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.

Advertisements

Milbloggie Voting 2012 is Now Open!

Voting is open for Military Blogger of the Year. Witty Little Secret is a finalist and I would be honored by your vote. Voting does not require a sign-up or login. Just clickiness. Just two little clicks!

Step One. Go to the VOTING PAGE and click on SEE NOMINEES for BEST U.S. MILITARY SPOUSE BLOG. There it is. In blue. But wait. There’s more …

Step Two. Find WITTY LITTLE SECRET and click! Right inside the pretty round circle. Now find another computer and do it again. Heh.

Step Three. Share Witty Little Secret on your Facebook page by going to your status update, typing “vote for Witty Little Secret!” and entering my website address (wittylittlesecret.com). Facebook will automatically direct people to this page.

NOW GO DO IT!

Thanks so much, everyone! Voting is open through Friday April 20th and the winners will be announced in Washington DC on May 11th. You can vote once from every computer you have access to!

Cheers!

The Sound and the Fury

humerus
Photo by AJ Gazmen/Flickr

I have a penchant for humor. People around me slap me on the back and say “Oh, you’re sooooo funny.” And that’s usually when I’m just being wry or sarcastic.

But it’s partly true only because I observe and remember things around me. Sometimes I sit and watch events unfold and they seem hysterical to me, though nobody else is laughing. I can find humor in the mundane, the trite, and the ridiculously predictable habits of humans. We are fickle and flawed and yet so determined to be clear and bright. But the key is not only in observing these things; it is in remembering them. And I’m good at it. Or at least, I used to be.

Over the course of the last four months I’ve been so focused on the transition of my husband and my family and my marriage and myself (in that order it seems) back into this non-deployment life that I seem to have lost my funny bone. I’ve either not seen the funny, or I’ve forgotten it. And that’s a crying shame because a good funny bone is an awful thing to waste. I once wrote that my motto was “quit taking yourself so seriously.” Huh. I guess I forgot about that.

Figures that I forgot to take my own good advice.

But today, I remembered. Today, I found humor in the mundane. Because today my six year old protested against his normally yummy after school snack so vehemently that it required cross examination which, after tears were shed, revealed that the true reason for his disgust was the slimy load of boogers he stealthily and invisibly smeared all over the granola bar when he thought said snack was designated for his sister’s snacking pleasure. I momentarily and silently considered making him eat it anyway, until his sister (drunk with power upon observing the scowl on my face) suggested exactly that notion which I was contemplating. Once I saw the resulting look of horror on my second born’s face, it was like a free test drive and I was relieved that I had not suggested it. So of course I did what all good mothers do: I admonished the first-born for uttering such a terrible thing.

At this point, one child was crying and the other was pouting. And suddenly, I laughed.

Oh sure, the gesture drew ire from the crying, booger-infested peanut gallery. But I laughed anyway. I laughed at myself. I laughed at the seriousness with which I approached a courtroom-like exchange regarding boogers. I laughed at the pure maniacal genius of my son and the ironic twist of fate which befalls all evil geniuses: being ensnared in their own booger trap. And I laughed at the thought that he had been unwittingly undone by his nemesis, who, after becoming momentarily power-hungry, had turned to the dark side.

Ah humor, I’ve missed you so. You are so lovely.

What is it about this ridiculous reintegration process that so completely occupies the entire space of my mind and prohibits these exchanges from making it into my memory synapses? Because these are the things worth remembering and talking about, aren’t they? These are the events that will become dinner table fare, homecoming date fodder, and legendary family fable. These are the things I want to think about. Tell you about.

So I’m resolving to focus on the mundane. Not so much because it’s entertaining, but because it’s not reintegration. If I find the funny along the way, we’ll all benefit. But as I told you last year, the shortest distance between two inevitable points is an impossibly long line of distractions. Back then it was in reference to Husband’s departure. This time, it’s in reference to his full return.

To my full return.

Fish-infested Waters

I haven’t written much since my husband came home from the Middle East. Yeah, there was the rush from settling in after homecoming and the visitors and the family and the friends. And then there was Husband’s return to his civilian job and the whole readjustment-thingy. But really, it was the usual insanity. The real reason I didn’t write: reintegration sucked the whole living life out of me.

I really haven’t felt like writing about it. Or anything else for that matter.

Look it’s hard to explain if you haven’t done it, but when your lover first comes home from a long military deployment, and the shininess wears off, you start to stare when he’s not watching. I’m waiting to see if he unravels. And if he doesn’t, I might even pull on that dangling string.

I want to know if he’s here, with us, or still out there, in the desert.

Let me try to explain.

I spent most of my Navy Brat summers in coastal towns with beautiful beaches. I bounced around between Corpus Christi Texas, Orange Park Florida, Coronado California, and Honolulu Hawaii. I laugh when people ask me if it was hard being a military brat considering my residential repertoire. I often fall asleep to my wave machine and dream of beach memories.

