You Have the Right to Remain Silent

right to remain silentAdmission against interest: I am a #KetchupGate2013 instigator.

In my dearth of blogposts here at Witty Little Secret I’ve been writing as Communications Director for the Military Spouse JD Network where I’ve been able to write about some amazing new connections between the military and civilian communities. It has become my writing passion to find new ways to connect these two communities. It’s a daunting task trying to get the attention of a population who is unfamiliar with the issues military families find important, but telling stories seems to be a viable bridge across that gap. People write me to say they feel new appreciation for something they never quite understood.

Until somebody messes things up.

If you aren’t connected to the military family online community, you may not know what I’m talking about. An editor at the Washington Post wrote an article about Commissary cuts being indicative of the military entitlement attitude, with an accompanying graphic that depicted “booming” military benefits. It portrayed one-time budget fixes (like adjusting military pay to civilian equivalents) as an alarming trend that would eventually overtake the entire Pentagon budget. It compared military medical out of pocket expenses with civilian family medical costs without accounting for twelve years of war, nor the comparable benefits of union-backed law enforcement and firefighters who engage in inherently risky professions. The author suggests that the presence of filet mignon in a Commissary means our military members can and do regularly afford such things. His all-too-common theme that military families are selfishly living off the taxpayer teat while the rest of the civlian taxpayers suffer is exactly the acrid media tone military families often encounter.  Unless they come home without limbs, military members who stand up and say “don’t cut our benefits” are perceived as entitled prima donnas.

The military community responded to the Washington Post, and in our little world it became a big damn deal:

Military Spouses Send Ketchup to Washington Post, by Reda Hicks at Military Spouse JD Network

KetchupGate: Military Families Out of Touch, by Adrianna Domingos-Lupher at NextGenMispouse

Open Letter to Military Benefits Haters, by Amy Bushatz at SpouseBUZZ.com

Let Them Eat Ketchup, by Rebekah Gleaves Sanderlin at Operation Marriage

Thanks of a Grateful Nation, by LibArmyWife at Left Face Blog

The Great Divide, by Babette Maxwell at Military Spouse Magazine

Put Down the Ketchup and Pick up a Pen, by Karen Golden at Making It In the Mil Life

Rajiv Chandrasekaran Doesn’t Like You, by blogger at This Ain’t Hell, But You Can See it From Here

Fact vs. Fiction, by Col. Mike Hayden at the Military Officer’s Association of America

Amy Bushatz Wins America, by Just Another Snarky Navy Wife

Each of the articles took a different angle at explaining why the WaPo editor’s sentiment got it wrong. Some used analogies. Some used facts. Some even used data to combat The Post’s graphic and tell the full story. But none of them got attention. They were preaching to their own choir.

Then military family columnist and author Sarah Smiley, someone with a captive national audience due to her popular columns and books, broke rank and wrote an article defending the Washington Post article.  She said that we should have read the article more fully. She said that we missed the point. She said that when we criticize articles like this with a knee-jerk it only widens the military-civilian divide. She said that Chandrasekaran’s point was only that the military should make better use of its’ resources so that military families could have more and better benefits.

Actually, no he didn’t. He may want to convey that message now that military families have coined the phrase “KetchupGate” to describe the backlash. He may wish he had said as much, now that he’s been taunted on social media while families have posted pictures and sent crates of ketchup to his office at The Washington Post. But what he actually said was this: Legislators won’t touch Defense spending cuts for fear of highly organized non-military sentiment, and Commissaries are a good example of where we should be slashing the entitled military down to size. In fact the very title of his piece evidences that message.

In probably the most puzzling of moves, Sarah Smiley once understood this criticize-and-take-it-back game when she blasted a similar article in the Huffington Post just two months ago:

  • I agree with Wood that there are many areas of wasted spending in the military. As with any government agency, it is full of redundancies, inefficiencies and frustrations. The general public will learn more about this when they, too, are in government-run health care. But to say that service members have an overabundance of allowances and bonuses is inaccurate and frankly offensive. While Wood is hurriedly deleting his words and “facts,” making edits as the pressure ensues, may I suggest that he go ahead and backspace over the whole thing, sending this Frankenstein back to the lab?

Ironically, she even talks about why her husband should be entitled to shop at a tax-free Commissary.

The bottom line is this: these aren’t the right line items to be on the chopping block. If the Pentagon decides to cut the Commissaries, fine. But every bit of that windfall should be sent to our troops. Not back to Congress.

