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Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

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Our Site. Your Stories.


"Anything that's human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone."

- Fred Rogers

LEARNING TO LISTEN ON DENALI

"It's the prostitution of experience, man," Roger liked to say. He’d go on about how so many vets can't stop posturing and letting the world know that they really were in the shit, as if their characters couldn’t speak for themselves.

Read Pat's Story.


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LOSING THE FEAR THAT HE ABANDONED HIS MEN

He told me how he felt his heart drop when he heard what some of the other guys had said about thinking he’d quit.

Read David's Story.


SUNFLOWERS AND STEEL RAIN

It felt menacing: the head looming down, the wide petal-fringed face contorted into a cruel smile. I couldn’t shake the association. It frustrated me that a once-cheerful flower had come to mean something so dark.

Read Elizabeth's Story.


IN THE ABSENCE OF TRUST AND CONFIDENCE

He lost respect, trust, and confidence in his Marine leaders. William Gehrung describes the misdiagnoses and maltreatment of injuries in the military.

Read William's Story.


THE QUANDARY OF PERCEPTION VERSUS REALITY

The women couldn’t tell anyone else or risk all of us getting a bad reputation. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t let those onboard the ship dictate what I could or couldn’t do.

Read Tenley's Story.


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Nothing prepares you for war

About halfway through deployment the Taliban delivered a memo to the village saying they would begin attacking the Americans and that the locals ought to leave. A few weeks later Katyusha rockets began raining down.

Read Noah's Story.


The Day I Held My Fire

Then, the JTAC said this on the radio: “The air’s got cold feet.”

Maybe it was impossible for me to understand a soldier’s mindset from an air-conditioned cockpit.

Read Eric's Story.


When Tearful Goodbyes Were Foreign

New Marines were being made on the other side of that fence. On this side, I held my DD-214 and headed home for good.

Read Robert's Story.


SERVICE, SEXUALITY, AND STEREOTYPES OF A FEMALE VETERAN

She faced discrimination then, and she can handle the presumptions now. She is proud of her service, and doesn’t regret it, regardless of the invisible injuries it caused.

Read Tenley's Story.


guns, booze, and suicide:
How 'stupid' saved a life.

He feels guilty sometimes too about some of what he did and saw, but unless he’s had a drink or two, he doesn’t talk about that stuff.

Read David's Story.


Remembering 9/11.
15 Years Later.

We asked active duty service members, civilians, and veterans to write about 9/11 and how it has changed their lives.

These are their stories.


My Afghan Friend Could Be Murdered Soon

He quietly departed his village alone and traveled to Kabul, where he began sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment. Without a job, he couldn’t afford to bring his wife and daughter with him, so they remained with Zabi’s father, who swore to protect them.

Read About Zabi.


Losing sense of self One Suicide At A Time

Damn the terrorist groups. And damn the suburbanites back home and their parades of glitter, as if glitter could fill the holes in us or mend the gaps in our platoons when we died in the war, or now, back here, when we died at home.

Read Gerardo's Story.


The Redemptive Power Of Lying

Coming home in itself can be retraumatizing. Veterans tell their loved ones massaged truths about what they’ve been through and who they’ve become, as they struggle to find out themselves.

Read David's Story


Relics Of War And The Stories They Share

The As military kids, they've endured moves every few years and experienced me leaving for long periods. They've visited countless battlefields, monuments, and war museums. We've been at war for their entire lives. 

Read Brandon's Story
 



My Religion Of Death And Praying To Kill

The Marine Corps taught me that despair and violence was renewing. In boot camp I shouted "kill" 100 times a day, and went to two church services back-to-back on Sundays. I prayed to kill. It would mark me, and yes, I believed, it would save me. 
Read Peter's Story


The afghan girls I couldn't save

The reality, I think, is that I made no difference at all. They were never going to understand American-style policing. As long as the Afghans thought it was OK to treat women like property, like killing a woman was equivalent to killing a goat, then they were never going to understand higher-level concepts like voting, or free speech, or feminism. 

Read Tim's Story.



BECOMING A VETERAN WITHOUT WAR

To me, "veteran" was synonymous with "warrior." 

  And the warless, like me, are not. But the idea that only warriors or those directly affected by war in obvious ways can speak to war's effects with authority isn't true.

Read Nate's Story.


A WAR THAT BEGAN AS CHILDREN

Wars were small, quick affairs involving special operators, U.N. peacekeepers and long-range bombers.  A decade later, I found myself going back and forth with an antiwar protestor after covering a rally at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for the student newspaper. I was learning an early lesson in journalism: admit personal views at your own risk.

Read Derrick and Ian's Story.



The man with half A head

The man with half a head had a wife and two sweet little children. The children were playing on the floor of his hospital room while his wife looked out the window. She didn’t say anything when I rearranged his pillow, or even when I left the room.
Read more.


YEARS LATER, LOSS AT WAR RESONATES AT HOME

“I hate war,” he said.  “I don’t have my dad.” Anthony’s father was killed in Afghanistan five years ago. Anthony is now eight.

Read his story.


A CENTURIES-LONG BATTLE TO SOLVE THE AMBIGUITY OF WAR

by Natalie Schachar and Thomas J. Brennan

What do war crimes, Sun Tzu, General James N. Mattis, and Enhanced Interrogation have in common?
Read and find out.

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His Torch Beckoned Like a Searchlight


Ryan Mallek jumped at every chance to leave the wire. One night during a welding assignment in Fallujah changed that.

His Torch Beckoned Like a Searchlight


Ryan Mallek jumped at every chance to leave the wire. One night during a welding assignment in Fallujah changed that.

By Ryan Mallek

Sitting in the back of a seven-ton truck, Stewart and I crept our way out of the main gate. This was his first time outside the wire and Stewart watched through the small gap between the armor plates as we left the base. I sat back with a cigarette, enjoying his excitement. I'd only been outside the wire a couple times myself. We were welders, so we weren't needed often off base. My first tour had been a bore. I had volunteered for this tour and promised myself I’d go outside the wire every chance I got. We picked up speed as our convoy sped toward the city.

Our conversation stopped as we approached the city of Fallujah. Old busted down cars and trash littered both sides of the road. The one-story tan buildings showed countless scars from bullets. Diesel exhaust mixed with the smell of sewage. Trash and burnt out cars multiplied as our convoy trekked deeper into the city. My gut tightened as the traffic and the civilians on foot engulfed our convoy. We inched closer and closer to downtown and the police station.

This photograph was taken just after Mallek got off the bus in North Carolina, coming home from Fallujah. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

This photograph was taken just after Mallek got off the bus in North Carolina, coming home from Fallujah. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

I had never been inside an Iraqi city and a ball of fear swell up in my throat as I thought about how easy it would be for one of the cars or people to detonate an IED. Our convoy slowed to a crawl as we swerved around the multiple barriers leading up to the main gate of the Fallujah police station. A dirty looking grunt waved us in. His uniform was outlined with white crusty lines where his sweat had soaked through.

Concrete barriers surrounded the compound, with trash, twisted metal and sand piled beside them. The compound itself was large, two or three football fields wide and five long. The place was a flurry of activity. Our convoy stopped and we jumped out.

“Corporal Mallek!” CWO3 Smith said with a smile as he put his hand out. CWO3 Smith was a part of our company during training in Twentynine Palms, California. He was laid back, prior enlisted so he wasn’t all motivated and dumb like most officers.

“We’ve needed some welders out here for weeks. The fuck took you so long?”

The barracks, if you could call it that, was about a five-story concrete building that looked like it had been through hell and back, bullet holes and scars everywhere. Guys had rigged rundown air-conditioning units in the windows, supported with lumber and wires. Green cots were packed into every available inch, all surrounded by dirt, crusty socks, and MRE trash. Body odor many weeks past due filled the air.

We dropped our day packs and headed outside. Dusk had settled, and the air no longer felt like a hair dryer. CWO3 Smith talked as we walked.

“We only work nights here, 1800 to 0600. Sniper threat is high with the tall buildings. All the heavy equipment operators use night vision goggles. Don’t use anything but your red lenses on your moon beams. We’re blackout at night. The sewer floods the compound every evening about 1900 hours. Don’t walk through it, you’ll catch something.” We rounded some barriers and found ourselves in a corner of the compound. Piled high in a twisted heap about 20 feet wide were fence posts. “See all these Texas barriers surrounding the compound?” CWO3 Smith continued. “I need a way to hold two layers of razor wire on top of em. We’ve had a few brave bastards try and crawl over top.”

Mallek stands in the middle wearing a welding hood. This was our entire shop from Fallujah. Stewart is on the far left of the frame. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

Mallek stands in the middle wearing a welding hood. This was our entire shop from Fallujah. Stewart is on the far left of the frame. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

“Sounds good, sir.” He turned to walk away. “I’ll keep you updated on our progress.” Smith gave me a thumbs up without turning around. I looked at Stewart. His forehead was scrunched up.

“That’s a fuck ton of posts,” Stewart replied.

“We just need something simple to support it.” I said as I loosened my flak jacket.

We’re gonna be here awhile, I thought to myself.

“Kinda dumb to have a torch and welder fired up in the middle of the night with sniper threats,” Stewart said.

He had a point. It’d be like we were standing there with a searchlight. That blue light could be seen for miles.

“We’ll be fine,” though I wasn’t sure if I believed myself.

Stewart started cutting and I started welding the twelve-inch piece in between the posts. We worked all night, until the first light of dawn.

“Twenty eight,” I said, counting the completed H shapes.

“That ain’t much,” Stewart replied. He took the words right out of my mouth.

Mallek, wearing a green shirt, crouches in the middle of the frame. Stewart stands on the left. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

Mallek, wearing a green shirt, crouches in the middle of the frame. Stewart stands on the left. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

“Let’s head in and grab some chow and shut eye,” I said as Stewart shut down the MCTWS. We grabbed our rifles and started the long walk back to the barracks. The sewage pooled in a low area of the compound. The stench was beyond words. Back inside the barracks, we took off our flak jackets for the first time since the afternoon the day before. The feeling of weightlessness and freedom was rejuvenating. I peeled off my boots and lay back on my dusty cot. Grunts were mumbling softly and munching on MRE’s. The haggard air conditioners hummed as they fought a losing battle against the heat. I could feel my sweat soak into my cot as I dozed off.

1830 came all too soon, and Stewart and I headed back out towards our little work area. The same frenzy of activity covered the compound as machines rumbled and Marines scurried. All this for a police station, I thought to myself. But the station had been hit with vehicle-borne IEDs and suicide bombers one too many times.

The days began to run together. Wake up around 1500, eat, shit, bullshit. Head to the work area about 1845; avoid the sewage, but still puddle through it. Fire up the MCTWS, cut, bend, weld, pile. The heat was unbearable. Other Marines bitched about it, but no one had it worse than us, the welders. Wearing full combat gear, we worked with open flame, burning metal all night. My boots would be soaked through with perspiration. Some nights I wouldn’t even pee after drinking gallons of water. Stewart worked hard. We both did. The one week we were supposed to be there turned into three and a half.

Then one night everything changed.

“MALLEK!” Stewart screamed, trying to overpower the noise of the MCTWS. I didn’t hear him.

“MALLEK!” He shouted again, this time louder. I still didn’t respond—in the middle of laying a weld. I felt Stewart grab the back of my flak jacket and jerk me back as hard as he could.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled back, angered at how violently he’d pulled me.

“Your shadow just took a round, you dumbass!” Stewart shouted in a voice of concern I’d never heard.

“WHAT!?”

“Your shadow just took a round, dude! As you were welding, I seen dust fly up twice, hitting your shadow.”

“You mean I almost just got shot?” I shouted.

“Yeah, twice!”

“Fuck, get over here.” I ripped off my welding hood and got behind the tire of the MCTWS. Stewart stayed low and took cover next to me. Suddenly, I felt alone, yet surrounded. The welder’s bright blue light had given away our position for weeks and finally the threat of snipers had become real.

“Did you see where it came from?” I asked. I held my M4 in a death grip.

