From a very good friend, Stacy Bannerman, who has written, advocated, worked and lived the life of a caregiver of a veteran.
I’ll admit that I was a little skeptical. An opera, really? Written and composed by two people from southern Oregon, of all places, who had no direct connection to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, how could an opera possibly begin to capture how these wars were coming home for the veterans with PTSD and their spouses? That was my frame of mind when I sat down with the rough cut DVD of the workshop performance of The Canticle of the Black Madonna www.cbmopera.com staged at the University of Oregon last year. Sure, I’d read the remarks by the vets who had been in the audience that evening, including this one, from Miah Washburn, 1SG, U.S. Army Infantry, who is right now training for another deployment to Afghanistan with the Oregon National Guard 41st BDE:
“You honor me, and my brothers and sisters in arms, with this opera. Please know that as a combat veteran I am truly and deeply touched that you have undertaken such an elusive and misunderstood issue as combat-related PTSD in America today. I am thankful to you all for what you do, and I know my fallen friends would be as well.”
But I was still skeptical. Perhaps I’d been to one too many retreats, seminars, or workshops hungry for, if not healing, at least understanding, some recognition of the reality of what it can be like living with a veteran with combat trauma, and far too often, leaving disappointed, alienated, alone. And then I watched, and pretty soon, I quit thinking, and started feeling, and then I was crying, a lot actually. Because they got it, and they got it right.
In the first act, this original, contemporary opera provides a powerful snapshot of what is really going on in too many homes of too many veterans struggling with the trauma of war. But it doesn’t end there, at that point where too many of our families are stuck. It doesn’t end at the place where our national conversation seems to have stalled.
In the second act – the whole thing runs just under two hours – the composer, Ethan Gans Morse, and the Librettist, Tiziana DellaRovere, move the music, the story, and us, the audience, onto a new pathway, a new possibility for finding our way forward after war, for daring to believe, for having the audacity to hope even in the midst of devastation that there is a path toward healing the souls of those wounded by war. We aren’t going to get there alone, and this opera serves as both medium and message for that.
So. An opera, really?
This opera, in particular, is resurrecting a 400-year-old genre to serve as a vehicle for addressing and transforming the invisible wounds of war, while bringing a serious dialogue about the role of the civilian community in healing the wounds of war to center stage. A nationally-renowned cast is performing The Canticle of the Black Madonna, a groundbreaking opera about the power of love to transform the lives of military veterans suffering from PTSD on September 5th & 6th, 2014 at Portland’s Newmark Theatre.
Stacy Bannerman, M.S., is the author of When the War Came Home (2006) and spearheaded the passage of Oregon’s H.B. 2744, and H.B. 3391, which created the Governor’s Task Force on Military Families. Stacy is the Director of Oregon Operations for The Canticle of the Black Madonna, http://canticleoftheblackmadonna.com/ an original opera about combat PTSD, domestic abuse, and the healing of the soul. E-mail her at her website, http://www.stacybannerman.com.
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.
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.
|Oh, #ketchupgate. You complete me.|
- These journalists and the readers to whom they issue this call to arms have no fu**ing clue what they’re talking about. Journalists are getting the facts wrong, and their perspective completely lacks experience to inform them. We’re certainly not asking our maids to vacuum the Porsche floorboards, and we’re not chillaxing at the polo event with our houseboy at the ready to serve us champagne. Hell, some of us are barely able to cover the electric bill right now because deployment gremlins drained our savings when the car lost its starter two months ago. And we’re really hoping Military One Source will cover another therapy session for our kid who’s having night terrors now that Dad’s left for Afghanistan for the fifth time. Meanwhile, we’re waiting three weeks for an appoint ment with our PCM for that pesky pneumonia we can’t shake.
- We are not responding appropriately. Today, I saw a call to action: send Chandresekaran a bottle of ketchup on National Ketchup Day (today) as a statement that we don’t appreciate his tone. I don’t know if this is enough. It’s a good start, and the awesome jokes running around the Twitters right now via #ketchupgate, @MilFamKetchup, and @LavishMilFam are bringing attention to both the ketchup inundation and the issue at hand. But really, shit like this isn’t going to stop because the 1% is up in arms about The Man threatening to take our ketchup. It will only stop when there is understanding and real discussion. And that’s not going to happen until journalists stop writing Schlockety McCornPoo and start investigating the military family experience.
professional burdens and conflicts that fill the cracks between anchors aweigh and welcome home and anchors aweigh again.
