Mythmaking and the Veteran

This post was originally published on 11/16/2013

As Veteran’s Day approached, my daughter came home with a form to fill out about any canstockphoto6239811veterans she knew for the school display. She wanted to fill out the form about me and attach a picture on the bottom. I tried to encourage her to do a sheet on her great grandfather, who was a handsome man in his Navy dress uniform. I, however, have never liked pictures of myself. It’s not false modesty or some sort of facial dysmorphia, it’s just that unless it includes a cat scan of my brain activity, a list of my favorite books and pictures of my family, I feel like it’s a false representation of my personal values. And plus, I can never get my hair right.

My daughter’s friends had expressed disbelief that her mother had been in the Army, so I caved, sending along my doe-eyed 19 year old self dressed in Class As. Shortly after this, teachers and staff would comment, thanking me for my service. I find this to be extraordinarily awkward. I try not to make it more awkward by saying “it paid for college, it was peacetime, I spent most of it drunk or hungover and I left the military with a chip on my shoulder for mindless bureaucracy.” Not all service is equal.

The Army of today seems entirely different from the Army I joined almost 30 years ago. It was the end of the Cold War. I served in Military Intelligence as a Russian Linguist in what was then called West Germany. Let’s just say we spent a lot of time in the field and standing around outside motor pools chain smoking. I never found us to be a particularly impressive bunch. The work was hard, dull and rarely what we’d been trained for, unless being really, really smart inventory takers and mechanics was part of our occupational specialty.

I want to be honest, because I look at the tough, shitty work the military has to do today and it simply is not equal to the passive grind of my experience. Perhaps it is because I am getting dotty in my middle age years, but I shrug when I think about getting screamed at in basic or spending hours guarding nothing. The lives that were lost in surrounding units involved someone getting skewered by a nighttime antenna and civilians who died when a tank rolled over their car. And all this was second and third hand information. IEDs were never on our mental or literal landscape.

I met a lot of people in the Army, that in today’s terms would be described as being “on the spectrum” or with borderline personality disorders. And then they were armed. Since then I’ve discovered that any behemoth bureaucracy can serve as an umbrella for sociopaths and miscreants, and camouflage for untreated neurological conditions, so the military has no corner on that market. Many of them go on to be C-Level executives or servers at fast food franchises. Fortunately, most are unarmed.

It is true that I had some idealism, some sense of patriotism. It was the Reagan years, after all. But mostly, I grew up in poverty. No one talked to me about financial aid. No one in my family had graduated from college except for my grandfather. I needed a way out. The military provided me with that opportunity and for that, I will forever be grateful.

As to gratitude for service, the real ‘thank yous’ go to those service people who have been or are currently, on the ground, in the air and on the seas who have waited in restless boredom for the action that will inevitably come. You know who you are. I salute you and wish you a safe return home so that you can enjoy the awkwardness of stranger gratitude as well. You deserve it.


National Coalition for Homeless Veterans

Disabled American Veterans


American Hostage: A Foothold Situation

This post will be moderated per The Green Study comment policy.

canstockphoto32473828There is a moment in each day now when I imagine the decimation of my country. I grew up with the idea that America represented ethics and values that I could get behind. I didn’t always agree with politicians or administrations, but I respected that it was an honorable thing to serve this country. My eyes watered hearing The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I put my hand on my heart and believed that there was something of which we could be proud.

When I was in high school, I went to state speech contest with a fiery “The Loss of American Patriotism: Where Are the Voters?” I spent hours listening to the comedian, Rich Little, do presidential impressions. I loved learning about government and American history, reading the biographies of the men and women who shaped this country.

I joined the US Army near the end of the Cold War, became a Russian linguist and served four years of active duty and another four on reserve duty, retraining as a Combat Radio Operator in preparation for the first Gulf War. I love my country. I feel fortunate for having been born here. I love that there are so many opportunities to learn and that our diversity brings a richness of culture.

canstockphoto11582845My patriotism matured, though. I read about slavery and bigotry and the resistance to equal rights. I read about My Lai and the Tuskegee experiment. I read about Watergate and watched the Iran Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. I payed attention to the corruption, the sexual scandals, the misappropriation of funding, and the misjudgments that cost military men and women their lives.