“No, didn’t even look. I just seen the dust kick up and grabbed your ass.” We were all alone. Nobody could hear us.

“Let’s just sit here for now.” I felt almost as helpless as I did vulnerable. Squinting in the dark I could only see the outlines of the tall buildings surrounding us. The sniper could have been in any one of the thousands of windows facing our weld shop.

Stewart and Mallek sit next to the man holding computer. Photography taken in weld shop office in Fallujah. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

Stewart and Mallek sit next to the man holding computer. Photography taken in weld shop office in Fallujah. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

It was only midnight. Stewart and I sat there in silence until 0430 rolled around. It was the longest four and a half hours of my life. Every twitch or odd sound made me tense up. For the first time, I truly considered death. I thought about how my family would react. I imagined my own funeral, the 21-gun salute. The reading of the “heroic action” report. Being shot in Iraq while welding fence posts was not how I’d imagined I would die, and it was surely unheroic. I thought about how dumb I was for welding in the middle of the night. I remembered Stewart’s comment when we first got there. I hated myself for putting us both in danger. As an NCO, Stewart was my responsibility. Tears welled up as I thought about what I would do if Stewart was shot because of my recklessness.

Just before dawn, we moved. “Stay low, let’s get to the barracks as fast as possible.” Stewart followed without saying a word. We bounced from cover to cover hiding behind anything solid as we made the 400-yard trek back to the barracks. We sloshed through the pooled sewage, not caring about the risk. We finally made it back and found CWO3 Smith.

Mallek poses with his father and his grandparents. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

Mallek poses with his father and his grandparents. Courtesy: Ryan Mallek

“My shadow took sniper fire last night, sir.”

“What?” He responded sharply.

“While I was welding last night, Stewart said he seen two rounds impact the dirt right next to me.”

"My God,” CWO3 Smith replied, “you two won’t be welding at night from now on.”

I walked back to my rack, pulled off my flak jacket, and sat down. The stench of my own body made my eyes water. The week’s worth of clothes I’d packed had long since been used up. I wanted a shower so badly I could feel it in my soul. For the past three and a half weeks Stewart and I had shit in bags, not showered, and reworn our stiff, crusty clothes so many times they almost stood up on their own. We had made 738 H holders for the razor wire. CWO3 Smith wanted 1,000. That evening he sent us back to base, saying we could finish the rest at the shop and have them trucked out. We rode back in silence. We didn’t look between the armor; we both had become calloused.

Back in the barracks, I ripped off my clothes and threw them into the trash. I sat in the shower for 40 minutes, maybe more. I didn’t care about using all the hot water. I shaved and gave myself a buzz cut. I stared at my reflection. Only five more months, I thought. Five more months of Iraq. Then home, then discharge. No more Marine Corps. I felt the fear of death for the first time that day; sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.

***

Ryan Mallek was born and raised on a dairy farm in Junction City, WI in 1986. Three weeks after graduating high school in 2004, Mallek was in boot camp in San Diego, Calif. First duty station was Camp Lejeune, N.C., attached to Second Maintenance Battalion. During his first tour in Iraq, Mallek was stationed in Al Taqqadum, Iraq with Combat Logistics Battalion. During his second tour Mallek was attached to Combat Logistics Battalion 6 in Fallujah, Iraq. 

Since being honorably discharged in July 2008 Mallek has been a pursuing a B.S. in Philosophy and a creative writing minor. He's also worked as a welder, on a beef farm, in the oilfields of North Dakota, and as a Harley Davidson salesman. 

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How One Man Found Peace in Free Fall


BASE jumping helped Brian Donnelly release anxiety and reset during his Army career. But if he talked openly about it, he risked everything.

How One Man Found Peace in Free Fall


BASE jumping helped Brian Donnelly release anxiety and reset during his Army career. But if he talked openly about it, he risked everything.

By Brian Donnelly

Nobody in my unit knew I was there. I think I told a random captain I was going to Munich, but that was a good three hours north of Arco, Italy and the cliff where I stood. Work was the furthest thing from my mind as I triple-checked my parachute and zipped up my wingsuit. My heart raced, and my knees started to shake. Conditions were perfect, and the morning sunrise lighting up the valley calmed my nerves a bit. I peered over the edge into 1,200 feet of empty space leading to a steep, boulder-ridden talus for my first experiment in human flight. My mind grew quiet as I pushed off the rock.

I decided I wanted to apply to West Point at a young age for pretty Standard reasons: to escape a “normal” life, to serve my country, and to help solve a few of the world’s problems. From childhood, I’d felt a strong desire to push beyond all conventional limitations in mind, body, and spirit. Military experience felt like a solid first step in that direction, at least for an 18-year-old from a small town who was getting tired of being one of the most driven guys in the room. Getting into West Point felt like being granted parole from that life. There were two major wars going on at the time, so that added motivation.

Donnelly (pictured here) after his last jump at West Point with some of his best friends. May 2009. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Donnelly (pictured here) after his last jump at West Point with some of his best friends. May 2009. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

After a few months at the Academy though, I began to feel as though I’d been paroled from one institution only to fall into another. There were good people around, but everyone was too busy being busy. I needed something else if I could expect to survive 47 months with any degree of sanity. And then, one Saturday morning, I watched the parachute team doing practice jumps onto the parade field and decided to try out. Scenic jump runs over West Point and the Hudson Highlands kept my sanity in check. I found tranquility those afternoons, watching our UH-1H Huey helicopter fall farther away as I performed my characteristic slow backflip 4,000 feet above one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

I loved the feeling of flying but needed to do it in its purest form. Skydiving was always a stepping stone for me; BASE jumping was the goal. It is a sport with no rules beyond the laws of physics, a perfect balance to my military career where adherence to regulations governed every aspect of life. I made my first BASE jump off a bridge near Millau, France over Spring Break 2008 and was hooked. It was skydiving distilled to the bare essentials, the Bacardi 151 of extreme sports, a 150-proof mix of fear and adrenaline. The difference between life, extreme pain, or death can be a measured in fractions of a second and separated only by judgement, skill, and a bit of luck.

Pushing off the edge at a building event in Sibu, Malaysia while on terminal leave.  The event included 100 jumpers from over 20 countries. September 2016. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Pushing off the edge at a building event in Sibu, Malaysia while on terminal leave.  The event included 100 jumpers from over 20 countries. September 2016. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Standing on top of a fixed object, judging winds, locating landing obstacles, and planning contingencies while every emotion I’d repressed for the past week was flushed out by raw fear, my life was completely my own. It was not an addiction, but a constant calling.

I was taking a risk BASE jumping as a cadet at the Academy. If I was seriously injured or arrested, I’d likely be kicked out, owe the U.S. government a lot of money or time, and lose all chance of becoming an officer. I strove to be perfect, leaving little to chance. I kept my BASE jumping quiet, though not covert.

Donnelly found BASE jumping to be a release from the constraints of his Army work. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Donnelly found BASE jumping to be a release from the constraints of his Army work. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

My first wingsuit BASE jump in Arco had special significance. A little less than a year earlier, a close friend had died on his first wingsuit BASE jump, the first of many jumpers I’ve known who’ve lost their lives. But my jumps that day were successful and helped clear my head as I prepared for the challenges ahead. Three days later, I was on a plane bound for Romania to pick up my first infantry platoon for the final days of their training exercise. I spent most of my time in Romania trying to look like I had some idea of what I was doing. The butter bar on my chest quickly gave it all away, but at least I had a Ranger Tab, which provided some degree of respect in a combat unit.

At work, I often felt like a glorified babysitter for a platoon of people who were, on average, three to five years older than me, but who still made adolescent mistakes. BASE jumping helped me focus though, to make clear-headed decisions in life-or-death-or-jail situations, and sift through the noise when weighing tough choices. The quiet competence I learned to value from my sport always made me good at my job. I had some promising soldiers, but the organization was exhausted from multiple rotations and it was hard work stitching together a unit that I could confidently call combat effective and able to perform under pressure.

Stepping off the edge in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Donnelly considers it his second home. Winter 2010. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Stepping off the edge in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Donnelly considers it his second home. Winter 2010. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Every long weekend, after telling my guys not to drink and drive, cheat on their wives, smoke weed, fight cops, or marry strippers, I escaped to the mountains and hit the reset button. A day of flying through my favorite Swiss valley with friends from all over the world, before hitting the Horner Pub and sharing a few pints and life stories always put work stress back into perspective.

I managed my dueling identities as well as I could. Still I never felt like I fit in with either tribe. I had developed an acceptance of life’s fragility from two communities where people die from small mistakes and unfortunate circumstances, and I occasionally joked that I wasn’t sure I’d live to 30. But I was never the live-for-the-moment type that I tended to meet at BASE jumper bars.

I also found it increasingly difficult to follow a career path in the Army. While I had originally joined expecting to push my limits, I ultimately felt constrained as a junior officer. The Army is a time intensive job, and while I fully accepted the commitment, I didn’t feel like I was being personally fulfilled from it. As I moved on from being a platoon leader, I found it increasingly difficult to sit behind a desk and do administrative and planning work. After sneaking past security onto a construction site with friends in the middle of the night, waiting 30 minutes at the top of the scaffolding 180 feet above the tiny landing area to get comfortable with the winds, exhaling fear, and executing a flawless jump and egress plan, the font size on a PowerPoint slide couldn’t have felt more meaningless.

The Eiger in Switzerland feels like being on the top of the world. It was one of those dream jumps Donnelly made in 2012 before he stopped wingsuit BASE jumping. Unfortunately, another jumper died in a nearby valley on that same day. Summer 2012. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

The Eiger in Switzerland feels like being on the top of the world. It was one of those dream jumps Donnelly made in 2012 before he stopped wingsuit BASE jumping. Unfortunately, another jumper died in a nearby valley on that same day. Summer 2012. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

My outlook on BASE jumping started to change though in July 2012. I was on post-deployment leave after a rotation in Afghanistan and eager to spend time in the mountains. I made some dream jumps that summer, but it was a moment sitting down at the Horner Pub with a good friend that sticks out in my mind. The bartender poured each of us three shots of bourbon, one for each wingsuit BASE jumper who had died in the mountains the week before. The simple gesture and our jumps the next day are standard practice for paying respects in the sport. There is nothing in this world like curling you toes over the edge of a railing or piece of rock, but the sport was never worth dying for. I made my last wingsuit jump that summer. The risks in wingsuiting were too high; I’ve known too many jumpers who’ve died.

Selfies were required after most jumps in Malaysia. It was a perfect way to unwind from an Army career. September 2016. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

Selfies were required after most jumps in Malaysia. It was a perfect way to unwind from an Army career. September 2016. Courtesy: Brian Donnelly

My military career was also changing as I quickly moved to Fort Bragg for Civil Affairs. The job was challenging and helped fill the void that wingsuiting had left, but after a few years my career followed a familiar pattern. I again felt constrained, underutilized, and unable to have the long-term effect I wanted on the mission or organization. I knew it was time to leave.

BASE jumping always provided me with release when I needed it, and I have found ways of adjusting how I approach jumping as my life and career have evolved. Hitting the reset button one more time, I attended an international BASE jumping event in Malaysia in September 2016, while on terminal leave from the Army and just before my 30th birthday. There was no better way to prepare for my next adventure. 

***

Brian Donnelly is a former Army Infantry and Civil Affairs Officer who has accumulated over 400 BASE jumps all over the world. He holds a B.S. from West Point, an M.P.A. from Bowie State University, and is currently working on a PhD in International Relations while planning his next adventure.

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You Don’t Know, and I Don’t Wanna Tell Ya


Civilians are always asking what war is like. Dustin Jones wonders what to tell them about his deployment, or if he even should. 

You Don’t Know, and I Don’t Wanna Tell Ya


Civilians are always asking what war is like. Dustin Jones wonders what to tell them about his deployment, or if he even should. 

By Dustin Jones

A friend of mine, a Marine from my unit, killed himself in the parking lot of a restaurant in 2013. Two weeks before Christmas. He shot himself in the chest while his sister was in the building checking their availability for a table of four. He shot himself while sitting next to his girlfriend in the backseat. His sister's boyfriend was perched up front awaiting her return. Nobody saw it coming.

