The Collective Military-Civilian Heartbeat

military civilian divide

“Chasm”

Yesterday’s announcement that a Blackhawk helicopter crash in Southern Afghanistan killed 11 people made my heart quicken and stutter, just like it always does. Even though my husband was piloting a commercial flight somewhere over Japan, I still lost a moment in the gap between irrational fear and reality. As I read the details, I wondered if that feeling would ever really go away.

I thought about the day in 2010 when a helicopter crash in the same region killed nine coalition troops just a few days after my husband left for the desert. My reaction that day, at the outset of our year-long deployment, was to make a pact with myself to avoid the news completely.

Then I recalled that day in 2011 almost one year later when a Chinook helicopter crash marked what is still the biggest single loss of U.S. Special Operations personnel in history. My husband was still deployed, and though my initial distress flicker was the same, my reaction was very different. I slammed my coffee cup on the kitchen counter just before being overtaken by a wave of helplessness that caused me to sob into my own sweaty hands.

But yesterday, after the sadness for the families sank in, I debated the ratio of what was asked as compared to what was gained, and found that it was too unbalanced for my liking. Perhaps the time since my husband returned dampened my patriotism for a moment. Maybe knowing he was is in a position of relative safety changed my intermittent perspective. Either way, I didn’t feel as grateful as I had been before, during the deployment. I felt lost and distant.

I tapped the virtual world for help. This war has dragged on so long that I wasn’t even sure where news like this stood, anymore. Americans have become numb to the repeat stories of maimed veterans and fatherless children and unemployed heroes. I knew people were passionate about Chick-fil-A, Paul Ryan’s ability to both polarize and motivate voters, and Prince Phillip’s bladder infection. But I wasn’t sure whether this horrible war news was even on the rest of the world’s radar. I wasn’t sure whether war was personal any more.

I chose to share that moment on Twitter, plinking out my thoughts in 180 characters. It was worthy of so many more, but I just wasn’t sure what to say about it. The only reply came from a member of the media I know and respect who covers military-related issues, and who knows the depth of military family struggle and sacrifice:

journalist twitter

 

There were no more messages after that - from anyone. I sat staring at my response for a while. I ran through scenarios in my mind. What other experiences might compare? Which situations cause that same constricting wheeze in my lungs, that same vein-gurgling pop and flush that surges through me whenever there is breaking war news? I wanted to find the non-military version. I wanted to give it a label or a feeling or an understanding. I wanted the gap between me and “the civilian world” to be infinitesimally smaller.

The problem with statements like “I don’t know how you do it” and “I can’t even imagine” and “those of us in the civilian world” is that they begin with the assumption that we are somehow intrinsically different. We aren’t. You’ve had this feeling that we talk about – fear of “the knock.” You’ve experienced it through a combination of events:

It’s partly the feeling you have in that moment that you’ve seen a human body damaged in an unnatural way. It’s partly the confusion you get when you first hear a serious diagnosis for someone very close. It’s partly the guilt of being thankful for your own child’s health when another is dying. It’s partly the moment of relief when a group of friends rally around you to help you dump a boyfriend or study for your hardest final or talk you through an upcoming biopsy. It’s all of these at once; a swirl of the uncomfortable and unpredictable that is completely out of your control together with an undampened human rationalization commonly labeled “hope.” And it involves life and death. It is such a strong imprint that once you feel it, similar news becomes the trigger for the same series of physical and emotional responses. The feeling doesn’t change just because you’ve anticipated it, or considered it, or talked about it. It’s new and yet familiar each time.

This time, I don’t want to cry or ignore the news or slam my coffee cup onto the counter. Instead, I want to do something; I want to say something. I want to find a way to make this news familiar and sticky, not slick and cold. I’m exhausted by what stands between those who say they could never understand and those who think their experiences are too unique to be understood. The so-called “military-civilian divide” is my responsibility. Not the media’s. Not Hollywood’s.

It’s mine.

Happy Hour

court house

photo credit: Adam Fagen

There are certain people who understand the numbness you can get working in a prosecutor’s office. Mostly that includes prosecutors, defense attorneys, cops, journalists, medical professionals and military folk. I don’t bear the burden of knowing my actions will incarcerate or release a criminal; I’m in the civil division. My coworkers refer to me as a “fake prosecutor.”  But hey, we do review contracts and enforce land use codes and collect taxes and advise elected officials. We’re very civil over here in the civil division.

