So much has transpired since my last real blog entry, I’m not even sure where, exactly to begin. The truth is, I initially wrote this update by hand almost two months ago, and even more has transpired since then! But I will do my best to pickup where I last left off …
The last time I wrote, I was in a desperate position. Not only did my life seem stuck on a track to nowhere, trapped by the slow and steady tug of inertia, but my fellow passengers had become destructive forces that increasingly threatened the health and wellbeing of my family on multiple levels.
My husband and I were as cash-strapped as ever. Our job prospects were mediocre. We had burned through most of our savings and amassed a ridiculous sum of debt. The thought of moving out of my parents’ house and acquiring a whole new set of huge bills that we had no idea how we would pay for was more terrifying than ever. And yet, it had to be done.
I had come, once again, to a crossroads in my life that called for nothing less than a complete leap of faith. I could either continue safely, securely, down the same path we had been on for years now, or I could close my eyes and leap off a cliff screaming “I can fly!” to the horror and astonishment of onlookers who were convinced I would fall crashing onto the pavement.
I love my parents deeply, and I am forever grateful for their help and the assistance they’ve provided us since we’ve been home from Iraq, but my parents were not the only people we shared their house with, and my father is not the easiest person in the world to live with. I had reached the point where I was no longer willing to raise my son in an environment where there were too many variables out of my control. But what was so astonishing to me is how many people around me didn’t see it that way.
My husband and I had a free place to live, and to some outside observers, it didn’t seem to matter how deeply dysfunctional the household had become. To the onlookers, leaving the security of that house to go struggle even more financially was just way too risky. But I had complete faith that protecting my child from the dysfunction was the most—the only—important consideration. As long as that was my guiding light, I believed as deeply as I have ever believed anything in my life that God would help us along the way.
New York is not an easy place to live, or even just to survive in for that matter. Insanely high property taxes drive up the price of just about everything, from rent to gas to groceries. Like California, just about everything here is two or three times more expensive than it is just about anywhere else in the country, and the small bump labor sees in wages doesn’t even come close to making up for it.
The irony, of course, is that these ridiculously high property taxes are supposed to fund services for those with fewer means, except the net result is that those of lesser means are the ones who suffer the greatest consequences of the higher taxes. In other words, it is infinitely more difficult to survive in this state on a shoe-string budget than it is to survive, say, in Iowa, where my husband grew up.
Now I’m from here, so I’m used to the rat race. When I was a kid, it didn’t matter how much money your parents had—if you wanted stuff, you better get a job because shit was expensive. My husband, on the other hand, grew up a little different. He’s used to not having much, but he’s also used to it not mattering much.
Even if you don’t make much money in Iowa, you probably live somewhere that gives you all the space you need (as opposed to having to choose between a shoe box in a nice neighborhood or a roomy place where you have to look over your shoulder while you unlock the door to your apartment). A gallon of gas cost $2.99 in Iowa today, not $3.60, and a carton of eggs costs $1.00 not $2.50, so you’re not going to loose sleep wondering where your grocery money is going to come from or if you’ll need to fill the tank again before you get your paycheck.
So when my husband and I set out to find an apartment we could afford that gave us the space we need in a neighborhood we felt good about raising our son in, as fast as possible no less, it quickly became an overwhelming task. (Before I go any further, I want to point out that I’ve heard it said before that “safe neighborhood” is code for “white neighborhood.” It shouldn’t be relevant at all, but to head off any such accusations, I should point out that of the four families who live on our end of the block, we are the only white one, so when I say that a safe neighborhood was one of our most important criteria, I am not talking about race.)
We looked at crappy apartments with paint peeling off the walls in lovely neighborhoods, great big spaces in the middle of nowhere, and just about everything in between. And that is when I stumbled onto a Craigslist ad for an apartment I just knew was the one. It was a typical Schenectady flat on Goose Hill, which used to be a Little Italy of sorts back in the day. I’ve been told that not so many years ago, if you took a walk through Goose Hill on a Sunday afternoon, you’d smell nothing but the thick and heavy aroma of pasta sauce permeating the air. Now, like most parts of Schenectady, it’s dotted with nice areas butted up against ghetto sections you wouldn’t want to live in.
The pictures of this flat, however, left me hopeful that it was on one of the nicer streets still left. Beautiful hardwood floors, dark stained molding around the doors, and a kitchen that was dated but at least didn’t look like a health-code violation.
I got on the phone immediately, and an older-sounding woman with a thick Italian accent picked up. She was highly skeptical and wanted my life story. She wanted to know what my husband and I did for a living, how old my son was, and who takes care of my son while we work. The highly personal nature of her questions felt intrusive, but instinct told me to oblige her.
She sounded traumatized. She was going to be very picky, she explained, about her next tenant. She wanted lots of references. She had to evict the last tenant—twice—to get her out. The tenant and her kids did thousands of dollars worth of damage to the place. We couldn’t see the apartment for at least a week because she was still cleaning and painting and fixing it up. She asked me three times about my income. She wasn’t accepting any more Section 8 tenants, not after her last experience, she said. And she needed good references, she repeated, over and over again.
I took the woman’s name as an omen. Her last name is a reference to those medieval angels who “burn with the fire of charity.” (I didn’t know it at the time, but she also shares her first name in common with a devastating hurricane, which seems equally appropriate to our circumstances).
When I finally got off the phone, I told my husband about the eccentric Italian lady. He didn’t like all her questions. I laughed and told him she was going to be our new landlord.
Scheduling a viewing of the place was tricky. She had shown the apartment to a woman who was a GE executive and who was very interested in renting it, but the landlord was holding off until we had a chance to see it. She had a feeling about us, she said. She explained that her mother, who had died recently, owned the building and that she herself grew up in the beautiful apartment that the last tenant trashed. She had been praying to her mother to send her a good tenant, and when I finally met her to to see the apartment, she was convinced her mother had sent me to her. (This, of course, was all very hocus-pocus for my Iowa husband, but very much in keeping with my own Italian upbringing).
The apartment was perfect! Well, by my standards anyway. The outside of the building left much to be desired. The white aluminum siding was coated in a dark gray film. The porches were hanging crooked, and the tub was so old, it looked dirty even when it was clean. But I didn’t see any of that.
What I saw were beautiful hard wood floors and plenty of space for all of us and my soap making equipment! The kitchen was old but it was big and in decent shape. There was an old-fashioned, walk-in pantry like I have always wanted, and a big back yard for the baby to play in.
In the course of the conversation while looking at the apartment, the landlord began to tell me about the region in Italy she was from. She had trouble pronouncing my last name. Was it German, she wanted to know? Yes, I said, although my husband is mostly English and I am mostly Italian. I told her my maiden name, and we spoke some more about Italy. I told her that my brother’s in-laws are from the same region of Italy that she is from, and she wanted to know their last name. When I told her who the family was, she almost fell to the floor. She is dear friends with my brother’s father-in-law, she told me. They are both on the board of the non-profit Italian American organization she belongs to. That was it, she decided! It was an official sign! I was meant to rent the apartment!