A shot of whiskey is set aside for Lance Corporal Noah Pier, killed in action in Nawa, Afghanistan 02/16/2010. On the anniversary of the death of a friend, Marines often times leave a drink out with the fallen service member’s name and details. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

A shot of whiskey is set aside for Lance Corporal Noah Pier, killed in action in Nawa, Afghanistan 02/16/2010. On the anniversary of the death of a friend, Marines often times leave a drink out with the fallen service member’s name and details. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

Fifty Marines showed up to send our brother into the afterlife and to show the family support. We were hurting, but we couldn’t imagine what the family was going through. We drank before the funeral. We drank after the funeral. For about 12 hours. Around 5 in the morning I found myself sitting across the table from my friend’s mother, her life newly in shambles, telling her stories about her son. A few smiles crept out from everyone sitting around us, accompanied by a laugh or two, then an awkward pause. His mother looked down at the table for a moment and then raised her head; our eyes met. We sat in silence for what felt like minutes. “What did you all see over there that would make him do something like this?” she asked. I bowed my head and stared down at the table. I didn’t have a response.

I enlisted in 2006 into the delayed entry program, a program designed to give an enlistee up to one year to prepare for the rigors of boot camp, with a Marine infantry contract. I left for boot camp in July 2007 and graduated that October. In the last days of basic training, the drill instructors focused more on mental conditioning. There was nothing left that could prepare us physically.

I remember sitting on the floor with the rest of my platoon, eagerly listening to our drill instructors. They were speaking to us as Marines now, as human beings, no longer as recruits. “There are some people who won’t agree with what you are doing,” our drill instructor told us. “There are many who cannot, and will not, understand. Most of you will find yourselves overseas, and when you come home, people will have questions. It’s up to you what you decide to share with them.”

A crowded street in Iraq where Marines often patrolled. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

A crowded street in Iraq where Marines often patrolled. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

At the time I didn’t know, nor could I know, what he meant. I assumed he was being literal: Talk to them, or don’t, easy. It wasn’t until almost three years later that I was able to put his advice into practical application, after returning from my second deployment.

Not much happened on my first deployment to Iraq. We spent the standard seven months overseas. We took one casualty, and the loss of that particular individual would continue to hurt throughout the years, but by all relative standards, we were lucky.

My second deployment was different. We received fire most days and walked over IEDs that had dead batteries or faulty wiring. When we left Afghanistan, five Marines and one journalist had been killed in action. After that deployment, we continued to lose guys to overdoses, suicides, and deaths without any official ruling. This deployment was what the drill instructor had referenced. What, I wondered, would I tell everyone back home?

While deployed, I’d had occasional use of a satellite phone. Other than letters that came and went at whatever pace God saw fit, I would try and squeeze in a 10-minute phone call with my parents every week or two. When I spoke to them I would lie, outright, and tell them that patrols were boring and things were pretty safe. I felt that I was protecting them by sparing them the details.

I left the Marines in 2011 to give college a chance. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had landed in one of the most liberal cities in the country. The city claimed to be full of progressive individuals and self-proclaimed subject-matter experts. The women there were almost too attractive to wrap your head around, and many students had a monthly substance/drug budget larger than what I spent on rent.

At parties and social gatherings the inevitable question of whether or not I’d killed someone would come up, typically from a guy—fueled by alcohol, bravado, or sheer ignorance. I would examine him—sometimes her—to determine what words to use, but my response was almost always the same. I would laugh and say, “You don’t wanna know, and I don’t wanna tell you.”

Members of  Bravo Company 1st Battalion 3rd Marines on patrol in Afghanistan. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

Members of  Bravo Company 1st Battalion 3rd Marines on patrol in Afghanistan. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

When a girl asked me to share a story, she was usually trying to show off the badass guy she was sleeping with. It’s hard to think that anyone could sweep a girl off her feet by sharing stories of walking through the human remains of what was once your good friend. It’s harder to stomach hearing people you care about discuss certain things behind your back that you might have let slip while in a drunken stupor, like that time you almost shot an innocent kid during a firefight—poor range estimation being your saving grace.

I think about who I was before I enlisted and what my parents think they know about me now. They know I’ve changed; it’s to be expected. But as far as what’s changed and why? That’s up to me to share. I like to think that family, friends, and loved ones want to help. They believe they should know things, intimate things, maybe hoping they can help shoulder the burden. What they don’t understand is that even if they were to become privy to the impact those four years in service have had on me, it wouldn’t help them understand.

When I find myself looking at a fresh start—new school, new job, new coworkers, and so on—I often leave my time in the service out of the conversation. I’ve had to explain to my parents and others that people look at you differently after hearing about your military service. They may admire you, despise you, or fear you. But I have fears of my own, that my family and friends will look at me in a negative light, as either the pop culture stereotype, and all-too-reality for many, of the struggling, PTS-ridden vet, or as the alcoholic prone to violence vet who cannot get out of his own way, both of which are prevalent in the public eye these days.

Members of Jones’s platoon conducting overwatch in Iraq. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

Members of Jones’s platoon conducting overwatch in Iraq. Courtesy: Dustin Jones

I’ve heard other veterans claim, “If people want to see what war is like, they can sign up and find out.” I’ve heard another philosophy that it’s a veteran’s job to help educate the public. The idea being that sharing stories and hardships would not only educate the public, but it could help the veteran’s healing process. If the latter is the case, then where do you draw the line? What do you decide not to share? If a service member is burned alive in a helicopter crash, should the family know the truth, or is a white lie acceptable to try to bring them comfort?

I lie to family and friends about my experiences in Afghanistan partly because I simply don’t want to share it. My parents saw a video that I made after our deployment, which had firefights, IEDs, and a few bodies in it. My mother was in shock. It went against everything I had told her about that deployment. She didn’t need to see those things.

I lie to them also, I think, because I want to spare them. If nothing happened while I was overseas, then there’s no reason for me to be anything less than fine now that I’m home. Why shouldn’t I be?

We don’t tell children about some of the more horrible things adults do, and when I returned from war that metaphor rang true for me. We had experienced something most people won’t. We were adults, and, to a degree, I’ve felt like I’m protecting my family and other civilians, as though they were children. It is in their best interest. I know it’s important to share certain lessons from my time in service, the perseverance and appreciation for the little things I learned, but there is nothing for them to learn from some of our stories. Some things are better left unsaid.

***

After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan during his four years in the Marine Corps infantry, Dustin Jones attended the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studied journalism. His interest in journalism developed during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009/10, where New York Times journalist C.J. Chivers and photographer Tyler Hicks were embedded with his unit. Several months passed before Dustin was able to read the articles and see the photos that the team produced. A story about his comrade’s funeral service by Chivers, accompanied by photos from Hicks, had him hooked.

He is currently a reporter in the small Montana town of West Yellowstone, and he is working on a book that focuses on the transition from military to civilian life. He has a dog named after Patrick Swayze.

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Learning to Listen on Denali


Margaux Mange helped teach Pat Gault to seek out war stories of all stripes. Their chance meeting on Denali changed his life.

Learning to Listen on Denali


Margaux Mange helped teach Pat Gault to seek out war stories of all stripes. Their chance meeting on Denali changed his life.

By Pat Gault

Margaux was there to climb Denali in memory of every name she and her team had collected on their American flag. But mostly, she was there for one person: Ashly Moyer, her best friend and fellow soldier whom she'd seen killed in Iraq eight years before.

I was on the same climbing route as an Air Force Pararescueman, on loan to the National Park Service, camped with the dozen other climbing teams 6,000 feet below Denali’s summit. The wind had picked up the day after our arrival to the camp at 14,000 feet, and it sounded like a busy freeway as it hammered the ridge above us. We all stood like meerkats outside our tents watching the skyline, as if the wind might die at any moment and allow us to advance on the route.

Ashley Moyer (left) and Margaux Mange pose for a picture. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Ashley Moyer (left) and Margaux Mange pose for a picture. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

After three days of waiting, I began wandering the camp, and that’s when I met Margaux's team, named Mission Memorial Day. Margaux was the only woman and a former Army Military Police. The three guys were Brian, a retired Marine; Nick, a former Airborne medic; and Josh, a former SEAL and the MMD team leader. Their mission was to carry that American flag, covered in the names of KIA, to Denali’s summit for a victorious picture.

Margaux stood just outside our conversational circle, seeming to listen. I wonder if she heard the way I mumbled “Air Force” as quickly as I could and slowed to pronounce “Pararescue” when one of the guys asked about my background. Or how I shared the places I'd deployed in the form of questions about their own deployments.

Now that I know her story, I wonder if she understood what it was that I was doing, trying to establish the value of my experience. I see it quite a bit on social media: veterans who are self-conscious about their military experiences and looking for validation, wanting to fit how contemporary culture understands “the heroic veteran.” My generation's war started almost simultaneously with reality shows, and Facebook and all other social media came along soon after. It’s come to feel like a person’s value is determined by the quick anecdote, videos, or photographs that he or she decides to share. As though context and a full telling of the story don’t matter. And so I would fall, and sometimes still do, into that same trap, choosing my words carefully and frontloading the conversation with evidence of my combat experience, so I’d feel validated.

I didn’t ask Margaux about her military experiences while we were stuck at that camp. I talked with the boys. They mentioned something about the metal plate Margaux had in her head, but I brushed her off as just another girl who ended up in an unfortunate situation while deployed. The wind persisted, and neither the MMD team nor my team reached the summit that year.

Margaux Mange (left) and Ashly Moyer (right) were two of seven women in their 30-person platoon.  Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Margaux Mange (left) and Ashly Moyer (right) were two of seven women in their 30-person platoon.  Courtesy: Margaux Mange

In the year that followed, I started writing. It began with my friend Roger, a prior Force Recon Marine turned Pararescueman, who found PTSD therapy when he began tattooing his own legs in his garage in Alaska. Eventually, all of us at the squadron started offering Roger our bodies for him to work on. I saw the deep positive effect Roger’s art had on him and how his story shaped the way he made art. I was suddenly appalled by the war story Americans hear, about men with stiff upper lips dodging pyrotechnics, the one Americans hear in place of the truth.

"It's the prostitution of experience, man," Roger liked to say. He’d go on about how so many vets can't stop posturing and letting the world know that they really were in the shit, as if their characters couldn’t speak for themselves. I thought about how I told my own story, and I started to wonder about the stories of people who don’t brag about their service. And right about then, I received an email from MMD.

Josh and Margaux had decided to come back to Alaska and give Denali a second try, and this time they brought with them four flags covered in names. They asked for my help getting from the airport in Anchorage to Talkeetna where a ski plane would fly them to the Denali base camp. That gave me two hours to hear Margaux's story. We packed my SUV to the brim with their climbing equipment and hit the road. Margaux sat in the back seat, and I told her that I wanted to hear how she was wounded.

Her story starts in 2006 when her 30-soldier platoon, seven of who were women, deployed to Baghdad. It was Margaux’s second yearlong deployment. She and Ashly hated each other at first. In Margaux's words, they saw too much of themselves in each other, and it wasn’t until they realized that they were so similar that the two became best friends.

Ashly Moyer (left) and Margaux Mange met on Margaux's second yearlong deployment. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Ashly Moyer (left) and Margaux Mange met on Margaux's second yearlong deployment. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

"We would sit on each other's beds at night and talk about stuff that bothered us," Margaux said. "She was my therapist."

Their mission was to train the Iraqi Police in Baghdad. But mostly, they drove around the city and gathered dead bodies from the sidewalk. On December 4, Margaux was in the turret of her Humvee when it drove over an IED. Her head hit the back of the turret and she woke up in a cloud of smoke. She rested for three days, suffering constant headaches, but then returned to patrol.

In the months that followed, Margaux and Ashy studied for promotion together. They were competing to see who could get their sergeant stripe first.