Yet one of the duties even the civil division cannot escape is the responsibility to advise officials who are making decisions about high-profile public record releases. A couple of months ago I had to look at some pretty nasty crime scene photos and read some interviews with very young people who should never have to experience such things. Unlike my counterparts, the “real” prosecutors, this part of my job often bothers me because there’s nothing I can do; I can’t prove guilt, advocate, or counsel anyone. I’m just there to decide which of the photos are too gruesome. It feels like purposeless voyeurism.

So there I was, flicking through glossy photos as fast as possible, looking away between each one in an attempt to cleanse my brain’s palate before exposing it to the next image. I braced myself not knowing when I’d reach the ones I had been warned about by the police. I felt sweaty.

I left early that day and went to happy hour, because it seemed like the right thing to do: be happy. I called my longtime law school friend Kelly. She’s a former DA, the one who always responds to my calls for happy hour, and the one who makes me laugh until I cry by saying completely inappropriate things like “douche nozzle” just a smidgen too loud in public places. Plus she always brings along with her a crew of other ne’er do wells that sufficiently numb my headaches: a video producer I once married (as in I was the justice of the peace), a banker who likes to be called “The Sheriff,” and a securities salesman who infrequently dresses up as a leprechaun. In other words, non-lawyers. My kind of people. And they were all there.

Kelly saw me and said it first: “Are you OK?” I wasn’t. But I wasn’t about to fake it, either. Kelly Walsh comes from a big family of Irish Catholics in Montana, and she doesn’t take anything fake from anybody without calling them out on it. Instead of answering her I raised my glass for an air-clink and she hugged me before settling into the chair next to mine. Without looking up I told her I’d been looking at crime scene photos for three hours and she nodded in my peripheral vision. She knew just what I meant and she wasn’t about to ask questions. Likewise, I knew enough not to share the details because those are the kinds of things that can infect you. There’s information you want to share because it feels like it might somehow purge your memory, but you learn quickly that it doesn’t. So you don’t share, out of courtesy. Anyway I knew she already had plenty of old images and cases bouncing around in her own head. She was probably suppressing more than one of them at that very moment. So we talked about everything else for the next two hours.

When I finally got home, Randy was tucking the kids in bed and he came downstairs to find me seated at the kitchen table with a bottle of red wine and a glass. I wasn’t drinking it. I was just staring at it, remembering the day that I poured an entire bottle down the garbage disposal after finishing a particularly sickening case, because I realized I had turned to wine ten consecutive nights in a row. This was night number one, I thought. He grabbed another glass, poured himself one, and sat down. “So what’s going on?”

That shocked me a little.

It seems that over time (i.e. twenty years of marriage) when I’ve come home in a work-induced foul mood he has traditionally and successfully taken the “ignoring it till it goes away” strategy. But yet here he was, sipping wine and looking at me. It completely disarmed me.

So I did what I always do. I started talking. I told him about the bad man. I told him about the child, the blood, and the dead body. I told him about the interrogation and the police report and the autopsy. And then I told him the part that was bothering me. I told him the part that got to me. I told him the one thing that I wanted to purge. The one thing too many.

“Her hands looked like Sweet Pea’s.”

I buried my face in my hands, sobbing. I’d finally lost it, and a whole day’s worth of tension came out at once. That was it. I was identifying as the victim’s mother. I was feeling guilty but I wasn’t sure why. All the small-talk from happy hour, all the light-speed photo flipping, all the distracting office chit-chat … it all fell down at once.

And he sat very still right across the table from me as I sobbed. He didn’t move.

After a moment I stopped crying, and he spoke. “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel. You have to get someone else to look at those photos. Someone who doesn’t have kids.”

We disagreed quietly, and there was conversation after that which resolved nothing but was still oddly comforting. It wafted of a late night debate from a moonlit log on Glorietta Bay, a memory I had from a very long time ago. A young Navy pilot in flight training was debating with me over the pros and cons of euthanasia, and we were learning from each other. Midway through that conversation I discovered it wasn’t just theoretical for him. He’d watched his grandmother struggle with cancer and refuse treatments. His comments sounded different to me after that.

