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

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.


The Collective Military-Civilian Heartbeat

military civilian divide


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.

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.

Filtered Sunshine

autumn treeThe yellow sun snuck over the windowsills, creeping across my bedspread. It still felt like summer in the Northwest and the sun came in and warmed my bed before my alarm clock went off. The noisy birds in the huge cedar tree outside my window had been awakened by it, too and their cacophony interrupted the sun’s softly glowing heat. With one eye, I confirmed I still had ten minutes, and I rolled over toward the empty side of the bed, turning my back to the birds. Husband was flying and I had to get to work. But not yet. Without opening my eyes, I slowly raised my hand over to his pillow and rested it there. I wondered where he was at that moment.

Nine and a half minutes passed, and I woke up, showered, and turned on Matt Lauer. When Husband was home I had to sneer quietly as I watched him turn away from my closet light and return to his slumber. But when he was gone I could turn the news up loud enough to hear all the way into the bathroom, and I loved it. Without looking at the TV, I tossed the remote onto the bed and headed for the daily closet ritual.

Matt’s voice was pitching high. Katie wasn’t laughing. Something was odd. Something seemed strange. I walked back over to the TV screen. A huge smoking tower filled my bedroom and the nervousness in Matt’s voice confirmed for me this was not a “regular” news event. In the flurry of voices and words, which were imprinted in a faster than usual scroll across the bottom of the screen, I could see this was New York. I stood motionless and cold in my bedroom, wet and naked, dumbstruck by what was unfolding …

*  *  *

Ten years later I woke up, the sun streaming in once again to wake me, and I remembered. But I didn’t close my eyes. I stared into the light.

I remembered “Let’s Roll” and The Pentagon. I remembered mountains of crushing steel and concrete smashing down on the hearts of Americans on live television. I remembered Firefighters. Port Authority. Cops. Jumpers. I remembered a President’s determination from the midst of the rubble. I remembered grainy videos of a scary bearded man I’d never heard of.

I remembered the courthouse security confiscating box cutters from a man in front of me at the metal detector. I remembered the eerie sound of an airplaneless sky. I remembered Homeland Security. The creation of the TSA. Taking off shoes and putting toiletries in plastic baggies and dumping out water bottles. I remembered being wary of any person with a turban on an airplane. I remembered widespread bankruptcies and massive government subsidies and pervasive economic depression. I remembered it wasn’t always like this.

I remembered coming home to find a “Mobilization Checklist” on the home computer screen. I remembered saying goodbye for a year. I remembered Veteran’s Day and Christmas and Father’s Day and the first day of Kindergarten. And I remembered being on an airplane when the news of Bin Laden’s death broke. I remembered SEALS.

*  *  *

Everyone has a memory or reflection that’s personal. It’s our son, daughter, father, or husband that was in the tower or on the planes or in the Pentagon. It’s our friend’s business that went under. It’s our own lost job in a failing economy. It’s our child born without their father home during a military deployment. It’s our employees that are being mobilized and we are scrambling to fill the holes at home. It’s our best friend who died in the desert just driving along the roadway.

It’s our country.

Which is why the sea change of 9/11 also rewards us individually. We are each individually stronger, individually more educated, individually more aware of our world neighbors, both allies and enemies. We are individually more capable, individually more vigilant, individually more appreciative of the value of freedom.

blue skyWe need not remember the events, the tragedy, and the broken-heartedness of September 11th if we can’t also remember the resulting virtues that this trial has brought us in ten years. We have to be thankful for the good that we have sucked out of a smoking pile of rubble, not bitter for the change.

I have to be thankful for the good I have sucked out of a year-long deployment, not bitter for the change. Otherwise, the work was useless. Otherwise, the enemy has won. And I don’t like losing.

What do you have to be bitter about?

Goodbye Salute

31 of you are gone. What you do for a living means we likely will never hear your names, see your widows cry, or create college funds in your name for your children. Your work will be glamorized by the media, mourned by strangers, discredited by conspiracy theorists. The price of your extraordinary sacrifice will be on the minds of the American public for at least 48 hours.

But to us, the military families, you are more. You are our friends, neighbors, and classmates. You are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles. You are our husbands. Wives. You are our fathers and mothers. We know you.

Molon Labe.”

Memorial Day is Different This Year

memorial day sale flyersThis week a reporter emailed me to ask my thoughts as the spouse of a deployed servicemember on Memorial Day, and I couldn’t answer the question for a whole day. I felt ridiculous for being at a loss for words.

I sat down to write and I stared at my computer screen. I blinked. I had nothin. Yeah, me – the one who can wax eloquent about nearly anything. The one who can strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger about the intricacies of just about any weather condition, who can extemporaneously compare and contrast The Preschooler’s constant need for peanut butter with Sweet Pea’s inexplicable desire to carry around (but not look at) ten books everywhere she goes.

Perhaps it was hard because one of the first holidays that passed after Husband left for his one year mobilization to the Middle East was Veteran’s Day, and I’ll admit it was a hard one to swallow. When my newspaper arrived that Friday it was emblazoned on page after page with bright red, white, and blue sales flyers.  What in the hell was a Veteran’s day sale? Why had I never noticed how irritating this was before, when it was so clearly offensive to me, now? All I could think about was the blue star banner hanging in my hallway, and how I prayed every night that the star would never turn to gold. All I could do was skulk around my house, and clean insanely, and let my kids watch TV while I silently but violently ripped up the newspaper ads in defiance.

But this Memorial Day I didn’t feel that way. We’ve come so much farther in our pride, patriotism, and faith since we first built our own little white table six months ago. This Memorial Day, we understand that our perspective is not theirs. We understand that observing is the best honor. We understand that celebration isn’t for them – it’s for us.

So, we are celebrating. First we are attending a local ceremony at 9am put on by our American Legion. We’ve been talking about sacrifice at the dinner table, and I think the kids understand that word better this year than they ever have. They don’t understand the sacrifice Husband is making, but they understand their own. And that’s just enough understanding, for now.

But after the ceremony, we aren’t going to sulk. We aren’t going to hang around home with quiet and somber regret over the general public’s lack of understanding on the very holiday set aside to honor those who have given the ultimate sacrifice. Instead, we are going to celebrate and have some fun as a family, and take advantage of the festivities of the weekend.

Because it feels right to honor these men and women by doing what they could not, by doing what they would have most wanted to do if they were here: to spend more time with the people they loved.

Happy Memorial Day, America. Thankyou for your sacrifices.

This post can also be found at,’s online military spouse community, where Volkman contributes as a featured author.

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