On March 3, the day that their promotion board was scheduled, they went out on patrol. Margaux sat in her Humvee and Ashly sat in the one behind. An explosion jolted Margaux's vehicle, and in the rear view mirror, she saw that Ashly's Humvee had been flipped upside down and that it was ablaze. Margaux ran from her Humvee toward Ashly's, but her sergeant caught her and forced her to the ground. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "She's gone."

Ten days later, Margaux developed Bell's Palsy, paralyzing half her face. She was sent to Germany for treatment where doctors diagnosed her with PTSD and denied her request to return to her platoon in Iraq. Back in the States, Margaux was also diagnosed with Trigeminal and Occipital Neuralgia, most likely caused by the trauma she sustained when she hit her head on the turret. The Bell's palsy was most likely due to the stress of Ashly's death.

Margaux after her surgery. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Margaux after her surgery. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

She underwent brain surgery to treat the neuralgia but it was unsuccessful. "I have a huge scar on the back of my head," Margaux said, "But I'm a girl. I have hair. So nobody can see it." She sustained a traumatic brain injury as well. The doctors still don't have any clear answers for her, but Margaux thinks it’s all related.

She spent three years heavily medicated, watching T.V. and participating in whatever veteran programs she could find. She felt guilty for leaving her platoon and wished that she and Ashly could have switched places. Margaux dreaded the anniversary of Ashly’s death and tried simultaneously to forget and to sanctify the day with a bottle of wine, in the silence of her house. She refers now to war as “a nightmare that won't go away."

Through one veteran program, Margaux found climbing and Josh. She liked the idea of working with a team to climb a mountain, just a group of people on a long walk, suffering together. Every March 3rd, Josh accompanies Margaux on a long walk through the mountains to suffer for Ashly.

"If you want to hear my story," she said, "I'll tell it to you one-on-one so that I can tell if you're listening or not. It's not really my story. I'm trying to make Ashly live on."

Unfortunately, Margaux's opportunity to tell her story to someone willing to listen is rare. Josh described a time when both he and Margaux attended a veteran function, and out of 100 vets, only two had been deployed as long as Margaux—23 months total.

"But everybody just thought that she was my girlfriend," Josh said.

They both told me about the time when Margaux was pulled over with Josh in the passenger seat, and after seeing the Purple Heart license plate, the police officer thanked Josh. Josh was quick to correct the officer.

But none of this seems to bother Margaux. She dismisses it with a laugh. It seems she sees her story as sacred, one that the people involved have entrusted her with, to share only with those who will listen.

Josh and Margaux made it to Denali's summit on their second attempt. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Josh and Margaux made it to Denali's summit on their second attempt. Courtesy: Margaux Mange

Margaux and Josh summited Denali on that second attempt. They unfolded all four flags bearing over 450 names, including Ashly's, on the summit. They snapped a picture and descended.

I have yet to summit Denali after two attempts of my own. Sometimes, I'm embarrassed when people ask if I've climbed it, and I have to say, "Well, yes. But I haven’t summited." Those who don't climb big mountains just don't understand. The summit is arbitrary compared to the process of climbing, that long walk. Stories about war experiences are not so different. The truth about the heroes of my generation, such as Margaux, is that there is no singular, victorious picture they can show that defines their experience, because deliverance is arbitrary. The walk through grief and suffering is the true war story. We can’t afford not to listen.

***

Pat Gault is a former Air Force Pararescueman. He currently resides in Alaska where he works as a ski patroller and is working toward a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada.

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Losing the Fear That He Abandoned His Men


War stories can sometimes read like confessionals. David Chrisinger encourages a student Marine Veteran to confide in the reader instead.

Losing the Fear That He Abandoned His Men


War stories can sometimes read like confessionals. David Chrisinger encourages a student Marine Veteran to confide in the reader instead.

by David Chrisinger

I wake early—usually 6 a.m.—and brew a pot of coffee before heading down to my dimly lit office in the basement of my Wisconsin home. It’s cold down there in the wintertime, so I flip on a little space heater to keep me warm until the coffee’s done. I sit down and open my laptop and clear my desk of the books and papers from the day before. I open the draft and read it without typing or trying to fix anything. By the time I finish reading an essay, the coffee is ready. I like to drink that first cup in the kitchen while I process the piece. It’s quiet there while my wife and kids are still sleeping. Usually, by the time that first cup is finished, I’m ready to sit down and read the essay again, but this time I start asking questions.

I’ve helped lots of veterans tell their stories. Most make the same mistakes any novice writer does in a first draft, mostly notably that they don’t seem sure of their essay’s purpose. Their first drafts are for them, not for me or anyone else.

Mike Goranson poses for a picture after finishing the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. in October 2015.

Mike Goranson poses for a picture after finishing the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. in October 2015.

On this particular fall morning, I am reading an essay by a man named Mike Goranson. I didn’t know much about him at the time, except that he was captain of the Chicago chapter of Team Red, White & Blue (Team RWB) and that he was finally ready—after more than a decade—to tell his story. Before my first cup of coffee that morning I’d already learned quite a bit more about Mike. He’d written about his “Alive Day”—the day he almost died in Iraq—and the difficulties he faced when he got home.

It was November 29, 2004—my birthday, coincidentally—and Mike was a Marine deployed to Ramadi. The rest of his unit was conducting a door-to-door patrol while he and another Marine guarded a T-intersection outside. An insurgent popped out from behind a building and fired off a burst from his AK-47. One of the rounds ricocheted off Mike’s truck and struck him in the ankle, just above the top of his boot. The round burst through the back of his leg, and Mike began bleeding uncontrollably.

Before he bled out, he was able to radio in that he needed to be evacuated. Not long after, another truck came to Mike’s rescue. He doesn’t remember much from the rest of that day, except the Corpsman helping him into the truck and hearing mortars landing near the field hospital as the anesthesia kicked in. After surgery in Iraq to stop the bleeding, he was flown to the American military hospital in Germany for more surgery. From there, he was sent to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. The doctors told him he was probably going to lose the foot. But like Lt. John J. Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, Mike was determined to keep it, no matter what it took.

He sustained permanent tibial nerve damage. But with his foot still attached and healed enough to transport, Mike was sent back home to Illinois, where he was given a hero’s welcome, complete with a call from the mayor.

All was going relatively well until he flew to San Diego to welcome back the rest of his unit from their deployment. It was then that a buddy told Mike that the other Marine he’d been with the day he’d been hit had told everyone in the unit that Mike had given up on the fight after he was shot, that he had quit.

When I came back to my desk after finishing my first cup of coffee, I wasn’t sure if I could read Mike’s again. It seemed he still had lots of processing to do. His language and tone were defensive, and I had the overwhelming sense that he was searching for more absolution than understanding. He wanted me to believe him—that he hadn’t quit, that no one knows how they’re going to react when they get shot, and that he had done the best he could. My stomach ached in anxiety over what I could possibly say to help him with his story.

Mike Goranson, seen here holding the American flag, leads a group of Team RWB Eagles on a run along Lake Michigan in Chicago, Ill.

Mike Goranson, seen here holding the American flag, leads a group of Team RWB Eagles on a run along Lake Michigan in Chicago, Ill.

I met Mike for the first time at a Panera in downtown Chicago sometime after that. I arrived at the restaurant before Mike did, hoping that if I got there first, maybe it’d signal to him that I took the meeting seriously, and that I wasn’t just some guy dropping in to doll out life and writing advice like prescription meds at the VA.

I had seen pictures of Mike on Facebook, so I knew what he looked like: dark, short hair; baby face unmarred by a razor; kind eyes; and a sheepish grin. When he arrived, I was surprised by how tall he was. I’m 6’4” and played defensive line in college, but Mike towered over me.

We shook hands, and I introduced myself. I could tell by the way he was looking at me—sizing me up, really—and by the way he was standing—at a diagonal to me—that he was apprehensive. He knew I had read his story, but I hadn’t given him feedback yet. I wanted to talk with him about my first reactions, rather than send them in an email. It was like a first date. I couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking, and he seemed to be aching to know what I was thinking.

We turned to face the menu board and Mike blurted out, “So, where’d you serve?”

I hate that question. I get it all the time.

“I’m actually not a veteran,” I said. “I work with them.”

I could tell he was disappointed. He nodded his head and looked away, as if to say, Great, this fuckin’ guy. He didn’t say another word, except to order his lunch, until we sat down to eat.

Mike Gorason (left) stands with Team RWB Midwest Regional Director, Zack Armstrong.

Mike Gorason (left) stands with Team RWB Midwest Regional Director, Zack Armstrong.

As Mike took the first big bite of his sandwich, I cut straight to the chase: “Take me back to that day,” I told him.

“Nobody really knows how they’re going to react when they get hit,” he said after swallowing his first bite. He told me he had dropped his machine gun in the dirt after scrambling for cover, but that he still had his sidearm. He said he would have died if he hadn’t dropped the gun and called in his injury. He was leaning, elbows on the table that separated us. He didn’t look away as he talked or hang his head. I could feel how badly he wanted me to believe him.  

He told me how he felt his heart drop when he heard what some of the other guys had said about thinking he’d quit. “And worst of all,” he continued, “the guy who said that shit died in a motorcycle crash a couple of days later, so I never even got a chance to confront him about what he said.”

Only then did I understand where all the defensiveness was coming from. Mike was still hurting, more than 10 years later. He didn’t want his fellow Marines—anyone, really—to think he was a quitter. He was a good Marine. He had served honorably. He knew that, but it still hurt to think there were people who felt differently.

The problem with the first draft of Mike’s essay was that it was a confession. I don’t mean that he did something wrong and felt the need to be forgiven. It’s more complicated than that. He knew he had done the best he could, but the other guys in his unit didn’t believe that. He told his story not to get me to better understand him, but rather to get me to take his side and to believe that he was the person he thought he was.

His essay made me feel bad for him, even pity him. And that’s not what Mike was looking for. He was in a good place, and he wanted to tell his story so that people could know who he was, what he had been through, and why he does what he does now.

David Chrisinger teaches the art of storytelling to Team RWB leaders in Gaylord, Mich. in May 2016.

David Chrisinger teaches the art of storytelling to Team RWB leaders in Gaylord, Mich. in May 2016.

Mike answered my questions, and I jotted down his answers in a small notebook I carry with me. The more he talked, the more he seemed to decompress. When we were finished, I ripped out the sheet of paper and gave it to him. “This is your story,” I told him. “No one else’s. Not your friend’s. Not anyone’s. Just yours. Tell the reader what you went through and how you felt. Don’t try to put words in others’ mouths or defend yourself against what they might say. Don’t make excuses or try to defend yourself. Confide in the reader, and they will connect with you on a level you can’t even believe.”

After Team RWB published Mike’s revised essay on their blog, I shared a link to it on Facebook. A good friend of mine, who’s also a civilian, sent me a message to tell me how much she connected with Mike’s words. “I’ve never been in combat or anything,” she wrote, “but I know exactly what it feels like to think I’ve let someone down.”

My friend connected with Mike’s story because it wasn’t about war. It was about simply being human and doing the best you can.

 

VIDEO: Team RWB interviewed Mike Goran about his service, his Alive Day, and his life after.

***

David Chrisinger is a Communication and Veteran Transition Specialist who believes everyone has a story to tell and that it’s imperative each of these stories is told in a way that leads to connection and understanding. To that end, he teaches a veteran reintegration course at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to help his students tell their stories of war and coming home. He also edited a collection of essays, See Me for Who I Am, that brings together 20 young student veterans working to bridge the cultural gap that divides them from the American people they fought to protect. David is also a writing instructor for Team RWB, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

Follow him on Twitter @strongeratbp.

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Sunflowers and Steel Rain


Elizabeth O'Herrin describes picking flowers & catching ladybugs as a kid. While deployed in the Middle East, sunflowers hid mortars & the land turned gray.

Sunflowers and Steel Rain


Elizabeth O'Herrin describes picking flowers & catching ladybugs as a kid. While deployed in the Middle East, sunflowers hid mortars & the land turned gray.

by Elizabeth O'Herrin

  My mother grew up in the fertile, unglaciated hills of southwestern Wisconsin, chasing cows in from the pasture and digging potatoes in the garden. She became a florist, cultivating gardens and arranging flowers for weddings, funerals, and local furniture stores. She raised me among beds of marigolds, hydrangeas, peonies, zinnias. I spent my own childhood summers yanking weeds, plucking raspberries, and catching ladybugs, perpetually smeared in humidity and dirt.