I watched him as he got up from the table to go back to whatever he had been working on before finding me and my wine bottle. Initially I felt empty when he walked away without hugging me and I wished that part of him would come back soon. But then I thought about the first thing he said: “I can’t tell you details, but I know how you feel.” And his comments sounded different to me after that. This wasn’t theoretical advice. Our experiences overlapped. It felt like connection.

Post-deployment reintegration turns out to be a series of small Paula-Abdullish cycles. It’s a two steps forward, two steps back kinda thing. (What? I’m over 40. It works for me.) But even as I’m going back and forth, it starts to feel a little like a familiar dance. It’s klutzy and outdated and I step on a lot of toes – and yet the footing beneath us is common ground.

Anyway, I say it’s high time to head over for happy hour, now. He’s been home for ten months, and the “suck phase” of reintegration is supposed to be officially coming to a close, now. So let’s just cut out early, find a leprechaun and a cop-impersonating banker in a bar, and, well … let’s just be happy. It seems like the right thing to do.

Cheers!

cheers toast

My Boobs. On the Internet.

This was a big week. First I realized that I’ve poisoned my kids. Both of them. Then I put my breasts on the internet. And believe it or not, the two things are connected.

I mean it was one thing when, on the way to the emergency room during Husband’s deployment, I was thinking “what a great blogpost this will be someday!” But it’s another thing when my kids start parroting my own insanity.

Case Study #1:

Me:          Cooper, let’s go! We’re late!
Cooper:   Wait, wait one sec!
Me:          No, no more “secs” Coop.
Cooper:   Mom, no. “No more sex,” Mom? Really?
Me:          (crickets)
Cooper:    Mom. That’s bloggable.
 

Case Study #2:

Olivia:     I hate this. I hate it when Daddy leaves! AND DON’T BLOG ABOUT THAT!

(sorry, Sweet Pea, I just did …)

And how does this relate to boobs, you ask? Well, right after that, I went and I put my boobs on the interwebs. Because despite the slow family poisoning I’ve caused, there are still these moments where, in the blogging world, you are rewarded for your wit and wisdom, and suddenly, in that flash of fame, that instant of poor judgment, it feels okay to put your breasts on display just for a good story.

See I write not only here, but at SpouseBUZZ.com, a site for military spouses. THE site for military spouses. And they got this ridiculous advert in their email inbox, and they wanted someone to mock it. And they called me. Me! “And so of course, we thought of you. Will you do it?”

(Honorific)!

So, for your Friday entertainment, and in honor of all the military boob controversies that have been floating around the net this week, I give you something much lighter: my boobs. Yep. And right on the front page of military.com too, by the way.

And yes, this message was pre-approved by Husband. He’s a good sport that way.

Click on the photo for the full story … because it really will make you laugh.

funny tit tat

Special credit goes to the Henna Artist Chrissy Rhyassen Smith, and the Photographer, Tiana Meckel, both of whom still think I’m a little wacky. Which, by the way, I am.

TGIF!

Act of Valor

Scott Waugh

Director of Act of Valor, telling me thank you and making me blush.

One of the most engaging people I met at the Military.com blogging conference in Washington D.C. last week was Scott Waugh, Director/Producer of the major motion picture Act of Valor. At first I was star struck talking to a movie producer. But as we chatted he became the guy in the room who makes you laugh by cussing like a sailor, and then almost makes you cry when he gets all sappy about something sentimental. I was lucky enough to meet him and his publicist in the hotel bar the night before he spoke at the conference. So in a departure from my regular writing, I’m publishing our conversation, interview style, for today’s post.

Lori:    So where did you get the idea to do a movie about the Navy SEALS?

Scott:  It actually came from one of the SEALS. I had been doing action movies and military commercials for the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army, and they apparently checked me out. It’s never comfortable when the SEALS are checking you out. But they must’ve thought I was OK, because they approached me to do the movie and I was like “Um, let me think … hell yeah!” Or I may have used a different word…

Lori:    The story is “based on real events.” There’s so much sensitive information when you’re dealing with Special Operations forces. How did the script get written?

Scott:  That’s a funny story. When they came to me with the idea I asked them about the story line they had in mind. They said they didn’t have one, they just liked the idea. So I spent time in Coronado with the SEALS, and I listened to their stories.