Let me tell you about the author of the WaPo article for a frame of reference. This Washington Post journalist’s newly released book blames Afghanistan failures on the “C-Team” that was sent in. He refers to our military as the “loyal and willing instead of the best and the brightest.” And that exemplifies exactly what’s wrong with this military-civilian divide. The perception that our military are too dumb to get other jobs, and have enlisted to take advantage of tax-funded benefits. That in our pea little brains the fifteen brands of ketchup will somehow make it all worthwhile.

Smiley’s “let’s not make waves or we’ll irritate the civilians” sentiment also completely fails to address the graphic that accompanied the article (which in the paper version was featured on the front page, above the fold). By lack of context it suggested two things: (1) Military benefits are out of control and will continue to rise and eat into other areas of the budget unless put in check. But the figures fail to recognize that the rises were attributable to two large one-time fixes (including salary catch-ups to meet civilian force equivalents) and create typical alarmist “projections” that are completely out of whack; and (2) that military retirees aren’t paying their “fair share” of medical benefits as compared to civilian public retirees. That comparison fails to consider comparable professions like law enforcement, first responders, firefighters, and other risky endeavors. When compared, these medical benefits are right on.

I love Sarah Smiley’s writing, articles, and support of the military family. I’ve been reading her work since I started writing about military family issues. But we need voices, not taming. It’s really not about the ketchup. It is indeed about this article’s tone and the journalist’s divisive dig. It’s time for a new angle on bridging this gap. And it might require advocacy instead of bridging, sometimes.

The one thing about Smiley’s article that I agreed with is the idea that we need civilian support and we shouldn’t be so quick to bite the hand that feeds us. Because frankly we’re outnumbered. But we also shouldn’t remain silent when we are mischaracterized. We shouldn’t keep taking it. We didn’t write that mischaracterization and cause trouble – we only responded to it and tried to set the record straight.

We can’t heal the gap between us until we can find a common ground. And that means papers like the WaPost shouldn’t take digs and expect us to remain obediently silent. We may be outmanned, but we’re not giving up. We’re the loyal and the willing. And we will defend ourselves.

Military Spouse of the Year: No Beauty Contest

IMG_20130202_194305[1]For the past five years Military Spouse Magazine has presented an annual award, the “Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year®.” Though it’s not officially sanctioned by the U.S. Military, it’s no beauty contest either. 2012′s award to Jeremy Hilton is proof of that.  I can personally verify that he would look terrible in a tiara.

The brainchild of Navy wife Babette Maxwell, the award was created to recognize leaders and reward volunteerism within the military spouse community in a cohesive branch-wide event. What happened, however, was a real “build it and they will come” environment that I have witnessed spreading like a controlled burn with a slow, steady breeze behind it. In addition to the obvious fact that everybody likes a little recognition now and again, the winners of this event end up with the kind of publicity that can make a profound difference. That means the winners’ causes get exactly the kind of boost they’ve been hoping for. It also means that instead of a sailor nominating their sweetie for being the “bestest wifey ever” the trend is for volunteers to be nominated for their efforts in the military community. That’s exactly the kind of legitimacy we need in the milspouse community.

In 2011 I was virtually introduced to Bianca Strzalkowski, a Marine Corps wife. She was serving then as 2011 Military Spouse of the Year® and it was the first time I had heard of the award, likely because it’s rarely mentioned in the reserve community. After spending just a few minutes with her in person (and laughing about my inability to pronounce her name), I understood why she had the support of so many: she had a mission to make sure military spouses were getting higher education, and this girl seemed unstoppable. In a single year she took her idea to the next level, creating a Military Spouse Education Initiative. Believing spouses can achieve educational goals despite the obstacles of military life, she met with Congressional leaders, attended meetings with Department of Defense officials, and worked with the American Council on Education to find ways to make this idea of hers a reality. She has now created the Military Spouse Education Foundation and is working on a new Military Service Grant for spouses who are excluded the from Department of Defense’s MyCAA program. Bianca took her expertise coupled with the responsibility of the award, and really put it to work for others.