Elizabeth O'Herrin's father and mother stand for a picture in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth O'Herrin's father and mother stand for a picture in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Because of her, the sight of a crocus poking through the frozen ground stirs something deeper in me than spring’s first dawn. Explosions of color remind me of my mother’s touch during hikes around the lakes as she pointed out violets and jack-in-the-pulpits. Her appreciative murmurs when she spotted bursting peony buds on neighborhood walks. The crunch of gravel as she pulled to the side of the road so we could clip armfuls of lilacs from abandoned farms. She was, and remains, the perfect Midwestern contradiction of billowing hospitality and leathery toughness. She still smashes bugs with her bare hands.

When I was seven, I watched her blast a rabbit out of our garden with a 16 gauge. That critter’s getting after my lettuce, she murmured. We lived on the edge of a sleepy town, three houses from a lumberyard, and when the trains rolled in that day with their cargo, she lifted the screen out of the window, waited until the machinery had begun to thunder, and then raised the shotgun to her shoulder. She pulled the trigger and the rabbit was obliterated. I stood in the kitchen in awe, peering out the window next to her. 

Elizabeth O'Herrin and her mother prepare freshly butchered venison for canning. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth O'Herrin and her mother prepare freshly butchered venison for canning. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

When I decided to join the Air National Guard during my senior year of high school, my mother quietly supported my decision and signed her name to my paperwork. My recruiter told me our unit hadn’t been deployed since the Korean War and there was no chance we’d be called up. He said it confidently, and I believed him. September 11th changed that.

I entered basic training the next year and spent the Fourth of July sweeping linoleum floors with a ruler in my underwear. After boot camp I was pronounced sufficiently knowledgeable in assembling non-nuclear munitions after eight short weeks of training. I moved back to Wisconsin, ready to begin college and serve part-time like most of the National Guard. I was finally a Wisconsin Badger, paying for college my damn self, and feeling very much like an adult. The Middle East still wasn’t on the radar. That changed in 2004 on my first deployment. And in 2006. And again in 2008.

In Iraq I was quickly introduced to the piercing shriek of klaxon siren, unrivaled in its capacity to send grown men diving to the ground. The mortars were wildly inaccurate and often duds. But those moments of silence between the klaxon and the explosion were nevertheless nerve wracking. As the initial shock of the mortar attacks faded, the most notable thing about Iraq was the absence of color and the immense amount of dust. Even olive drab and eggshell, the standard military palette, lost their colors in that country. Every piece of government property, including my body, was enveloped in a thin film of moon dust. The trees were gray, the roads were gray, the birds were gray; we were gray. Despite my mother’s thoughtful care packages and sweet newsy letters—“our Fourth of July was great, this hotdog’s for you, Lizzie!”—I began to feel numb and disconnected. Even my spirit felt colorless.

Elizabeth O'Herrin attaches a tail kit to a 500 lb. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth O'Herrin attaches a tail kit to a 500 lb. Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

In the uniform environment, I was drawn to the only colorful spot on base: On the northwest stretch of the perimeter were fields full of sunflowers, thousands upon thousands of them. They made my heart stir as we rounded the corner on our daily drive out to the munitions storage area and they appeared, their vibrant faces blurring into a ribbon of color.

But our “bomb dump,” where we stored munitions, sat neatly between the sunflowers and the flight line where the fighter jets perched. Multi-million dollar birds, jet fuel, and active munitions. As we began to map the mortar attacks during our deployment, we quickly realized we were sitting between the enemy and the most attractive targets on the base.

The mortar attacks came from somewhere among the towering sunflowers outside the wire. Thousands of those happy flowers waving under the sun shielded the enemy that launched mortars at us. While diving to the ground, I often wondered, “Will this one be it?” No. We picked ourselves up and swatted our hands at our pants to dust them off. As more mortars came, I began to hate the sight of sunflowers.

Elizabeth O'Herrin's mother arranges flowers. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth O'Herrin's mother arranges flowers. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

When I came home I began clenching my fist until my knuckles turned white. I didn’t notice until my mother pointed it out; hadn’t realized I was doing it all: Clenching one fist while eating dinner or watching television or looking out the window. In retrospect it’s a fairly obvious symptom of stress attempting to flee my body, not being able to find its way out, jamming up into my fingertips forcing them to curl over. I found certain things transported me into a strange daydream. The sound of helicopter blades. A waft of jet fuel while boarding a flight. The sight of sunflowers.

After I graduated college and returned from my final deployment, I moved to Washington, D.C. My mother visited me often and on humid afternoons we’d stroll through Kalorama and Dupont Circle, admiring the perfectly manicured landscapes and especially impressive boxwood shrubs. But sunflowers made me shudder. I didn’t encounter them often walking from my apartment to work, or on my way to eat oysters for happy hour. But every once in a while I would stumble upon a wayward sunflower tracking the sun. It felt menacing: the head looming down, the wide petal-fringed face contorted into a cruel smile. I couldn’t shake the association. It frustrated me that a once-cheerful flower had come to mean something so dark.

Elizabeth O'Herrin's mother picks a poppy flower in Moose Pass, Alaska, August 1978. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth O'Herrin's mother picks a poppy flower in Moose Pass, Alaska, August 1978. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Ultimately, D.C. proved not to be the place for me. I found myself walking past historical monuments, daydreaming about driving a rusty pickup truck through the countryside with a floppy-eared dog next to me. I decided to quit my job and leave D.C., and my entire body released the tension I’d been holding. I threw a dance party and headed west—no job, no furniture, no car, only my bike—in search of fresh air and a new start. My mother nodded knowingly. The East Coast was too formal for my Midwestern spirit.

Driving westward in the rental van toward Denver, little pops of color appeared along the road bordering the dry brown prairie. They were tiny wild helianthus anomalus—a variety of sunflowers. Hardy little things, straining through cracks in the asphalt, bouncing back from bowling ball tumbleweeds. I admired them. They were gutsy flowers. As I continued west they multiplied along the road, faster and more furiously, and soon their yellows and oranges streamed past my window.

Sunflowers along Elizabeth Street in Denver. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Sunflowers along Elizabeth Street in Denver. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

I settled into a 1930’s brick bungalow with antique crystal doorknobs and creaky hardwood floors. My bedroom door refused to latch and the steam radiators clanged and I found dead mice in the pantry, but the fireplace was welcoming and the front stoop was sunny and charming. And the next street over bore my name. Elizabeth Street. I smiled at the serendipity. I began working for a craft coffee roasting company and they took me in like family.

One bright August afternoon, I turned the corner toward Elizabeth Street and was stunned to find hundreds of sunflowers lining the sidewalk. They had sprung up seemingly overnight. Now their wide faces exploded toward the sun. Just like the ones in Iraq. If I walked among them, I would be hidden just a few feet from the road. I couldn’t believe it. But for the first time in a long time they didn’t feel menacing. I took a few steps forward. Someone had planted them so carefully, tended to them lovingly with hours of backbreaking weeding. Maybe someone like my mother. Maybe a child putting in sweat equity, like I had. I paused a moment and then walked into the flowers, and the road disappeared from sight.

***

Elizabeth O'Herrin served as an AMMO troop for the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16 fighter jets. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She’s is a Tillman Scholar and the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Director of Programs & Scholarships. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post Checkpoint blog, Foreign Policy Best Defense blog, The Hill, The Association of American Colleges & Universities, 0-Dark Thirty, the Badger Herald, and the Starbucks Medium Collection. She is a member of Foreign Policy's Council of Former Enlisted. 

You can find her on Twitter here and on Medium here.

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In The Absence Of Trust And Confidence


He lost respect, trust, and confidence in his Marine leaders. William Gehrung describes the misdiagnoses and maltreatment of injuries in the military.

In The Absence Of Trust And Confidence


He lost respect, trust, and confidence in his Marine leaders. William Gehrung describes the misdiagnoses and maltreatment of injuries in the military.

by William Gehrung

  Spring, 2014. It was battalion hump-day in the coastal lowlands of a North Carolina hellhole known as Camp Lejeune. The air was thick. The heat lay heavy. I had 12 miles to look forward to today—not too many, but enough to piss you off. It would probably take about four hours at a decent pace, breaks included, carrying our entire deployment issue on our backs. Four hours of shoulder straps sinking their teeth into my neck with my eyes locked on the sweat-stained ass of the guy in front of me. By the time we hit the halfway point, my arms were numb to the fingertips and all I could do to keep my mind off my chaffing thighs and the ache in my knees was think about weekend liberty. Up ahead a guy fell out. I heard the sharp clatter of somebody’s weapon bouncing on the pavement. The sound prickled my skin and made me cringe.

  The entire formation erupted. “Corpsman up!” Some of us sang it; some screamed it—mostly for fun and a chance to be belligerent. It’s the small things. I watched the corpsmen carry him to the rear of the formation on a foldout stretcher and load him onto the 7-ton truck trailing behind us. I kind of felt sorry for him. Mostly, I hated him and envied the fact that in five minutes he’d be kicking his feet up and airing his boots, while the rest of us carried on. Doc would tell him to drink more water, change his socks, and take some Motrin, that he’d be fine.

William Gehrung spent time during his 2013 deployment to Kuwait as a participant in "Infantry Championship Wrestling." Photo courtesy of William Gehrung.

William Gehrung spent time during his 2013 deployment to Kuwait as a participant in "Infantry Championship Wrestling." Photo courtesy of William Gehrung.

  I went back to my happy place—some never-ending weekend, far away, full of women and booze. I had my own problems. I was a grunt with a rubber leg in the Marine Corps infantry. My left knee was garbage. Doc after doc, year after year, from one unit to the next, said it was just a sprain, or a strain, or something just as stupid. My latest light-duty chit, that paperwork explaining my physical status and limitations, was a couple days expired, and I figured if I was going to finish a 12-miler with one working leg, I shouldn’t waste time thinking about that poor sucker. For three years I had been dealing with the world’s longest “knee sprain.” I didn’t have room for sympathy.

  August, 2011. I was burning down a rope in full battle-rattle during a platoon fast-roping exercise. My legs were bent and braced for impact. I hit the ground and felt a pop and shift in my knee. I collapsed and rolled out of the way. It hurt unlike anything I had ever felt. I limped over to doc; he did some range-of-motion tests, felt around a bit, and quickly determined it was just a sprain. That was the beginning of my troubles. Over the next few years, my leg gave out on me continuously, often when I needed it the most. It was excruciating and embarrassing. At one point someone called me a bitch, to my face. I’ll never forget it.

William Gehrung sits with fellow Marines in his squad during a 2013 deployment to Djibouti. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung. 

William Gehrung sits with fellow Marines in his squad during a 2013 deployment to Djibouti. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung. 

  Eventually I saw some orthopedic doctors, but so much time had passed that my knee had stopped swelling, and I didn’t show typical signs of ligament damage: I had decent strength and range of motion. I got an X-ray, but ligament damage doesn’t show up on X-rays. I lost respect and credibility the more time that passed without answers. After three years, my medical record was as thick as the medical encyclopedia sitting on the counter in doc’s examination room. I was tired of having excuses, of trying to push through, of hoping everything would be fine and that my knee would just heel on its own. I was tired of being told to change my socks, drink more water, and take some Motrin. I was tired of light-duty chits. I wanted to be fixed, I wanted my confidence back, and I wanted respect—not to be called “a bitch,” or a liar.

  Some weeks after that 12-miler at Lejeune, I found out I had a torn ACL and meniscus. My leg had given out during morning PT for the millionth time and I couldn’t take it anymore. Three years of “dealing with it” had finally become too much. I fought for an MRI and got one. We were in the field when I found out. One of the senior Corpsmen in our company called me over and said, “We got your MRI results back. Basically your shit is fucked up: You have no ACL at all. It looks like it’s retracted over time and your meniscus has two tears in it.” The commanding officer told me to go back to the packs and hang out. I’d made it this far; I’d be OK until we got back. At least now everyone knew I wasn’t bullshitting. I wanted to scream, “SEE I FUCKING TOLD YOU!” But I’m better than that.