At that moment, she showed me the attic, which she wasn’t sure if she was going to give me access to because the last tenant let her kids go up there to smoke and drink, but any lingering skepticism she may have had withered away in that moment! (And so did any doubts I had about the apartment as soon as I saw the huge attic). Maybe I could even buy the place someday, she said. She could help me with the VA loan process. There was no more need for references—my in-laws were the only reference I needed!
The only thing left to do was drag my husband down to Schenectady and try to talk him into living in the city. That is a story, perhaps, better left for another time, but I will say, to my great surprise, he took much less persuading than I anticipated. In fact, he fell in love with the place—and even the eccentric landlord—almost as quickly as I did.
The landlord, as it would turn out, soon lived up to her name—part angel, part pain in the ass, but always my saving grace. My mother hated the neighborhood, and my brother thought we were paying too much, but I was so very grateful to find the apartment, I could swear my guardian angel appeared in the form of a crazy old Italian lady wearing sweatpants and slinging a Gucci handbag.
We moved in so fast, there was still tons of cleaning to do. There was black funk built up in all the window locks, and a thick layer of grease coated the kitchen cabinets. But there was a moment when I was down on my hands and knees, scrubbing the filthy kitchen floor that really just needs to be ripped up and replaced, that I looked down the hall toward the great big windows in the family room, where the light came crashing in, and in that dirty, sweaty moment, I tell you, I felt sheer bliss.
For the first time since my husband and I were married and my son was born, we had a place of our own. It was dirty and old and our downstairs neighbor would turn out to suck, but it was a space we would never have to share with anyone we didn’t want to. It was a place where we would make all the rules we felt were necessary to keep our son safe in our home and we were free to tell anyone who didn’t want to follow those rules to get out.
Our new apartment was a completely empty, blank space, just waiting to be filled with our possessions and nobody else’s. For the first time since we were married, we could finally unpack the wedding presents that had been for years waiting ever-so-patiently in the basement for their new home. We didn’t have to worry if the toys were in anybody else’s way, or where we were going to put our junk because all the drawers and closets were already filled with somebody else’s junk. We could finally step out of the bathroom naked without having to worry about somebody walking through the front door unannounced, and we could hang whatever the hell we wanted to up on the wall without feeling like we were overstepping someone else’s boundaries in the place where we reside.
Schenectady is a city that the rest of the Capital Region views as having gone completely down the tubes. It is the poster child for the aforementioned high-tax dilemma. The city kept hiking and hiking property taxes until it drove GE right out of town, and the rest of the job creators soon followed. Many of the neighborhoods in the city that once lit and moved the world have now become the very definition of urban blight. To the surrounding towns, the entire city is the ghetto. No one says they’d like to move to Schenectady, and when I told people we had, the response I usually got was, “You moved to Schenectady?!”
And all I can say is that those people have no idea. If they cannot imaging how truly, deeply, blissfully happy we are to have our little flat in Schenectady–not because it is some Bohemian lifestyle choice, or because we are trying to vanquish Bourgeoisie guilt through self-imposed austerity—if those people simply cannot imagine that right now, Schenectady is just the best we can do, and we are blissfully happy to have it, than those people are truly, deeply deprived of true happiness.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying everything in life is all better because we moved to a run-down apartment on the edge of the ghetto. I still have plenty of days where I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall, running in place trying to improve our lives and getting nowhere. But In those moments, I try to stop and take a look around, and I try to remind myself of what it once felt like on those days to look around the room and see someone else’s home.
I began this blog on 20 August, 2011 with the stated goal of preserving my sanity while I felt stuck living at home with my parents. We finally took the giant leap of faith we needed to and moved into this apartment on 18 August, 2012.
Almost exactly one year to the day later, my life came full circle. My mission in creating this blog was to reflect on motherhood from the perspective of a combat veteran in hopes that it would help me look at my situation with a little levity, but also in the hope that a blog would help me move forward and change the circumstances I found myself in. If you’ve been with me since the beginning of this journey, you know that I dedicated this blog to any of our service men and women who sometimes wrestle with living a “normal” life after the war. If you haven’t, you might find the About Me page interesting (it’s the shortest thing I’ve ever written, so really, it’s worth a second to take a look at it!)
Of course my journey in life continues, but the particular journey this blog was dedicated to is finally over. I could continue to blog about my personal life, but I think there are other projects I need to dedicate my time to right now. One of the things I have discovered along this journey, however, is that OnlySpartanWomen is a concept that resonates with many of my fellow sisters in arms. Rather than shut the blog down, I’m thinking maybe it’s time to invite others in. So instead of keeping this a space all about me, I think my plan is to open it up to other female vets and soldiers in hopes that it will turn into a safe place for them to tell their stories as well.
If you are one of my sisters who follows this blog, this is an open invitation for you to contribute to OnlySpartanWomen. If you know other vets and soldiers who might care to reflect here on their experiences as women in combat, please share with them my contact info. If you are a female vet or soldier who is interested in helping me grow this space, you can leave a comment or email me anytime at email@example.com.
If you are a follower, please stay tuned! I will be making some changes to the About Me page and hopefully we will have some new voices here in the upcoming months.
I want to thank my followers—all 47 of you ; ) —for your love and support. I have not amassed a huge following over the last year because stats have never really been my driving force behind this blog, but I hope if I open the doors to outside contributors, this will turn into a space where we are able to dispel some myths, illuminate some mysteries, and share with the rest of the world what it is truly like to not just be a woman in combat, but also what it is like to live your life after having lived that experience.
That immortal place
in time and space …
There is no human experience
There is no experience
in this place we call life,
that reaffirms more,
with and without limitation,
all at once,
endless and boundless,
defined and tied,
to not your pain,
but your exhaustion,
until there is nothing left,
not a single choice,
to push you forward,
But until then,
until that terminal moment,
all you have,
all there is,
is the choice,
the one that defines you,
reaffirming your essence,
what it means to be,
the soul of the beast.
No skin holds tighter
than the uniform.
No foothold grounds
like the boot.
If ever man knew
his own limitations,
it were cloaked in armor.
If he ever understood
his limitless potential,
it were hard on his back
recovering from the mission.
Only in war
does man discover
the truth of his self,
of not why he exists,
in what form,
what is and is not possible.
On a plank of plywood,
hair and face,
relishing one more victory
conquered and defeated,
all at once.
There I exist,
there I am real,
a passing dream,
soon to be forgotten.
I did not go
in search of this truth,
I knew men
who went before me
spinning yarn around this core.
This isn’t what I came for,
but it is,
what I found.
Some time ago, I thought about writing a post titled “Have You Ever Been In a Firefight?” It is one of the many annoying and sometimes infuriating questions I often receive as a female veteran, but this post isn’t about me. It is Memorial Day Weekend, and some recent events have made me realize that this title is also quite appropriate in honor of many of the fallen soldiers I deployed with who never got to come home.
I understand that for most civilians and those who have never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, what happens over there is largely a mystery. There is a general sense that wars are not fought the way they used to be, that there is no front line, that there is no cozy safe spot in the rear, that the military is now one almost fully integrated fighting force of men and women (does anyone remember the WACs?), but the details of the modern day battlefield are largely left out of the public discourse.
