Friday, December 27, 2013

Comparing Scars

                        So I visited the VA medical center the other day, it was early morning; I was in the basement blood draw waiting room. Even at this early hour the room was full, most of the vets there that day were older, but there was quite a few younger vets present as well. This seems to be a growing change in this scene, the vets are getting younger and this can cause some distress among those waiting in the same room, I have to mention that it is my belief that most vets are pretty careful; they are respectful of each other’s service whether they are a retired Marine or an Army reservist.

That being said, there still seems to be an underlying belief by some that anyone who’d served in a conflict other than theirs, didn’t have it as bad.  “When you walk for a week through swamps in bug infested jungle in the same grundies while dysentery creeps through your ranks, then come talk to me about having it rough” the older vet in the corner would grumble to the two younger vets talking next to him about their tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The corners of the older vet’s mouth were turned down, his face shaded in a week’s growth, he wore gray sweat pants tucked into his snow boots and had on an old Carhart jacket. His arms were crossed, he was guarded, waiting like everyone else; he had the stare, and looked like many older vets in the room. The two he spoke to chuckled a bit without looking at him, then continued their conversation albeit a little quieter. The older of these two looked to be in his fifties, the other was late in his twenties. The older one talked about being stuck in the desert in Iraq without bottled water, half of their equipment; water buffalos and transport trucks having gone missing on the docks before their company arrived to claim it and having to use old Fargo school buses to transport POWs back to camps in Saudi Arabia. He spoke about how they’d have to drive for hours on end and share the task with only one other soldier to guard the bus packed with Iraqi soldiers that didn’t really like the idea of going anywhere with these guys, constantly trying to rock the bus in order to turn it over in hopes of escaping.  He talked about them always being undermanned and undersupplied.

The younger of the two wore jeans with elaborate patterns on the back pockets, his pants hung low on his hips as he sauntered in and found a seat. He talked about being caught in cross fire between two tribes in the mountains of Afghanistan. He spoke about daily bombardments at sundown around his small encampment far from any civilized area. He talked about the batteries in his MP3 player dying soon after being in country and not having his cel phone “in like forever”. These two soldiers traded jabs back and forth for a while, they’d laugh and then one would mention there not being cel phones back in 1990 and 91, and the other would say well at least in Iraq back then not everybody was shooting at them like they were in Afghanistan.  They both had good points and they both were adamant about conveying their individual hardship. Then suddenly another soldier sitting across the room stated “well at least we are all safe now sitting here today” as a nurse called out his name to have his blood drawn and the room filled with laughter.

One of the things I have always liked about the VA is that when I am standing there inside that building I know that the vast majority of people around me understand to a degree what I have been through, that when it all comes down to the end result, we all share some of the same experiences, even if they are in different parts of the world, or in the snow, or the mountains or somewhere in the desert far from our friends and family. We all know what it’s like to spend Christmas in a fox hole or a personnel carrier with eight other soldiers that haven’t showered in weeks. We all know what it’s like to listen to gunfire at night and wish we could hold our loved ones hands; feel their soft skin in the desperate grip of ours. We all know the pain, and the anguish, the long sleepless nights staring off into the darkness watching shadows for any sign of movement. I know that when I leave the VA, when I go back out there into the world again, that I can look into the eyes of those around me and know they don’t get it, they don’t understand the sacrifices I have made, why I stand there in front of the cereal aisle looking lost because I can’t figure out how to decide between Captain fucking Crunch and Count Chocolate, that such a simple task is difficult for me to make, when I have spent every waking hour on deployment making decisions’ that determine whether or not I will come home on my feet or in a bag.

I sat there in that waiting room looking around at the faces of men and women, who’ve all lived those experiences, some seem to be getting by, others appear to be having a more difficult time with it. We can’t do it alone; we couldn’t do it alone when we were in the thick of it so why should we think we have to do it alone now. We need to learn to reach out and lean on each other a bit, find comfort in knowing that we aren’t alone, that there are others out there that need our help that need someone to lean on.  