William Gehrung patrolled in Djibouti during training exercises with his Marine unit during 2013. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung. 

William Gehrung patrolled in Djibouti during training exercises with his Marine unit during 2013. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung. 

  I’ve tried to understand why it was so hard to get help. It was infinitely frustrating, knowing something was wrong and being mistaken for a weakling with no integrity. That frustration often pushed me into making stupid decisions because I didn’t want to be a bitch. There were times that I felt like a complete outsider in an institution that swears by loyalty.

  June, 2014. I got corrective surgery about a month after my MRI. But, because I’d gone years without proper treatment, the residual damage was too extensive and my first surgery was unsuccessful. My new ACL didn’t graft properly and my meniscus tore again four days before my End of Active Service date. They tried again to tell me it was just a sprain, and I was told to take it up with the VA. I did, and I had another surgery in August 2015. I’ll be blessed with arthritis and a full knee replacement before I’m 50. I’m 25 years old.

Following successful reconstructive surgery on his knee, William Gehrung climbed Thunderbird Mountain in Phoenix this year. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung.

Following successful reconstructive surgery on his knee, William Gehrung climbed Thunderbird Mountain in Phoenix this year. Photograph courtesy of William Gehrung.

  For a long time I felt alone in my struggle. I wanted to see if there were more guys like me, so I decided to speak up on Facebook. There were plenty, and some of them had stories worse than mine—something I didn’t think was possible. These were guys I served with, guys that dealt with the same people and the same bullshit.

  Former Riflemen, Philip Jordan and Nicholas Hellen, have equally frustrating stories of misdiagnoses and maltreatment. Jordan’s foot got caught between the skid and ledge of a repel tower and “snapped,” while in Okinawa, Japan. The Medical Officer and his 1st Sgt. gave him shit and the MO got pissed for bringing it up and asking for an X-ray, Jordan says. He waited for a month to get seen by somebody at the base aide station, just to be told it was “fine,” that it was “just sprained.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that played out excuse. Fortunately, Jordan saw an outside care provider once he returned home. However, they determined that it had been broken and healed wrong, so he would need corrective surgery to fix it.

  Hellen almost died. He suffered from a “softball-sized ulcer” in his small intestine and a small one in his stomach. His ulcers weren’t discovered until it was almost too late. “I lost half my blood count overnight and my next of kin was contacted and told I was on my death bed” after a night of vomiting blood, he says. Ultimately, Hellen got the necessary surgery, but his problems followed him when he transferred to a West Coast unit preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. None of his medical records had been passed on, and he was immediately labeled a “shit-bag” for not being able to keep up. “None of my command believed me, or my story,” he said.

  Trust me I know the feeling. To once stand proud, young, and strong. Only to become injured and so easily distrusted, disowned, and left to limp behind the pack. Drinking water, changing our socks, and taking Motrin, like the docs told us to do, doesn’t cure all of our ailments. Trust, empathy, and a little respect would have helped.

* * *

William Gehrung is a 25-year-old veteran of the USMC and a full-time student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication. He served with 1st FAST in Norfolk, V.A. from 2010 to 2012 and 3rd Bn. 2nd Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C. from 2012 to 2015. Gehrung grew up in small town in N.C. His parents met in the Navy and two of his three sisters served in either the Navy or Army. He loves dogs, cold beer, and comfy chairs, and his passion for writing is fueled by friendships he’s made throughout his enlistment, and the miseries we endured together.

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The Quandary Of Perception Versus Reality


She refused to believe that perception was reality. She thought she could change perceptions. Tenley Lozano writes about stereotypes in the military.

The Quandary Of Perception Versus Reality


She refused to believe that perception was reality. She thought she could change perceptions. Tenley Lozano writes about stereotypes in the military.

  The phrase was repeated over and over until it seemed more like a joke than advice. We were separated from the male cadets and told to look out for each other, that the enlisted men would try to make us their conquests. We’d heard rumors about female cadet “sluts” caught sleeping around during their summer assignments. Whether the rumors were true or not didn’t matter. Perception is reality, they said.

  My first experience on a Coast Guard Cutter was the summer before my senior year as a cadet at the US Coast Guard Academy. I was assigned for an 80-day patrol to the US Coast Guard Cutter Morgenthau, a 378-foot ship with a permanent crew of 162 and an additional 13 cadets for the patrol. All of us cadets were to be fully integrated with the crew for the patrol in the Eastern Pacific Ocean on a Counter Narcotics mission.

  The engineers made me feel welcome and put me right to work. As the ship sailed off into the Pacific Ocean on that first day, I was happy doing the simple task of cleaning thick black gunk off a piece of machinery to the comforting rumble of the giant engines, muffled by the double hearing protection of foam inserts and big earmuffs.

  Not 24 hours after we’d left California, I was walking through the labyrinth of the ship’s passageways and stairwells with one of the male enlisted crewmembers, completing a task from my Academy summer checklist. He was bringing the Captain’s Night Orders to each of the night watchstanders for them to read and sign. The hallway’s usual florescent lights were turned off and replaced by the dim blue bulbs of a darkened ship after sunset. We climbed into the steel belly of the vessel, to the Combat Information Center where Operations Specialists monitored radars, listened to radios, and gathered intelligence. We knocked on the locked door.

Cadet Tenley Barna and a mechanic change the fuel filters for USCGC Morgenthau in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

Cadet Tenley Barna and a mechanic change the fuel filters for USCGC Morgenthau in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

  The CIC was lit with the same faint blue lights and everyone was dressed in dark blue uniforms. I could tell where the watchstanders were only by their silhouettes against the glow of computer and radar screens. The man who’d opened the door signed the Night Orders and asked the watchstander who’d brought them, “So dude, we got a bunch of female cadets onboard now. You fuck any of them?”

  I spoke up out of the darkness, a disembodied, distinctly female voice, “Not yet! Just give us a few days.”

  The man spit out a few curse words and stuttered a hasty apology.

  The next day he found me in the hallway in front of my living area and apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry, Ma’am. I never would have said that if I knew you were there.” The entire crew had been warned before we arrived that their careers would be in jeopardy if they didn’t treat the female cadets with respect, and he was terrified I’d report him. I said nothing about incident, knowing the entire crew would treat me differently if I did. I already felt unwelcome in my berthing area, bunking with enlisted women several years older than me who worked in different departments and scolded me for bringing oily boots and uniforms into their sanctum. The engineers, who’d begun to act like I was one of them, would label me “overly sensitive” and censor themselves. His comment had annoyed, not offended me. I wanted to be part of the crew without attracting any extra attention, so I laughed it off and accepted the apology.

Cadet Tenley Barna stands on the Bridge of the USCGC Morgenthau assigned to radar watch in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

Cadet Tenley Barna stands on the Bridge of the USCGC Morgenthau assigned to radar watch in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

  The next night, the women officers gathered the female cadets in their stateroom to talk about interacting with the mostly-male crew. They told about the time they’d gone dancing at a popular bar in Costa Rica on a port call and had a few piña coladas with some of the crew. Before their hangovers were gone, ugly rumors had begun to spread across the ship the way a drop of diesel spreads its polluting rainbow the moment it touches water. They reiterated the cautionary phrase—“perception is reality”—and told us how they no longer hung out with anyone but the other officers in port calls.

  Later, the other female cadets and I made a pact. We would enjoy the patrol, make friends, and look out for each other. I refused to believe that perception was reality.

  Two days later, the highest-ranking engineer onboard, the Engineer Officer, took me aside. “I’m concerned that you’re already getting a reputation for being too friendly,” he said. I’d been seen in a public area talking to male enlisted members. “As your supervisor I am responsible for ensuring you don’t fraternize with the enlisted.”

  “Sir, we were sitting on the Mess Deck together because they were helping me study firefighting equipment. All of the engineers are men except one, so how can I learn the job without being seen talking to men? I would think it’d be more suspicious to study in secret.”

  “It doesn’t matter what you were working on,” he said. “You need to be more careful about who you are seen with and how you are perceived.” I continued to study and work in public, knowing I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wouldn’t let the Engineer Officer’s wild imagination stop me from learning about the ship.

Cadet Tenley Barna oversaw the operation of USCGC Morgenthau's Ship's Service Diesel Generators while on watch in the Engine Room. The upper header of one of the machines is shown here during a repair at sea. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano. 

Cadet Tenley Barna oversaw the operation of USCGC Morgenthau's Ship's Service Diesel Generators while on watch in the Engine Room. The upper header of one of the machines is shown here during a repair at sea. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano. 

  During that patrol, I sketched system drawings by hand, memorized operating parameters, conducted maintenance, and passed an oral examination in order to earn the qualification of Generator Watchstander. One day, one of the Ship’s Service Diesel Generators was shut down for routine maintenance. Two of the other female cadets came to the Engine Room with me to watch as I started it back up. I climbed on top of the machinery and pointed to a lever as the Engineer Officer walked past us and into the soundproofed control room. “Is anyone out there even qualified?” he asked the head engineer on watch.

  The man replied sarcastically, “Well, Sir, sometimes we have qualified watchstanders.” Then in a more serious tone, “You signed her letter. You didn’t think we’d let her stand watch on her own?”

  The EO left the Engine Room while I completed the starting procedures for the engine. When I returned to the control room, the head engineer was angry, defensive of my abilities, and in disbelief that the officer would treat me that way. But after two months at sea, I was more surprised by the ferocity of his defense of me than I was of the EO thinking I was incompetent.

  By the end of the patrol, all the female cadets were friends with crewmembers and many were rumored to be sleeping with them. It felt like if we had any casual conversation with a crewmember, let alone a friendly relationship, we would be judged as sluts. One female cadet told me before our last port call, “Everyone already thinks I’m fucking Mikey, I might as well have some fun.”

  After 30 straight days at sea, the ship pulled into San Diego for a final port call. As the cadets and crew headed off the ship, I noticed all the female cadets staying in San Diego for a short vacation before school started had paired up with enlisted guys. I’d spent the entire patrol fighting for a good reputation as a woman engineer. I was frustrated with how poorly I had been treated by the officers onboard and I knew that I no longer cared what they thought of me.

Cadet Tenley Barna on the flight deck of USCGC Morgenthau following a .50 caliber machine gun training exercise in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

Cadet Tenley Barna on the flight deck of USCGC Morgenthau following a .50 caliber machine gun training exercise in 2007. Photo courtesy of Tenley Lozano.

  I stood on the pier by the ship and watched as my friends, enlisted and cadets alike, began walking toward downtown San Diego. In spontaneous rebellion against the expectations placed on me as a future officer, I ran after them, not caring who saw me. We all ended up hanging out at a hotel that afternoon. I picked a mechanic who was decently looking, got drunk, and spent the next two days having my way with him.

  After that, I returned to the Academy for my senior year. None of the female cadets on the Morgenthau told anyone else about our illicit relationships with enlisted men, no one found out, and no one at the Academy called us “sluts.” I was proud of the bond we’d formed on the Morgenthau. But then again, the women couldn’t tell anyone else or risk all of us getting a bad reputation. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t let those onboard the ship dictate what I could or couldn’t do. But the truth is I wouldn’t have had sex with that enlisted guy if the officers hadn’t tried to isolate me from the crew.

  Perception is not reality. 

* * *

After graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy with a degree in engineering in 2008, Tenley Lozano spent five years as an officer in the US Coast Guard. During her tenure, she worked in the engineering department on a ship that patrolled the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver to the equator conducting counter-narcotic missions. She then attended Navy Dive School and spent two years as a Coast Guard Diver leading deployments around the United States.

Tenley's writing has appeared in the web series Permission to Speak Freely, O-Dark Thirty, the MacGuffin, and in the anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home. She recently won Crab Orchard Review’s John Guyon Literary Nonfiction prize and has a creative nonfiction chapbook Ascent/Descent forthcoming in 2017 from Broken Leg Books. She graduated from Sierra Nevada College with an MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) and works as a naval engineer in San Diego. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website.