As a female veteran, I am often asked questions like, “You were in a safe area though, right?” and “Yeah but you’ve never really been in a firefight or anything, right?” These questions are infuriating for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons alike. The first question is mindboggling because the answer is an emphatic “No! I was not in a ‘safe’ area!” The second question makes me want to spin my head around and spit green pea soup because wile the answer is also “No, I have never been in a firefight,” it is usually followed with the clarifying statement, “and neither have most of the men I served with.” The men, of course, don’t usually get asked, which makes the question all the more infuriating. But all of these inquiries are understandable and easily forgiven when they come from civilians who have been largely kept in the dark about the alternate universe that is OIF and OEF. As far as enraging points of view go, these more-or-less well intended, albeit naïve, perspectives of the role of women in the modern-day combat environment pale in comparison to the inexcusable jockeying for street credit that often takes place amongst veterans and service members. Allow me to elaborate …
There is sometimes a tendency for combat veterans to disparage each other’s service based on MOS (military occupational specialty—basically your job description) or whether or not someone has gone outside the wire (essentially left the comfort of the base). While it is understandable that a civilian who knows little of the details of the modern battlefield would measure the effects of combat in terms of things like firefights, service members and veterans should know better.
I recently, just this weekend of all weekends, read something written on a military Facebook page I follow that almost sent me through the roof. It was written by a woman who referred to herself as a “milispouse” who was angry and venting about her daughter’s custody battle with her ex son-in-law who was discharged from the Army for malingering. According to this woman, the former soldier has violent mood swings that he claims are the result of combat-related PTSD. While I have no issue with her anger over his misrepresentation of his service (apparently this veteran tells people he’s still in the Army and goes to the recruiting station to talk to potential recruits), what I was aggravated by was her commentary on his deployment. It went something along the lines of “[He has] no combat time. None. Downrange, yes. Combat, no.” She went on to say that he spent most of his deployment on guard duty and whining about getting yelled at.
This was a civilian who wrote this mind you. She herself has never been deployed. She established her own authority to speak on the subject by stating that her father was a Vietnam Vet and her husband is an infantryman with multiple deployments under his belt. She has attended many funerals in recent years. In her words, “So I get to call a douche a douche, fair?”
Again though, her opinion I can blow off. The string of some 50+ comments that followed, most of them validating her perspective of POGs (people other than grunts—non-infantry) I cannot forgive so easily. Someone who has never stepped foot in a war zone gets this perspective from somewhere, and that somewhere can only be from other service members. I initially kept silent on the thread, but all the bashing of FOBBITS (people who never stepped foot off the forward operating base while they were deployed) that ensued following her comment slowly ate at me over the course of the night and right into the next morning.
It didn’t bother me because I was a FOBBIT—I wasn’t. I may have never been in a firefight, but I lived on the most underserved patrol base in our area of operations, I went out on foot patrol daily, I spoke to more Iraqis than Americans while over there, and I drove up and down one of the deadliest highways in Iraq on a regular basis for months. Don’t get me wrong—my exposure to “combat” was extremely limited, but that had a lot more to do with luck and timing than it did my proximity to the line. So the whole thing didn’t bother me because I was a FOBBIT; it made me sick to my stomach because almost every person I knew who died over there was. After waking up with the dialogue still on my mind, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet. This is the comment I left on the page (I was pretty upset when I wrote it, so please excuse my flowery language):
“I don’t usually comment on this page, but this has been bothering me since I read it. I’m sure your son in-law is a DB, and I’m not arguing that he wasn’t a shit bag soldier, but Taylor is right. You don’t get to call a douche a douche. I’m not denying you your insights or experiences—your relationships to your husband and your father and the Army in general give you an insiders perspective on the war and the military that most civilians will never understand, I will give you that, but it still doesn’t give you “street credit” (for lack of a better term) to judge whether or not someone’s deployment makes them a combat veteran or not. It’s bad enough when soldiers do it to each other; it’s unacceptable when it comes from people who have never deployed (civilians or soldiers).
I know infantrymen have a tendency to think they are the only ones who experienced combat, but the dick swinging contests amongst veterans have got to stop. My first month in country, an interrogator (FOBBIT) was blown up by a Katyusha while she was asleep in her can. I ran into our company clerk (FOBBIT)the next day, who happened to be in the vicinity and was one of the soldiers who tried to put out the fire. I never saw anyone more shook up than he was trying to tell me how he couldn’t get the site of the blown up pieces of what was left of her body out of his head. Six months into my tour, I was on a FOB that got hit with 14 Katyushas in one attack. Some poor kid (DB?) on extra duty got blown up doing police call in front of the TOC. My team and I were huddled up next to a T-wall during that attack, and we were pretty sure we were going out with him. Our vehicle got totaled by a Katyusha later that night. It was on one side of the T-wall, we were on the other. One lousy month before we got to go home, an MP I spent my first 3 months in country sharing a tent with stuck her 9 mm in her mouth and blew her brains out. One fucking month left. One of the guys on my team who lived next to her stood guard by her door for what he said felt like an eternity until her body was removed from her can. These soldiers—FOBBITS and DB’S among them—gave their lives in a war zone that less than 1% of Americans have seen. And before I get attacked for my service, I wasn’t a FOBBIT. I lived on a PB and went out on foot patrol every day with an artillery unit tasked out as infantry. I made routine runs up and down Route Tampa, but I would never tell someone who never went outside the wire that they weren’t really a combat vet. My husband was a line medic. He lives every day with not only the effects of watching his brothers die, but being the one who wasn’t able to save them. He would never tell a FOBBIT that their service didn’t count as much as his, and a civilian has no place evaluating what someone did or did not do while they were deployed.
It’s Memorial Day Weekend. Like I said, only 0.5% of Americans have contributed to the wars of this last decade. 99.5% of the population has absolutely no idea what it is like to be over there. We shouldn’t be competing for honors or who has the right to claim PTSD and who doesn’t. I will be spending this Memorial Day Weekend remembering the soldiers I knew and who never got to come home with us, FOBBITS and DB’s alike. D__, I am truly sorry for what you’re going through. I know custody battles are ugly and vicious, and I have no doubt your son-in-law is the dirt bag you describe him to be, but his dishonorable discharge speaks for itself. Any commentary you have to add about his time in Iraq is just going to make you look bad, not him.”
If my descriptions of the fallen come off as overly vivid or blunt, it is not intended to disrespect or disparage the memory of these soldiers in any way. My vulgarity is intended only to emphasize the point that FOBBITS are sheltered from neither PTSD nor death itself. Surprisingly, the only response I’ve received so far is from the milispouse. To her credit, she didn’t reply, but she did “like” my comment, so I guess I managed to get my point across without offending the person I was addressing (this may be a first for me!)
I often think of Vietnam and World War II and I am in total awe of what those men endured. I simply can’t fathom it. I don’t understand how anyone, no matter how good a soldier, made it off the battlefield alive. Just knowing some of the fears and anxieties I experienced during my deployment, which was like a trip to Disneyland compared to the wars of previous generations, I cannot imagine going through that without being utterly gripped with fear. I am a religious woman, but I still have to wonder, how much of their fate was determined by dumb luck? If the veterans of my generation are engaged in a pissing contest, I’m pretty sure we all loose.