When the nurse came back out and called the name of the soldier with the fancy pants, he got up slowly, and as he stumbled to the blood draw room I noticed one of his pant legs had gotten caught on and was exposing his prosthetic. The older vet in the corner looked at him and his face relaxed just a little. Our experiences are our own and they are relative in their severity. Often times those experiences find their way back home with us, they hitch rides on our perspectives and poke at us when we try and re-acclimate into society. Whether it’s a loss of a battle buddy, or a leg, or a loved one long after returning home, because the relationship just isn’t the same as it was before you left; we all share those hurts, those emotional distresses. We can compare scars all day long, but it’s the ones we can’t see that we need to address, that we need to know we share with our brothers and sisters, reach out and say thank you next time, shake hands with the vet next to you and look into his or her eyes and know, know that you are not alone.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Blessed are those ...

Blessed are those who’ll stand before the enemy, to protect their friends and family.

Sgt P.J. Peterson and other members of the Red Bull DVN, US Army, WW2

His ears numb, awkward silence rings loudly as he and his brothers run through the unforgiving sand, out in the open with rounds striking the ground around them they crawl slowly, methodically through barbed wire, the air was thick with the smell of blood, fear and vomit. It was also filled with uncommon valor, as young men, some not yet shaving cover their buddies wounded bodies with their own, it’s an odd sound when a bullet hits a soldier, tearing deep into flesh, and there is a certain soft thud on impact. He continues on, dragging his fellow soldier along behind him as he makes his way to cover, somewhere he realizes when he looks back, that he is no longer dragging much. Just then all the noise hits him like a brick wall, rapid gun fire, mortar rounds exploding, screams of men yelling for a medic and the others calling out orders to move on, to charge on, and to survive. He makes his way and joins those remaining. They are wet, dirty, sweaty, hungry and battered, these young men will continue on, they will fight; they will give of themselves more than any of them knew they had to give, and some will give everything. For those whom return, for those who will again set foot upon their mother’s porch, the innocence will be gone. They will return something different; they will have faced the devil himself. They will have sacrificed young boys and become grown men.
These men, and the women who served during World War II to protect everything we have and enjoy freely, are leaving us again, only they are going to a better place to join their brothers and sisters, please, don’t let them leave us without saying thank you, they deserve it, it’s the very least they have earned and we all owe them.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Supporting a soldier; a partner’s sacrifice

Just as I was carefully negotiating a trade with a German soldier for one of his field ready meals, word was getting around that there was a group of soldiers manning a satellite phone station about a mile outside our camp. I had been overseas for about three months, this was early in the Southwest Asia campaign, we were positioned somewhere in North Eastern Saudi Arabia along the rail line North of the Kuwaiti border, we had a pallet of mango juice boxes, little water, and more sand than many of us had ever seen, not exactly the way I thought I’d be spending Saturday nights before being deployed. I thought I’d be hanging out with my girlfriend, maybe cruising in my old Mercury and making out in the park near her home.

Instead she’s at home wondering where I am. It would be appropriate here to note that back then we didn’t have cellular phones, the media was not embedded and we as soldiers at times had even less information as to what was happening in country than the rest of the nation. We didn’t get to watch the news updates, read any newspapers and didn’t even know that the North Stars were leaving Minnesota. So when I had heard of this little satellite phone operation, I was in. Me and few others snuck out and made our way, and there tucked in between a couple large sand dunes was the camo netting covered satellite station. Darkness as far as you can see, a deep cobalt blue sky above us with no light filtration other than from the stars’ themselves, sometimes at night I would lie back atop my Humvee and stare into the night sky, it seemed as though I could almost stand up and immerse myself in millions of tiny little specs of bright light. Eventually the line of other soldiers’ waned and I had my turn. When I heard her voice on the other end I had realized then how much I missed my girlfriend, her sweet voice echoing in my ear. It meant the world to me that I could talk with her, even just to listen and tell her I was ok. And just as we figured out the timing of the delay so we weren’t talking over each other the line went dead and there was only silence except for the whining of the Scud missile alarms. I quickly closed my eyes tightly trying to lock in the sound of her voice before it was gone, and then it was gone. And as much as it pained me to be cut off like that, I have to think that it must have been even more difficult for her, I would drop back into survival mode, my training taking over and while everything else is shelved for the time being. But back home, in her living room, my girl, Angie still holds that phone against her ear, hoping my voice will return, praying that I will be all right, as tears begin to stream down her cheeks.

