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.

Homecoming

Everyone should get this kind of homecoming, at least once. I’m so happy to be back with my babies who, as evidenced by this video, are not so small any more.

Fine. Yes, I cried. Welcome home, me.

Santa Clause, The Ice Cream Man, and The Hookah

Working in a prosecuting attorney’s office changes the way I see certain activities.  I don’t patronize pawn shops. I leer at all Santa Clauses and track their nice white gloves with skeptical disdain. I don’t go into certain mini-marts after midnight. I walk down the street with my kids to get ice cream from the mobile purveyor of frozeny-goodness, so that the creep behind the wheel doesn’t know where we live. And I don’t ever, ever, EVER go into “glass shops.”

Until now.

I hope you enjoy reading about my foray into the world of hookah. I originally wrote this piece for SpouseBUZZ, the military.com site where I write from time to time, because I thought it would get the best exposure to my intended military spouse audience. However after reading it again, I can see that it will resonate with anyone who has ever tried too hard to find a way to bridge the gap between two people.

spousebuzz

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.

The Blog Apple

image

Today I arrived in NYC for the annual BlogHer conference where I’ll be reading a post as an honored “Voice of the Year.” I’m really scared wittless but also honored to tell my story and can’t wait!

Even more so, I can’t wait to tell you about the first two women I met here – a cabbie who was thinking of starting a blog but didn’t know how, and an Army wife from Washington State (pretty near to me, actually) whose husband is deployed to Afghanistan.

Guess I had to come all the way to New York to meet her!

Well it looks like my room is ready so I’d better go … wish me luck!

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

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