Jeremy Hilton, an Air Force spouse and the first male spouse to win the award, experienced the same kind of lift for his platform in 2012. The care and treatment of the military’s special needs children affects a relatively small group within the military, so creating a voice for them may have been virtually impossible without the award. A recent article in Time Magazine and a spotlight on Fox News should be proof enough that he’s using his powers for good and not evil. But Jeremy doesn’t just look bad in a tiara; he has developed a national campaign for legislation, has spoken in front of the Congressional Family Caucus, and has raised his issue with the Congressional delegation to the Armed Services Committee.

I was recently named Naval Base San Diego’s Military Spouse of the Year by my peers and the weight of it is just hitting me. If you read this blog, I already owe you a thank you because it was your voting that allowed me to move to the next level of this process. I’m honored to represent San Diego, the Navy Reserve spouse community, and all of those spouses who have somehow managed to hold down both a career and an unending chain of moves. You can make me your voice at the national level by voting on Tuesday, February 5th.

However, I’d like to take some time to introduce you to some of the other spouses I’ve met, either virtually or in person, who have also been honored with nominations. I think it’s an amazing testament to the award. These are exactly the type of military spouses that make bikinis, baton twirling, and sequins obsolete. I’m pinching myself (and my non-bikini midriff) that I’m even within their company. I’m proud of the way they’ve supported each other too, some even casting votes for each other. It feels great to know that what we’re all stumping for in these last couple of days is not ourselves, but the idea of giving a voice to an entire segment of the military community that we’ve chosen to serve.

Rachel Preen - Rachel is a Marine Spouse, a family readiness advisor at Goodfellow AFB, and the writer of “Living on a Bootband Budget” who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Born in New Zealand, Rachel had trouble as a brand new military wife coping with deployment, moves, and frequent separation even after her husband’s return. Instead of focusing on the negative she has made it her mission to help other new wives, taking on the mantra, “If not me, then who?” She is a great supporter of all the branches, and my hat is off to her for being one classy lady.

Jacqueline Goodrich – This Army wife and founder of “The General’s Kids,” a nonprofit to support the children of Wounded Warriors, knows first-hand about the sacrifices military families face. After her husband had his jaw severed and shrapnel embedded in his leg in an Afghanistan firefight, she has helped him through a year of rehab. The road ahead is still long and Jacqueline approaches it with an outward view. The most touching statement from Jacqueline about her new position as a Wounded Warrior Wife whose first accompanied duty station was Walter Reed Hospital? “This was meant to be part of our story and we were meant to be there for those going through it now.”

Angela Caban – the New Jersey representative for the Army National Guard, Angela is also the founder of Homefront United Newtork, an amazing resource for military families. She started the network after a 2008 deployment when she had to reach out to find the help she needed because she found herself without the support of a nearby installation. Ever since, she has been on the front edge of military family information. She’s young, beautiful, hysterically funny in real life, and ferociously loyal to her military community. I personally voted for Angela to become an installation winner in January. Her MSOY profile is here: Angela Caban.

Kristine Schellhaas – A Marine Corps wife and creator of USMC Life, this lady is doing it all for military spouses! She has created a base-by-base guide for all major Marine Corps bases as well as a website full of discounts, benefits from both government and private companies, and information and help for all military newcomers. She not only runs a blog made up of other USMC spouses, she is also co-host of Semper Feisty Radio, where she covers issues facing military families and life outside the Corps. Her MSOY profile is here: Kristine Schellhaas.

Jenelle Hatzung - Though I’ve just met Jen through the MSOY process, I can confirm she is an instantly likable and genuine person! The daughter of a Navy Master Chief and now a Navy wife herself, she works as a Social Media Manager for Blue Star Families and started the blog “Navy Wives Unite” to connect and empower Navy families. She has worked as a family life consultant for Fleet and Family Support, and her family was awarded the NMFA Navy Family of the Year award in 2011. Now at Naval Station Norfolk, Jen wants to help military families dealing with the struggles of infertility, after battling the issue herself and learning the ropes of military healthcare and infertility issues. Her MSOY profile is here: Jen Hartzung.

Janet McIntosh – In my favorite of the nomination letters sent in by this Army wife’s supporters, Janet’s father wrote “She uses her experience to help other spouses and she always goes above and beyond to help other military families across the branches.” And I would wholeheartedly agree! I can’t even begin to list all of her volunteer accomplishments, but Janet answers family questions at Army Wife Network, is the Books on Bases program manager for Blue Star Families, and helps new spouses through Army programs she herself develops and implements! She says if given the award, it’s her goal to help new spouses as they begin their military journey, by sharing her experiences and helping to educate and empower them. She is the BOMB on Headline News’ new show, “Raising America” which premiers February 4. Go Janet! Her MSOY profile is here: Janet McIntosh.