Feel Good? Fuzzy Feelings? See what they did there? They are using military families–exploiting military families–for ad money, and they’re enticing
civilians who want a nice feel-good moment. Result: civilians associate military with sadsauce deployments but ALL THE FEELS when the soldier returns
home and NONE of the icky squicky reality in between.
ETA some initial thoughts:
I don’t know how, but someone on my Twitter feed is pulling a total fucking bait and switch on me. I keep somehow ending up reading Spousebuzz posts lately, and I swear I’mma hulksmash something the next time I end up reading complete and utter bollocks like this.
Don’t get me wrong. Advice columns are a genre all their own, typically full of trite isms and smarm and patronizing suggestions, and that’s why we like reading them. But this particular advice column lit my ass on fire. Why? Because of its condescension, sketchy advice, and assumption that we Navy wives with a happy life share a hivemind and an addiction to pearls and potlucks.
I thought about taking the post down piece by piece and showing why it’s completely ridiculous and should be killed with fire and perhaps a few loads of nitro. But I’d be here all day and for no reason. The people who saw that link either love it (and like the author, will never understand why this piece hit every nerve because of our completely different worldviews) or have devised other ways to kill the post (with a grenade, with an ax-wielding Texan on bath salts, etc.). As much as I want to crack jokes about the advice to “dress your family in anchors” being a great way to teach your kids how to survive a keelhauling, I will refrain. After all, I’m sure showing “spirit” about a service might actually somehow be a vital piece of a milspouse’s happiness…I guess. O.o
Instead, I will provide some of my own advice and an open forum for others to add theirs. I pinky swear, I will do all I can to avoid the isms and smarm. But this amounts to an advice column, so you’ve been warned.
There is no one way to have a happy life when you’re a Navy wife, and advice that assumes all Navy spouses (or even wives specifically) share a pearl-encrusted hivemind is ridonculous. I know, I’ve only been a Navy spouse for 18 years, but I’d like to think I’ve seen a wide variety of my tribe pass through our lives, and I’ve noted that no two will handle the Navy life the same way, much less thrive in it. I’m pretty sure that goes for all branches of the military.
But every spouse has experience and comfort to share, so it’s always helpful when we speak up and offer our own to each other–not as trite generalizations and servings of sugary Kool-Aid, but as real, actual, helpful advice that doesn’t oversimplify or minimize the conflicts and pressures of military life. Maybe something works for you. Maybe it doesn’t. Share your own in the comments, and let’s get a real and helpful list of advice for a happy military life.
Find Your Mil-Bliss. When it comes to getting involved with events and people on base, some love it, some loathe it. Don’t assume that your only outlets will be affiliated with your spouse’s job. When you’re getting your sea legs as a new spouse or even after a recent PCS, test the waters. See how you like it. Don’t pressure yourself to volunteer if it’s not for you. Don’t pressure yourself to get involved if it’s not for you. Just because your husband or wife has joined the military doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. You can be a supportive spouse without involvement. But if it works for you, fabulous! There are tons of opportunities to be involved, so you’re in luck.
Find your Civ-Bliss. The military will fondly remind you constantly–even as it voluntells you otherwise via your spouse–that you are not military. You are a civilian. Be okay with that. In fact, enjoy the freedoms you have that your spouse does not. 😀 When you’re new to the life or new to a duty station, don’t feel pressured to jump into a new life there. If you’re looking for a job, take advantage of both military and civilian help, but do everything you can to ensure that the civilian life you lead makes you happy.
Build Your Network. When underways and deployments and TADs happen, you’re going to need a local network. Not everyone wants a lot of friends, but having even a group of acquaintances you meet with once a month for a book club or a movie night or a moms’ night out event will help you endure the endless parade of separations and stress. Chances are good you won’t be near any friends or family, so put yourself out there and find a local family of your own. Civilian or military or happy mix, it doesn’t matter. What matters is giving and receiving support and a social outlet.