This isn’t an uncommon event, this happens all the time wherever our soldiers are deployed, leaving their families behind to wait and wonder. To pray and hope. Even with all of the media at our disposal today and the cel phones and such, there is still the pain that finds itself imbedded in the pit of your stomach as you deploy knowing that back home your wife, husband, son or daughter has that same pain in their stomach as well. I think that the families/military families of soldiers do not get enough credit for the success of their soldier, nor do they get recognized enough for the support they provide. The military family has a tough life, much like their soldier, the spouses/partners and their children are often having to leave friendships they’ve built because they’ve been relocated, moved on to another station. And then they are left to begin again, find and build new friendships, not easy to do.

The spouse/partner of their soldier is often the one to take care of their home, their children, correspondence with kid’s schools and health care providers, any extra-curricular activities, and that’s on top of emotional and physical support of their soldier. And that’s just an average day, not to mention what they are left to take care when their soldier has been deployed on a mission, especially and extended one. And sometimes upon completion of a deployment, especially after an active conflict over seas, the soldier comes home and has to re-acclimate to their family and the down time, this can be especially nerve racking and difficult for family members as well as the soldier to work through, but there is no opting out just then, and to be a successful partnership both parties have to come together and work through it; adapt and overcome. This is where the soldier’s family members and spouse/partner’s shine, and once all is said and done at the end of the day, who will support them, the spouse and partner? After the sun has gone down, the kids are tucked away, their soldier has come home safe, it’s time for that spouse and/or partner to take stock and take care of themselves.

In the end, I knew my girlfriend would be there when I returned, but I would not return the same person as when I had left, however she would stand behind me, she would be there for me and would learn what it meant to be the partner of a soldier. Then she would realize the dedication and the sacrifices she would have to make. It wouldn’t be easy, but she would prevail, she would successfully navigate those waters and form a relationship that only a soldier’s partner would know, one to be proud of, one that would change her life forever.

When we say thank you to a soldier, let us not forget that soldier’s partner, their family and spouse, and remember that behind every great soldier there exists a logistically complex support system; they deserve an earnest thank you as well, our respect and gratitude for their sacrifices’.
Thank you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day...Thank you.

Ever since we as a people claimed what is now the United States of America as a safe haven for those down trodden, and those looking for a place of protection against persecution for their beliefs, ever since we uprooted our families and lives in search of a new home where we could enjoy the fruition of our dreams and hopes for the future of our children, there have been examples of “Uncommon valor” by those willing to step up to the line and defend those hopes and dreams for their selves, and the rest of us whom cannot do so.

Today is for you, today is for those that have sacrificed some and those many who’ve have sacrificed all. Today we say thank you to our fellow vets, to the wives who’ve stood next to their husbands and supported them every step of the way, and to those husbands who’ve stood behind their wives who’ve served or are serving our country today and proudly supported them. And to everyone else who have and are today supporting their loved ones, their brothers and sisters, their children and their parents.

Today is the day we as a society must step forward and say thank you, thank you for putting everyone else first by sacrificing yourself. Thank you for working to preserve the freedoms we cherish in America and to all those soldiers overseas, far away from their families, far away from their loved ones, especially during the upcoming holiday season, when we sit down to a Thanksgiving dinner, or gather with our families over Christmas and Hanukah and set a place for those that won’t be there to share in our revelry. To those that sit alone, struggling to find their place in the world again after having given so much, we say thank you. Thank you for your selfless acts of kindness and undeniable virtue.

In your names, today on Veterans Day, thank you.

Friday, October 25, 2013

My Grandfathers Land

I visit my grandfathers land once a year or so. I like it there, it’s so peaceful, quiet, and I will sit under an old Oak tree near his property line and gaze out over the rolling hills, the tall waving grasses near the edge of the wood and the big blue sky above it all, the clouds seem to slow down as they pass over this place, as if to respectfully splash a little shade upon my grandfather and all of his friends here, a little respite from the hot summer sun.

We talk him and me, about my little girls, the state of things today and sometimes I will just sit and listen, I’ll lay beside him in the cool, neatly trimmed grass there and close my eyes and remember when he used to push me and my cousin on the swings when we were just little.

Sometimes I will walk across the field to visit with my grandmother from my dad’s side, she just moved in this month. Her voice still echoes in my ears on Sunday afternoons.  I give her some freshly cut flowers, tied with a ribbon, tell her I miss her.

As the sun begins it’s decent on another day, and casts an amber glow over everything, highlighting the sea of white stones that blanket these hills, I pay respect to everyone I wander by. Then, as I pass the flag pole and continue on through the iron gates, I pause, giving thanks for the tremendous and inspiring sacrifices of all of the residents there.