Alisa Johnson - Alisa is a Navy wife who represents NAS Corpus Christi, and is working hard to standardize military pet policies. She wants to bring accountability for those who dump animals on base and commit pet cruelty with no consequences. Her organization, Dogs on Deployment, reports that pets are tied up or left on base every day and all members have to say is “I gave it to a friend.” If given the opportunity to represent the U.S. Navy, her platform is all about raising the elevation of military pet issues, and to inspire meaningful action by those who have the power to make a change. Did I mention she’s also an active duty Marine training to become a pilot? Wowzers. Her MSOY profile is here: Alisa Johnson.

There are over 20 nominees vying for branch titles in every category. You can see the entire list at the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year ® homepage. Voting is one day only on Tuesday, February 5th.

Buenos Dias, Mi Amore

sea foamI’ve been absent from my blog, and I’m guessing you’ve noticed. Between my full-time job doing justice, my husband’s Pac Rim trips, fourth grade math homework, trying to write a memoir (not for sissies), and my volunteer “work” trying to convince bar associations that military spouses shouldn’t have to take bar exams in every new duty station, well, I’ve been a little busy.

So I had to leave the country.

We haven’t been on a real family vacation since early 2010, and we were long overdue for an escape. With the help of the air miles we’ve accumulated in our individual travels over the last three years we booked a trip for four to the beach in Mexico. We were with each other, and I was without electronic reception of any kind. It was a little terrifying at first.

We still suck a little bit at talking to each other. Our communication styles changed during the last deployment and we haven’t quite hit our stride yet. So without the internet, Facebook, Twitter, or the blog, I found myself talking with the locals I had access to: taxi drivers, wait staff, bartenders, hotel maids, and beach vendors. My husband spent a portion of his childhood in Germany, following his mother through the opera houses of Europe in the early part of her opera career. He managed to ingest the language so fully that at age 8 the school children there couldn’t even tell he was an American. So I’ve always been jealous of his language experience. Until Mexico. He doesn’t understand a lick of Spanish, and I secretly love it. In contrast to his erudite Euro-enlightenment, I misspent a good portion of my late childhood following the high school skippers from sixth period right across the border into Tijuana, where I managed to ingest many things other than the language. But I somehow learned some Spanish along the way, too. And so in Mexico, I do the talking. More

Good and Strong – Home Depot and Operation Homefront Team Up to Visit Local Military Family

Last week I teamed up with Home Depot and Operation Homefront of Oregon with a bundle of Christmas goodies and made a suprise visit to a local military family just to say “thanks for all you do” as part of The Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service.” I was pretty excited because I got to make my first Christmas cookies of the season. I picked an old-fashioned Ginger Molasses recipe I got from a dear friend and heaped spoonfuls of ginger into the batter from a glass jar my husband brought back from the Middle East. I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving – or more appreciative – of the secret ingredient. With my house full of warm ginger, I packed the cookies into the basket from Home Depot which included a corner tree, turquiose applique tree skirt, a huge box of beautiful turquoise Martha Stewart ornaments, and a star for the finishing touch.

Home Depot FoundationStaff Sgt. Jimmy McEwing greeted us at the door. We shared that familiar military moment as we discussed his hometown and one of my old Navy brat haunts, Jacksonville, Florida. His wife Mary was from Texas, and seemed to flawlessly manage the three year-old, two year-old and precious 5 month-old children who wanted desperately to see what kinds of shiny objects we were hauling in the door. Like many military families, the age difference between child one and two is representative of time spent apart. We set up a corner Christmas tree in three quick snaps and let the boys decorate the limbs with ornaments, unintentionally sprinkling glitter all over Mary’s floors while the Operation Homefront representative, Kari McClellan, seized the opportunity to snap up the baby. I stood back to take a picture or two and laughed, thinking how that Christmastime is full of mess-making opportunities happily legitimized as a chance to get closer to another human. My kitchen floor and the flour still on my kids’ faces was further evidence of that sentiment.

I knew from the short bio I recieved that Jimmy had been to Iraq twice and was Army Infantry, so I was curious to hear how this active duty military family made it into my little hometown of Vancouver, Washington. We don’t have much of a military presence here and the Army installation we do have consists of a shopette, historical housing turned office-space, and a military barber.