Excercise. Because endorphins.
Find Local Treasures. Your current home has unexplored gems where you can spend time, refuel, recharge. I know it was much easier when we were childfree, but just letting yourself get lost and finding your way home again can result in some amazing discoveries that change your experience–and your stress level–in your town. Is there a really cool spot tucked away on the base where you can sit and meditate? Is there a little shop hidden on a back street that carries the coolest craft supplies? Are there tours and parks where you can learn history or sample local wares (mmm wine)? Don’t let xenophobic tendencies hold you back. The military might send us to some truly armpit cities, but boobs are just around the corner, and who doesn’t love boobs? They’re totally awesome and amazing. They feed babies, after all. All by themselves! Even better, sometimes (particularly after a certain age) boobs are in the armpits. Bladow!
Keep an Open Mind. It’s hard, I know. Even across the US, cultures vary wildly, and the unfamiliar can feel threatening or alien. But remembering that you are just as alien to everyone else should help with that perspective thing.
Vent. Find a venue. Let it out. It’s healthy, and if you drop f-bombs, you’ll feel even better. Science says so, so you know it’s true.
Treat Yourself. Your spouse might be the one in dangerous situations, dealing with long hours and high stress. But don’t downplay the stress that translates to us: the worry on good days, the dread and fear on bad days, the long hours, the additional responsibilities, the lack of outlets, the instability, the inability to build a satisfying career of our own. It’s a lot to deal with, and we deserve time off and away. Find opportunities within your budget or–gasp–take advantage of programs on base that allow you to treat yourself with the things you like or like to do. And no guilt! You’ve earned it.
Manage Your Expectations. Probably the biggest issue I struggled with for the first ten years of this life was expectation management. Every time I was okay with or even excited about a coming PCS or other change, the Navy would yank it away from us and saddle us with something decidedly less awesome. Every time I got my hopes up or made an assumption, we were denied. It’s so important, in a culture where everything changes fast and often at the last minute, to suspend expectations and roll with the punches. After ten years of withstanding some pretty bruising impacts because I refused to roll when the Navy punched, I can say my life is a lot happier now that I have accepted that I don’t have the first frakking clue where we’re going to be this time next year…or next month. Of course, this meant finding workarounds on things that don’t roll when I do–a portable career, the willingness to homeschool until we found an alternative, a family that would happily let me move in during an unexpected surge deployment, independence and a separate civilian tribe with more stability than my military tribe. This takes time, and expectation management must be cultivated, but it’s so worth it not to take the brunt of one crushing blow after another.
What are your suggestions for a happy military life? What has worked for you? Let’s confab and offer each other our perspectives.
(cross-posted with 280% more f-bombs at Snarky Navy Wife)
I wrote this for a civilian site – so excuse any explanations that seem redundant to us, ok?
This weekend, the military community social media was buzzing with the new articles written by columnists for the Washington Post, the latest in a disturbing trend of articles about the military and military community. The first one, discussing benefits that supplement the low pay of most service members, concentrated on the commissary that is on most military installations, and that make a huge difference in some areas, less so on other bases. For some reason, the columnist sees this as over the top, pandering to an elite – or some such nonsense. Another article compared military and civilian pay/benefits, including retirement; this particular article has some of us scratching our heads and wondering which LES the author was looking at. Some see these articles as the latest and most visible evidence of the new feeling the country has about us. A new catchphrase – “check on all that ketchup” from the Washington Post reporter’s indignity at seeing what he calls 15 types of ketchup **– is being bandied about with a wry twist of our figurative lip; the general consensus is that we are on the downslope of the up and down relationship the military has always had with the civilian population.
In a time of shrinking budgets, sequestration and recession, the American public has turned to the very group they have been celebrating with parades and flags; praising with effusive speeches and sticky sentimentality; for whom they have placed flags and bumper stickers on their precious vehicles. Or should I say “turned on that community”.