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Nothing Prepares You For War


Noah Smith witnessed the transformation of Afghan cities while serving as Army Special Forces. He learns that war economy can't stabilize like community can.

Nothing Prepares You For War


Noah Smith witnessed the transformation of Afghan cities while serving as Army Special Forces. He learns that war economy can't stabilize like community can.

We were sailing into the sky, the loud buzz of the plane engine beating against the air. We flew over a vast desert that stretched in front of us. My god, it was beautiful. My colleague, a lifetime adventurer, leaned over and asked, “Aren’t you going to miss it?” He knew the answer, and I do. Every day I miss that life.

Those moments—flying over the desert, landing in the vastness—I remember as vignettes, snapshots.

Noah Smith during Operation Enduring Freedom in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

Noah Smith during Operation Enduring Freedom in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

There’s no way to prepare yourself for life in the military, no way to know what it’ll be like not to shower for long periods of time or to eat exclusively MREs. We built with carpentry, concrete, and sandbags, and I reached a new level of exhaustion. I’d routinely pass out during lunch after eating an MRE while the group watched Weeds. We’d hoisted a Toughbook laptop onto the wall and at night we’d watch movies and television together.

Our first night in Afghanistan had been nerve-racking. The valley was blanketed in snow, and we’d barely gotten to our mud house. But the weather had provided some form of safety; the Taliban spent the winter dormant in Pakistan. We slept in a single room probably meant for one family that night. The smell of everyone’s feet was rancid. 

Our first morning there, a Kiowa chopper flew low over is and nearly into our Afghan living compound and the pilot leaned gave us a thumbs up, flashed a big shit eating grin, and gave a disbelieving shake of his head. He probably thought we were nuts for being there when we were and he was probably right. Except it had briefed up the chain of command that our site would be occupied by a certain date.

Noah Smith during OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

Noah Smith during OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

In a strange way, this mud house and these living conditions are the reason I joined Special Forces, and what I had wanted to do. Think of a bathroom—now instead of a toilet, there’s a hole that opens up into the room below. To poop into a room of poop while at war is the essence of Special Forces: to make due with very little or nothing.

I’d never done any of it—living in a mud house, doing carpentry, laying electric wire—before deploying to Afghanistan. I grew up in suburban Maryland, between D.C. and Baltimore, in a town called Columbia, Md. It was like coming of age in Pleasantville. Not exactly the place where young people learned to shoot, kill, or build. They weren’t skills I’d thought about needing or wanting, and in the world where I grew up they certainly weren’t considered skills essential to manhood. The Army was a rude awakening, but I adapted quickly.

In Afghanistan I’d patrol on a gator we’d strapped a handheld mode 60mm mortar to—and I loved it. I’d imagine that if I hit an IED, I would’ve soared in the air and turned into a green mist, just the color of the gator. I remember the excitement and sense of adventure and danger, and I miss it.

But I know the job is about the people in the rear view mirror—the ones you were with and the ones you hopefully helped. I had the added pleasure of sharing my time there with people born into a different culture in a different part of the world, with whom I had so much in common.

OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

I knew the success of our work depended on the relationships we developed with locals. They were our first line of defense. We knew a Taliban attack was imminent when the local women and children left the village and young, healthy looking men began moving in. The mosque would be packed with military-aged males. There was little we could do, except to wait.

About halfway through that deployment the Taliban, that impressively organized shadow government, delivered a memo to the village. It said that they would begin attacking the Americans and that the locals ought to leave. The memo seemed intended to preemptively absolve the Taliban of responsibility. A few weeks later Katyusha rockets began raining down on us, and they continued for a week. 

Our Afghan local police commander would disappear the night of an attack. The police force played both sides and the commander was willing to sacrifice his own people to ensure he didn’t pick up his gun against the Taliban. If nothing else, he’s a survivor. To become the local big shit, he beat his brother or brother-in-law to death with a pipe. I think, I can’t remember which now

Living with the Afghans, we understand the rhythm of life in the villages. The State Department diplomats never seemed to have the rapport with the locals like we did. Because at the end of the day they went back to the embassy and we went back to our mud houses. And yet state officials have greater influence at higher levels of government, working on foreign policy and negotiating on behalf of the U.S. government. But I understand the power that my team and I—just warfighters—had. Because we lived and fought with the Afghans.

Noah Smith during OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

Noah Smith during OEF in Southeast Afghanistan. 2011. Photo courtesy of Noah Smith.

I never got to see a lot of the projects I worked on come to fruition. In Afghanistan, we helped build a school so the villagers’ children could learn in a safe environment. Before we arrived, the Taliban threatened the lives of the children who went and burned the books. When the school we helped build opened, local and regional politicians attended. By the time classes got underway we’d left Afghanistan; we didn’t see students use it on a daily basis.

I later learned, years later, that, despite the forces of opposition, the area where I’d worked had made incredible strides. Special Forces had continued to work with the locals, assisting in the formation of local government and schools. I heard that it was a safe and vibrant community years later. I was told that I wouldn’t have believed what went on with the area if I had seen it. If it could stay that way the Taliban will have a harder time recruiting in the future, we’d anticipated, we’d hoped.

At some point, the U.S. government will turn over total control and walk away. I worry about the mess that could create and know that citizens need to help ensure the positive changes remain. The war economy is temporary. I walked away with the understanding that the infrastructure development my team did in Afghanistan—building schools and working with local police—is the key to a successful transition of power.

My team lived with the Afghans we were sent to help and to protect. We shared lives and conditions on the ground, and I came to understand our work as the first stretch of Afghanistan’s long road to stability.

* * *

Noah Smith, a former Green Beret, is a business consultant in Washington, D.C. This represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of his former employers in the U.S. government. He holds the Special Operations chair in the Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted and is the Veterans Fellowship Chair of Service Corps (servicecorps.org). He can be reached via email at 2contactnoah@gmail.com


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The Day I Held My Fire


Eric Chandler vividly remembers dropping bombs and spraying bullets on the brown mountains of Afghanistan. The time he didn't shoot haunts him the most.

The Day I Held My Fire


Eric Chandler vividly remembers dropping bombs and spraying bullets on the brown mountains of Afghanistan. The time he didn't shoot haunts him the most.

  Thirty seconds is a long time to think you might accidentally kill a kid. But that’s how it was that day over Afghanistan. 

  We had to hurry. Chaos and Fester left, and without a break KRACR and I were directed to hit the man they were watching. The high-value dude drove out into the open. He was alone and on a motorcycle on a stretch of road running through a small valley just outside of town. I turned toward the target, and released two 500-pound bombs. I realized my mistake about two seconds after I hit the pickle button, but my part in the tactic was over. It was up to KRACR now to salvage my error and get my bombs on target.

  I gave up on my high-tech sensors and looked out of my cockpit at the valley. In the bright midday sun, the road and the terrain blended into a vast field of beige. At the edge of the valley there was a cluster of buildings. I stared at them for 30 seconds, hoping that my poorly delivered bombs wouldn’t hurt innocent people.

  A small black mushroom cloud burst out in the open, halfway between the buildings and me. I realized I was holding my breath. I was ecstatic I didn’t hurt civilians. And ashamed that I helped us miss the target.

  We stayed after the man on the moto. He dismounted and ran up into the hills. We ran our tactic a second time, and this time we got it right. I put two 500-pounders on the man where he hid in some rocks.

Eric “Shmo” Chandler was also stationed at Balad Air Base, in Iraq during 2005. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

Eric “Shmo” Chandler was also stationed at Balad Air Base, in Iraq during 2005. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

  KRACR and I were sent to orbit over an empty valley and stand by. I drank a Red Bull and thought about my mistake. We got the guy, but I wasted time and assets. We orbited for about an hour before the Control and Reporting Center (CRC) sent us to a Troops In Contact situation (TIC). KRACR flew to the tanker to refuel and I headed to the coordinates. The JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller) got me into the fight in a place he called Razorback Ridge. He was calm and clear on the radio, but there was gunfire and shouting in the background.

  He needed me to strafe with my 20mm gun. I vowed not to rush and screw up like I did an hour earlier with my bombs. The target was only 100 meters from friendlies. I told him I was going to make a dry pass to make sure I had the enemy position.

  I was in a right-hand turn and rolled in to a steeper right bank to dive toward the target. I followed the outline of Razorback Ridge with my eyes down to the green vegetation in the valley bottom. I never saw enemy troops, but I pointed the nose of my aircraft right at the streambed where the enemy fire was coming from.

  “That’s it. Call in with direction,” said the JTAC.

  I started a climbing right turn when the JTAC said, almost chuckling, “Look out your left door. They just shot an RPG.”

  I leveled the wings for a second and looked over my left shoulder. He must’ve been used to talking to helicopters. I didn’t have doors. There was a thin stream of white smoke from the RPG behind me. They could’ve been shooting at our guys on the ridge. Maybe they were shooting at me. I like to assume they were shooting at me.

Lt. Col. Eric Chandler was stationed at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan. in 2012. Photo courtesy of SSgt. Chris Axelson.

Lt. Col. Eric Chandler was stationed at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan. in 2012. Photo courtesy of SSgt. Chris Axelson.

  I called in from the southeast and put two seconds of bullets into the streambed I identified during my dry pass. After a big sweeping right turn, I strafed again.

  KRACR showed back up with more bullets, so he took over as the primary shooter. The JTAC directed him farther south to strafe a guy holding an RPG near a wall. KRACR made several passes there until he ran out of bullets.

  I took my turn and drilled the end of the wall that the RPG guy was peeking around. I held the trigger down until the gun was empty. All my bombs were gone. I keyed the mic: “Winchester.” The JTAC and his troops withdrew safely after our strafe passes.

  KRACR and I returned to base. When we touched down, I felt like I just got back from landing on the moon. My day seemed just as rare. Two different fights on one sortie. Winchester.

  I made one deployment to Afghanistan. I dropped more bombs and shot more bullets there than I did in all three of my Iraq trips combined. But it’s the day that I didn’t shoot that sticks in my head:

  On a different day during the Afghanistan deployment, the CRC directed me to another valley. The JTAC told me to strafe a group of buildings. I’ll call it a farm. The JTAC said there was a sniper near one of the structures, but didn’t, or couldn’t, specify which one.

  A gunship flying above me radioed that there were women and children in one of the buildings. I asked the JTAC if he knew this.

  He didn’t seem to care. Everybody’s fangs were out.

  I asked the JTAC, “Are you taking effective fire right now?”

  “We’re taking some potshots into our sandbags.” He snorted it like a laugh.

Eric Chandler (left) gives PFC Kyle Lynch (center), a Purple Heart recipient, a tour of the Kandahar, Air Base flight line in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of SSgt. Chris Axelson.

Eric Chandler (left) gives PFC Kyle Lynch (center), a Purple Heart recipient, a tour of the Kandahar, Air Base flight line in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of SSgt. Chris Axelson.

  Where are the children? Which building? Where’s the sniper? Too many questions for me to squeeze the red trigger.

  Frustrated, I said, “We’re holding our fire.”

  The JTAC gave up on me and told the gunship he wanted 30mm on the farm. The gunship replied they didn’t think their 30mm would be effective. But that wasn’t it. The 30mm is bigger than my 20mm and causes more damage. I thought they hesitated because they heard me try to stop this train.

  I was out of gas and had to refuel. I told my wingman, Grunt, to hold his fire until I came back unless he could put his eyes on the sniper.

  Then, the JTAC said this on the radio: “The air’s got cold feet.”

Eric Chandler was an F-16 pilot at Balad Air Base, Iraq in 2005. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

Eric Chandler was an F-16 pilot at Balad Air Base, Iraq in 2005. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

  The JTAC worked with fire support from the ground troops to shoot mortars. Each round got closer and closer to the farm as two F-18 Hornets showed up to replace me. I let the Hornets know what I was trying to stop.