What I heard made me swoon like the baby in Kari’s arms: instead of telling me how he got here, to Vancouver, he took my question to mean how he got here, to this stage in his life. And Jimmy proceeded to tell me a love story. More

New York to Lori: You’re a Writer.

I spent my Thanksgiving weekend writing an article about Kari Bales, but this time it wasn’t for my blog; it was for the New York Times. As in, The New York Times.

Lori Volkman

Surprisingly, the best part of the whole experience wasn’t the moment I got the “it’s live” email from the editor and clicked as fast as my fingers could carry me to see the byline with my name staring back at me, the internationally recognized newspaper’s logo resting gently above it. The moment that still has me gobsmacked happened in my basement at my makeshift game-cabinet-turned-writing desk on a cold Sunday morning. I sat hunched forward, leaning into my screen, excising each word with bleeding precision. My legs were losing circulation and I was hungry and my eyes burned. I was still in my hideous bathrobe and I was stinky and I was freezing, sipping cold coffee. And I loved it. It was in that moment that I realized: I’m a writer.

I almost cried. It was as if I knew I would never again be a lawyer, a wife, a mother, a military spouse, a daughter, a friend, a blogger or even a woman. It was the moment I realized that, despite my best efforts to be something else, I have always been a writer first. I’ve always narrated life in my head, always embellished events as pieces of a continuing story rather than simply allowing them to occur in moments, always struggled to assign meaning and connection to the most trivial. Everything foreshadows something, leading to a climactic discovery that leaves me better off than wherever the story began, or tragically arcs into the next chapter of my life, looking for resolution. I’m a writer.

I was interviewed recently by freelance journalist Laura Goode for a piece in New York Magazine about beauty pageants. I spun my tale of woe about the terrible price of being perceived the dumb blonde and how I fought back with myself, winning a state debate tournament in high school, going to law school, becoming a prosecutor, steeling myself as the independent military spouse during my husband’s year-long deployment. The material wasn’t used in her story, but it gave me a moment to tell myself the truth: what I always loved about those things in which I excelled was the writing. Heck, I even won the essay contest in the pageant. I wasn’t overcoming the presumed stupidity of pageantism all those years; I was fighting the notion that I was a writer. Why? More

Veteran Housing at OSU gets the Home Depot Treatment

Ohio State VeteranI stared up at what looked like a fraternity house perched on top of a hill. The Home Depot Foundation brought me to Columbus, Ohio for another Celebration of Service project, and this was different than any other so far. I was there to see an entire dorm get renovated for students who also happened to be U.S. Military Veterans. Unlike my trip to Stiggy’s Dogs or Clyde Kment’s home, this was the kind of place where Vets not only gathered, but lived in groups.

It was Veterans Day weekend, and the whole Buckeye campus seemed silent and hung over, missing this blue-sky Saturday morning. They would soon be wakened by chants coming from the sea of orange shirts gathering on the front lawn on their day off, with hammers and saws and other tools sure to make plenty of noise. Home Depot volunteers mean business  …

Restoration of this three-story home was first begun by Jim Miller, son of Army Veteran and OSU grad Lawrence Miller. He purchased and renovated the home in 2009 as a dorm for Veterans in honor of his father. Home Depot stepped in on this Veterans Day weekend to add beautiful high-traffic floors, a bicycle shed, fresh paint, exterior landscaping and weather-proofing, and energy-efficient improvements throughout.

The fraternity houses I remember from my years at the University of California involved basement hovels, makeshift drywall partitions, and kitchens with scum from an era when disco was still king. They were “decorated” with campus memorabilia, Sports Illustrated swimsuit posters, and international (empty) beer bottle collections. One of my first college boyfriends lived in one of the nicer houses and he was one of the few guys who actually tried to keep his space neat. I remember laughing when, despite his immaculate room, the reek of party aftermath seeped through from his neighboring brothers’ rooms into his. We didn’t hang out there.

But as I stepped inside the OSU Veterans House, I could see right away that this wasn’t at all like a fraternity house. I’ve never been inside the kind of training barracks my husband has described, but there was something reminiscent of his stories here. The long family-style table was flanked by chairs which were neatly and evenly spaced, the kitchen counters were polished and clear, and the whole Home Depot crew was greeted by a student, early on a Saturday morning, in a tie. A tie. More

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