Maturity required that I pay attention, that I vote, that I believe the foundations of government to be well-reasoned and guided by the rule of law. It required a degree of cynicism while maintaining the belief that no misdeed would go unpunished. It required me to support my community, follow the laws, and contribute where I could.

These days, my patriotism falters. I don’t know where we’re going to end up. I view my fellow citizens with suspicion, appalled that so many have willingly embraced incivility as the norm. Disgusted that so many have the I got mine, you can just suffer mentality. I’m astonished at the number of people who are comfortable deriding education and science. And so incredibly saddened by how quickly hate rises when beckoned by someone who has never served anyone but himself.

Common good is no longer part of the conversation. Who is our military fighting for? Defense contractors and antiquities thieves and soon, it will be minerals. Maybe it was always like that and I was too immature to see how easily people in power waste the lives of those who aren’t. Our system is awash in tainted lucre, crusty old men, and greedy shareholders.

The conservative class is polluted by religious fundamentalism, photogenic faces with acidic, twisted morals. Lying has become de rigeur and shamelessness, a casual smirk worn with defiance.  Winning at the expense of fellow Americans. Trading in an empathetic sense of right and wrong for showmanship.

Liberals are being bogged down by the attention-seeking behavior of the deliberately ignorant. Unfortunately, they’ve been thrown so far off balance and are spending so much time compensating, that the message is lost. They don’t need new bumper stickers. They need to step outside a cycle of reactivity. They need imagination and originality.

I don’t feel at home here, a country I was born in and raised to love. Now there’s this rise of white nationalism, a soupy crockpot of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, all blaming someone else for their lot in life. All the religiosity is scary and the anti-intellectualism reminds me of other regimes that went after intellectuals, scientists, journalists, readers. Me, with my secular humanism and library card – I’ll end up on a list. My inability to be attractive enough to seduce or wealthy enough to bribe anyone – unable to get in the right line, check the right boxes.

Apocalyptic views are often roundly mocked. But we’re watching bedrock canstockphoto29947844institutions having the legs knocked out from under them, while being undermined, and ridiculed by a man who is wily, but not intelligent. We’re watching our President begin to strip away the rights of our fellow citizens in order to cater to his minority of  supporters and to distract us from his other nefarious undertakings. Our leaders used to be people who recognized that the higher duty was to country and not themselves. We used to want people who were smarter, more talented, better read, better educated, and more well-rounded in their American experience than we ourselves were.

canstockphoto3897081Now we have a bully who has been pampered and flattered from cradle to grave, who has turned national discourse into a manipulated reality show dialogue. The Ugly American in all its stomach-turning glory. Meanwhile, every dictator on the planet has bellied up to the bar to have a missile measuring contest. It’s good times for them. The rogue’s gallery of murderers – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, all happy to see that America is now completely unmoored from even a pretense of moral leadership.

And what can I do? I vote, I follow the rules, I donate to causes I support, I volunteer, I call my representatives. I work to understand the issues. I try to see different perspectives. All from my little house in a midwestern working class suburb where life, at the moment, appears unchanged.

A Muslim family moved in across from our neighbors, who are religious home schoolers. Down the street, one neighbor finally took down their Trump/Pence sign. We still keep up our “We Choose Love” sign, a faint reminder of idealism in the recent past. Will this diverse neighborhood survive or will we come to blows? Will we need hidden rooms and underground railroads and forged identity papers?

There are too many dominoes coming down all at once, too many lies to keep track of, canstockphoto1973547and too many morally-destitute people with the power to be destructive at the helm. Threats from without are being matched by threats from within. We can only protest and resist our captors for so long. Without money or power, we’re just left to negotiate for bathroom breaks – after our gender is checked. This is what a small percentage of our fellow citizens wish for us and there is simply no denying the sheer malevolence of it.