Lori:   Yeah, Coronado. Heard of it. (After which we discussed my graduation from Coronado High School and how I climbed on the SEAL obstacle course as a kid.)

Scott:  I spent time with their families, and I spent time just watching and interacting with them. That’s what led us to start the movie the way we did. If you notice, the entire first twenty minutes you won’t see a single uniform. We wanted you to identify with them as people – not military machines. So we took five real events and we weaved them into one story line. And that’s where the “true story” really emerged and we realized we couldn’t use actors. That’s when we asked the SEALS to consider actually being in the film. Of course, they all said no at first. But really, they are what make it so real.

Lori:    The reality is certainly reflected in every detail. For me personally, since I’m a military spouse, the goodbye scene was pretty poignant. How did you capture that moment so accurately?

Scott:  You know, I spent time with the spouses, too. For that scene I talked to a group of spouses, but I was especially moved by Rorke and his wife. In their case, she never goes to the hangar to see him off. They always do it at home, and so that’s where that scene came from where she slides down the back of the door. She talked about how you spouses hold it together, as long as you can, and then what it feels like the moment the door closes and the reality of what’s possible hits you. It really opened my eyes to the silent sacrifices the spouses make that we never really think about. I’m really happy with how that scene came out.

Lori:    Was there a moment where you realized working with real SEALS was a bigger challenge than you anticipated?

Act of ValorScott:  Ha, well I had worked with the SEALS filming a “Swick Boat” piece, so I knew what it was like working with these guys, and what a challenge it was using real equipment and technology. But I do remember one scene in particular where I remembered how badass they really are and that I’m damn glad they’re on our team.

It was the interrogation scene where the SEALS drop onto the Cristo character’s yacht. Senior Chief [Miller] called me the night before and told me he wanted to lock the actor up overnight. I was like, “Senior Chief, we can’t do that. He’s an actor, man. There are unions and things.” And he finally said, “Fine. Then I want the temperature turned up. I want it hot in there.” So we did, we cranked it way the hell up. When you watch the scene you can see how they’re both really sweating hard. We all were.

Anyway, we only had one day to shoot on that yacht so things were a little stressful. And I’m calling for action and Senior Chief isn’t coming in. I mean, I’ve got film rolling and he’s nowhere to be found. So I go out to check on him, and he’s just sitting there, waiting. And I’m like “What the hell, Chief?” And he calmly says, “Yeah. I heard you. I’m waiting. I wanna be in his head.”

I had to remind him again that this guy was just an actor, but you know, he was really taking it seriously. Because that whole yacht scene, it was loosely scripted. I really wanted Senior Chief to do it the way he really would, make it realistic. That part where he clears the table with one swipe of his hand, that scared the shit out of us. And at one point we had to take a break, and I had to lean down and ask Alex [the Christo actor] if he was okay, because I could see he was really unnerved. It made us all appreciate that we would not ever want to be interrogated by Senior Chief. Ever.

Lori:    Wow. Me neither. Given the unprecedented access you had to the SEALS, how was the process of getting a DoD buy-off on this kind of a film?

Scott:  We developed the script with the SEALS, so you know from the beginning we knew that we were being both accurate and not violating any national security or anything. But when we sent the whole thing to the DoD, they just couldn’t wrap their arms around the idea that it was a full-on feature film because it used real SEALS and nobody had done that before. They kept referring to it as a documentary, which I tried to explain, but they didn’t quite understand. Then the commercials came out on Superbowl Sunday and I got a call from somebody surprised that it was an actual movie, not a documentary, and I was like, “hey guys, I have it in writing … you already approved this. The movie’s done.” They basically got a copy of the film and after an objection period passed it was okayed. But it was a hard concept for everyone to grasp.

Lori:    What’s next for you and Bandito Brothers Productions?

Scott:  Well right now we’re gearing up for the DVD and Blu-Ray release on June 5th, right before Father’s Day, which is really cool. I was involved in the editing of the movie, and there were lots of really great scenes we had to cut. But the DVD release gives us a chance to show people those extra scenes. There are interviews with the SEALS on there too which I really like, and you can see how we filmed with the real equipment. Because we didn’t use special effects for those scenes and it’s an amazing process to see. We decided this was a good chance to do something great for the military community, so we’ve decided that a portion of the proceeds are going to Operation Homefront for every DVD or Blu-Ray sale. We’re looking for our next action film but we don’t have anything in writing yet. I don’t like to jinx myself until the project is underway.