One day I will go back to visit my grandfather, but I won’t leave, and my family will go to visit me there. And though I’ll be sad to see them go, I will be in a good place; I will be in the company heroes.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When you walked away

          You walked away, slowly; I could tell that you wanted to look back but didn’t want to see the tears on your daughter’s face.  Your son stood proud, strong, believing you’d come back soon.  He said just before you turned to leave that he would take care of mom and his sister while you are away. 

            We miss you now, every day we think about you, your daughter has stepped up and if it weren’t for her I don’t know what I’d do.  Your son speaks about you and your job.  He tells his friends that you are his hero.  At night he lays awake in bed after dinner, alone, praying for you. 

I miss your smell; it has worn off of all of your clothing and it no longer lingers in the house.  I tried spraying your cologne around the house but it just doesn’t smell like you when you wear it.  I miss the feel of your powerful shoulders below my chin as your arms wrap around me, holding me tight.  I close my eyes some days and pretend you are with me, I can see your beautiful brown eyes and the shape of your soft lips and I picture us sitting under the Birch trees in our yard, and I feel the strength in your hands, your warm hands. 

            It’s amazing how a person can take for granted all the little things their partner does for us, when you’d come home from work, you’d lean in and kiss me with your strong warm hand placed at the small of my back.  What I wouldn’t give to feel that now…it’s been so long though now that I almost can’t remember. 

Your son lost another tooth and got into a fight with another kid at school who said what you were doing over there was wrong.  Your son misses you; he lies in his bed at night wishing you would sneak in and snuggle with him for just a moment, until he fell asleep.  Your daughter got another “A” in her class today and prays for you and all of your co-workers each night before bed.

            Darling I miss you also.  I pray that you come home safely, I know what you are doing is right; I know you feel that you must protect everybody.  I know that your conviction to do what is right is strong and I love you for that. I just wish you could come home and protect me, protect me against the bad dreams at night and the hurtful pangs I get during the day wishing I could see you sitting next to me at the dinner table.  The kids said we couldn’t have pork chops until you come home because it’s your favorite.  I want to have pork chops again.

            I know I am not the only one who feels this way.  Your mother cries when we speak, so she doesn’t call too much anymore.  Your brother drives by the house periodically to check on us, he’s sick and tired of the people that protest your position, that he’s having a hard time taking that in the news on a daily basis.  I just remind him that your being there serves to protect their rights to protest. 

            There are so many of us left behind here at home, we know you believe in what you are doing, and we support you in spite of the fact that we don’t hear reflections of your sacrifice expelled in the news, more often than not it seems it’s just the oppositions views we are subject to, just the bad stuff, just the vanities in people that try and make a name for themselves under the guise of free speech.

            I am your wife, your mother, your father, your sister and brother and your son and daughter.  I am your neighbor who raises a flag in your honor every day.  I am the student from another country, an immigrant family who knows that without your service, the freedoms we enjoy here might not exist without your service. I am your kid’s teacher, who sees the pain of your absence in the faces of your children, and the pride in their eyes when asked “why the tears”.   I am a soldier who paid his/her dues and came back home…without you and now must move on with my own life, wishing I could be by your side, as brothers and sisters. 

            I miss you.  I love you.  I thank you.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Key Lime pie

OK, I know this has nothing to do with the military, but circumstances being what they are, I felt obliged to honor my grandmother. I hope you will allow me this.