This is about as pessimistic as I get about things and it’s not a place where I plan to stay. Lest you think I’m giving up, giving in, or content to sit in apathy, the events of the last weekend and the national dialogue surrounding them have given me pause. It all requires more thoughtfulness and wisdom than I am capable of at the moment.

The Paradox of Voice

canstockphoto7524142Over the last few weeks, a couple of subjects have come up that I thought I might like to write about and then decided against it.  One is gun control and the other is the ban being lifted on women in combat. These are heady, complicated and complex subjects. I am a woman, a parent and a veteran of the U.S. Army.

Last week, I became quite disheartened when reading comments on articles on both subjects, which prompted an entirely different post. I tried a couple more times, unsuccessfully, to write about these subjects and discovered that holding a multitude of beliefs, some of which are quite contradictory, means that it is nearly impossible to write a convincing argument about anything.

I carried an M-16 as a soldier for four years. I knew how to disassemble, clean and reassemble it. I knew how to “lock and load”. I fired various other weapons over the years, as required for training. When I was 19, I thought that weapons were very cool. I was an average shot. I was left-handed, and the chamber guards provided did not prevent hot shell casings from rolling down the sleeve of my BDU shirt, leaving burn streaks down my arm. My aim started to become the least of my concerns.

I understand the appeal, the adrenaline rush of firing, the drive to train to expert levels, the sense of power felt, carrying this weapon of death. But I grew up. I thought about the kind of world in which I’d like to live. I realized that no amount of training or mechanical machine would ever prepare me for the moment I’d have to defend my life or the lives of my family. But that gun would always be there, this piece of hardware designed to take the life of another living creature. So I made a conscious choice to do without and despite comment boards, I don’t feel like I am a big liberal weenie because of it.

The lifting of the ban on women in combat didn’t make me do a little dance of joy last week. I worked in military intelligence as a Russian linguist. My unit was attached to an infantry division in Europe. We spent six months out of the year in the field and the other six doing important work, like picking up cigarette butts on base, working on our vehicles in the motor pool and doing dog and pony shows for high ranking officers. I served at a time when militarily, not much was happening. It was near the end of the Cold War. The year I finished my tour, the Berlin Wall came down.

Myself and the many women I served with, were already in combat positions, working close to what used to be the front line dividing us and the Soviets. That we were not classified as being in those positions was irrelevant. We just were. There are, and have been for years, thousands of women in combat positions. 146 women have died in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, even while a ban on them being in combat positions was in place.

All that being said, the arguments against it rile me because they’re so nonsensical. I can address a few commonly cited reasons. Physical abilities: Test. That’s all you need to do. A person is either qualified or they are not. Sexual Assaults and POW conditions for women: Stop assaulting your fellow soldiers. And I’m guessing being a POW is not a party for men or women. Unit Cohesiveness: Good leaders at every level determine this, gender does not. And my least favorite argument is concern about the lady parts. There are 15 million things that can go wrong with the human body in combat conditions, afflicting men and women equally. There is no vaginal predisposition for chronic infection, old white men.

I was proud of how hard I worked. I was proud that I trained, carried heavy equipment, knew my vehicle inside and out. I carried my own weight, didn’t ask for special treatment, didn’t have sexual orgies with my all male field team and didn’t have magical lady part infections.  There are, like any segment of the population, women I would not want to serve with, but there were an equal number of men who were unreliable, didn’t carry their own weight, complained and whined and wouldn’t know their ass from a hole in the ground. Being a jackass is an equal opportunity, military or not.

All that being said, this is the part that gets me stuck: War is horrible. The idea that it is inevitable is so embedded in our hearts and minds that we can’t imagine what real peace looks like. I don’t want men and women to die, killing each other relentlessly on the battlefield or from the sky. I don’t want to casually allow our Congress and President to send thousands off to war. I don’t want orphaned children or civilian casualties – on either side. If I should become a vocal advocate for any position – have I just become part of the machine?

It’s okay to still believe in an ideal world. It doesn’t make us fools or softies or lefties or commies or all the other names anonymous trolls like to leave in their shit-laden trail of mediocrity on comment boards. It makes us the defense against complacency and acceptance of violence. We are one of many voices of reason in a world that seems destined for self-destruction. In the face of a million options for killing and hate and violence and destruction, I choose peace – in my life, in my desire for others, in my hope for my child. If someone wants to stand there, empowered with their arsenal and call me a coward, so be it.

I would like to thank Bespectacledape for his post, The Weakness Stereotype. It inspired me to follow through on the thoughts that have been nagging at me this last week.

General Baby Mama

I’m finally writing an angry post. I cannot take one more article, political ad or urban legend recitation about “baby mamas” or “welfare queens” and all the economic elitist, racist and sexist implications of those pejorative terms, although politicians like to couch them in more polite terminology . I just read yet another whiny article/blog about how the middle class are disadvantaged to the point that they can’t have additional children and that welfare mothers are populating the planet.

During Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign, he introduced the term “welfare queen” to suggest that there were legions of manipulative, fraudulent mothers sitting vigil at the public trough, while popping out babies like “octo-mom” Pez dispensers. The Republicans are dragging out that tired old specter and Democrats are shamefully staying mum. It’s akin to bullying – picking a target the least likely to fight back, with a lot of bystanders too engrossed in the scene to intervene. It’s disgusting.

One could argue about the poor having too many children, but that is a slippery slope. If only financially stable people can have kids, then maybe it will only be people with a college education and then maybe people with no genetic anomalies, like faulty eyesight – you can see the creepy direction in which this train of thought is headed.

Regardless of what know-it-all pundits say, the reality is that leaving impoverished people with no legitimate means of support, for whatever reason, be it the recession job environment, lack of education, mental illness or the need for childcare in order to find work – the lack of a safety net does NO ONE any good.

In the 1970s my mother had to file for assistance for her children, due to the steadily developing alcoholism of her husband and lack of seasonal work in construction. We hungrily ate our government cheese and bought bread and milk with food stamps. It shamed her, but her children were her priority. She struggled to become a member of the working poor as soon as it was humanly possibly. Her incentive was her own pride.

We’ve all heard the urban legends about widespread welfare fraud and abuse. There are some spectacular stories reported on, but the majority of people will not be able to make a living, much less a profit staying on assistance.

The scapegoating of the poor is not a new concept, but it always boggles the mind how deftly politicians have focused on the splinter, when a two by four is sitting right in front of us. The 2012 budget contains 12% spending on welfare programs, half of what is intended for the military budget at 24%, which apparently has gotten carte blanche from the American public.

We’re still in Afghanistan, Iraq and really, who knows where else at this point. We’ve been in Afghanistan for 12 years and will be there for another two at least. When people say they support the troops, what do they mean? Most of us have very little idea of what the damned plan is and it’s barely even covered in the news anymore. The military-industrial complex is not only sitting at the public trough, but lobbying Congress at every turn and no one says “boo” about it. Meanwhile, in addition to the 6,591 men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 633,000+ have service-related disabilities (mental and/or physical) and return home in need of assistance.

I’m struggling to understand exactly what we are doing abroad now. I’m an Army veteran from a different era and the military today has so many more challenges facing it. I want it funded, but I want to know the plan. Bigger is not better. BETTER is better. I was delighted that just last month they finally began field testing female-specific body armor for women in combat. That is money well spent. However, $70 billion dollars wasted by the Pentagon over the course of two years, with cost overruns, poor management and premature testing on various projects – not so much.

The circular logic of politicians is astonishing. In the midst of a slow recovery, they think that welfare reform is the issue du jour, all the while insisting on more military buildup and holding onto their corporate welfare for dear life. And for all those damned family values that both parties prattle on about, why do they think encouraging single mothers to drop their kids off at the crappy daycare (the only kind they can afford) and go off to their shitty minimum wage job is going to improve our country? Where’s the logic in that?

Politicians need to stop acting like we’re so stupid that they, their ads, or their mouthpieces sound remotely believable. Or even slightly decent. You’re not. Pick on somebody your own size. Preferably someone wearing stars or gold cufflinks, not nursing bras or pullups.