Lori:    Fair enough. Well good luck with that. And thanks for all you did to bring this movie to American audiences. It’s really a testament to the warriors and their families. My Husband worked with some of these guys last year, and he was frankly amazed at some of the stuff you showed. He thought it was great.

Scott:  That’s so great. I hope so. It was a privilege to make. And really, one of the things that surprised me most was to watch the silent sacrifice you guys, the wives and families, make year after year. So let me personally say thanks. I don’t think people realize.

***

There was a lot of this kind of sentiment in Washington D.C. because it was military spouse appreciation week, but I blushed when Scott said this, because he was a civilian, and he really meant it. I could tell. The next day at the military blogging conference, Scott spoke with Military.com editor Ward Carroll, and was asked again about the sacrifices military spouses make. Scott elaborated on this in a pretty moving way, and I think it’s worth posting here. If you scroll to minute 35 on this video, he discusses the military spouse sacrifice in a way that I think shocked even him:

Scott Waugh

Listen, I’ve only promoted one other film here at WLS, but if you didn’t get a chance to see this blockbuster when it came out in February, you should do it now with the DVD release. If you’ve got a Blu-Ray, you’ve gotta see it in super high definition because of all the action scenes.  It’s gripping to see these guys in action, but it’s also such an emotionally charged film to watch. There probably won’t be another one like it. I’ll personally be buying a copy on June 5th.

Also, do I have to say this out loud? SEALS aren’t hard to look at. I mean, it’s almost Father’s Day. Don’t you think Husband would like to get a movie for Father’s Day? Ahem.

When Reality TV Calls …

Take it Back

Lori VolkmanLast weekend I escaped from the pelting rain and drury skies of the Northwest and enjoyed some sun in 29 Palms. I was there to talk to a group of military spouses about a tough topic: Reintegration. The theme of the SpouseBUZZ event was “Take Back Your Story.” As organizer Jacey Eckhart pointed out, dramatic television coverage of military life showcases the ups and downs, the romance, and the tragedy. We, the spouses, are revered and admired like toughened modern pioneer women on the one hand, and yet portrayed as fragile drama stripper-queens on the other. Okay, so that might be my own paraphrasing. But if you’re a milspouse you know you snicker and secretly wish you had the guts to wear that t-shirt you’ve seen: “Military Wife: Sexually Deprived for your Freedom.”

But it’s time, she said, that we take responsibility. It’s time, she said, to let our real stories be heard. It’s time, she said, to take back our story!  We cheered and puffed like the underdog team at half time listening to the rally cry of their inspirational coach. She even used a colorful personal vignette to drive the point home. She spurned us on with her story about the time she had a chance to tell her story on national TV, for hours and hours. And she described her shock and disappointment when the program aired and it was about the other young mother they interviewed. It was about the wife who cried on camera. The one who was falling apart. They didn’t want Jacey – the strong independent woman slinging a baby on her hip tending the garden and fryin’ up the bacon. They wanted the waif who tugged at everyone’s heartstrings when she bawled her ever-lovin’ eyes out.

“But that’s not us! No! We’re takin’ back our story!” I says to myself. “We’re changin’ the game,” I declare. And so we told our stories in 29 Palms. We took it back. We had fun. But at the end of the day, we only took it back from ourselves. Don’t get me wrong - I felt empowered. But as I sat in the airport waiting for my flight home, I was left wondering how that would translate for me, personally, down the road.

“Down the Road” Arrives

As luck would have it, “down the road” arrived the very next morning. That happens to me a lot. Gah. I opened my email and found this:

Dear Lori,

I came upon Witty Little Secret while I was researching military families and wanted to reach out to you with a request. I work for a prominent production company that creates original programming for a national TV network and we’re creating a new series featuring relationship expert Iyanla Vanzant.  For a new program in the series we’re featuring three couples who are on the brink of divorce.  We’d like to include a military family because there are so many unique challenges presented in these marriages. I’m wondering if you’re amenable to soliciting marriage stories from couples who are interested in starting the healing process and being featured in our program?

