyone else remember, for just a minute or two, that we are still at war?

I can’t decide. I know there was one time, early on in my transition to military dependent, that I might have viewed these things in a positive light. But it didn’t take long for me to see that these elaborate displays of patriotism were nothing but thin veneers, backed by nothing of substance. It is the commercial and political equivalent of the yellow ribbon magnet. And yet these companies and politicians are making huge financial gains by trotting out their token veteran. They get bumps in polling numbers, they get the feel-good purchase at the liquor store, they get rich. All while the veteran community continues to struggle. AND WE LET THEM.

Where is the outrage? Where are the letters and campaigns to be treated with more respect? To get the help veterans need and deserve? Where is the anger at being used and abused for others’ personal and financial gain? Where is the demand for better treatment, actual support, and keeping promises that were made in recruiter offices 20+ years ago?

I want to know what you all think. Do you think we, the military community, are being exploited? Are we encouraging this exploitation by showing support for such displays? (I’d say yes.) Are we actually gaining something from this that I’m not seeing? Or do you agree and think it is time to speak up, tell politicians and companies that we aren’t for sale and we aren’t your feel-good story, not unless you actually help.

So, spout off in the comments. I hope this opens up a dialogue and lets y’all know that it is okay to not feel good about these feel-good moments. (And if you agree, don’t be afraid to tell Budweiser and the like what you think. Social media can be really powerful, but you all knew that.)

 

 

*I’ve written here before, as Tucker, in case you are wondering who I am and where I came from!

Suicide: A military spouse’s story

January 26, 2014

A milspouse friend sent me this and asked me to post it. I would ask that you be kind in your comments, as it took a lot of courage to share her story with me, let alone the entire internet. ~Ophiolite

There seems to be this mythology that suicidally depressed people are obviously suicidally depressed and they can be picked out of a crowd by even the most random of observers. This simply isn’t the case.

What would probably surprise most people is that I went through a period where I was that depressed. It didn’t show up overnight. I was just under so much stress for so long without any support that I cracked. It happened slowly and by degrees that were almost imperceptible to even me. I knew I was stressed. I knew I was fighting off depression. I believed that if I just tried this or did that- some combination of things would make things better. I could beat this. All the way along, I was seeing my shrink.  She hasn’t let on that she saw it, so I am not sure that it was obvious even to her. The tough thing is that I am so good at lying. It’s one of those skills you pick up in an abusive home. You know how to lie about everything so that no one suspects how bad things are. No one knew I was having a problem- not my husband, not my shrink, not my friends, not my colleagues. No one. It didn’t help that while I was suicidally depressed I was still winning awards for my work, still publishing, still showing up on time and giving 110% at my job, still doing volunteer work, still working out, still going out with friends. In fact the more depressed I got, the more I did these things in an effort to stave off the vortex I felt I was getting sucked into.

I tried to just keep pushing forward, hoping things would get better on their own for months. It wasn’t until I started to really focus on all the things I would have to take care of in order to take myself out of the equation that I realized I really had a serious problem. I made a list of all the things I would need to do: find someone to take care of the dog, put everything into storage so my husband wouldn’t have to go through my things, return my library books, clean out my office, sort out my finances, get a divorce. I even did some of these things.

No one knew I was having a problem- not my husband, not my shrink, not my friends, not my colleagues. No one.

Then I decided to tell my parents I was suicidal. They didn’t believe me. They told me I was just stressed out and tired. I just needed to continue putting one foot in front of the other. “We know you’ll be fine because you always pull through.” I wondered how shocked they’d be when I proved them wrong. I wondered what it would take for them to hear me. I wondered if this wasn’t proof they just didn’t care about me.

Then I sat down and had a conversation with my husband and asked him to divorce me. I figured, if we ended the relationship, what I was going to do would hurt him less. I love the shit out of that man and I didn’t want to destroy him. Thankfully one of us had some emotional intelligence (not me) and he saw right through me. He asked me why I wanted a divorce. I told him I didn’t want to hurt him. The answer perplexed him and he said nothing for a long time. He just stared at me. Then finally he told me what he knew what I was planning to do and he told me he loved me. Most importantly, he made me promise that I wouldn’t hurt myself in any way. He knew that a promise is binding in my mind and if I agreed to it, I could not commit suicide. I told him I would think about it. And then he held me and told me all the reasons he couldn’t live without me until I sobbed myself to sleep.