In the absence of a “home town” that percussive sound is the glue that sticks my childhood together.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in high school, I was a sunburned haole girl living in Hawaii. I had a hand-me-down surf board which wasn’t anything glamorous and I wasn’t any good at all. But we all had surf boards and bubble-gum scented wax, and we all had sand rashes on our bellies. And we had no idea how much fun we were having.

Somewhere along the way that summer I befriended a group of locals from Haliewa who convinced me to come surfing. And I found myself out on the North Shore with four Portagee boys who knew all the unmarked public access points to the hidden beaches along that coast. I went to some “secret beach” with them that summer, which still horrifies my father.

This was summer, so we didn’t expect big waves, but this day was particularly lazy, even for summer. We sat in a flat glassy spot in a neat line, the waves bunching up slowly and slushing out underneath us. We gripped the pointy points of our boards and dipped the backs of them into the water, our legs dangling down and swirling us around. As we talked we squinted for a set, shifting our gaze between the horizon and our own floating shadows on the sand below.

Suddenly the boy to my left pointed a sharp finger at the water, and I saw a huge dark black fish off my starboard side, its crisp edges contrasting sharply with the bright sand that seemed to glow underneath it. It jerked and flipped its tail, and the boy called “shark” much like a kid calling “car” in a street basketball game.

My veins popped and adrenaline made my ears swell with sound. My instinct was to practically climb inside of myself, sucking my limbs up tight. I laid still, keeping every body part out of the water except for my poor little fingertips, which I was forced to dip into the water in order to hang on and keep from plunging headlong into the ocean. I still remember the gritty wax against my cheek as I looked across at Portagee Bo, who had laid his own face down on his board sideways. He was looking into my eyes, just like a murder scene in a movie where the camera does a close up of a dying man as his eyeballs go vacant.

I remember the next moment clearly. I looked into his eyes, and I peed. I wondered if sharks could smell pee in the water like they smelled blood. And I wondered if Portagee Bo could smell pee, too.

Somebody finally got up the courage to look, and no more big black fishies were in sight. A small wave set of minimal worth rolled in, and we rode it expertly all the way to shore without putting a single toe in the water.

PTSD

Flickr photographer: Slapshots

And that’s just like reintegration. You’re there, sitting on that surf board, not expecting any big waves and just enjoying the company. But soon the slush that comes along is disappointing and unsatisfying. So you start to spend time glancing at your own floating shadow, imagining that some latent PTSD is lurking below.I go back and forth between the comfort in knowing that PTSD would explain the gap between me and my husband, and the fear that it might not be the reason we are still so disconnected.

Some days I’ve curled up into a tiny ball and defenselessly prayed that I would not be fatally wounded by my own fear. I’ve instinctively sucked inside of myself and just waited for the bad feelings to go away. I’ve looked over at other spouses nearby and seen the vacant look in their eyes. And I’ve been too afraid to peek over the edge of the board. I have held every muscle in my body tight, trying desperately not to fall off. And I’ve been forced to dip my fingertips into the water, because it’s the only thing that would save me from making that fatal splash.

But finally, you garner the courage to look down into the water. You just can’t sit there waiting to be eaten by a creature that may not even exist. Nobody is coming by to rescue you. You have to be willing to stick your neck out and peer straight into the water.

So far, it’s empty down there. There’s my own hovering shadow, but no sharks. In fact, I’m aware there’s a very real possibility it was just a fish the whole time. And as time passes, I do get braver. I know this. I can feel it deep inside of me. Plus, there’s the fact that I haven’t peed myself in a very, very long time.

MILSPOUSE and Other Abbreviations

One of the greatest things about being published in Reader’s Digest has been the number of people who have come straight out of the woodwork to publicize my blog, which in turn highlights the military spouse community that sacrifices and makes sacrifice possible. Military spouses are so often the unsung heroes. When there are moments for recognition, it’s really great to make a connection with the civilian community. Secondary to being a journal for my kids, my writing has always been about that. Understanding what we do, how we feel, and how similar we all really are to our civilian counterparts.

Just last night at a Christmas party one of my friends asked me, “so, are things back to normal?” I laughed. “It’s better every day” is the best response to that question. But every time it’s asked, it’s an opportunity for me to do one of two things: complain or explain. I’ve known so many military spouses who I’ve seen exhibit the grace and patience to explain, and I’ve always respected that. As MILSPOUSES, we seem to limit our complaining amongst each other, amongst those who understand that you sometimes reach your limit but that you’re going to pick yourself up again and deal with it. Any minute, now.

All of that to say that last week I had a chance to talk with a morning show co-host at a station in New York who read about me in Reader’s Digest, and I was able to explain deployment and mobilization, and explain rather than complain. Richie is really an amazing interviewer, and I think you’ll enjoy listening. If you’ve ever wondered where the name “Witty Little Secret” came from, or what my voice actually sounds like, check it out. I hope you enjoy listening to this interview as much as I enjoyed talking with Richie. Thanks WGNA, and thanks Richie for taking an interest in the military spouse community.

Sean and Richie Morning Show

Preintegration

reintegration

photo courtesy of annstheclaf at Flikr

Young men came home from World War II in boats. They laid in the belly of a ship and they decompressed over cards and cigarettes for weeks and they talked and they told stories. They heard stories. And they had time to think about their girls back home.

But thanks to modern travel, today’s veterans can be plucked right out of a war environment in the desert and plopped down in the middle of a luxury shopping mall a dizzying twenty-four hours later. Not too great for the romantic homecoming everyone dreams of.

Thank goodness our military is smart enough to realize that our warriors need that decompression chamber. Unfortunately the modern equivalent of the Queen Mary is a combination of red tape, medical exams, and DoD-sanctioned debriefs mixed with mandatory periods of relaxation. However, after seeing what 24 hours of planes trains and automobiles looks like (hint: R&R), I was thankful to have a Husband who was well-rested, clear-eyed, on the right side of the clock, and ready to be here.

I’m told we are now in the phase called Reintegration, but it doesn’t feel like we are integrating anything yet. We’re sort of just standing here looking at each other. When we hold hands, there is still a space between us. It’s really more like Preintegration.

I am quiet mostly because I can’t imagine being inside the mind of a servicemember who first realizes people actually struggle to make decisions like what kind of latte they want to consume that day. It must be unreal to make life and death decisions on a daily basis and then come home to discover you have no control over the mind of your six year-old. If it were me, I would put it all off and just smile and hug my family for a few days, too. So. Preintegration it is.

I’ve been reading all about what is supposed to come next, because the last time I did all this I was a newly married girl with no kids. I mean I don’t even REMEMBER reintegration the last time around. I’m entering unknown territory. Again. Just like everything else in this deployment, I’m totally winging it. At least I get points for consistency.

laughing children

his hands were full

So when Husband came home we basically just hung out for a couple of days. We saw friends. We snuggled. We sat on the couch. We watched football. We tickled. We made and ate some of his favorite foods. We listened to stories. We went on walks. We basically just relaxed.

In all of that, I realized that I didn’t remember how to just “be” with him. When we were alone I sat awkwardly and waited for him to speak. I just stared at him. It wasn’t the “oh I’m so gaga in love with you” kind of staring, either. It was more like the “I wonder what happens if you poke it with a stick and pour salt on it” kind of staring. Not that he’s a slug … gah. I’m so romantic that way.

But when he woke up early one morning and made me a cup of coffee, that’s when I knew my husband was returning. And that meant I could return with him. “Thanks for making me coffee,” I said, smiling and batting my eyes. “It’s my job” he joked.

Oh yeah, it’s his job. Oh yeah! It’s his job!

You see, I pretend that being the honored recipient of this tradition puts me on par with the likes of Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, who I’ve heard routinely have their morning cup of First Lady coffee made lovingly by their presidential husbands. Because yeah. Me and the First Lady. We’re like this.

But the best part of this beautiful ritual is that I have never once asked my husband to make coffee. Not once. One morning I simply woke up tired and late, and he made me a steaming sweet cup of wake up. I must have been in a good mood because I took a sip and said, “Oh. Thank you so much. I love it when you make me coffee. It makes me feel like a princess.”

After that, he started making the coffee. Every single morning, without being asked. And I always said thank you. And I always meant it.

By the way, don’t get any bright ideas and blame me if this method doesn’t work for you. For example I tried it with “I love it when you put the toilet lid down because it makes me feel like such a princess.” But it’s pretty hard to refer to a repository for stinky bodily functions and simultaneously refer to yourself as royalty.

Finding a fresh pot of coffee became such a lovely ritual for me that I remember standing over my kitchen sink crying that first morning after he left, like I didn’t know how to operate a simple piece of machinery. That’s why this morning, here, now, was so beautiful. When I woke up and smelled the steam that was wafting up, I sighed out loud. When I saw the heavy moisture that rises up when hot water pours over beautiful shards of crushed brown beans, I smiled. And then I almost cried again.

I know there will be more days. There will be days where I stare into my reflection in the bottom of the cup and wonder how I’m going to convince my husband that logic is not the only factor in decision-making. There will be days where I do poke him with a stick in an attempt to see if he will actually bleed, or cry, or express an emotion I haven’t seen in a while. And there will be days when I get up and grumble, and forget to say thank you for my cup of coffee.

But for now, we have Preintegration. For now, we have the honeymoon. And for now, I will sip and smile and remember that I’m not the one making the coffee.

Mmmmm. That’s nice. Thank you.

Previous Older Entries

VOTY Reader