I knew I wasn’t the only one getting this email, but it intrigued me. I thought immediately about what kind of story, what kind of real-life couple could pull it off. It seemed so many of us had felt “on the brink” of something terrible at some point during reintegration.

I had.

It seemed that sharing it might actually help someone else. But it was a big BIG scary monster. So I asked a group of bloggers I trust for some thick-skinned criticism, and I was surprised that most of the responses were negative:

“I have a feeling it will show the world that military marriages are doomed … I don’t like it when the media makes military families look bad … Why don’t they ever want the marriages going 20+ years strong despite the military? … Why do they want to show the worst in us? … I worry about how the inner workings and unique struggles of military marriages will be portrayed … We have a unique lifestyle and it plays a big roll in why the divorce rate is so high … Civilians tend to not understand.”

Exactly. We have to be the ones to tell them, I thought. Show them. Take back the story. And then I stepped aside and pushed my girlfriends out in front of me and said, “so yeah – you go first! Go for it, girl! Right behind ya.”

They all keyed on the same thing that triggered me when I first read the email: It all sounded so risky. Really, really risky.

Reality TV is Scarier Than War

So what does this mean? We can send our husbands off to war, give birth to and raise children on our own, build things and pay things and fix things and decide things on our own, even sit with a friend who is waiting for a phone call after we’ve all heard a chopper went down … but we can’t handle a little reality television? We are the bravest people we know (aside from our servicemembers) but we can’t discuss how we deal with the realities of rekindling a long-distance marriage? We can detail our health and even our mental health struggles (and usually even our kids’ weird pooping habits) on the very public internet, but we can’t even look an interviewer in the eye and explain what it feels like when our husbands come home and we realize that homecoming isn’t the magic pill that cures deployment?

So far the answer is “nuh-uh.”

But we can still talk about reintegration. It’s time we were respectful and brave and real about it. And funny about it. Because it’s really funny at times, too. We take ourselves way too seriously. All of us do.

If you’d like to see the official media query, or even if you’d like to answer it, go here.

Or you can always stay here a while. If you’ve ever been lonely, ever banged your head against a wall trying to figure out where to go next, ever tried molding something that was out of your control, well, hang out here.  And we’ll get through it together, like we always do.

Now. Ummm. Like I said. Go ahead. You first.

Kari Bales Speaks to Supporters

Kari Bales told me she immediately started an email to me that first day she read my letter. She told me that she started and stopped many times, hovering over the “send” button, coming back time and time again to complete her message. She said there were just so many things running through her mind those first few days that it was difficult to know exactly what to say. She knew she would send it someday, when she had the right words.

When she finally did send it, the door opened for us to have a conversation about how I came to write the letter, and how she came to read it. I told her about my mother and I sitting around the kitchen table, crying as we thought about the loneliness, remembering our own experiences of frustration when we didn’t have the information we felt we needed. When I talked about the necessity of dealing with the absence of information in military life, we shared one of those “YES, I TOTALLY GET IT” moments that military spouses often share. Then she explained how a co-worker encouraged her to read the letter, and she described seeing it for the first time through tears.

It was one of the most meaningful exchanges I’ve ever had.

But this isn’t supposed to be my message. It’s hers. So here it is:

*     *     *

When I read your letter I began shaking and crying. You had so eloquently summed up all of the questions and emotions that I had been feeling since my whole world had been turned upside down. I am not looking at the news very much these days. Instead I read your letter every night before I go to bed and let all of the supportive words and prayers sink in.

I came back to your blog today to read the wonderful sentiments, blessings, and supportive comments that your audience has left. I know that there is a roller coaster ride ahead of me. I am so overwhelmed, appreciative, blessed, soothed, cyber-hugged, supported, loved, cared-for, in awe and thankful for all of the comments that your readers have shared. It was brave of you to write such a letter and all of the readers who chose to reach out are brave as well.

I am taking every day as it comes, enjoying our children and taking deep breaths.

I will continue to come back to your letter everyday, and read all of the comments and soak in the support. Please let everyone know I am feeling their support and understanding. Thank you.

Sincerely, Kari Bales

*     *     *

The comments for Kari Bales will remain open, and I will keep approving them, as long as you keep writing them.

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