  Only later did I learn that several of our soldiers had been injured and killed in previous fights in that valley. Maybe it was impossible for me to understand a soldier’s mindset from an air-conditioned cockpit.

  When I screwed up my bombs in that other fight, all I knew was that they didn’t hurt innocents. Only later did I see the video of my attack. The bombs almost hit the motorcycle guy on the first pass, and he ran up into the boulders, chased by the shadow of the cloud from the bombs.

  In the fight when I ran out of bullets, I tried like hell to avoid a nearby house when I shot at the guy with an RPG hiding by the wall. Only later did my weapons officer critique me for letting some of my bullets hit that house.

  On another sortie, toward the end of that trip, I flew over a small town in a different part of Afghanistan. The high-value target came out of town on a motorcycle. We ran the tactic. I guided the bombs. The dude vaporized and the motorcycle cartwheeled about 50 yards. The weapons officer reviewed the video later and said the attack was “textbook.”

The Chandler family during a family cross-country ski outing near West Yellowstone, Montana. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

The Chandler family during a family cross-country ski outing near West Yellowstone, Montana. Photo courtesy of Eric Chandler.

  I don’t get to sit at a table after the war and sort things out. Because there is no after. The war just keeps going and going. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Recently, I pulled up a satellite map on my computer, trying to make sense of where I flew during that Afghanistan deployment. I suddenly recognized Razorback Ridge where I strafed to help my buddies. But a map only knows where things are. My other questions are unanswered.

  Now, when I’m out running or cross-country skiing, my mind wanders back to Afghanistan. Instead of looking at the white snow or the green trail, I think about the brown mountains tilting down toward green fields on the other side of the globe. I didn’t shoot down MIGs or dodge surface-to-air missiles. I did Close Air Support. I was in three scrapes in Afghanistan. One solitary time, I was lucky enough to clean off the racks and empty the gun. There’s a lot I don’t know, but I know one thing for sure, and it still pisses me off: My teammates on the ground said I had cold feet. My three fights improved from small mistake to precision strafing to textbook.

  I should feel redeemed.

* * *

Eric “Shmo” Chandler is a husband and father who cross-country skis as fast as he can in Duluth, Minn. He flew 145 F-16 combat sorties during seven deployments to the Middle East. He flew over 3,000 hours in the F-16 during his 24-year career in both the active duty Air Force and the Minnesota Air National Guard. He retired as a Lt. Col. in 2013. His writing has appeared in Grey Sparrow Journal, The Talking Stick, Great Lakes Review, Sleet Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, Aqueous Magazine, and Northern Wilds, to name a few. He’s a member of Lake Superior Writers and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild. Visit his website for more.


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When Tearful Goodbyes Were Foreign


Robert Lucier reflects on his progression from young recruit to grizzled, salty Marine. He describes what it means to "be a Marine 24/7."

When Tearful Goodbyes Were Foreign


Robert Lucier reflects on his progression from young recruit to grizzled, salty Marine. He describes what it means to "be a Marine 24/7."

  I pulled on my cigarette as Bentley exited the airport and strode toward me. Three days earlier, we’d departed Okinawa for the last time, arriving in California and puttering around Camp Pendleton, waiting on admin to finish processing our end of active service. He had managed to get his flight pushed up, and asked if I would try and do the same.

   “Wait here, wait at LAX, makes no difference to me,” I replied. Either way, my flight for Atlanta wasn’t leaving until that evening. “I know the USO here is solid, not so sure about the one in Los Angeles. Might as well stick with the one I know.”

  “Alright, brother,” Bentley said, extending his hand. “I guess this is goodbye.”

  I shook it and slapped him on the back. “Take care, brother.”

Robert Lucier takes a break to hang out with students while building a school in Guimba, Philippines. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

Robert Lucier takes a break to hang out with students while building a school in Guimba, Philippines. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

  He turned and headed back inside the airport. I pulled the last drag and deposited the cigarette butt in an ashtray. I’d known Bentley for nearly three and a half years. We had arrived at our unit in the fleet around the same time, and for most of that we’d worked, lived, and trained alongside each other, and when the time came, we’d gone through the entire checkout process from the Marine Corps simultaneously. Our cursory goodbye might have seemed cold to an outside observer used to hugs and tears, but what else should we have said? We’d said goodbye to so many other Marines who had deployed or left the service or lost their lives; tearful goodbyes were foreign.

  I walked back inside and headed toward the USO, retracing the same path I had made almost four years earlier when I began my enlistment. The Semper Fi Circle of Life, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego was visible over the fence that separated the airport’s runways from the base. New Marines were being made on the other side of that fence. On this side, I held my DD-214 and headed home for good.

Robert Lucier spent time training in Sukhothai, Thailand during one of his deployments. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

Robert Lucier spent time training in Sukhothai, Thailand during one of his deployments. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

  I walked into the USO, said hello and showed my military ID to the volunteer greeter, and signed in to the logbook with my rank, name, and branch: Sgt. Robert C. Lucier, USMC. I was once again amazed at how nice it was, the proximity to Marine and Naval Bases no doubt played a large part in getting the place spruced up. The USO at Lambert International in St. Louis was a closet with free coffee. Here, there was a large screen TV with couches and recliners, a pool table and a foosball table, free snacks and drinks, and even a side room with Xboxes and PlayStations featuring the latest and greatest video games. I had entertained myself for hours and hours over the last four years trying to throw rocks into helmets, slowly perfecting this time-wasting craft. This, by comparison, was not a bad place to kill an afternoon.

  I grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and a granola bar from a basket of snacks, found the TV remote and flopped down in a recliner, switching around in search of any sports channel. I set an alarm so I wouldn’t miss my flight, and promptly fell asleep. My body was still on Japan time, and the middle of the afternoon felt like 3 a.m.

  I awoke a few hours later to the sound of yelling. Near the exit to the USO, several Drill Instructors were tearing into a fresh group of recruits seated cross-legged on the pavement. Figuring it would provide some good entertainment, I swung my backpack over my shoulder and went outside, took up a position 30 yards away from the recruits, and lit a cigarette. It struck me how young they all looked. I was a grizzled salty dog, all of 24 years old. I took a particularly satisfying drag, remembering that none of these poor recruits would be able to smoke or dip for the next three months.

Robert stands with his grandparents, John and Patricia, during Family Day at MCRD – San Diego for boot camp graduation. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

Robert stands with his grandparents, John and Patricia, during Family Day at MCRD – San Diego for boot camp graduation. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

  As the Drill Instructors started screaming, “GET ON MY BUS RIGHT NOOOOW!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. It all seemed so very silly. The recruits would be forced to take the ride with their heads down, while the bus took a circuitous route meant to disorient them. They’d get dumped back off again still in full view of the airport. I’d managed to come through that silliness and the craziness none the worse for the wear. Some of these poor kids wouldn’t be so lucky. From where I sat, it was easy to pick out the weaker ones who already looked thoroughly bewildered. A lot of them wouldn’t even make it through boot camp. It was just as easy to pick out the strong ones, who were already taking charge. They’d become leaders. But it was impossible to guess what might happen to the ones who deployed, who might be in the wrong place at the wrong time—hit by an IED, taken out by a sniper. None of that mattered today as they frantically scrambled aboard busses that would take them to the other side of that fence while I looked on and laughed.

  I watched the busses pull off and headed back inside toward the video games. The newest version of Madden awaited, and I stubbornly chose to play with the Rams despite how terribly rated the virtual (and real-life) team is. I expected to feel some sort of unease at having my “to do list” for the next two months consist of only two items: buy a car, find a job. Instead, I was awash with relief. I was used to waiting in anticipation of the next task: killing time before PT; killing time before shooting on the range; killing time before formations, meetings, training, delivering, and receiving word of the day. It was odd killing time before… nothing, whatever, before the rest of my life.

Robert served as a Motor Transport Operator during his deployment to Sukhothai, Thailand. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

Robert served as a Motor Transport Operator during his deployment to Sukhothai, Thailand. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

  I de-boarded my plane in St. Louis the next morning, stretching, and yawning, my neck stiff from having fallen asleep in an awkward position. I had come to this very same airport to depart for boot camp on January 9, 2006. This would be my first Thanksgiving in the United States since 2005.

  The sun was just about to peek over the horizon as I strolled through the terminal. A screen on the wall said it was 40 degrees on this fine Thanksgiving day, and I added a third task to the to do list: get a winter coat.

  The airport was mostly empty. A stubborn refusal of progress by a city still stuck in the past had relegated Lambert-St. Louis International to second-tier status, but that also meant that it boasted the largest number of smoking areas of any airport in the country. I found the nearest one, entered, and lit up.

Robert stands aboard the USS Harper’s Ferry flanked by all the ships of the 7th Fleet. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

Robert stands aboard the USS Harper’s Ferry flanked by all the ships of the 7th Fleet. Photograph courtesy of Robert Lucier.

  I’d been on ship for the last two years, floating around somewhere. It was all a blur. But this year, I’d watch football at a normal hour, and enjoy good food with family and friends. I thought for a moment about my brothers and sisters in arms, all over the world, unable to enjoy the holiday. I toasted the next drag off my cigarette to them; not exactly pouring one out for my homies, but doing the best I could at the time.

  I snubbed out the cigarette and headed toward baggage claim, passed through the security doors, and saw my parents and brother. They held a giant banner with an American flag, the Marine Corps’ emblem, and, in giant capital letters, a message: “WELCOME HOME, SGT. BOB!”

I laughed.

Welcome home.

* * *

After two years at St. Louis University, Robert Lucier left school to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. He served as a Motor Transport Operator with the 3rd Material Readiness Battalion (now Combat Logistics Regiment 35) and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, both based out of Okinawa, Japan. Lucier currently lives and works in St. Louis, Missouri while studying Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.


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Service, Sexuality, and Stereotypes Of A Female Veteran


Tenley Lozano, a disabled female Veteran, describes the stereotypes and daily traumas of her service - sexual harassment, chronic migraines and PTS.

Service, Sexuality, and Stereotypes Of A Female Veteran


Tenley Lozano, a disabled female Veteran, describes the stereotypes and daily traumas of her service - sexual harassment, chronic migraines and PTS.

  If you look at closely at the woman standing by herself, you may catch a glimpse of ink etched into her skin, evidence of her years in the military—adventures and travels shown in colorful detail. Mountains rise from her left arm in watercolor patterns just below her shirtsleeve, symbolizing her first unit as a Coast Guard officer where she spent two and a half years on a ship stationed in the Pacific Northwest. At just over five feet tall with light brown hair and green eyes, she is petite with a muscular build.

  A medium-sized dog accompanies her everywhere, wearing a vest patterned after the American flag, white stars embroidered on a blue background. Patches sewn on the vest declare “Service Dog,” “Do Not Touch,” and “Disabled Veteran.” Perhaps you look the woman up and down, checking for a prosthetic limb. When you don’t find one, you might assume she’s training the dog for a veterans’ organization. Or maybe you conclude she put a vest on her pet as a way to bring it with her to public places.

Tenley Lozano stands beside her service animal, Elu. Photo courtesy of Rachael Warecki.

Tenley Lozano stands beside her service animal, Elu. Photo courtesy of Rachael Warecki.

If you thought any of those things, you’d be wrong.

  Under her clothes, a small manatee is inked in black on her left ankle, for the friends she made at military college. A loggerhead turtle swims along her right ribs in shades of green, a memento from her first patrol on a Coast Guard cutter. She spent nine weeks onboard the ship working in the Engine Room supporting counter-narcotics missions across the Pacific Ocean.

  Cherry blossoms bloom above the blue wind-swept skies on her left shoulder, a tribute to her childhood in Northern Virginia and memories of family trips to the Tidal Basin to watch the petals fall like pink snowflakes. A stylized orca on her left ribs for the whale-watching trip she took with a shipboard roommate, an emblem of the quiet acceptance of her bisexuality, at a time when it was still taboo in the military.

  A pin-up girl poses on her right lower leg, a foot in high-heels propped up on an old-school diving helmet—tattooed on the day she graduated from Navy Dive School. What you won’t see illustrated in ink a