He just stared at me. Then finally he told me what he knew what I was planning to do and he told me he loved me. Most importantly, he made me promise that I wouldn’t hurt myself…

The next day, while he was at work, I pondered what he had asked of me. He had made a compelling case that he would never be okay without me, but I still wasn’t sure I could go on. So I made a new list. This list was all the things I needed in order to be able to keep the promise my husband asked of me. It was a ridiculous list, filled with some pretty selfish things, like not having to be responsible for finances, or cleaning, or cooking, or anything other than being. It’s pretty selfish to ask your service member to do everything in your relationship, but I just didn’t feel like I could do anything at that point. I gave him the list and he agreed to all of it as long as I spoke my promise out loud: “I will not kill myself.”

After that, I went and saw my shrink and told her I was horribly depressed and not functioning. I still can’t speak the word suicide in her presence. I’m afraid she’ll lock me up in the looney bin and what fragile peace I’ve managed to eek out would be undone by that. But I feel almost compelled to tell others because I realize no one even saw it and I am terrified someone else won’t have a partner who makes them promise to stay alive and they’ll follow through.

My sister called me and started ragging on me about how much weight I’ve gained, how my diet is poor, how I am not exercising. So I told her the truth: Right now, choosing to be alive is hard work, so if all I want to eat is peanut butter M&Ms while watching TV, I’m going to call it a win. She apologized and asked what she could do to help. She told me about her own suicidal period and told me that whatever I had to do to keep going was a-okay. It was so affirming to hear I wasn’t alone and that she cared. We’ve never been very close, but that’s changed since we both fessed up to our individual struggles. My husband, my sister, and my dog who won’t leave my side, are the reasons I am still here. They saw through my mask and cared enough to honor where I am and do what it takes to help me get back to where I need to be.

I want people to know that a suicidal person looks just like everyone else.

It’s been three months since my husband made me promise to stay alive. My progress can be measured in micrometers. When I made the decision to start acting on my suicide preparations list, I stopped working out and eating healthy. I’m just now starting to make an effort to work out and eat right again.  In every other area, I managed to keep the facade in place, so I don’t think other people know. Part of healing for me is telling people about my experience. I feel like it’s really easy to miss the signs in high achieving people, because over-functioning is how we try to cope.

I want people to know that a suicidal person looks just like everyone else. This is why it is so important to listen to someone if they reach out to you and say something out of character. If someone decides to trust you with knowledge that they are struggling, even if it isn’t as obvious as “I’m thinking about committing suicide,” it’s important to listen, to be a friend, and to offer to help. You may not be able to pull them through it, but if you can do nothing more than connect them to resources to help them or tell them that you care, it may be enough to save a life.

In my case, I knew what all the right things to do were. I just needed someone to hear me and hold the flashlight until I could find my way out of the tunnel.

Media Portrayals of the Military, or How Fox’s Enlisted Could Have Been Awesome

January 21, 2014

A few Left Face bloggers got some links from a producer’s assistant recently so we could view the pilot episode and a few additional episodes of this new series called Enlisted. The pilot? Well, there’s a good reason the producer, Kevin Biegel, apologized for it. I’ve heard a few say it’s insulting, and I can definitely grok that when “Rear D” is portrayed as the sadsack crew who are too dumb to figure out how to do jumping jacks and who wear American flag nail designs and who walk around with their blouses wide open,  and no covers over their long hair*.

 Here it is, if you want to see for yourself. You should probably pass, though.

 Just. Wow. But Biegel insisted we at least try one post-pilot episode and reserve judgment until then. I tried two. And now I’m judging.

 I have developed a kind of mil-life Bechdel test for TV, movies, books, etc. It goes a little something like this:

  • Are there milspouses/milsos (i.e. service members don’t exist in a vacuum)?
  • Do they and/or the service member have to deal with some fucked up, stressy situations?
  • Do they get to avoid shitshows like reunion pr0n, dependapotamus or similar portrayals, and scenes that gloss over all the actual, real stressors they have to deal with on a daily basis?

 If all three answers are “yes,” congratulations! You get a cookie.

Clearly, very few portrayals of the military life on screen pass. Sadly, very few of the books I read as part of my day job pass this mil-Bechdel test. Most of the books I come across (or end up editing) gloss over #3 on this list. Hardcore. So do movies and the telly, when milspouses are even factored in.