My grandfather was an E5 (sergeant) who served in Germany during World War II, but he never spoke of the war. My mother said he was the strangest man she ever met. Never really connecting the dots to his service, she thought he suffered from depression. He was very successful in life and his marriage, but he had no hobbies, no interests. He sat in his chair, and he went for long walks. He was good with small children and enjoyed his grandkids, right up until we got a little older and started to talk like little people. Then he kind of lost interest. I always thought the way my mother described him was strange. It never even occurred to me that he had PTSD until a few years ago when my brother said he thought grandpa was shell shocked. Now that I’m a veteran, it doesn’t seem strange at all. Now I understand. War takes something from those who survive it, and that hole cannot be filled, but only augmented with the memories of those who did not.
With one finger, I pushed around a bunch of cheap rings in my little jewelry box looking for something I wanted to wear, but none of them looked quite right. And that’s when the annoying, eerie feeling came over me again …
My whole life, I’ve worn silver. I was never a gold girl. I was one of those teenagers who had a ring on every finger. Cheap, artisan, hippy silver wrapped around some earth stone. Onyx, amethyst, amber—you get the idea. Except, none of the rings in my little box looked like that. They just looked like junky costume jewelry, and for a second, I got totally aggravated. When I left for Iraq, silver was still the cheap metal, and I had a fist full of rings. When I came back from Iraq, silver had skyrocketed right out of the artisan’s price range, and at the same time, my small collection of it had mysteriously disappeared.
I of course didn’t wear a bunch of rings on my fingers while I was deployed; I stuffed them into a bag and knew that they’d be one of those small comforts that would help me feel like a normal human being again when I came home. They were one of the first things I put on when I left on leave, and they went right back into the bag when I returned to my uniform and walked back onto the plane. I know I put them in a zippered pocket where I thought they’d be safe, and then I forgot about them for another eight months or so.
When it was time to pack up and go home for good, I tore apart every bag I owned looking for them, but they were gone. It’s possible they were stolen, but not likely. The best I can figure is that I probably lost them clearing customs when I had to dump everything out onto the table, right down to the lint in my pockets. I can’t imagine not paying special attention to the rings, and to this day, I still check in a pocket of a bag I think I might have missed the last 100 times or so I checked because I just can’t believe I would have lost them, but that’s the best guess I’ve got.
I wasn’t aggravated poking around my jewelry box, however, because I lost my rings. It’s true, I don’t even want to think about how much silver I’ve misplaced over my lifetime with silver trading at $35 an ounce right now, but that’s not why I was aggravated. I was aggravated because I couldn’t—still can’t—remember, for the life of me, what a single one of those rings looked like. I’m not even sure how many I had. Three, four maybe. Maybe more. It’s been that way with my memory ever since I’ve been back, which is particularly frustrating for me because I’ve always had a memory like an elephant. My friends used to call me the human tape recorder. They would call on me to settle arguments if I had been present for a conversation that was in dispute because I could reiterate to everyone concerned exactly what they said. Now my husband has to tell me what I said half the time.
I recently read in Scientific American that one of the fun consequences of extreme stress is that your brain turns to mush. Well, not the whole brain—just the more highly evolved frontal lobe. You know, the smart part of your brain. Made perfect sense to me. No matter how hard I wrack my noggin, I can’t remember what those damn rings looked like, and standing in front of my little jewelry box, trying to remember, that’s when the familiar eerie feeling washed away any anger or frustration I was experiencing and replaced it with a terribly unsettling question …
What if I never actually came back? Suddenly I felt like a ghost running over the same ground over and over again, looking for the locket her lover gave her, tearing through the same drawers over, and over, and over, looking for something that isn’t there, that she can’t quite remember how or where she lost it.
I used to get the feeling a lot right after we came home. My husband and I talked about it a few times. We moved into my parent’s house when I was 7 months pregnant with my son. My parents were still down in Florida for the winter, so we had the place to ourselves for the next couple months until the birth. I have no idea if the T.A.P.S. groupies would tell you that being pregnant somehow attracts paranormal activity or not, but I can tell you some strange things happened in the house in those few months.
There were your usual, run-of-the-mill, spooky moments, like when my sister brought her dog over, and he climbed up onto the couch and started sniffing the wall. A week later, my husband took a picture of me sitting on the same couch, and there were crazy broad streaks of discoloration on the wall behind me. Maybe not so spooky we had to move into a hotel, but spooky enough that I didn’t want to sit on that couch so much anymore.
Then there were the crazier events, like the giant crashing noise that woke us up out of a sound sleep in the middle of the night on more than one occasion. If you’ve ever seen Paranormal Activity, it was freaky close to that (and it was before the movie ever came out, so I can’t even blame it on the power of suggestion!) These were the types of events that gave the house that creepy, wintery, otherworld sort of feeling, especially in the middle of the night, and left my husband and I sometimes wondering, what if we never actually made it back?
I have to stop here because I feel so guilty sharing this experience. We, of course, did come back, and so many soldiers didn’t. We had friends who never got to come home with us. But writing has always been my release, and this feeling is so haunting, I feel compelled to write about it. We are so blessed that we not only made it home, but we made it back without any serious injuries to speak of. Still, when we first returned, in the creepy dark hours of that first winter, sometimes we weren’t so sure.
When we finally did talk to each other about these surreal moments in virtual purgatory, the next natural question to arise after, “What if we never actually made it back,” was “What really happened then?” If we were circling through my parent’s sad empty house together, like the undiscerning ghosts in The Others, then the logical assumption was that we went out together, but when? The answer to that question always brought me back to the same event …
The patrol base where I met my husband on most days had no running water. There was a shower closet that worked on and off, (more off than on), and portable hand washing stations, but that was it. We ate field chow out of a kitchen trailer, relieved ourselves in outhouses (not porta-potties—wooden outhouses), and brushed our teeth with bottled water. Seeing as I was the only female on the patrol base, even when the showers were working, I rarely got to use them, so most of the time I punched holes in the caps of water bottles and improvised.
The upside to this living situation was that once a week, every team got to go on refit. We got one day off to grab our laundry and drive up the highway to the nearest FOB (forward operating base), which happened to be another shithole, but it was a shithole with running water and laundry services. The food there wasn’t much better than the field chow, but the showers worked and there was no chance of being called out on an unexpected night mission.
There were empty tents with sleeping bag cots set aside for soldiers on refit. The same people generally took the same tents, and sense I was the only female tasked out to the unit, there was no female tent. Technically, I’m sure I was supposed to find a tent full of gals, but I always took a cot in the tent with my team. The general routine was drop the laundry, grab some chow, fund the insurgency by buying a cheap bootleg copy of an American film from the Haji mart, go back to the tent to watch said DVD on someone’s laptop, and try to ignore the moving shadow-head of the guy sitting in the row in front of the camera man.
One night I fell asleep curled up next to my husband. I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of mortar rounds. I awoke in half a daze, half a panic, and shook him hard.
“Doc! Wakeup! Incoming!”
He put his hand on my head and told me to go back to sleep.