She’d lift the fork to her mouth and close her eyes as she did her lips, setting the fork on the table she would then pause, savoring the creamy, lime filling; she often told me how the taste reminded her of the warmer sun of Florida.
We used to play Cribbage, but it had gotten difficult for her to hold playing cards; her fingers knotted by time and years of hard work. So as of late we just sat and ate Key Lime pie and debated the state of the world.
Ilo and me had a special relationship, it was not based on or tied to any outside influences, it was just her and me and that was all, it was simple and it was uncomplicated. Some days I would talk a little too much and she’d never interrupt. Sometimes she would talk and I would listen, I’d watch her eyes roam around the room as she fumbled with her blanket and flatten it upon her lap. Sometimes I would roll her outside and we would just sit in the sun and watch the leaves skid by, carried on a late summer breeze. Nothing need be said between us, her thin gray hair would fall over her eyes and I would brush it back for her, she’d swat at me and tell me she liked the wind and to quit fussing with her hair.
We didn’t always see eye to eye on everything, but she always seemed to consider an alternate view, and she never persecuted me for mine. There was an acceptance between us, we could be completely honest with each other and neither of us felt bad, judged nor uncomfortable. I loved that about our time together; there was no editing, it was honest and real.
One day I visited her on my motorcycle and brought Key Lime pie and tea from the café where I always bought it. This time though, under the excited anticipation gleaming in her tired eyes, I opened the carton and to my dismay and embarrassment, the lime green filling had vibrated and mixed together with the frothy, white, whipped topping; It was a huge globby mess. As I began to apologize and stated I’d take the car next time so it wouldn’t happen again, she swiftly stuck her fork right in the middle of the pile. She looked at me and said “Tracy, it’ll taste just as beautiful as it always does…”, then as she placed a helping in her mouth and closed her eyes, she continued “…besides, I have already punched my ticket and given it to the conductor, so don’t bother with pie next time”.
We ate in silence until all of the crust was gone, she sipped her tea and I gazed at her. She was intensely calm, quiet, beautiful. We sat for a long time that day, side by side staring out the window through her row of flowers sitting along the window sill.
I went to Birchwood Café this morning, when I placed my order for a single piece of Key Lime pie at the counter, the girl that knew me paused, she struggled to maintain her smile as her eyes began to well, as did mine. As I sat among the flowers on the patio, in the sun and the wind, I lifted a forkful of pie to my mouth and closed my eyes. I sat there listening to the leaves rustle, feeling the sun caress my face, imagining Ilo sitting across from me…I knew then, that Key Lime pie would never taste as fine again.
I will miss Ilo, I loved everything about her, I loved her honesty, I loved her smile, I loved her level of integrity, and I shared her love of Key Lime pie.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Honor Thy Sacrifice

It’s easy to tell others they ought to honor those who’ve sacrificed, but have you, one who’s made the sacrifice, honored yourself? It’s difficult for many of us who’ve sacrificed so much, to be ok with giving ourselves a pat on the back. I know I know, we are supposed to remain non-celebratory about our sacrifice, our service, but we deserve it, you deserve it. But look around, there are so many service members, they go without so much as a hand shake, a thank you, they go without recognition for the sacrifices they have made. They have sacrificed their lives, their friends, brothers and sisters.

Those that have made the ultimate sacrifice and have died have their memorial; they have family members that cry for them, they have friends and comrades who pray for their souls. But those who’ve come back without their partners, friends, fellow veterans, who prays for them, who cries for them? Much of the time these vets come back changed, they feel bitter, they feel guilty, and they come back alone. Often they are difficult to understand or deal with, so those around them step back and give them room, they are treated like they have some sort of contagion. Let me be clear here when I say that this is not the case for everyone, however, if it the case for one veteran, it is the case for too many.

So as a veteran, I say be ok with slapping yourself on the back, and to honor those whom did not make it back, or those that are stuck in turmoil, celebrate the sacrifices you have made. Recognize those sacrifices; look them in the eye as you have so many of your adversaries and say thank you. Be proud of those sacrifices you have made, can you do that in the mirror? Can you look yourself in the eye and say thanks?

Don’t allow the Meagan Lyn Mays’ of this world to disparage all that you have given to this world, even to her. And I for one will stand beside you, proud to be your brother in arms, to be a fellow veteran, I for one will be grateful. I cannot and will not lose sight of those that have made the ultimate sacrifice, I think of them daily, I will remember them; I will honor them by honoring myself and by celebrating their service and sacrifice. I will do this by telling others of their service, of their heroisms, of their decision to stand the line, to protect our freedoms.

And to those like Meagan Lyn May, to those that oppose our way of life and our means of servitude, to those I say you are welcome. Come forth and speak your mind, for I have stood toe to toe with my enemy to preserve the right for you to do so. Whether I follow your line of thinking, your beliefs or not, and I will not persecute you for them but celebrate your freedom to speak them. This is how we honor those that have sacrificed. I would also ask that in return, whether or not you agree with my line of thinking, or beliefs, come stand next to me, share your beliefs with me, let’s come together and commemorate our freedom of speech, lets honor those responsible, lets honor our children in your name, and in the names of our brothers and sisters let’s pay tribute to those individuals. Then ask yourself, what sacrifices have you made, what sacrifices will you make?