And that’s where I’m finding Enlisted also falls down. It’s my kind of humor – very Scrubs only with soldiers on a base instead of doctors in a hospital. And like Scrubs, it takes a second from the verbal sparring and hijinks to glance through the peephole at more serious aspects of the military experience. But it still glosses. Take the second episode, for example (we will pretend the pilot never happened). The main character Pete *just wants to be alone*. It’s kind of implied that he’s maybe got a touch of the PTSD. That’s just…well…

Again, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, it sucks that so much PTSD is in the media conveying the idea that every service member returning from Afghanistan (or Iraq back when) is a bomb waiting to explode in a PTSD flashback…which leads to almost a pathological need to touch on it in any mil-portrayal. On the other hand, couching this subject in humor is super tricksy, and I just don’t think it came through the other side. Mostly because it was there vaguely for five seconds of a 22-minute episode, and by episode 3, it was gone. Maybe it comes in again later? I don’t know. But it gets such light treatment, I don’t know if I trust it coming around again. Better would have been for Pete to go through the ridiculousness that is the Army “suck it up” attitude that’s been hard at work killing soldiers in record numbers of suicides. Or have this be a small running thread for a secondary character who’s just come home. There are other ways to do this than “sometimes, because shit maybe got real over yonder, soldiers just need to be alone for a while.” I didn’t even get the whiff of PTSD until that comment was made, but it’s at least a trope and bordering on a cliche to see this as shorthand for a psychological concern. 

The second episode’s serious moment is during an “FRG” meeting. The FRG meets in probably the nicest Army base housing I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen a lot, but jesus crispy christ do enlisted Army get pooped on with some 3rd world housing units, and this looked more like the huge tracts of new faux-stucco North County San Diego houses). Then, it’s like 5 women and a soldier who comes to mansplain to the wimminz how to get their FRG crap done (what??). Despite there being female soldiers all up in the cast, there were no mil-husbands in that living room. And their meeting discussions? Which color paper to use for the care packages.

Okay.

One wife speaks during the serious moment, and it is a totally legit concern. Her DH has been deployed for over a year, and she’s worried. Yes! This! This is precisely what we need in milspouse portrayals to close that military-civilian divide. This is what will give civilians the context they need to understand why reunions are so incredibly intimate and wonderful and difficult and awful and exciting all at the same time…and why reunion pr0n is therefore exploitative and voyeuristic and unbalanced in its storytelling. This is what we need.

 But then she gets another line. And this line gives me a sad.

 “Does he know I haz all the feels?” she asks the soldier who’s never deployed ever.

And I tear out my hair. It’s at this point I realize the producer does, indeed, have veterans advising him, but they’re likely old dudes, judging by some of the milspouse portrayals. And he probably has ZERO milspouses advising. Because, yet again, we’re an afterthought, and our own conflicts and struggles mean about jack and shite unless our lives can be turned into a completely ridiculous soap opera on Lifetime. Huzzah.

 The show has some funny moments. I lolzed it up during the cooking contest, and I think YodaMan will have his own set of lulz if he sees the disaster preparedness training (zombies FTW!). I really like how Sgt Perez is portrayed. She’s a kick ass woman, and even though she’s a secondary character, she ninjas a lot of scenes and delivers some throat punches on her way out the door. (Just, please Dear Writer, for the love of all that is holy, don’t develop a romance there. Leave this relationship in the friendzone, I beg you. I edit romance novels for a living, and *I* think this one’s better left alone.)

 The banter is fun, and though much of the setting is still unrealistic, it’s better than the pilot’s setting. Also, hairs were cut and blouses were buttoned and covers are appropriately doffed and donned as far as my Navy knowledge goes, so we’re definitely on an upswing.

 I guess we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure this season’s shows are already written, edited, and in whatever pipeline teleplays go through. But if this show survives into another season, maybe it will pick up some meatier plot threads. Maybe it will pass my mil-Bechdel test later. For now, I’m going to have to urge everyone who’s curious to miss the pilot, skip right to the second episode (really, here’s all you missed: Pete punches his CO and is busted down and sent back to Florida, where his two brothers are also stationed), and judge for yourself. I think some will like it just fine. I think some will hate it with fire. Either way, I do believe Mr. Biegel when he says, “Please just know the show comes from a place of love for my family that did the job, not Hollywood holy-ier-than-though-ness.”**

 Me? I’ll figure it out later, when I’m no longer worried about how we’re going to make up the $100k Congress just cut from our retirement pay. For now, it’s merely one more voice threatening to trivialize our trials and exploit our tribulations. I’m hoping it won’t, but in the last 19 years of living in the lap of mil-luxury, I’ve learned to expect the worst, hope for the best, and invest in vegan cheez*** to get me through the rough patches.