“It’s outgoing,” he assured me. The tent was pitch black, and I wasn’t even entirely sure where I was. Was I on the PB? Back at my old FOB? On the refit FOB? Where had I fallen asleep?
“Are you sure?” I ask. “I didn’t think we were near the firing line.”
At my home-base (which I loved and actually began to think of as home by the time we left the country), I worked in a trailer that was on the edge of the FOB and butted up right next to the artillery firing line. When our guys shot outgoing mortars into the fields where their guys were setting up to fire at us, the kickback from the tanks would shake the whole trailer. Once the blast was so loud, I was certain it was incoming, and I ran right out of the can toward the bunker.
But at the refit FOB, the tent was no where near the firing line, or at least I didn’t think it was. The tent was in the middle of the FOB, and I never heard outgoing so loud that I mistook it for incoming. Still, the sleepy medic promised me,
“I’m sure. It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”
And so that’s what I did. I buried my head in the comfort of his chest and melted back into sleep.
Almost exactly one year later, now married and expecting, I looked at my husband one lonely evening and said,
“What if it wasn’t outgoing that night? What if it was incoming?”
It’s a funny thing. I can’t tell you what he said after that because no matter how hard I wrack my noggin, I just can’t remember.
Rockdale native Katherine Davis confessed, “I’ll admit being a spoiled brat in my younger days, but after high school I realized I needed to transform my life. After talking to recruiters I knew the toughest challenge would be the Marines.”
OnJune 06, 2005Davisboarded a Marine bus atFt.GillemforParris Island,SC.
“My mom cried,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘Katherine, what have you done, girl?’”
365 is a blog that honors vets and their stories. This is one story from a female Marine who served in Iraq. I had a similar experience with a little girl while out on patrol, and I totally agree it was the highlight of my service. In the Army, we didn’t cover our faces while serving in Iraq, but with all my gear on, my sunglasses and my helmet, the locals often just assumed I was a man! One day while out on patrol with my team, a little girl ran up to the medic behind me (who is now my husband), pointed at me and asked in broken English, “Girl? She girl?” My husband laughed and said yes, that is a girl, and the little girl followed us around the whole village for the rest of the day, staring and smiling in awe. That was by far one of the best memories I have of Iraq!
A fellow blogger recently asked me, through a comment on my About Me page, for my thoughts on a piece she wrote in 2010 about the U.S. Army’s stop loss policy. The following link is to the piece she asked me to comment on:
I am honored that anyone would ask for my feedback on the subject. I hope, however, she doesn’t regret asking! While I appreciate her effort, (and anyone in general who draws attention to the policy), I can’t say I entirely agree with the commentary. My thoughts on the subject follow …
Oh boy, where do I begin? First let me say thank you for contacting me and asking for my thoughts on the subject. All of the NCO’s (sergeants) in my platoon who I deployed with to Iraq were stop lossed and on their second tour. My husband was stop lossed for his second tour. When we came back from Iraq, and I became pregnant with my son, I basically had two choices: leave early or stay late. Either way, simply remaining active for the time I had initially signed up for was not an option. I had to choose between either exercising my legal right to chapter out of the Army before my son was born, or finishing my active enlistment period knowing I would be stop lossed and deployed again, this time with a newborn baby at home. I chose to end my contract early because I knew I was not as strong as the numerous women I deployed with who had to leave their babies home while they marched off to war. (If anyone has earned the title “Hero,” in my opinion, it is these women). I would have preferred to finish my time in, and I absolutely would have if it weren’t for the stop loss policy.
Having said all that, I have to respectfully disagree with the overall sentiment of your post. I agree stop loss is a bad policy. When it is implemented the way it was in my unit (which I’ll get to in a minute), in my opinion it’s wrong and an abuse of the clause. It’s terrible for morale, and it results in a lot of soldiers spending a tremendous amount of time and effort trying to figure out how to avoid it. But I do not agree it’s illegal. I can see how you could argue the point, as you did well, if you only look at that tiny section of the contract which you site. But as fullbasicload pointed out, there are many more pages to the contract, and in the course of those pages, it’s spelled out pretty clearly that ALL soldiers sign an eight year contract. Stop loss or no stop loss, you are subject to reactivation at ANY TIME during that eight year period. (The following About.com article touches on this a bit: http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/joiningup/a/recruiter4.htm).
It’s all there in black and white when you sign your contract, although fullbasicload is right when he explains that the soldier’s understanding of what that actually means is usually dramatically different from the reality. The way the contract reads implies that if there is some unexpected national emergency, like another attack on U.S. soil, you will be called back to service. The recruiter’s explanation of the contract reinforces this implied meaning; however, anyone who puts the slightest bit of effort into finding out more about making the biggest decision of their life, either through talking to other soldiers or vets, or even doing a basic Google search about joining the military, will find out instantly what everyone in the service knows all too well: Recruiters lie. Contracts don’t. It’s all right there in the contract, but whether it is right, wrong, illegal or just immoral, the way stop loss has been implemented is, in my opinion, a bad idea and an abuse of the clause.
In the 3rd Infantry Division (ironically the same division your infamous rapping soldier hails from), whether or not you can expect to be stop lossed is entirely dependent upon what date your ETS happens to fall on (End Term Service—end of the active portion of your contract, NOT the eight year period you committed to). In other words, it’s a total crap shoot, a luck of the draw, and on the surface appears to border on arbitrary. The 3rd Infantry Division does not implement stop loss as a rare measure reserved for emergency situations, but as a matter of policy for any soldier whose ETS happens to fall within 90 days of a deployment cycle. Since the division is what they call in the Army a “Rapid Deploying Unit,” which means it pretty much deploys every other year, there is a pretty good chance that your ETS will fall within this window, and you are going to get extended for another tour. This policy, incidentally, not only applies to getting out of the Army, but it also applies to unit transfers as well. This is the first thing a new soldier learns when he or she reports to the 3rd ID because it is just a fact of life for Dog Faced Soldiers.
What you have as a result is a bunch of soldiers trying to figure out how to get out of their second tour before they’ve even deployed for their first. This is horrible for morale. It fosters resentment, crushes loyalty, and makes for an awful lot of disgruntled soldiers. What most civilians don’t really realize when they thank a soldier for their service or their sacrifice is what that sacrifice is. A soldier—stop loss or no stop loss—willingly sacrifices his or her freedom in order to stand on call to protect yours. The key word here is willingly. Your contract makes that very clear before you sign, and so does anyone who knows anything about the military who you may talk to before joining. This isn’t because the military is mean or evil or doesn’t care about its soldiers. It is this way because it has to be, especially in a nation that doesn’t exercise the draft. It is this way because even the United States Constitution makes it very clear that national security trumps personal freedom, and having an Army staffed with individuals who could just go on strike or quit when they felt like it would be a grave threat to national security. Stop loss and the IRR recall, however, are the most extreme examples of how a soldier surrenders his or her freedom for eight years when they sign their contract, and the way it is implemented is often, in my humble opinion, an abuse of that contract.