The articles “facts” about military pay and training have been countered beautifully in the article written for SpouseBuzz, the Military.com blog that is written by and for military family members, by Amy Bushatz. As she says, the numbers Rajiv Chandrasekaran gave don’t exactly add up – especially the pay figures. Amy also points out that even to join the military means that you have to have certain attributes, not just walk in, sign up and walk in step! Her question of “ if it is so good, and so easy, what aren’t YOU joining up”, is a great one, and one that some of us have used when responding to allegations of over pay and enlistees unable to make it on the outside. The response is usually a mumble and change of subject!
The facts that are being massaged and trumpeted in articles that are popping up in various media outlets can be refuted; but what most of us were confused or angry about – as Amy again points out – is the tones, the snark, the anger at our community. Many of us have been uncomfortable about the past overly positive and effusive (some say nauseating) essays and speeches made about our community; the mythical attributes ascribed to us, the saccharine simplification of our lives as shown in Hallmark Channel movies. This about face, this veiled anger at us – the “you are a drain on the taxpayers” attitude – is all the more hurtful when you look around our community. Coming right after Memorial Day when we remembered those who died in the service of their country, the slap in the face from these articles really resonated.
As an older member of the military family, I have seen the civilian world either put us up on pedestals and fling ticker tape on us, or spit on the uniforms and call us babykillers and jackbooted thugs. The current climate of nickel and dime-ing our benefits, chipping away at the benefits promised to the service member when they put their hands up and swore an oath to protect and defend this country – is nothing new. BUT, coming after over a decade of wars, it is hard to swallow. The very real sacrifices our service members and our families have endured over the past decade, the families that didn’t go to the mall like the other 99% of the civilian population, are being disregarded by the public that once declared “nothing is too good for you “. The families who have gone to memorial services for the fallen time after time, who have survived deployment communications blackouts and waited for the knock on the door, who live at hospital bedsides, or who wonder who this stranger is who has come home – that isn’t made better by getting a discount at a store, or having a commissary or post exchange.
The truth – that prices are usually better at a local discount store unless you live overseas where prices are staggering and most military families wouldn’t be able to survive on their pay – is not the important fact here. Most commenters I have seen have said “if it’s a choice between bullets and the PX, take the damned PX away”. The attitude of the public that we are all a bunch of spoiled, lazy good for nothings – that is a lot harder to take.
We know that, as Babette Maxwell at Military Spouse Magazine said , the civilian population just doesn’t understand, and frankly, we are sick and tired of trying to explain the differences in our way of life. Very few civilians have gone through what we have (I will put a caveat here, police and fire fighter families live this tension as well ). Trying to explain what a communications blackout after “an incident” involving fatalities and severe injuries is like to someone who has never sat with a phone in their hand willing it to ring and running into a bathroom crying when the UPS man rings the door bell , would equate to a woman attempting to explain labor pains to a man. Before any commenter says something like “you knew what you were getting into”… or “he volunteered” – please don’t. Just don’t say it – because we have heard it all before.
We are waiting – waiting to hear the next attack on us. Will it be in print again – another ridiculous set of “facts and figures” by a newspaper reporter? Are these articles being written as a response to the prevalent feeling by the civilian community, or are these reporters and commentators trying to guide and influence the attitudes of the civilians? Is this another “us vs. them” simplification of facts, and an easy way for the media to help their audience understand hard facts? Will it be another radio announcer talking about the terrifying aspect of hiring a veteran who just might snap and take out his entire job site because of PTS? Will it be another cut to retirement benefits and healthcare benefits coming out of a Congressional committee? Or will we listen to another relative speak dismissively of our service member or our community’s service? I don’t know. But I’m not looking forward to it, this level of anger and hurt isn’t good for my blood pressure.
** a friend went to the commissary on Ft. Belvoir today – the condiment aisle has 3 brands of ketchup, with 3 different sizes. I may be a mathematical moron; but that’s not 15.
Four Years ago, a group of women met on the internet, got together, and started this nifty little blog. LeftFace has been a home to many over the years, and we all truly love this space & what it has done for others!
With that said, it’s time for some clean-up. LF is in desperate need of a facelift, as well as some house cleaning. We have shut down things temporarily & things may get wonky for a little bit! So bear with us & make sure you check back frequently over the next few days so see the new look!
Happy Birthday, LeftFace!