 

 * I know the other services do covers different than the Navy. Or maybe it’s something about how they salute without a cover on? I can’t remember. I just remember thinking how fucked up it was in ROTC. Consistency, people. No roof, cover on. No cover, no salute. Exception: screwy ship sitches. Ta da! Now nobody’s confused unless they’re on a screwy ship.

** Though that’s the second time in a week a producer dissed on Hollywood to me. Is this a thing?

*** Kite Hill, bizatches. That’s some tasty stuff. So ridiculously expensive, but it’s almond milk cultured just like real cheese. Om to the nom.

What is it like to be a geo-bachelor?

November 22, 2013

Geo-bachelor (n.)- geographic bachelor; (1) a service member who is stationed in one locations, whose family resides in another location; (2) the spouse of a service member who chooses not to move to a new duty station.

It’s not a topic that has been written about frequently, because most military families pick up and move with every new set of orders. My husband and I racked up 5 moves in our first 5 years of marriage. Moving frequently strains military family members. While the service member is looped in with a degree of job continuity from duty station to duty station, military family members get to start over from scratch over and over: new jobs (maybe-if you can find one), new location, new household to be set up, new schools, new friends, new navigation routes and unfamiliar surroundings. It can be overwhelming.

This is not why we ended up as geo-bachelors. We ended up in this situation because I don’t exactly have a portable career. I am in a PhD program that requires my attendance at a brick and mortar institution. As more military spouses explore more diverse education and career options, more of us end up as geo-bachelors, so I thought a run-down on what it’s like might be useful.

The first thing you tell yourself when you are considering geo-bach-ing it is that you’re apart all the time anyway, thanks to the deployment fairy, so it won’t be that different. This is a myth. It’s a myth that will be busted the first four day weekend that comes along or when your service member gets an unexpected half-day and you are stuck an 8 hour and $400 plane ride away. Up until this happens, you will fool yourself into believing that the empty bed and missing combat boots are just like deployment light ( you know, minus the danger element). The guilt is what will get you, because no matter how much your inner feminist says that it’s not your job to give up your career and your dreams for him, part of you will feel like a bad wife for following your dreams.

Right now I live exactly halfway across the country from my service member. I work 80+ hours a week and he works about that much too. As a result, we see each other 4-5x per year. It sucks hairy ass chunks, and that’s probably being kind. Don’t get me wrong, the sex, when we do see each other, is mind-blowing. This may just be because of how long the dry spells are, but there are lots of ways to have mind-blowing sex that don’t include torturing yourself.

It’s expensive. You are going to buy two sets of everything again. It’s insane. Groceries cost less when you are sharing groceries and can cook and plan for two instead of one. In addition, you have all of the travel expenses, and in my case 2 cable bills with high-speed internet so we have a hope and a prayer of using Facetime occasionally.  We have gotten around this at some points when he has been able to live on the ship, but the ship’s internet is hideous so then we’re back to email and the occasional phone call when he’s not too busy and I am in a place in the lab that gets halfway decent cell reception.

All of this is doable if you have a strong support network, at least it’s doable for a while. I haven’t been particularly fortunate in that regard. My milspouse friends are awesome and seem to always make time for a chat when I need them, but it’s not the same as a coffee klatch where we can share experiences face-to-face. I haven’t been lucky in finding people who understand the stresses I am under.  As one woman I know put it, when my husband was in the hospital, “It’s not like he wouldn’t be deployed some of the time anyway.”  *Cue stabby music** This is where the real struggle has been for me. Civilians don’t understand “normal” military life. They don’t want to know or hear about it. They really don’t want to hear about how going home to an empty house–again– is depressing, or how someone giving you a hug is an occasion for tears because it’s been 2 months since someone touched you at all. In the end, the isolation is what gets you. You stop talking to people because they don’t want to hear about the funny thing or stressful thing your spouse told you over the phone. They don’t care how he’s doing, because he doesn’t exist in their world. And they make it clear they don’t care how you are doing, because he’s an off-limits conversation and he’s still a part of your life.

Being a geo-bachelor is hard work because it is so much extra effort to keep the plates spinning, the family together and moving in the right direction, and everyone moving in the right direction. Finding a way to get back together after geo-bach-ing it is also extra work. It’s a ton of planning and is fraught with all the competition between your career and his, your needs and his, etc.

The only real value I have found in slogging it out as a geo-bachelor is: I’ve really learned how much I love and value my husband. It sounds stupid, I am sure. I’ve always loved him, but I’ve learned exactly how much by having him be away so much. I learned that there wasn’t a single thing I’ve accomplished, and I’ve had quite a few triumphs in the past few years, that has mattered more to me than my spouse.

I don’t know that I would have been happy without chasing my dreams, if I wouldn’t have resented him at some point because my life goals were getting tabled. I do know that those dreams have ceased to have some of the luster they once did and family means more to me now. I still want a successful career, but I am less willing to take a future position that would keep us apart.

If you have specific questions about the geo-bachelor life, feel free to post them and I will answer to the best of my ability. I hope this gives you a brief insight into the trials that come with this particular brand of military life.

 

Thank a Veteran for his/her values

November 11, 2013
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My Dad and two youngest sisters: Dad is now retired and spends his time supporting our global adventures. The youngest (Left) is serving a mission in Guatemala. My middle sister (Right) has taught ESL classes around the world and is getting a degree in social work.

My Dad is a complex person. He isn’t perfect. He has done a lot of things I think are amazing, but he is flawed. So am I. But it his humanity that makes him a perfect example of everything that Veteran’s Day and Our Nation represent.

My Dad volunteered to join the Army during Vietnam, because he believes in duty, in sacrifice, and in putting one’s country and the freedoms for which it stands ahead of his own life. These values are values passed down to him by his father, who was wounded at Iwo Jima. My Dad only served his enlistment, because my grandmother was ill and my Aunt, who has cerebral palsy, and my grandfather could not care for her. He didn’t fight any battles you read about in history books; he simply served his country without fanfare.

I believe that a combination of my grandfather’s values gained in WWII and my father’s own experiences in the Army codified the values my father instilled in each of his four daughters. He taught us first and foremost to be loyal to our family, our friends, and to those placed in authority over us. Our family always comes first. We all rise or fall together. It was this value that had the most meaning to me throughout my life. Every choice I have ever made has been driven by my loyalty to my family. I sacrificed to get into college and pursue a career because I believe it is my responsibility to promote my family’s success and financial security.

He taught us the meaning of duty to our country, our faith, and our family. Duty isn’t a sexy word, but it is the underpinning to a successfully functioning team. Duty means doing the hard work even when you don’t want to and it isn’t easy. It means continuing to follow through until you complete your goals, even if it’s a slog to get there. For me, this has meant supporting my service member regardless of the obstacles his service has thrown into our lives. For my sister it means serving a mission. We all express this value differently.

My Dad taught us to treat people with respect. Whether it’s the homeless guy on the corner or the President of the United States, we should show that person respect as a member of the human race. As a result, all four of his daughters are deeply invested  in social causes.

Lastly, my father taught us selfless service. He could have had a fancier job that would have made his family wealthy, but he chose to stay near his family. He took me to visit my grandfather in the VA hospital throughout my childhood, even though it was a scary place as a kid. (The VA hospitals were quite horrific when I was little- blood on the walls and such). He stayed close to his disabled sister throughout his life. In this way, I think he actually reflects my grandmother as well who took care of her family until she died of breast cancer months after I was born. Each of his daughters has chosen a different path of service. Two of my sisters are deeply involved in working with disadvantaged populations abroad. My other sister and I tend to focus on social issues nearer home.

My father’s life isn’t marked by grand acts, but by daily choices that are the measure of a man or woman. In many ways he represents the typical American Veteran. He served his country. He came home and he served his family and tried to instill in us the values he believed would make us good citizens and good people.

When Americans think about Veterans, they rarely think of people like my father. They either conjure service members and veterans as heroes far removed from the American experience or broken souls who cannot integrate into the society they left behind. Many veterans are neither. They are just average people who made a choice to serve their country when they were needed. They are people who believe in duty, honor, sacrifice, and loyalty to their families, their friends, and their country. These values are the core of what make them good leaders, good employees, and good citizens. So next time you thank a veteran, think about why they deserve our thanks. They value each and every one of us enough to live for us, to fight for us, and to grant us the privileges that we derived from the Constitution. These values are what make them worth thanking.

Hysterical women, resiliency, and military spouse suicide

September 16, 2013

Friday afternoon I was heading out to the department’s picnic, when I heard from my husband that one of the spouses in the command committed suicide. Unfortunately, this has become an all too familiar topic for military families, even as it is largely ignored by the media and military.

One of the side effects of the all-volunteer force is that there is no shared national sacrifice. A miniscule 1% of the US population has borne the entirety of two wars on their backs. We are bruised, bloodied, and some of us are broken by the strain of it. The worst part about it is we can’t even have an honest conversation about how we’re coping or not coping, because everything we say can be taken out of context, abused and used to any number of purposes that do not include an honest account of our stories. One side will trot us out as examples of resilience. Another will label all military spouses as hysterics who are seeking attention. It’s a no win game. As a result, many of us learn that silence is safety, until we break and no one even knew we were at the end of our ropes.

I don’t know why this spouse decided to end it all. We may never know why because there are no statistics kept on how military spouses are coping and why they breakdown. What we do know is that the ship changed ports recently and many of the spouses in our command have chosen to be geo-bachelors for the duration of their spouse’s tours rather than move with the ship.

Geobachelorhood confers an extra set of challenges to an already difficult set of circumstances that come with military life. It is not unlike being a Guard or Reserve spouse, where  you may not live anywhere near another military spouse who may know what you’re going through or when you need help.

Recently, I wrote about the benefits of being around caring civilians, but the truth is there are challenges to being a military family of one. For example, this past month my husband took ill unexpectedly. We still don’t know what’s wrong and navigating the Navy’s medical system is a post unto itself. It was the week I was prepping to move back from my internship, when he got sick. I had a profound realization that I had not one person I could call and say, “Hey, take the dog and can you pack my apartment while I am gone? I am getting on a plane right now.” I sat on the floor of my half empty apartment and weighed my options. I could leave everything and fly out and hope everything was okay and I could get back in time to move before the end of my lease or I could finish packing, move, and hope he was okay until I could get there. Neither is a good option. And both reminded me that I am tight-rope walking without any sort of safety net.

What do you do when you fall? What do you do when there’s no backup plan and when you can’t cope but there’s no one to call? Most of us find a way to play through the pain, but what happens when it’s too much, when it’s just a bridge too far?

We make a big deal about being resilient because the military and civilians make a point of calling military spouses hysterical women (even though we aren’t all women), whenever we raise our hands and say enough. Sometimes we aren’t resilient. By pushing the resilience story, we often push those that are struggling to the fringes of the group, where they are far too easily lost. When I was sitting on my floor alone wondering how I could manage, I called my mother and told her I wasn’t coping and I needed help. Her response still rings in my ears, “Ophiolite, no one helps you because we know you are resilient. Even when no one steps up to help you, you always find a way to make it through.”**

Maybe this is our collective problem as military spouses. We’ve gotten so good at putting the brave face on for so long and managing under extreme circumstances that even when we ask for help, no one realizes it’s because we’re already at the breaking point and we simply can’t walk one more step alone.  What’s worse is that we don’t even know how much rougher it is for Reservist and Guard spouses who do not have access to many of the resources Active Duty spouses take for granted. As long as military spouses don’t count, we won’t get the help we need to combat military spouse suicides. That is frankly unacceptable.

 

**Author’s note: At that point I hung up the phone and texted my milspouse friends near the ship who, while unable to resolve the dog/move/sick husband issue, did help me make the decisions I needed to make and line up contingency plans for my spouse and I. For their support, I am truly grateful.

Caught in Transition

August 29, 2013

“When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”
― Patrick OvertonThe leaning tree

The handwriting is on the wall. The military will face budget cuts over the coming years that will put many of our spouses out of a job. This is both good and bad news for all of us. On the one hand, I am thrilled to think of a future where I won’t wake up to another day of war and everything that comes with it. On the other, I worry about all of the families who will be displaced and have to start over in a world that isn’t always veteran & milspouse friendly.

I’ve been trying to embrace the coming changes. I always knew they would come and I started a PhD several years ago in preparation for a career after my husband separates from the service. In some ways, I feel uber prepared. In others, I feel horribly lost, scared, and alone. Those who have made the transition seem to disappear from the lives of those of us still in the thick of it, so there isn’t a lot of connection of feedback on the process of transition.

Over the summer, I have had what might be my first “real job” in 5 yrs, if you can call an internship with a large company a “real job”. It’s been awesome, scary, and stressful all at the same time. It has taught me a lot about the coming transition and while I had hoped to save this for my personal blog, I feel like it’s most beneficial to put my lessons learned in this space so that you can make entirely new and different mistakes from the ones I have made.

Here’s my lessons learned:

1. People care.

Don’t laugh at this. I’ve been in an environment for 5 yrs where people distinctly do not care about all the extra shit (e.g. the military, or any number of other things that make me me) and its impact on my life.  As a result I’ve become very comfortable with having superficial acquaintances in my life and only a very small core group of friends, most of whom are other military spouses. It’s a new thing to find out that civilians care.

This knowledge is also somewhat overwhelming and sort of freaked me out. I almost feel like I don’t know how to have a “normal” friendship any more that doesn’t include Navy policy and it’s impact on my life, another move or deployment or whatever. With the exception of some awesome milspouses, I have felt like the military would have been a lot happier if I had sat down and shut up at the back of the bus for the past decade.  It is a really strange experience to have people express interest in those aspects of my life and yet still treat me like a real person. Being surrounded by people that care about you, have your back and want nothing but your success is humbling and awe inspiring. Embrace it to the fullest.

2. People generally want to be helpful.

We’re used to living in an organization where you have to very carefully advocate for things you need. That care and consideration still matters, but it’s okay to ask for help. This was hard for me to learn and I still haven’t mastered it. I’ve gotten so used to being 120% self-sufficient, to being able to pack up the house and move to a new place while looking for a job, managing the dog, selling the house, etc, etc. I just didn’t recognize at first people were trying to help me. Then I didn’t know if they were offering to help because I was a wreck. It took me a while to realize this is what normal people, not just your battle buddy, do for each other.

I still have trouble asking for help, but I am trying to learn that being good enough doesn’t mean being perfect or being all things to all people. People want to help and they want to be friends. Part of friendship is learning to let the mask slip a bit and realize that people still care even when you aren’t being perfect.

I know this may seem like an easy or straightforward thing, but I felt it was worth mentioning because I think we often feel siloed by the “hero culture” American society levees onto us. We are always shown being stoic and brave, whether on the front lines or holding down the fort at home. It’s easy to come to believe that’s all people see in us and all they want to hear. It’s not true. Instead, you need to tell people what you need and what you want, and why it matters to them. Most people are really there to help.

3.  Embrace the fear.

The simple fact of the matter is that there isn’t one way to make the transition, because we are leaving a pseudo-monolithic organization and moving into a big, diverse, and complex world. We each have different skills, talents, and abilities. As a result, we will each end up on slightly different paths. This will produce some fear and anxiety as we each step into the darkness.  We need to embrace the fear and ambiguity.

This is something we should be good at, but in the past we knew what most of the scary outcomes were/are with a deployment. This is more ambiguous. It’s hard to contain fear and anxiety when your imagination can conjure almost any creature in the dark. This is why it’s important to establish relationships with veterans, milspouses, and civilians on the outside who know what the light looks like at the end of the tunnel and who can guide you there.

It’s not going to be easy for many of us. We are all going to be faced with lots of scary changes in our jobs, our lives, and even in the way we think about the world. It will take time for each of us to make it through the transition and find ourselves squared away in a life outside of the military, but the one thing I am certain of, after 10 yrs as a milspouse, is that we are strong. Even in our weakness, we are strong. We will face the coming challenges together. We will need to embrace the civilian population and build strong relationships with them, which will be challenging after these wars. There will be people who will want to prohibit this, who will judge our veterans and their families for answering the call. Even though they are loud, they do not represent the voices of everyone out there. We must seek out the people who want to help us, who want to be our friends, and who want to provide guidance as we move toward the next phase of our lives.

In the end, the light is at the end of the tunnel. You simply have to keep walking, even when you can’t always see it.

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