That is not to say that there are no valid reasons for implementing the policy the way it has been. The 3rd Infantry Division cites “unit cohesion” for its justification of its stop loss policy. Units are given a certain number of slots for each job position. When a soldier is holding that slot, a new soldier will not be sent to fill the slot until that soldier leaves. Without stop loss, if you are a company commander and one-third of your company is scheduled to ETS about a month before you deploy, you will be going to war with one-third fewer soldiers than you should. When and if those soldiers are replaced, those replacements will be newcomers who haven’t trained with the rest of the soldiers in the unit or have in any way come to know each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and how they operate before entering a combat situation together. This is harmful to unit cohesion and dangerous for soldiers on the battlefield. Instead of revising the way soldiers are replaced in a unit (assuming that’s even possible with the number of soldiers the Army has to work with), it is more expedient and efficient for the military to simply stop loss all soldiers getting ready to leave.
I could go on and on about the complexities of this policy, valid reasons for why it is implemented, why I think it shouldn’t be implemented, alternative solutions, etc., but hopefully I’ve said enough to shed some light on the intricacies of the policy. As with most things in the Army that seem absolutely ludicrous from a civilian point-of-view, it is done the way it is for a reason—that’s not to say there isn’t a better way to do it, but the solution is almost never as cut and dry or obvious as it seems on the surface.
The devastating psychological outcome of stop loss and multiple tours definitely has a trickle down effect that is harmful to lower-enlisted soldiers who look at their leadership and think, “Is this what I have to look forward to? Is there really no end in site?” If I ever write a novel or a memoire of my time in service, stop loss will undoubtedly feature prominently throughout the book because it is unquestionably a dominant theme that characterizes in one way or another the service of every soldier stationed in a Rapid Deploying Unit (which is, in fact, a small percentage of the Army. While only about 1% of the population serves, the entire burden of both wars has been born mostly on the shoulders of a small percentage of that 1%). But again, as fullbasicload has pointed out, this is the consequence of an all-volunteer Army in a nation that doesn’t implement a draft. A huge factor in my decision to enlist when I did was that I don’t believe democracies should practice conscription, but in order to maintain an all volunteer Army, you need volunteers.
As for the private cited in the beginning of your post, I have to say that while to a civilian, a rap song may seem harmless, this is one of those situations that illuminates how military life and the civilian world are sometimes universes apart. You ask, “Ask a soldier what’s scarier: a couple of rhyming couplets, or redeployment to Iraq?” I would answer deploying to Iraq standing next to the guy who wrote the couplets. It is one thing to write a rap song about killing your chain of command, which in itself is subversion and deserving at the very least of harsh reprimand; it is an entirely different thing to send the lyrics of that song TO THE PENTAGON right before you are, in fact, about to be stop lossed. Any soldier who lives and breathes military life knows exactly what kind of repercussion will come following such a move—especially on the heels of the Fort Hood massacre—which indicates that the soldier who did that was either coming completely unhinged or is absolutely fucking retarded. Since the latter is highly unlikely given his time in service, anything less than the punishment he received would have been gravely irresponsible on the part of his chain of command.
I can’t stress this point enough. I know soldiers who were stationed at Fort Hood when one of the officers who was entrusted with their care and well being opened fire on them. That of course is the most well-known and extreme example of a soldier loosing his mind, but for soldiers who deploy, knowing that the soldier standing next to you with a loaded weapon could come unhinged at any time is a reality. All soldiers who have deployed know “that guy” who they wish the command would send home. When command does not send “that guy” home, that’s often when atrocities happen. I have personally been the target of a soldier’s loose grip on reality right before his weapon was taken away from him and he was sent home. As a soldier, you rely on your command to immediately identify and protect you from other soldiers who show any sign they might turn on you or are otherwise coming unglued. When you are dealing with an entire force of an unimaginably stressed and often disgruntled population armed with semi-automatic weapons, you don’t have the luxury of ignoring red flags, no matter how small, or dismissing any threat as artistic expression, trivial as it may seem to the civilian world. Even if you are correct, and it was a harmless expression of his disgruntlement, the difference is that as a civilian, you are not expected to know the repercussions of such actions, but as a soldier he has no excuse. He knew better. It is not the song lyrics that were the red flag—it is the fact that he completely disregarded the consequences of sending those lyrics TO THE PENTAGON.
Having said all that, I hope you don’t regret having asked for my opinion on the subject! As a veteran, I do appreciate any light that is shed on the stop loss policy. I believe it is harmful and destructive to soldiers and the military alike. When I was a soldier, I often said I wished the people who were putting their effort into protesting the war would direct their energy instead to the stop loss policy; however, I must tell you I don’t know too many soldiers who would not be offended by the comparison—well intended as it may be—of their service to a Nazi death camp. Most of the soldiers I served with knew full well what they were signing up for, and they were happy to do their part and serve their deployment. They were not devastated by the war; they were devastated by the never-ending prospect of it. But I do appreciate your interest in a subject most people have comfortably ignored for the duration of the war, and I thank you for doing your part to draw attention to it.
- An Ideal For Which I Am Prepared To Die (onlyspartanwomen.com)
- In Memory of SGT Mason Lee Lewis (onlyspartanwomen.com)
- OIF/OEF Retroactive Stop Loss Pay Deadline Extended (vabenefitblog.com)
SGT Mason L. Lewis
26 February 1981 – 16 November 2007
When I lived in NYC, I was always aggravated by the subway ads, not only because I was very cognizant of myself as a captive audience, unable to look away, but because my mild OCD made it impossible for me to not read every banner sign as I rocked along the dark corridor doing the daily grind. Instead of people watching, like most normal New Yorkers do to pass the time on the train, I tormented myself trying to figure out if I picked up any Spanish from years of reading bilingual poster ads.
Conspicuously absent on any given base in Iraq are advertisements. Sure, there are a few, but overall it’s nothing compared with what we are bombarded with here at home on a daily basis without even realizing it. On a FOB (forward operating base), there are no billboards, marquees, bus decals or those terribly annoying banner ads lining the ceiling of the subway. There really aren’t too many stores or restaurants with big flashy signs out front announcing their own presence. The only T.V. soldiers ever really get a chance to glimpse at is usually in the DFAC (dining facility), and soldiers are rarely there long enough to pay much attention to it. An American operating base in Iraq is remarkably free of corporate advertising.
What you do have, however, are equally annoying, good-old-fashioned, cork bulletin boards. You’re usually smacked in the face with one while standing outside the company office waiting to talk to 1st sergeant, or while hanging around some designated smoking area where someone took the time to build a really nice wooden gazebo next to one of those really aggravating boards. I say they’re aggravating because of that previously referenced OCD–the one that doesn’t let me walk past a sign without reading it–but also because there was almost never anything actually useful to the reader pinned to the board. It almost always served the needs of the individual who wrote the flier.
More specifically, the boards were generally used for warnings and to admonish disobedient soldiers who could not follow simple instructions. They almost looked like press releases complete with graphic and quite often disgusting photos that demonstrated the consequences of “doing your own thing” as it’s called in the Army. Sometimes I hoped that someone other than myself was reading certain signs, like the one that informed those in leadership positions that smoking soldiers (civilian translation: smoking is a form of physical punishment that usually involves some combination of push ups and sprinting like a jack rabbit) in full battle rattle (civ. trans: ceramic plated body armor vest weighing 20-50lbs depending on whether or not ammunition and other equipment was attached to it) in the middle of the desert on a 120 degree day was a BAD IDEA that could possibly lead to serious injury or death. I generally hoped someone other than myself read those announcements.
I did not care, however, to see the photo of the melted hand that some poor soldier ended up with after a firefight or some other kind of attack because he decided he wasn’t going to add gloves to the list of clothing items that made 120 degrees feel like 200 degrees in the middle of Hell on Earth. It generally irked me that someone felt this was an opportunity to warn soldiers that they should wear their standard issue gear while on mission, as if these kinds of grotesque wounds were simply the unfortunate result of a failure to follow instructions and weren’t somehow an expected consequence of war. I often suspected that the person who wrote the flier had himself (or herself) never actually been out on mission–or at least never stepped out of the vehicle–and would probably drop dead of shock if he had and learned that it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to not only remove their gloves on hot days, but also their Kevlar helmets and sometimes even–gasp–their bullet proof vests!
The soldier’s body armor embodies the trade offs of modern civilization that remind us for all our advancements in technology keeping us safer, healthier, and protected from the cruelties of nature, there is a price. At the time I was in the Army, it seemed like they came out with a new version of the vest every year. They were constantly striving to make it more protective while at the same time it needed to be lighter, more flexible, and less cumbersome. When I deployed, the latest modification was the under-arm plate added to protect the area of the body that had become the kill shot for snipers. It was the most vulnerable spot in the vest. When a soldier lifted his or her arms in any direction, a huge area of the body became exposed, opening up the heart and lungs to penetration. The plates that were inserted into the vest closed some of this gap, but they also added a few pounds to the weight. More importantly, they seriously inhibited movement. We looked like an Army of Pillsbury Dough Boys running around with our arms pushed out. The vest saved lives, no doubt. But it also hampered the soldier’s mobility, which was a danger in itself.
While removing the vest wasn’t necessarily unheard of, most soldiers wore their vests most of the time while out on mission. Like I said, there’s no question the vest saved lives, and as a result, it got worn. Getting used to the body armor can be one of the most difficult adjustments for a new soldier to make in preparation for deployment. Most soldiers go through basic and advanced training wearing a much lighter version of the ballistic vest. It’s generally not until you get to your unit do you start going to the firing range and doing field training exercises wearing full battle rattle in an effort to get used to its weight and awkwardness. I remember I used to feel like a modern day knight walking around in it because it seemed almost as ridiculous as a full suit of medieval armor. (For a female soldier, having to squat to pee in the thing when you’re nowhere near a porta-potty is a nightmare). The vest incredibly hampers the mobility of the soldier, at least until he or she gets used to moving in it.
It was about halfway through my deployment, before I met my husband, when one day I was standing outside the company, waiting to talk to 1st sergeant, that I read a flier I will never forget. The message was to be careful while wearing your vest. It warned soldiers that simple tasks like turning around can require a great deal of care and balance when wearing body armor. There was a picture of some kind of lift parked next to a building. The flier went on to explain that an American soldier who was on a mission to help train Iraqi soldiers fell off the lift and died. He was only two stories up, but he was crushed by the weight of his vest when he fell and later died from the internal bleeding it caused.
I didn’t know the soldier, but I can’t even explain the feeling that came over me when I read his story. I will never forget what I thought: to come all this way over here, for your family to be back home worrying every day that you’re going to get shot or blown up, and to die in an accident–to be killed by the very thing that is supposed to save your life–I couldn’t make sense of it. It just didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right. I know war generally isn’t fair or even right, but this just smacked of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. ”Died in a non-combat related training accident.” That’s how it’s listed in Honor the Fallen, the Military Times online database (http://militarytimes.com/valor/army-sgt-mason-l-lewis/3194071). It wasn’t just non-combat related–he was on a mission to help the Iraqis learn how to protect themselves so that we could go home and get out of their country.
I had no idea at the time I learned of SGT Mason L. Lewis’s death that I would someday have a son who’s middle name would be chosen after him. I had no idea because I had not yet met my husband, and all of my husband’s friends, to know that the death of Mason Lewis left a hole in all of them. On this last Wednesday, like every November 16th since I’ve met my husband, a series of phone calls and texts rang in a circle across the country, between a small group of young men, just to say we remember the day, we remember Mason, are you okay? Some of them wear tattoos that say “Strength and Honor” in memory of him. All of them need that phone call on that day.
When I was pregnant with my son and reading through baby books looking for names, I asked my husband if he liked the name Mason. That’s when I learned that the soldier whose death had touched me in such a distant way was much closer to my life than I realized. I never had the honor of meeting Mason, but when my husband told me how he died, I knew exactly who he was. I never forgot him because I was so shaken by the way he died, and while my heart went out to my husband for the loss of his friend, it brought me some kind of selfish comfort to know that my husband knew the soldier on the bulletin board. He wasn’t just the poor soldier who died so unfairly anymore. He was missed and remembered, and I had the honor of witnessing how his life continued to be celebrated by his friends who loved him.
Mason’s death is a story of tragic ironies, and I suppose it’s fitting that the week before the anniversary of his death, the news was abuzz with a certain constitutional law professor at Suffolk University in Massachusetts named Michael Avery. Professor Avery responded to his institution’s request for support in sending care packages to troops that it is “shameful” to support men and women “who have gone overseas to kill other human beings” (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-bloggers/2808535/posts). The most accurate response I have to that statement is this: Professor Avery is an idiot. That may sound like an understatement, and it may not be very eloquent, but it is profoundly accurate. Professor Avery is an idiot because he has absolutely no idea what deployed soldiers actually do. That part’s not his fault. Most civilians don’t know what a soldier’s mission is. But unlike most civilians, he thinks he does.
The reality is that the actual conventional war part of the Iraq war was over in less than 60 days. We declared war on a nation and its leader. We invaded said nation. We captured said leader. Every second we stayed beyond that point was in an effort to rebuild the country and not leave it in a shambles when we left. Every firefight and bomb dropped since then has been in support of that mission. Even if you’re an ill-informed conspiracy theorist who thinks our ulterior motive is oil, that doesn’t change the above listed facts. I don’t want to detract from Mason Lewis by making this entry political. The point I’m getting to is poignantly relative to his sacrifice. No matter how anyone feels about the reasons we went or why we’re there or how long we stayed, what everyone needs to understand before forming any strong opinions about the war or the soldiers fighting in Iraq is that our armed forces devote more troop strength, time, energy, and I suspect money to building schools, roads, hospitals, bridges, clean water supplies, and training the Iraqis to take care of themselves than we do killing “other human beings.”
But that’s not what made me want to throw up when I heard the news of Professor Avery. What made me want to vomit was that not only do our soldiers sacrifice precious time with their families and years of their lives to go overseas and try to train Iraqi soldiers what should be obvious things, like you can’t slaughter a village just because they aren’t the same sect of Islam as you, or even something as simple as how to detain someone without beating them senseless, but many of our soldiers give their lives in the service of that mission.
When I heard Professor Avery’s comment, I immediately thought of SGT Mason Lewis. There is a Facebook page called R.I.P. Mason Lee Lewis (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=6476283260&v=info). There is only one thing on it really. It’s a newspaper article about how some of his friends organized Operation Mason in honor of his memory after he died. The article explains how Mason frequently asked his mother to send him toys for the kids in Iraq. He was deeply troubled by how kids in Iraq often played with dangerous things like sharp metal cans. Operation Mason was organized in his honor to request toy donations for Iraqi children.
Mason Lee Lewis didn’t go overseas “to kill other human beings.” He didn’t go down in a blaze of glory or earn a posthumous medal for being brave in a firefight or even roll over an IED in his vehicle or loose his life in a rocket attack. He lost his life doing something infinitely more heroic. His family can truly, quite literally say that Mason Lee Lewis sacrificed his life trying to bring peace and freedom to a war torn country. Mason Lewis lost his life trying to teach Iraqis how to protect and take care of themselves, and that self-sufficiency is the most fundamental cornerstone–the very essence–of freedom. I don’t know how to do justice to or properly honor someone I never met, except to say that his life and his death have profound meaning for me without ever even having met him. I hope his message speaks to everyone who reads this. I know it speaks far louder than a piece of paper on a bulletin board ever could.
For the first time since my son was born, my husband and I had a playful round of combatives yesterday. I know that rolling around practicing choke holds is probably an unorthodox way for most married couples to bond, but for us, it has always been good quality time spent together. So what started as my husband giving me a hard time in the kitchen quickly ended up on the floor in the family room. My son—who has been rolling around with my husband pretty much since birth—quickly abandoned his Barney video in the other room and ran out to join us as soon as he saw what we were up to. We must have looked like a pretty funny stack of turtles on top of each other’s backs, with my husband on the bottom and my son on top. (I wasn’t quite sure if the baby thought he was helping me, or rescuing daddy).
I have spent the last three months lecturing my husband on how his rough housing—while playful—confuses our son, who has had some issues with aggressive behavior. He’s only two-and-a-half, so it’s hard to explain to him that it’s okay to run and charge after daddy when they’re playing but not okay to hit when he gets mad. But he was laughing so hard and was so happy to be wrestling with both daddy and mommy, that I had to eat my words just this once.
I grew up in a house full of rowdy boys and crazy tough tomboys, so much like my son, I was being tossed and tumbled and rolled around like a football before I learned to walk, or crawl for that matter. I’m an Italian-Irish American from New York with a family full of boxers. I even have an uncle who was a Golden Glove champion. So it’s no surprise that when I got to college, I became fairly active in Martial Arts. I studied Muay Thai kick boxing, Thai Chi, and I picked up a little Akido here and there. My husband was a wrestler in high school. He’s a farm boy from Iowa. At some point when we were still wearing uniforms in Iraq, he discovered if he playfully pushed or pulled a little too hard, I would push or pull back, and that’s when our unusual habit of practicing combatives together began.
Comabtives training was always my favorite part of the Army. For the civilians who read this blog, you could say that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is pretty much the civilian version of combatives, although machismo arguments are made on both sides claiming one is better or tougher than the other. Combatives training Level 1 teaches soldiers basic grappling techniques. It’s basically wrestling. It’s not very lady like. In fact, when I was a civilian studying kick boxing, the dojo I went to held a grappling class for the men. When I asked the instructor if women could participate, he seemed kinda horrified by the idea.
Even as a civilian, I was very aware that if a person is violently assaulted, the conflict usually ends up on the ground, and the best grappler is generally the one who gets to walk away alive. As a female who was raised by very protective men who believed it was important I knew how defend myself, I was always looking for ways to improve my ability to do so. But my kick boxing instructor, who thought it was perfectly acceptable for women to don head gear and punch each other full force in the face, drew the line at rolling around on the ground where there may be a possibility of ending up in some awkward positions. At the time, I felt a little embarrassed for asking, so I just let it go.
There is no question that men and women grappling together can be awkward. I felt sorry for some of my fellow male soldiers who were clearly uncomfortable practicing combatives with women. But most listened pretty well to the drill sergeants and instructors who explained that if they felt awkward, they should think about how what they were doing could save our lives one day, and they’d be doing us no favors by taking it easy on us. Sometimes I think my husband listened a little too well. After the first time I choked him out (again for the civilians—a practice where you get your opponent in a headlock and he has to tap before he passes out to let you know that you won that round), he never took it easy on me again.
Notice how I said yesterday was the first time we practiced combatives since my son was born, and not since I was pregnant. I was still in the Army when I became pregnant with my son, and the Army has a way of teaching soldiers to ignore obvious physical conditions. For example, pregnant soldiers still wake up at the crack of dawn, morning sickness and all, and put on their PT’s to go work out. You do get to go to a special class with all the other sick, vomiting pregnant women, but you better believe there’s no getting out of PT in the Army. And I wasn’t off the hook with my husband either. I still had to defend against an occasional unexpected assault every once in a while, and for that reason, my poor son never stood a chance of coming out a passive boy.
After I had the baby, I put my foot down on the combatives for obvious reasons, but there was more than just being a new mom going on too. I spent pretty much my entire time in the Army with stress fractures in both legs, and towards the end of my term, two herniated disks in my lower back. The weight of my pregnancy (I gained a whopping 70lbs!) did nothing to help the healing process of these conditions, so even after the baby was born, I was still struggling to recover. At the same time, I was looking at opportunities in law enforcement which required I met certain physical standards. When the baby was about 6 months old, I started a very rigorous regimen that consisted of about 4 hours of physical therapy exercises a day, two visits a week to the chiropractor, and a pretty easy going aerobic exercise program in an attempt to get up and running again, literally. After about another six months of this routine, and pretty pathetic progress on the running end, the only result I got from my efforts was that I completely blew out my already damaged feet.
My bunion on my right foot became so large and enflamed, I couldn’t even wear sneakers without being in pain. My arch was so collapsed that not only did I have bunion surgery, but the surgeon fused the joint in my arch with a big metal plate to give the foot some stability. So I’ve spent the better half of this year with a walking cast on one foot or the other. Three foot surgeries later, and I’m finally starting to feel like a normal human being again.
I know some part of my husband has deeply missed the spunky wife he married, and I’ve felt bad on many occasions when I pushed him away because the constant pain had simply taken all the playfulness right out of me. So yesterday, when for the first time in almost three years I felt a twinge of spunk, I had to roll with it. While I know that—God forbid—if the mailman or someone had come to the door and seen one of us with our arms wrapped around the other’s neck, they probably would have called the cops on us, but for me, the joy of being able to roll around on the ground with my husband without having to worry about snapping my back in half was worth a thousand candle lit dinners.
- Mixed Martial Arts Links (10-8-11) (unlimitedfightnews.com)
- Fundamental, Technical And Foundational Martial Art Techniques (Essential Tools And Basic Core Knowledge) (Introduction) (Part 1) (paradoxparables.wordpress.com)
- Continuing A Theme (godfamilycountrylove.wordpress.com)
- America’s anomaly: The place where war is a constant (cnn.com)
The photographer captured some great shots here of female soldiers on the PB and outside the wire: