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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

The Army She Knew Wasn’t Orderly or Disciplined. It Was Filled With Messy Humanity

Nina Semczuk struggled during civilian job interviews to translate how managing soldier drama while leading a 25-soldier platoon more than qualified her for the job.

Read Nina's story.


Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD

Jenny Pacanowski tried to drown out PTSD's screams with heroin. She realized she'd have to work on her internal monologue, or die.

Read Jenny's story.


Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don't Change

There was only so much prep work Tenley Lozano could do before Dive School. But how could she prepare for the additional scrutiny women endure.

Read Tenley's story.


When Life as a Military Spouse Got Hard, Amber Was Always There

Liesel Kershul weathered three deployments with her now-husband, Tom. When they moved to Germany the isolation became to much, until she and Tom adopted Amber.

Read Liesel's Story.


The Army Was Hard, Finding a Soul Sister After Returning Home Was Harder

Life in D.C. was impossibly lonely for Elizabeth O'Herrin. She looked to church for community, but struggled to find female friends, until Gina.

Read Elizabeth's story.


War Trauma Spread Through His Family Like a Virus

When John Sims suffered a severe panic attack, he realized he needed help. But he feared that people would think he'd cracked.

This essay is the second in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


After 30 Years and Four Wars, One Explosion Opened the Floodgates

Before he could heal, John Sims needed to understand that 30 years of service had taken its toll—not just on him, but on his family. 

This essay is the first in a three-part series.

Read John's story.


They Were Supposed To Be Fighting a War. Instead They Picked Up Gravel.

Dustin Jones prayed for contact, just a little bit of fire, to liven up the day. Imagine being at war in an unprotected position, hoping to draw a little gunfire.

Read Dustin's story.


I Leave Out the Part Where We Catch the Man

When he came back, Drew Pham told civilians traumatic stories from his time at war. He learned that people didn't know how to respond. The story he tells has changed.

Read Drew's story.


Circumstances, Misfortunes, or Fortunes

At the time, Teresa Fazio was a lapsed Catholic, hiding her beer beneath a tissue in India—polite women don't drink. She received prasad, like communion, and searched for salvation and connectivity amidst memories of Iraq.

Read Teresa's story.


SAILING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN – 2005

Tenley Lozano watched the Barque Eagle's bow cut through the Atlantic Ocean's night waters, swelling with bioluminescence and dolphins.

Read Tenley's story.


Photographing Innocence Admist the Chaos and Silence of War

"I saw them about a hundred yards away, amid a sparse herd of goats. They were playing, running, chasing each other. I wanted to see them close up. I wanted to photograph them," Dan Bellis writes, "but really, I just wanted to see them. I guess I wanted to play, too."

Read Dan's Story.


An Attack From Within: Males Marines Ambush Women in Uniform

The Defense Department is investigating the orchestrated stalking and the deliberate collection, and distribution of photographs of active duty and veteran women. Dozens of victims were identified by their name, rank, and duty station.

Our exclusive investigation.


His torch beckoned like a searchlight

"The days began to run together," Ryan Mallek writes. "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."

Read Ryan's Story.


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. 

Read Brian's Story.


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.

Read Dustin's story.


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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She Stayed Quiet When Marines' Wives Called Female Marines "Sluts." Then She Met Joy


Liesel Kershul had forgotten life on the painful outskirts of the wives' "sorority." A friendship with a female Marine has Liesel determined to change that.

She Stayed Quiet When Marines' Wives Called Female Marines "Sluts." Then She Met Joy


Liesel Kershul had forgotten life on the painful outskirts of the wives' "sorority." A friendship with a female Marine has Liesel determined to change that.

By Liesel Kerhsul

Editor's Note: Liesel Kershul and Joy Craig wrote each other open letters. Neither of the writers saw each other's before publication. Read Joy's letter to Liesel.

Dear Joy,

Something you said during our conversation when we met in New York made an impression on me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. You told me that during your 20-plus years in the Marine Corps, you often felt excluded from the military spouse “sorority”—a sorority of which I am a part. You said that in a vocation surrounded by men, you craved female friendship. You described spending “mandatory fun” events and barbecues on the outskirts—worried that spending too much time with the other male Marines would make their female spouses uncomfortable, but not feeling welcome to join in conversations with their wives. It was as though you had one foot in each camp, you said, but weren’t accepted fully in either.

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

I want you to know that I can relate to what you described, because I have spent time on the outskirts as well. Before we married, my husband and I dated for five years, and I often felt excluded at events. I clung to him at unit barbecues and the birthday Ball, and not because I was shy. It didn’t matter that I’d been through two deployments with him, I hadn’t earned a ring yet, and so it felt as though many of the wives thought of me as “temporary.” I once overheard a spouse in Tom’s unit say that because Marines go through women like water, until I had a ring on my finger, I wasn’t worth the effort to befriend. There were exceptions. One spouse in particular defied the flock and took me under her wing, but during those first five years they were few and far between. I spent most events glued to Tom’s side, listening to jargon-heavy stories while saying nearly nothing. For me, the experience was bizarre. I’d never been blatantly excluded in any other setting, and feeling unaccepted was painful.

Anyone who has ever been to a unit barbecue will recognize this phenomenon: The wives almost always cluster together, sipping wine or something suitably feminine, while the Marines spend their time huddled around coolers of beer talking shop. It’s admittedly archaic, but for the past decade it hasn’t been something that I thought much about. Having earned my ring, I was secure and comfortable in my “permanent” status as wife—my days on the outskirts happily forgotten.

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Although now I am the first wife to welcome a girlfriend into the fold, I hadn’t given much thought to what it must be like for female Marines in the highly stratified social setting that comprises our military reality. I’m the type of woman who relishes female friendship, who comes from a family of daughters and was a sorority sister in undergrad. I’ve spent my career working mainly in non-profits, a female dominated sector, in female heavy industries. I’m unaccustomed to feeling isolated anymore, and it surprised me when you told me how it felt to be a female service member on the outskirts.

And upon reflection, I don’t think your misgivings are unfounded. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of wives pigeonhole female Marines in much the same way as their husbands often do. Recently, I overheard a spouse comment that the women exploited in the Marines United scandal had it coming because they were “obviously sluts anyway.” I’ve always cringed when I heard things like this, but in the past I’ve rarely corrected them. I want you to know that after speaking with you, I’ve found my voice.

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

The day after I got home from New York, my husband and I had a “mandatory fun” barbecue to attend. In all honesty, although as a girlfriend I used to dread these events, as a spouse I love them. I don’t consider them “mandatory fun” but rather just plain old “fun.” For me, they’re where I get to catch up with friends who live extremely busy lives and are happy to have the time to chat for a few hours without any distractions, knowing their kids are at home with a sitter. But that night, our conversation still fresh in my mind, I made sure to introduce myself to all of the female Marines in the room. And then I introduced them to the other wives, who were, for the most part, gathered in the kitchen drinking a sweet, pink cocktail.

I could sense how uncomfortable it was at first for one Marine in particular, and I wondered guiltily if that was the first time anyone had made the effort. She seemed confused when I introduced myself, and even jokingly asked me if I was a spy. That comment drove home how unusual it must be for a spouse to try to get to know her. But by the end of the night, I felt like we’d bonded a little, and I hope she felt welcomed among the wives. I wouldn’t say we were kindred spirits, but I like her and I hope our paths cross again. And maybe the next time she’s at a “mandatory fun” event, she’ll consider striking up a conversation with a spouse. I, for one, know that I will never again let a female Marine feel like she exists on the outskirts.

In solidarity and friendship,

Liesel

•••

Read Joy's letter to Liesel.

•••

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Marines' Wives Are All the Same, She Thought. And Then She Met Liesel


Joy Craig writes in an open letter about the chasm between Marines' wives and female Marines, and about a budding friendship that has softened her distrust.

Marines' Wives Are All the Same, She Thought. And Then She Met Liesel


Joy Craig writes in an open letter about the chasm between Marines' wives and female Marines, and about a budding friendship that has softened her distrust.

By Joy Craig

Editor's Note: Liesel Kershul and Joy Craig wrote each other open letters. Neither of the writers saw the other's letter before publication. Read Liesel's letter to Joy.

Dear Liesel,

Meeting you in Manhattan this spring and, more importantly, liking you has forced me to rethink the years-long grudge I’ve held against military wives. I’ve been taught not to like your kind.

When I was a young Marine, it went against my gut instinct. I was raised a polite person and always tried to make friends, but Marine wives and female Marines typically react like oil to water. But when we met I realized that you’re not like most Marine wives. You have your own career, your own independent thoughts, and a spunk I really admire. Before you and I can become friends, I’d like to address the silent rift between us.

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

During my 17 enlisted years I attended countless command functions where Marine wives gave me dirty looks, made snide remarks, and gossiped about me, often with their husbands’ encouragement. Some pulled me aside to advise that I “stay the fuck away” from their husbands, branding me a predatory whore. Eventually I got sick of the “Jezebel” title and began to snap back. My standard response became, “Don’t flatter yourself, he’s all yours,” or worse, “If I wanted your husband I’d already have him.” This won me no friends.

I had hoped after becoming an officer, things would be different. Maybe the higher pedigree would calm down the juvenile pettiness between wives and women Marines. I was wrong. While the enlisted wives threaten you to your face, the officer wives are much more “bless your heart” about it.

Shortly after joining my first squadron as an officer, I attended a “Hail and Farewell” party to welcome new officers and send off those departing. Just after arriving I realized the cold shoulder routine extended across the enlisted-officer boundary. Despite my attempts at conversation, the wives congealed leaving me to talk with the only wife married to her husband during his enlisted years. With her low-rent nature and mother-of-three body, she too had been shunned by the beehive.  

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Since then, I’ve declined giving officer's wives the opportunity to get to know me, quickly dismissing them after a sugary, limp-wristed introduction where we struggled to find anything we had in common. What did they know of my life or the chip on my shoulder? I’d size them up and instantly know where I stood with them, and they with me. And this, Liesel, is why I like you. You’re a breath of fresh air.

Few of the Marine wives I’ve met speak of their own accomplishments, boasting instead of their husbands’. I began to believe this was what they’d wanted all along, winning the, “I found someone to take care of me” contest. They looked at me with pity, that I had to work for a living or that I was a destitute, single mother who, sadly, would likely never land a man.

They were taught the rank structure of wives, and how officially they didn’t wear their husband’s rank, but unofficially they all knew their place. Senior wives routinely induct new wives into the spouses “club,” laying out the standards of behavior and etiquette, gathering for afternoon teas and girls’ days, while their husbands do the mens’ work.

A fellow female Warrant Officer explained to me how she, upon her husband's commissioning, was invited to attend an afternoon tea at the commanding general’s home to welcome the new spouses into the Marine Corps. She was shocked to find off-duty enlisted Marines, in uniform, being paid to serve the officers’ wives. Happy for the extra cash, these Marines were likely unaware of the visual first impression that enlisted Marines were subservient, even to officer wives. Listening to this story both infuriated, and stuck with me.

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

It didn’t help that the wives of my new coworkers were near the top of the status heap: the wives of Marine Fighter Pilots. It was pilots’ wives who, at my last duty station, mutilated Marine Corps uniforms with scissors, sewing machines, and bedazzle guns into sexy outfits adorned with the Marine Corps emblem and their husbands’ ranks. The pink-camo monstrosities at the Officers Club that night sealed the deal for me; I would never be friends with a Marine wife. Until you’ve endured the soul crushing rites of passage your husband and I have survived, no, you don’t get to wear his rank. You don’t get to slap a sticker on your car claiming you have, “the toughest job in the Marine Corps,” or desecrate the uniform I fought for the right to wear for a “girls-night” at the O-Club.

I do realize much of the poor behavior I’ve witnessed is encouraged by the husbands, and of course, tradition. I get how wives must act, the appearances they have to keep. They’re expected to maintain the “perfect hostess” image forsaking their own opinions and identity… I understand. I’ve been forced into equally uncomfortable molds, with the added responsibility of being a warfighter. While trying to raise children I had to deploy, pay bills alone, stay fit and fight for my place in arguably the most misogynistic fraternity in the United States.

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

But here’s the hitch; other than you, I can’t think of anyone outside of my sisters in arms who could understand the pain and loneliness I felt being a woman in what is still, very much, a man’s Marine Corps. You know as well as I do that we are pitted against each other because I am expected to do something no one ever admits to: keeping your husband's secrets from you.

We’re not supposed to talk about it, but there is a reason the phrase, “What goes on deployment, stays on deployment” exists. If women Marines and wives don’t get along, maybe I won’t tell the truth about the hookers in Thailand, the strippers in Guam, or the debauchery during our last deployment. Maybe I won’t mention the times they hit on me either. So these men return home, shoot holes in my credibility, spread lies about me, and maybe a few truths, but either way, most wives dislike me before we ever meet, and it’s all by design.

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Liesel, I need you to be an ally and I want you to be my friend. I’m writing you this now for the same reason I wore fancy underwear beneath my uniform all those years, to remind myself that the men don’t have control over everything. If you and I can be friends, maybe we can help tamp down the out-of-control “boys will be boys” mentality that keeps giving the Corps its self-inflicted wounds. The other services don’t have this problem to the extent we do. It is unique to the service we share, and you and I can work to mend it. 

Semper sororibus,

~Joy

•••

Read Liesel's letter to Joy.

•••

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The Army She Knew Wasn’t Orderly or Disciplined. It Was Filled With Messy Humanity


Nina Semczuk oversaw 25 soldiers and all the human mess that goes along with that. But would a civilian executive see the value in her experience?

The Army She Knew Wasn’t Orderly or Disciplined. It Was Filled With Messy Humanity


Nina Semczuk oversaw 25 soldiers and all the human mess that goes along with that. But would a civilian executive see the value in her experience?

By Nina Semczuk

Editor's Note: Names of individuals mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.

“You must be used to order and discipline, coming from the military,” the executive said. “Things can be fast-paced and dynamic around here.” He folded his thin fingers together and looked at me. The office was silent, gray, and situated high above the teeming streets of Manhattan.

I pushed myself back in my chair, swallowed, and tightened my left hand around the pocket-sized notebook I had brought to the interview. I started flipping through my mental rolodex of Army memories, trying to find one that I could turn into a pithy anecdote that would convey my ability to handle the open position’s duties. Fast-paced, dynamic, and the ability to multitask, were listed on the job description. Hmm, multi-tasking—here’s one:

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I pictured Sergeant Tilley’s pistol sitting on the desk in front of me. We were in Kansas in our rat infested company area, a crammed 900 square foot portion of a low-slung one story concrete building. I was charged with babysitting the weapon after Tilley had been hauled off for questioning by the criminal investigative division. When I had taken charge of the platoon months prior, the outgoing platoon leader had said, “Sergeant Tilley is one of the platoon’s best soldiers.” At 19, the haggard teen soldier was still mischievous and testing the boundaries. He’d show up to physical training hungover, and would try to shock me and the platoon with comments about his rough, and possibly abusive, Oklahoma-country upbringing. Shortly after I took over the platoon, he found himself in a relationship with a woman, a mother of two girls, nearly 10 years his senior.

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

That gun I was guarding was found in his truck, loaded with hollow point bullets, unregistered and illegal at our Army post. The investigators found it after his former best friend, Rodriguez reported to me that he saw Tilley and his lady friend sneaking out of the barracks with his brand new flat screen television. Tilley and Rodriguez had been inseparable battle buddies until a night of heavy drinking—the alcohol supplied to the teen soldiers by the mid 30s mother of two—when Rodriguez had stumbled into her younger daughter’s room. He urinated on her floor while the nine-year-old child slept a few feet away. We had opened an investigation, disciplined him, and taken away his promotable status. Since the woman hadn’t called the police or reported the incident in a timely fashion, and we were bound to a he-said she-said after the fact, and we did the most we could do. I hadn’t anticipated Tilley’s encore, breaking into the barracks and stealing his best friend’s TV. 

We were days away from our massive training exercise in the Mojave desert, and I was juggling a huge load of intelligence analysis with limited manpower, but that pistol on the desk signaled the computer had to wait. I had to deal with soldier drama, what leadership referred to as “soldier issues”—investigating infidelity, mucking out a filthy soldier’s living quarters, disciplining a sergeant for sexual harassment, chasing an AWOL soldier, and more. I dealt with the full spectrum of human conditions while trying to get our actual work done. Should I tell the executive interviewing me how I had juggled a criminal investigation, AWOL soldiers, and a tyrannical company commander while tending to our platoon’s daily operations? Some of it was intelligence work, but much of my work would be similar to his corporate duties: endless meetings, PowerPoint presentations, and Excel workbooks.

Nope, not appropriate for this conversation. I scanned my memory for something else.

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

This job was my chance to climb back on the career ladder after restarting my life as a civilian. The position was one step above entry level, which made it all the more appealing as a 27-year-old trying to catch up to my peers in the civilian world. Almost six months had passed since I started an editorial internship in my career pivot from Army officer to writer, and I was living off of savings while earning minimum wage in New York. The money wasn’t going to last me much longer, and I refused to leave the city without making my pivot a success. I had shunned the traditional officer-to-civilian career route of using junior military officer recruiters to secure a safe but boring middle management job in fossil fuels in the Midwest. This might be my only shot; I had no other interviews on the horizon.  

Another memory surfaced, and I tried to brush it aside. No, can’t use that either, I thought. I had recalled my platoon sergeant, a new transfer we were excited to have from an infantry unit, Sergeant First Class Timan, sitting on a cot in an open bay at the National Training Center in the California desert. Sergeant Timan rocked back and forth and muttered to himself, while the male members of my platoon surrounded him. I had been summoned when he started rocking and stopped responding to his soldiers. As I made my way to his cot in the rear of the male sleep tent, my first sergeant pulled me aside and said he suspected Timan was having an Iraq flashback. Our unit had stepped off the buses that carried us from Kansas to California a few days prior. Older soldiers who had deployed to Iraq commented how similar the National Training Center looked. The bay Sergeant Timan sat rocking in was only a temporary staging area. We were poised to move out to the mountains and conduct our operations for the next few weeks, and my platoon needed every soldier possible. We were short every noncommissioned officer billet which meant my abundance of junior soldiers had limited oversight.

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Our new platoon sergeant stayed behind in the staging area. He had refused to move even after our Command Sergeant Major and battalion commander had yelled in his face to remind him of his duties, and in an attempt to snap him out of his daze. He continued to rock and mutter, refusing eye contact. I had to leave him and focus on the upcoming decisive operations mission. At 23, I had 25 soldiers to keep alive, six specialized trucks to employ for intelligence collection and analysis, and less than 15 months of active duty experience, six of which were spent in officer training. Did this count as “dynamic”? I wondered, picturing the job description I had memorized before the interview.

Nope, not useful either. I brushed the recollection aside and focused on the gentleman in front of me who waited for my response.

I thought about what the executive had said. You must be used to order and discipline. “Order and discipline” made me think about my old unit’s morning ritual. At 0620 each morning, we’d line up in formation, hands behind our backs, right palm over left, standing at ease. The morning bugle call reveille would sound. First sergeant called us to the position of attention as the bugle call played and a cannon fired in the distance. After the last note faded from the speakers, a scratchier recording would start—The Big Red One song. We opened our mouths to sing the opening line, “Toast of the Army, favorite Son! Hail to the brave Big Red One.” Out of tune and at different paces, we’d lose the sound of the recording over the drone of all the company formations grouped across the fort’s lawns.

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

It was the only time of the day where we seemed to be disciplined, simply by our tidy formations and unified mission to sing our unit’s song. The song would end, and we’d all scatter for physical training or sick call, the orderly lines that had made up rectangle-shaped formations dissolving as individual soldiers moved off. I couldn’t think of a time where the chaos of the Army was more muted than in those early morning hours.

Probably not what he means by orderly and disciplined.

His office was still silent, and I hoped I hadn’t waited too long to answer. “I’m very organized,” I said. “I used to be in charge of 25 soldiers.”

He looked at me. His idea of neat, orderly soldiers was so foreign to the reality of my messy, very human platoon of individuals. I thought about the interview tips I’d gotten and the prep I’d done. I fished for the appropriate phrase to capture my capabilities, potential—my Army experience reduced to a phrase.

“I did a lot of project management,” I added.

He smiled. “Ok, tell me about that.” I exhaled and started sifting through my mind’s Army scrapbook again. This memory, appropriate; that one, not.

***

Nina Semczuk is a former Army officer who served in various locations and units from 2011 to 2016. She earned a B.S. from Boston University prior to military service and now lives in New York and works as a writer and editor at a financial tech startup. Find her work on SmartAsset, The Muse, itscomplicated.vet, Fast Company, and around the web. Nina is also a Teaching Associate with the Voices From War writing workshop and an outdoor yoga instructor for NYC Parks and Rec.

Say "hi" on Twitter @ninadawdles or check out her site: ninasemczuk.com

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Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD


Heroin allowed Jenny Pacanowski to escape her PTSD in small doses. To get sober she had to deal with her trauma head-on, or accept that she would die.

Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD


Heroin allowed Jenny Pacanowski to escape her PTSD in small doses. To get sober she had to deal with her trauma head-on, or accept that she would die.

By Jenny Pacanowski

The first time I snorted heroin felt like the peace of a sunset at dusk, the ending of the day and beginning of darkness. Even though I had a great service dog and a solidly maternal house dog, I struggled. I searched for an alleviate my pain by escaping my memories, instead of investing in the internal workings of my mind and body.  I hated myself. My choices. My looks. My existence was guilt ridden and shame flowed like the blood in my veins.

Eventually that’s where the heroin ended up too, swimming in my veins with all the other poison that circulated through my body. I treated it like anxiety medication. I shot up and went to work without my service dog. I shot up and went to class. I shot up and went to the store. I shot up and felt brave enough, or numb enough, to be social with my family and friends outside my home. I felt so numb I could easily navigate the side effects of my PTSD without fear.  The heroin lifted the pressure that sat on my chest, it provided relief from the expectations that were drowning me.

Why couldn’t I get better faster? Why was every day a continued struggle, even with the three years of therapy I could accrued? I wonder still: Why am I still in pain? Why are my internal wounds still bleeding? Why do I still feel alone? Why am I so fucked up? Why am I so crazy? Why am I still struggling? What’s the point? What am I doing with my life? Why is surviving not satisfying? Why continue to survive when nothing is sustainable, not happiness, not relief, not love, not compassion, not humanity?

As the Why’s and What’s consumed me, the heroin brought breath and the freedom of emptiness. I maintained my mask for six months and successfully flunked out of college, because heroin trumped finals week.

The heroin as anxiety medication was not enough. The heroin wanted to be center stage.

It enveloped me, and I was no longer a suitable foster home for bullmastiffs. I maintained some strength in who I was by surrounding myself with Boo and Kiba. However the dogs’ care suffered, diminished to feeding, couch sitting, and lots of sleeping. Being awake was brutal and when the heroin ran out detoxing was like dying with my eyes open.  I finally broke down after a year and half of abuse and told my PTSD psychologist what was going on. Everyone had witnessed my triumphs of losing weight and successfully navigating the world without my service dog. As I plummeted back into anxiety and isolation most people thought my PTSD was flaring up and I let them think it. Being labeled a drug addict was unforgivable by society. Having PTSD was an admirable war wound, and mine had scabbed over. But with enough agitation the scab broke open and bled for all to see.

I exposed my weeping needle-pricked arms to the psychologist. He looked at me solemnly and stated, “You are out of my scope. I will give you a recommendation for an addiction therapist.”

I hated my addiction therapist at first. He was objective and seemingly lacked empathy for my pain. However, with Boo, my service dog, as my witness at the sessions, my path lit up again. Mindful breathing was another answer, one that didn’t take the destructive shortcut of injecting heroin into my veins, a shortcut that I’d relied on to access my breath.

The Why’s transformed into How’s, as in how to respond instead of react while identifying where the emotions physically manifested themselves. I started mapping out the intentions of my goals—what would improve my life and also others in my same situation—to begin narrowing down what my purpose was in this world. I came to the understanding that my heroin use was a direct symptom of my PTSD and my need to escape it. We discussed how to communicate to my family and friends what I was going through, what I needed from them, and who I am as a person, not as an addict going through it.

I simplified my life, changed my schedule by creating a more structure schedule. I developed my language with a conscious filter which required dropping the sledgehammer reaction to external stimuli, instead evaluating while breathing through my reaction and picking the suitable tool to respond with. I started to evolve. Sessions with previous therapists had been like having coffee with a friend as I bitched, replayed situations and traumas. This therapist was giving me applicable skills to do in my everyday life, my everyday anxiety, my panic and depression and How to get through those previously debilitating moments.

I gained momentum, retraining my brain and solidifing strength within my sobriety.  I moved away from the birthplace of my addiction. I left my boyfriend and my drug-abusing circle of acquaintances. To save money, I lived in my parents’ garage for six months sleeping on a full size mattress surrounded by my two dogs and two cats. I made a plan to move to Ithaca, N.Y. to join a veteran artist, writing, and farming community. I tried to improve myself every day and embrace the pace of going slow instead of letting the impulses control my actions. Sitting on the edge of Lake Cayuga, I learned to breathe and feel the sunset in my bones, my heart, and my soul without the heroin.

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***

Jenny Pacanowski is a poet, combat veteran, and public speaker. While deployed to Iraq with the Army, Jenny was a medic and provided medical support for convoys with the Marines, Air Force and the Army. She also did shifts in the Navy medical hospital. In Germany, she was part of a medical evacuation company. Jenny is a 2017 Writing Fellow. 

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Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don't Change


Tenley Lozano jumped at the chance to become a Coast Guard diver, proudly passing the tests every prospective diver undergoes. Water knows no gender.

Drown Proofing, Khaki Shorts. Some Things About Dive School Don't Change


Tenley Lozano jumped at the chance to become a Coast Guard diver, proudly passing the tests every prospective diver undergoes. Water knows no gender.

By Tenley Lozano

The Coast Guard Lieutenant handed me a pair of khaki shorts. Her blond hair hung in a tidy ponytail over the back of her blue t-shirt; yellow letters declared “COAST GUARD DIVER.”

“If you make it through this week and get a billet as a Dive Officer, this is what you’ll wear for PT every day in Dive School. You’d better get used to running and swimming in them,” she said. The khaki shorts were made of a rough cotton material, two d-rings at the top and an attached cloth belt; designed for use in recompression chambers.

Navy Dive School class pictured here, wearing their standard-issue khaki shorts. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

Navy Dive School class pictured here, wearing their standard-issue khaki shorts. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

The dive shorts haven’t changed in style or material since at least the 1940s, when the original Frogmen, Navy and Coast Guard members of the Office of Strategic Services Maritime Unit, wore them during the Second World War. In the ‘60s, these same shorts were worn by the men in Sea Lab when they lived underwater for weeks at a time. Bob Croft wore them when he became the first human to dive beyond 200 feet on a breath-hold in 1968, a team of U.S. Navy Divers watching underwater for safety. In Vietnam, the divers wore them when conducting underwater surveys, and every diver since has worn them during training at Navy Dive School.

As I stood on the pool deck in my two-piece Speedo sports-bra swimsuit, the black bottoms covered by the high-waist khaki short-shorts, a senior member of the dive unit walked up to me. The chief’s bald head was shiny in the warm humid air, and I watched his brown push broom mustache twitch as told me with a straight face, “You’re not wearing these right.” He stepped in closer and grabbed the top of my shorts as I leaned away from him instinctually. He tightened the fabric belt while I stood deathly still, dumbfounded that this man would grab me in the open with the other divers a few yards away. Was anyone watching this?

Navy Dive School class in training, pictured here. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

Navy Dive School class in training, pictured here. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

The chief leaned down and said quietly, so only I could hear him, “You shouldn’t wear such a revealing swimsuit. It’ll give people the wrong idea, especially dirty old men like me.”

He winked at me and smirked, then gave the cloth a final jerk, pulling me off-balance. The chief walked away, and I was left standing frozen, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. It was my first day of the Coast Guard Dive Screener, I’d just passed the Dive Physical Fitness Test (a 500 yard swim, pull-ups, sit-ups, pushups, and 1.5 mile run), and this man was already trying to put me down and show me that I didn’t belong at the dive unit.

A man with short brown hair and a Coast Guard Diver shirt called to me across the pool deck. I joined him and the group of divers, and he said to me, “You just passed the Dive PFT. That is the absolute minimum standard to begin training. Now we’re going to test your aquatic adaptability. Let’s see if you trained as much in the pool as you did on those pull-ups.” He led the group in a risk assessment of the training ahead and instructed us that anyone could call a safety timeout at any time.

Drown proofing class. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

Drown proofing class. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

The divers told me to stay calm in the water as they introduced me to “drown proofing.” I tied my legs together with a short length of rope while sitting on the edge of the pool, then I slid into the water. Once I was face-down and holding my breath, the five-minute countdown began.

I struggled through the first part. With my legs immobilized, I tread water with my hands. Five people watched my every move and tried to push me to the breaking point. They splashed water at my face every time I lifted my head for a breath. I pushed my tongue into the roof of my mouth to block it, but drank the water that came in anyway. My eyes stung from the chlorine as I watched the feet of the people around me and tried to face away from them and sneak a breath. I was exhausted by the time they told me, “Five minutes! Now switch the rope to your hands.”

With the rope on my wrists, I couldn’t to tread water effectively. I sank, and kicked frantically to get back to the surface for each breath. Panic crept into my mind. How long has it been? I gasped for air and swallowed only water. Without thinking I released my clenched hands from behind my back and yelled, sputtering and coughing, “Safety timeout!” The divers stopped spinning and dunking me and pushed me to the edge of the pool, shouting at me to get out.

The mustached chief said loudly and in an angry voice, “Get in the leaning rest!” He kneeled next to me on the pool deck as I held the push-up position and said, “You need to relax.” This statement seemed laughable, but I made sure not to show any emotion on my face. I couldn’t allow them to see any fear or weakness.

Donna Tobias, the first woman to become a Navy Diver, wearing Mk V Dive Equipment in 1975. Archival image.

Donna Tobias, the first woman to become a Navy Diver, wearing Mk V Dive Equipment in 1975. Archival image.

Since 1975 when women were first permitted to attend Navy Dive School, we’ve been held to the same physical standards as male divers, often with the added pressure of intense scrutiny by instructors and peers of every action made in and out of the water. Donna Tobias, the first woman to become a Navy Diver, said about her time in training, “I told myself they’d have to make me leave. I wouldn’t quit. If you ever uttered the words, ‘I quit,’ you could never take them back, and there were plenty of eyes waiting to see me fail. I didn’t want them asking less of women, for anything.”

The divers told me they would have sent me home right then, if they hadn’t been desperate for decent Dive Officer candidates. I hadn’t said that I’d quit, only that I needed a safety timeout. I stayed for the rest of the week, proving that I was a competent runner and strong swimmer with fins on, but they kicked my ass every day in the pool with breath hold exercises.

Each night I dreamed of drowning and woke up sweating, counting down the hours and minutes until I would be back in the water. The smell of chlorine didn’t leave my skin until I was back with my unit on my ship and sailing homeward.

I didn’t see the mustached chief again after that first day at the screener, and I told myself that he was an outlier. I had to believe I would be treated like an equal at my dive unit, not given a different set of standards as a woman, or else I wouldn’t have the will to make it through training.

I didn’t have any idea that eventually I would be able to hold my breath for three straight minutes while someone dunked and spun me. By the time I got to Dive School, drown proofing was my favorite exercise, the only one where I could just relax in the peaceful quiet of the water, where my khaki shorts and white t-shirt blended into the group of bobbing bodies. The water felt like the safest place I could be.

OSS Maritime Unit Diver pictured using Lambertson Amphibious Respirator Unit (LARU). Courtesy of CIA

OSS Maritime Unit Diver pictured using Lambertson Amphibious Respirator Unit (LARU). Courtesy of CIA

*** 

After graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy 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 chasing drug runners. She then attended Navy Dive School and spent two years as a Coast Guard Diver at Maritime Safety and Security Team 91109.

Tenley’s work has appeared in Permission to Speak Freely, O-Dark ThirtyThe War Horse, the anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home, and she was featured on the series Incoming Radio. She was awarded Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. Tenley graduated from Sierra Nevada College in 2016 with an MFA in Creative Writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website.

 

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When Life as a Military Spouse Got Hard, Amber Was Always There


Liesel Kershul felt isolated and struggled to make friends when she and her Marine moved to Germany. Their adopted dog Amber helped change that.

When Life as a Military Spouse Got Hard, Amber Was Always There


Liesel Kershul felt isolated and struggled to make friends when she and her Marine moved to Germany. Their adopted dog Amber helped change that.

By Liesel Kershul

There are two types of people in the world: dog people, and everyone else. I am a dog person. Some people might call me a crazy dog person. There are photographs and paintings of my dogs in every room of our house. They have the run of our furniture and our bed. In the past, I’ve convinced my husband to plan our pre- and post-deployment vacations around where our dogs will have the most fun, usually a mountain lake somewhere close enough to drive from our current duty station.

Liesel and Tom's dog Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel and Tom's dog Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

I wasn’t always a crazy dog person. I grew up with horses and spent all of my free time at the barn. As a teenager, I would have slept there if my mother had let me. But, inevitably, that changed when I fell in love with a Marine. After three years and two deployments together, he asked me to move with him from California to Germany, and so I left my horses behind. At his new billet, Tom worked long hours and traveled half the month or more. We weren’t married yet, so most of the Marine’s wives we were stationed with didn’t want anything to do with me. They called me a “stowaway,” and shut their doors in my face when I tried to deliver Christmas cookies.

Although I enjoyed Frankfurt, and had made a few friends out in town, I was lonely. I was only 22 and relatively poor, and because I wasn’t eligible for a work visa I didn’t have a job. So, I spent hours on my own exploring the endless green spaces, parks, and urban trails that crisscrossed the city. Free entertainment and exercise all in one. But the truth is, I forgot who I was when I began spending too much time alone, and within three months I began considering moving back to the States.

That’s when Tom suggested we get a dog. We had both always wanted a Golden Retriever, and when I pulled up the classified section of Stars and Stripes on my computer, there just happened to be a 10-month-old, female Golden available for adoption on an army base in Heidelberg, less than an hour from us. It seemed providential.

Tom with the couple's dogs. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Tom with the couple's dogs. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

We rented a car and drove south the next morning. On our way there, Tom reminded me that we were just looking. We entered the apartment, cozy and homey in a Cracker Barrel sort of way, all Yankee Candles and polished oak furniture, and sat down on a squishy brown corduroy couch. There were four dogs in the house—three Goldens and a Yorkie—but it was the pretty, honey-colored Golden who caught our eye. The other dogs were cute, but she was perfect. She had large, brown eyes that seemed to emit love-bubbles when she looked at us. Her fur was soft and silky and just the slightest bit wavy. She was also the friendliest dog in the house. She trotted right up to Tom, sat down, and put her paws in his lap. We couldn’t believe our luck when the owner told us this was the dog we’d come to see, and apparently she had decided that she was going home with Tom. He didn’t even glance at me. He said he’d be right back, that he had to go to the ATM. It all happened in the space of a few minutes.

Liesel and Tom's dog Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel and Tom's dog Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

We named her Amber, and stopped on our way home to Frankfurt to take her for her first hike in the Taunus Mountains. She romped in what was left of the snow, but didn’t go more than 10 feet away, seemingly uncertain about being off her leash and allowed to chase the squirrels. I was a bit of a helicopter parent, worried that she might run off if her nose picked up an interesting scent, but Tom just laughed and told me to relax. She wasn’t going anywhere. And he was right. She was by my side for nine years, seven moves, and two deployments. Those first few years, she helped me make nearly every friend I met in Europe. No one could resist her sweet, smiling face.

One night Tom and I got into an argument. I don’t even remember what it was about, but my initial, admittedly juvenile, reaction was to want to run home to my parents. Amber was the reason I stayed. Her fuzzy ears, wet nose, and insatiable joy manifested in a constantly wagging tail. She looked at me with her big brown doe eyes as I threw clothes into a suitcase, as if to say, “Really? You’re going to leave us?” It wasn’t the last time she kept me from doing something stupid.

Liesel and her husband, Tom, with their dog, Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel and her husband, Tom, with their dog, Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

In 2010, Tom left on his third deployment. We had orders to the west coast when he returned, so I decided to move out to California early and spend a few months with my family while he was gone. It was right around the holidays, and because his unit left two days after Christmas, I was more emotional than usual. I packed everything I thought I’d need for the next eight months into my Prius, loaded up our dogs (by then we’d rescued a second Golden), and dropped Tom off on base before heading across the country. I didn’t want Tom to see me cry, and I managed to keep it together for a few miles on the highway before I pulled over and sobbed. I remember she nuzzled my ear, and then rested her furry chin on my shoulder. It felt like Amber was telling me not to worry, everything was going to be just fine.

Liesel with Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Liesel with Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Although there’s a lot about it I love, at times the life of a military spouse has been difficult for me. We’ve moved a lot. Sometimes it’s been hard to find work, and I have a tendency to spend too much time home alone. It’s different for every military spouse though. Some spouses rely on their jobs or their churches or their children to build community. Some families are lucky enough to homestead and lead semi-normal lives, putting down roots in communities they come to love. That hasn’t been my experience. For me, it’s been my dogs who have kept me sane in the crazy life we’re living: the workups, the deployments, the periods of reintegration, the moves.

We lost Amber three years ago to hemangiosarcoma. Cancer. We didn’t know she was sick. She didn’t show it until the day she died.

When I woke up that morning her tummy was full and bloated. She was breathing funny, and I remember my husband looked at me with fear in his eyes. He had to go to work, so I called my best friend, and she drove down to take her to the vet with me. The doctor drained Amber’s abdomen of fluid, and did x-rays and ultrasounds. She told me Amber had a tumor between the chambers of her heart; she couldn’t say how long she would last. I called Tom sobbing and left a message on his voicemail. He was flying that day, but had told me before he left for work that morning to do whatever it took to keep her alive so he could say goodbye. Amber was as much his baby as mine.

Tom with Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Tom with Amber. Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

There wasn’t anything more they could do, though. The tumor was inoperable, so the vet told me to take her home and make her comfortable. As I lifted her into the car, Amber had a heart attack in my arms. Her breathing started to labor, and her tongue turned purple and then blue as she thrust it out of her mouth in a howl of pain. Her eyes rolled wildly in her head. It sounded like she was screaming.

I couldn’t carry her back into the office on my own, so my friend, eight months pregnant, went sprinting back into the building and grabbed a vet tech who helped me carry Amber back into the surgery. We lifted her onto the stainless steel operating table, and I cradled her head in my arms and sang to her while the vet shoved needles in her veins and tried to intubate her. Amber couldn’t breathe properly, and she just gagged on the tube.

Time stood still and sped up all at once. The whole thing happened in no more than a few minutes, but knowing she was in so much pain, it felt like hours. And suddenly it felt like seconds when I realized that these were my last moments with her.

I nodded to the vet when she asked me if I wanted to let Amber go. The doctor ran to a small refrigerator and pulled out a syringe. Amber stopped straining to breathe for a moment, and grunted as her head fell back into my arms. I climbed onto the table and spooned her, still singing, while the vet pushed the plunger and the drugs did their work.

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The Military Was Hard, Finding a Soul Sister After Returning Home Was Harder


Elizabeth O'Herrin searched for human connection after deciding not to reenlist. When she returned to church after a decades-long absence, O'Herrin found a soul sister.

The Military Was Hard, Finding a Soul Sister After Returning Home Was Harder


Elizabeth O'Herrin searched for human connection after deciding not to reenlist. When she returned to church after a decades-long absence, O'Herrin found a soul sister.

By Elizabeth O'Herrin

“We have a special prayer request,” the pastor announced. “One of our attendees, Gina, is deploying to Afghanistan. Let’s lift her up.”

I bowed my head and wondered who she was. I hadn’t realized any other women in this church also served in the military. I had served in the National Guard, and as a newcomer to this particular congregation, I hadn’t yet met any other women with whom I felt comfortable. While the pastor prayed aloud, I found myself thinking about how Gina was feeling as she prepared to deploy, wishing I could meet her before she left to offer some encouragement.

Elizabeth and Gina snowshoeing in the Rocky Mountains with Veterans Expeditions. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth and Gina snowshoeing in the Rocky Mountains with Veterans Expeditions. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

I’d recently begun attending church after a nearly decade-long absence. Like many teenagers who go off to college, my newfound freedom afforded me plenty of opportunities to experiment, and I gleefully abandoned the rigid faith of my youth. I served my first deployment when my unit was called up while I was a college sophomore. And then another, and then a third. I finished my National Guard contract, decided not to reenlist, and moved to Washington, D.C., where I searched for answers to make sense of my experiences. The idea of asking God for help after ignoring my faith for so long filled me with shame. But my mother told me to get myself to church and emailed me a few options. Shortly after, I found myself sitting in a familiar feeling service, but among many strangers.  

I was also hoping to make a few friends there. I had never lived outside of Wisconsin, and D.C. punched me squarely in the face: the smothering humidity, the speed with which everything needed to be accomplished, the political subtext that crept into every meeting. Breaking into a social circle felt impossible. Occasionally I was invited along for happy hour, but I remained on the fringes. None of the women I met seemed to have space in their lives for me. If there was a lucky fissure in someone’s schedule, my military experience felt like the elephant in the room: It was too big to bring up in a casual setting, but not talking about it felt like I wasn’t being truthful about myself. In a city overflowing with bright, beautiful, ambitious women, I came to the painful realization that I was starting from scratch.

Elizabeth and Gina volunteering with flood relief efforts with Team Rubicon in Colorado Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth and Gina volunteering with flood relief efforts with Team Rubicon in Colorado Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Alone with my thoughts on most weekends, I sank into a deep depression. I’d wake up on Saturday mornings and before stirring, the emptiness of the day settled over me. I’d force myself out of bed to stave off the loneliness that engulfed me in my tiny apartment. I’d wander museums and hope for new exhibits at the Portrait Gallery. There were crowds everywhere so it was easy remain unnoticed, and my loneliness felt obscured from others. When I ventured out for dinner, I aimed for the bar. I felt exposed if I sat alone at a table, and I didn't want anyone's pity. I drank a lot of bourbon on my balcony, the illuminated Capitol a few miles in the distance, and found myself contemplating the power of its occupants over the course of my life and so many others’ lives.

Being new to D.C. was punctuated painfully by the absence of my closest friend. My soul sister. Kathryn and I met when we were 15 and grew out of our awkward teenage phase and into womanhood, served in the National Guard on the weekends, and attended college together. We were roommates and next-door neighbors for five years. We served two deployments together to the Middle East. We’d been through enough to firmly bond us, even as most childhood friendships drifted apart. But then I moved to D.C., and she moved to New Mexico.

Gina covered in the dreaded "fecal freckles", mud mixed with raw sewage, after spraying down equipment Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Gina covered in the dreaded "fecal freckles", mud mixed with raw sewage, after spraying down equipment Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

And then one Sunday the pastor mentioned Gina, and I allowed myself to feel a flicker of hope. While she was deployed, I learned that she was serving as an Air Force trauma nurse on a Polish forwarding operating base in Afghanistan. After witnessing trauma nurses furiously working on my own deployments, I knew that her hands were covered in blood most days, and that she stood between life and death for a lot of young Americans. I thought of her often, and began praying for her, when I remembered to pray.

Several months passed, and then one day a woman from church invited me to a movie night. I learned the host was Gina’s roommate, and that Gina had just returned from Afghanistan. Maybe she would be there.  

That night, more than a dozen of us piled on the living room floor. Plenty of girls were laughing but I couldn’t follow most of the inside jokes, and Gina was nowhere to be found. I dreaded leaving because I knew the loneliness would come again. Partway through the movie, someone entered the apartment, pausing in the doorway. I could feel her heart sink at the sight of us. Gina offered a brief hello and scurried past, up the stairs to her bedroom.

I thought about what she had just been through, and I wondered if she felt isolated and alone like I had. I knew how petty the group must have looked, tipsy and shouting over Bridesmaids. I ticked off topics I could bring up with her but came up blank. She had been in Afghanistan, I had served in Iraq. She was a trauma nurse, I had built bombs. She had served on a tiny forward operating base full of the Polish military, I had served on giant air bases with Burger King's. She was active duty, I was Air National Guard. She was an officer, I was enlisted. It was beginning to feel like a long shot that we’d connect.

Elizabeth & Gina try kava, a traditional Western Pacific plant-based drink, in Chicago. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth & Gina try kava, a traditional Western Pacific plant-based drink, in Chicago. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

But it was worth a try. I summoned my resolve and asked for the bathroom and began poking around the house. At the top of the stairs, I saw a door cracked open and light filtering through. I knocked softly and the door pushed open a bit.

She sat cross-legged on her bed. She greeted me politely but a bit uncertainly, and I realized by entering her bedroom uninvited I could be intruding. I thought back to what strangers said to me when I came back, and grabbed the first thing that floated to mind: Welcome home. But I wanted her to know I had been deployed too, so I offered up some tidbits about my experience. I served over there, too. Sometimes coming home is the hardest part. Her face softened, and a look of relief passed. I apologized for being rowdy in the living room, and she quietly asked a few questions about my service. She wasn’t particularly talkative, and the last thing I wanted to do was overstay my welcome, so I began to back toward the door. Before slipping out, I wanted her to know one last thing. It gets better. I promise. Outside her bedroom door, a feeling of hopeful relief washed over me too.

Post Script: As serendipity would have it, Liz and Gina moved from D.C. to Colorado at the same time and became true friends. They have been on epic adventures including ice climbing and road tripping, and worked with  volunteers to clean up the biblical floods of 2013 along the front range of the Rocky Mountains with Team Rubicon. In 2015, Liz served as a bridesmaid in Gina’s wedding.

Elizabeth and Gina cheering as Air Force representatives at the VFW Post One's Founders Dinner celebration. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

Elizabeth and Gina cheering as Air Force representatives at the VFW Post One's Founders Dinner celebration. Courtesy of Elizabeth O'Herrin

•••

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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War Trauma Spread Through His Family Like a Virus


Colonels shouldn't appear to be traumatized, John Sims was told. But after decades of war he needed help if he and his family were going to survive.

War Trauma Spread Through His Family Like a Virus


Colonels shouldn't appear to be traumatized, John Sims was told. But after decades of war he needed help if he and his family were going to survive.

By John Sims

Editor's note: This is the second essay in a three-part series about succumbing to years of trauma, and learning to how to heal on his own, and with his family. 
Read the first essay here.

I was pretty fucked up after my last deployment to Afghanistan in 2010. I couldn’t see it then, but in hindsight, it was obvious. Theresa and our kids saw it, and lived through the pain and sadness that crept in soon after the homecoming afterglow faded. I had returned a different person than the man who had left. That single attack in Kabul, which had left 18 dead and scores wounded and that tore at my conscious, hadn’t changed me. The accumulation of unresolved trauma and hardship that occurred before and since September 11th, 2001 had changed me. Somehow, I needed to find a way to heal.

Fort Sill soldiers are welcomed home by Vietnam Vets, who weren't treated as well when they returned to the U.S. (1991). Courtesy of John Sims

Fort Sill soldiers are welcomed home by Vietnam Vets, who weren't treated as well when they returned to the U.S. (1991). Courtesy of John Sims

During my 30 years of service and involvement in four conflicts, I had experienced what I considered to be an expected level of combat stress. Since Desert Storm in 1991, I’d struggled with nightmares that I was dying in my sleep, being crushed by poorly constructed bunkers broken by the weight of tons of sand. Well after our return from Kosovo in 1999 where we’d been deployed to stop the ethnic cleansing, images and the smell of decomposing bodies from the mass graves we had protected for UN investigators clung in my mind and nostrils. I continued to smell the smoke from burning jet fuel from Flight 77 after it had crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Long after I was home I remained anxious from the constant threat of rocket attacks in Iraq in 2007. Now, the attack in Kabul grew entwined with this deep-rooted and unresolved junk.

Trauma loves company. Mine moved from person to person, as a virus moves through a community, spilling out in anger, sadness, silence, and guilt, slowly infecting the people I love most. I felt I had failed in my mission in Afghanistan. I felt guilty about those who had died on May 18th. And I felt shame for what I was putting my family through.

John Sims pictured here at Pentagon award ceremony in 1997 with his family Johnna, Annalisa, Marcella, Theresa, Billy. Courtesy of John Sims

John Sims pictured here at Pentagon award ceremony in 1997 with his family Johnna, Annalisa, Marcella, Theresa, Billy. Courtesy of John Sims

This viral knot finally unraveled one Sunday morning in Fort Drum, not long after my return from Kandahar. As Theresa and I were sharing our feelings about our year of deployed separation, I went into a severe panic attack. My heart raced; sweat spilled from every pore; I fell to the floor in pain, as if struck by a heart attack. Theresa called an ambulance, though I tried to stop her. Living in government quarters on a small, close-knit post like Fort Drum, there were few secrets. Now everyone would think, “Sims has cracked. He’s broken, couldn’t handle the war, probably PTSD.” Theresa knew I had been struggling since I’d gotten home because I had been distant and irritable. Later she told me that I had been “like an animal,” which she had hated, but the Army had loved.

The clinic emergency staff gave me medication to calm my nerves and referred me to the post psychologist. Their job wasn’t to make me well, but to make me combat-ready again. When I reluctantly called to schedule the behavioral health appointment, the doctor told me to use the side door. “We don’t want anyone to see that a colonel has a problem.” I thought the Army had been fighting the stigma around mental health issues. A junior soldier can struggle, but a senior leader can’t? I committed to walk through the clinic’s front door, just like every other soldier. I knew soldiers would see me, but I rationalized that they needed to see that a colonel needed help just like them.

Revalle with Annalisa (1991). Courtesy of John Sims

Revalle with Annalisa (1991). Courtesy of John Sims

The Army is for the young. Two years after that first panic attack, I decided that it was time to prepare for “life after the Army” and to retire in late 2013. I had enlisted in the Infantry when I was 18, and had served at every rank up to sergeant and colonel. The Army had been my life, but now it was ending. For the first time, I felt anxious about my future. Fear was my primary emotion—fear of not being able to find a job, support my family, or live with purpose like I had experienced in the Army.

Throughout my military service, the Army had given me a career road map: promotions, schools, assignments. Minus a few unpredictable wars, I had stayed on this predictable path to success. But as I prepared to become a civilian in late 2013, I had no map, compass, and certainly no prescribed path to follow.

Through my transition out of the Army, I received training in skills to help me start a new career. I mastered LinkedIn and job interview skills quickly. The Army trained me to be professionally ready, not necessarily personally prepared. I wasn't trained in how to understand and process the trauma I had experienced. Well after my wars had ended, my anxiety, anger, and poor coping skills had become debilitating.

Theresa encouraged me to seek help from the VA, which I did. I received both medication to reduce my anxiety and help me sleep, and counseling to allow me to verbalize my anger. These helped, but they didn’t fix my problems.

Courtesy of John Sims

Courtesy of John Sims

As vet in my mid-50s, I’m in that age bracket of being too young to fit neatly with the Vietnam “elders,” and too old for the Post-9/11 “young bucks.” In my search for answers and comradery, I became a serial joiner and supporter: the VFW, American Legion, Team RWB, the Mission Continues, and other veteran support organizations. If it said “veteran,” I joined. But I remained anxious.

While studying nonprofit management at Georgetown University, I met Ken Falke, a retired Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal expert with whom I became close friends. Ken had experienced his own struggles and now dedicated his energy to helping struggling veterans achieve Posttraumatic Growth. "PTG" was a new concept to me, and something that neither the VA nor the Department of Defense had mentioned during my transition. At first I thought PTG seemed to be just a play on the term PTSD. But I learned that PTG is firmly rooted in science, with countless stories and lessons from ancient philosophies and writings.

I became fanatically interested in the research and science of PTG. I started volunteering at Ken’s Virginia retreat, Boulder Crest. I began to study ancient warrior practices with modern-day warriors, like former Navy SEALs and Army Rangers. We learned the benefits of Transcendental Meditation, archery, yoga, journaling, and disclosure and gratitude.

For the first time in decades, I began unpacking the trauma and junk from my rucksack. A great weight began to lift. I no longer felt damaged and enslaved to my past. Now, I had to learn how to repair my relationships with those I love most. That would take some doing.

This is the second essay in John Sim's three-part series. Read his first essay here.

 

•••

John Sims served 30 years in the U.S. Army as both an Infantry NCO and Field Artillery officer. His assignments included command and staff positions from squad to strategic levels. His operational deployments include Desert Shield/Storm, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was the senior operations officer in the National Military Command Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. John and his wife, Theresa, have four children, all serving in or in support of the United States military.

 

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After 30 Years and Four Wars, One Explosion Opened the Floodgates


"Colonels don't bleed," John Sims' friend said before Sims deployed to Afghanistan. Shortly after, a suicide car bomber blew up the first SUV in Sims' convoy.

After 30 Years and Four Wars, One Explosion Opened the Floodgates


"Colonels don't bleed," John Sims' friend said before Sims deployed to Afghanistan. Shortly after, a suicide car bomber blew up the first SUV in Sims' convoy.

By John Sims

Editor's note: This is the first essay in a three-part series by John Sims about succumbing to years of trauma, and learning to how to heal on his own, and with his family. Read his second essay.

Not far from the gate of Camp Julian in Kabul, Afghanistan, a young man sat in a filthy car, praying. For three days he had been trolling Kabul, waiting for the right time. He had been recruited by the Haqqani network as a suicide bomber against Coalition Forces. As the lead vehicle in our convoy approached, and with only 100 meters to the safety of the Camp Julian gate, he detonated the explosives, vaporizing himself and sending fragments of steel, plastic, human flesh and bone flying. In an instant, all six passengers onboard our lead vehicle were killed: four senior officers who had arrived in country hours before, and the NCO and Soldier escorts who were scheduled to return home in weeks. Also killed were 12 Afghans, mainly women and children, who had the misfortune of passing on a bus just as the blast occurred. Eighteen killed on 18 May, 2010. This attack in the initial hours of arrival marked a bad start to a hard deployment.

John Sims in a briefing. Courtesy of John Sims

John Sims in a briefing. Courtesy of John Sims

It was the spring of 2010 as the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters prepared for a 12-month deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan. Monday, May 16th, 2010 would be my wife, Theresa, and my 25th wedding anniversary. Like countless anniversaries before, I wouldn’t be home. Theresa saw me off that morning as I left Fort Drum with the 10th Mountain Division Commanding General and a small group of senior officers for a short Pre-Deployment Site Survey (PDSS) visit to our future area of operation in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Since we would be there only for a week, I gave little thought that something might go wrong.

We arrived in Kabul Airfield in the early morning of May 18th, as the sun was beginning to rise. We dropped our gear, wolfed down breakfast, and prepared to convoy across town for training at Camp Julian. Dazed from poor sleep after traveling through half the world’s time zones and brightness from Kabul’s rising sun, we grabbed our gear and moved to the convoy staging area.

John Sims and his wife, Theresa, and their children on moving day. Courtesy of John Sims

John Sims and his wife, Theresa, and their children on moving day. Courtesy of John Sims

Across from us, six clean, black up-armored SUVs that sparkled in the sun sat ready to transport us through the dusty city of Kabul. We huddled for a quick safety brief. The NCOs and Soldiers assigned to drive were within weeks of heading home from their largely uneventful, year-long deployment. They told us, “It’s an easy trip we’ve done many times. Trust us that nothing will happen.” Some of us shared uneasy glances—what would we do if something did go wrong—but we were too new here to question their experience.

As the briefing ended, I headed towards the closest SUV, the first in the lineup. Ahead of me, several colleagues were already getting in. Not wanting to crowd the group, I moved to the second vehicle. Was there a force in play that caused me to change course? I carried that question for years.

As we left base and drove through Kabul, I was struck how the town bustled like a normal city. Women shopped in the markets, men talked or sipped tea in small groups, life seemed pretty peaceful and didn’t fit the image I had of Afghanistan at war. I considered taking off my Kevlar helmet and loosening my flak vest to get comfortable, but I didn’t want to draw criticism from my colleagues or a reprimand from the NCO.

Aftermath of the suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010. Courtesy of John Sims.

Aftermath of the suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010. Courtesy of John Sims.

It's hard to describe the sensation of 1,500 pounds of explosives detonating close by. First came a flash of light far brighter than anything I had ever seen. I don’t remember a ‘boom,’ but there must have been one: All six SUVs were in a flash scorched beyond recognition, with broken windows, flat tires, and leaking fluids. Debris rained down. As if in slow motion, a car engine with the attached transmission emerged from a cloud of dust, somersaulting toward our vehicle, landing just short of our windshield. Had that flying mass of steel travelled another six feet, it would have been catastrophic for our driver.

Stunned and in disbelief, I sat not wanting to accept what I knew to be true; we had sustained a suicide attack. A bloodied colleague approached and asked for a by-name account of vehicle occupants, and I realized that members of our convoy must have been killed. We had no record of who had boarded each vehicle. As we began identifying those who had been killed, I realized that all of them were in the lead vehicle I’d almost boarded.

2-18FA Battalion Change of Command. Courtesy of John Sims

2-18FA Battalion Change of Command. Courtesy of John Sims

My training to suppress emotions but still function in a crisis situation kicked in, and I joined the recovery of our comrades and helped secure the site. I performed as a soldier as I had been trained to do: with logic, but no emotion. But over the coming days, that suppressed shock took root, but I pushed it to the bottom of my emotional rucksack.

I began to think I might not survive the coming year. Before I had deployed, a friend had joked with me, “Don’t worry, John, colonels don’t bleed.” I took solace in his words. Over time, the weight of the May 18th attack and others would join 30 years of traumatic events from Desert Storm, Kosovo, the Pentagon on 9/11, and other deployments. Eventually the weight of these struggles became too much to bear, and I realized I had to make a change. But what?

This is the first essay in John Sim's three-part series. Read his second essay here.

•••

John Sims served 30 years in the U.S. Army as both an Infantry NCO and Field Artillery officer. His assignments included command and staff positions from squad to strategic levels. His operational deployments include Desert Shield/Storm, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He was the senior operations officer in the National Military Command Center during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon. John and his wife, Theresa, have four children, all serving in or in support of the United States military.

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They Were Supposed to be Fighting a War. Instead They Picked Up Gravel


When their tent filled with clumps of mud during the rainy season, Dustin Jones' unit found a solution. But some jobs are too absurd to be taken seriously.

They Were Supposed to be Fighting a War. Instead They Picked Up Gravel


When their tent filled with clumps of mud during the rainy season, Dustin Jones' unit found a solution. But some jobs are too absurd to be taken seriously.

By Dustin Jones

I was on my hands and knees, picking golf ball-sized rocks out of the mud. The rain drummed on my helmet and ran down my neck and back. We were wearing our rain gear, so we steamed from the inside out like vegetables. As I dug through the mud, I began to question every decision I had ever made. Maybe if I hadn’t played in the woods as a kid and instead buried my nose in books I would be anywhere else but here.

Man Bear Pig—or MBP, as we came to call the FOB—was surrounded by farmland that reminded me of Kansas. It was flat, with shades of green and brown, and when it rained it became a nightmare to patrol. The terrain was typically dry throughout the year, which made it easy to walk on and easy to see if the ground had been disturbed if the friendly neighbor had planted an IED. The problem was that winter was the rainy season.

The author, Dustin Jones, was based at Man Bear Pig (MBP) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

The author, Dustin Jones, was based at Man Bear Pig (MBP) in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Dustin Jones

I once watched a fellow Marine, a friend of mine, struggle to free himself for over an hour from one of those fields. He tried to walk through the mud while others circumnavigated it, and he got trapped.

We laughed and ridiculed the Marine as we watched the poor guy crawl, for what must have been well over 100 yards, through mud that robbed him of his boots.

Almost every day over the course of the winter, we patrolled back to base with our feet caked in mud, significantly heavier than when we had left the wire.

Those of us who had a tent to call home—maybe a third of the Marines—did our best not to track in the mud, but it was impossible. Instead of taking off boots near the tent’s entrance like rational people, we walked straight to our bunks, dropped our gear, and then took them off. It was lazy, sure, but nobody cared. The tent quickly filled with clumps of mud.

An officer in charge—never really knew who—came up with a plan. We would put rocks in front of the tent. The idea, I believe, was to use the area to kick off the mud and rinse off our boots.

The officer was commended on his idea by the senior enlisted Marines. Idiots.

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

“Where can we get the rocks?” someone asked. The post down the road, where Bravo Company Command was based, had funds to use at their discretion. A couple hundred dollars would buy enough gravel, easily.

But we were told a truck couldn’t come for several days, and this project had to be completed immediately. The solution? Manpower.

Marines—myself included, of course—toiled about 50 yards outside the wire with empty sandbags, picking up rocks by hand. In the rain. In full gear. In a hostile area of operations.

Because we had our rain layers on, we were drenched inside our gear while our hands and feet froze. This restricted the movement of our hands. I remember slowly opening and closing them, muscles and ligaments slow to respond.

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

We squatted, or got on our hands and knees, and started picking up rocks and filling our sandbags. When they were full, we would trudge back to the base and dump them in front of the tent. Had we made any progress? it was difficult for us to tell. The lieutenant, who stood idly, remaining dry under shelter, may have been tracking our progress.

We repeated this process for hours. I began to pray for contact, just a few pop shots. Some inaccurate fire so we could stop this madness. In the month or so we had been in Afghanistan, most days we found ourselves in brief firefights, and maybe a few rounds too close for comfort would demonstrate the unnecessary danger we were placed in.

As we gathered our rocks we periodically looked to the west, keeping an eye out for shooters. They always shot from the west.

My prayers were not answered. No shots were fired and the work continued.

At one point, a Marine brought a rock to his friend and asked for his hand in marriage. He explained that male penguins search for the perfect pebble for their mate and present it as a gift. The Marine smacked the rock out of his suitor’s hand, questioned the Marine’s sexuality, and went back to work.

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

Courtesy of Dustin Jones

After a while a flak jacket can start to dig into a person’s shoulders. The weight of the rain added to our combat loads. As the hours went by, our backs and shoulders ached from being hunched over. Our helmets weighed somewhere around five pounds. As we scanned the ground our necks began to hurt.

“Why didn’t I go to college?” I asked myself. “I could be hungover in a class right now, pretending to invest in my future, but nope—here I am. I could be in bed with a girl, a warm and hopefully attractive girl, but nope—here I am, cold and wet, surrounded by a bunch of guys.”

As I poked around in the mud, I heard the distinctive rumbling of exhaust brakes. 

Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched, as a large truck made its way towards MBP.

“Is that a… ?” someone murmured. “Shut up,” someone cut him off.

We stumbled to the entrance of the base and watched as a dump truck emptied a load of gravel. 

Our backs and necks ached, our legs cramped up, hands and fingernails were tattered—for nothing.

We were ordered to move the gravel from the entrance of MBP to the entrance of the tent. Double time.

•••

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 writing tends to focus on lessons learned overseas and his experiences in and out of his military service. 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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I Leave Out the Part where we Catch the Man


Drew Pham told civilians stories of trauma when he first returned. He soon learned that it was easier to tell them a funny story about a goat.

I Leave Out the Part where we Catch the Man


Drew Pham told civilians stories of trauma when he first returned. He soon learned that it was easier to tell them a funny story about a goat.

By Drew Pham

There’s a story I like to tell people about Afghanistan. It goes something like this:

An Afghan Army cordon in Nerkh District. Courtesy of Drew Pham

An Afghan Army cordon in Nerkh District. Courtesy of Drew Pham

There’s an insurgent commander we’d chased all year, who’d killed policemen, blown up civilians, and attacked Americans. An informant calls us to say that the commander is at his family home. If we hurry we might catch him. We rush out there with our Afghan National Army counterparts, but he’s gone. The informant calls again to say that the target escaped but we can still get his lieutenant, hiding in a nearby village. We find the village at the top of a steep hill overlooking the valley. We encircle the house. The ANA line up to burst into the house and apprehend the man. The first man in the stack kicks down the door. He doesn’t find a Taliban lieutenant but a goat tied to a crude stove fashioned from an oil drum.

The startled animal bolts through the door knocking the soldier out of the doorway. It runs with such force that it rips the stove out of the wall, charging past the Afghan troops and down the hill. At the bottom, an Afghan soldier posted on the perimeter faces out toward the valley. The lanky teenage trooper pays no attention to the commotion at the top of the hill so he doesn’t see the goat galloping straight for him. My entire platoon watches but none of us has a strong enough command of Dari to say: Look out! There is a goat tied to a stove running straight for you. Instead we only point.

The goat tramples the soldier, who turns into a jumble of limbs. His rifle twirls out of his hands. His helmet tumbles off his head. The animal leaves him in a heap. On his knees he tries to get his bearings but before anyone can warn him the stove strikes him in the head and lays him out flat. The soldier lies there unconscious. The goat trots off into the woods, stove still in tow.

The village’s name on a map Drew Pham saved, a photograph of the commander hidden in a notebook, and the guilt he harbors for what happened afterwards. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The village’s name on a map Drew Pham saved, a photograph of the commander hidden in a notebook, and the guilt he harbors for what happened afterwards. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I only lost a year to Afghanistan, but it feels like a lifetime. When I left the Army, I felt like a time traveller set adrift in an unfamiliar future, the people and places I loved changed so much they were almost unrecognizable. I can’t say when I started telling the goat story; I only know that it was after I started confessing other stories to friends, loved ones, and strangers at parties. Perhaps I thought that by talking about the war I would somehow get back the time I lost, get back the sense that the future was a possibility rather than a forfeiture. I told them how I let a pedophile keep his bacha bazi boy because I thought I had no choice. I told them about the dead—finding pieces of them in the trees, chewed apart by dogs, or struck down by a sniper’s bullet. I told them about the man I killed. I thought if I told these stories often enough, the act of telling would dull the pain of remembering.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, taken shortly after the Author returned from Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Bushwick, Brooklyn, taken shortly after the Author returned from Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

I wanted other people to hear about the place that took me out of time, so that they might feel like they’d lost something too. No matter whom I told, the response was almost always silence. Maybe they felt for a brief moment as I had, maybe they felt nothing, or worse, maybe they were disgusted. Rather than contending with uncomfortable silences, over time I learned to tell them a joke about a goat instead. Soon, the story slipped from my control to the point that it was no longer mine. I recited this tale so many times that I began questioning whether it had happened. But I have proof it happened—the village’s name on a map I saved, a photograph of the commander hidden in a notebook, and the guilt I harbor for what happened afterwards.

I always leave out the part about catching the Talib.

Author's platoon descend from a mountainside in Jalrez District. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Author's platoon descend from a mountainside in Jalrez District. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The ANA find the Talib hiding alone in an abandoned shed at the top of the hill, watching us. From this vantage point someone can see the whole valley, the highway and our combat outpost, kilometers away. He isn’t hiding from us; this is an observation post. Here he can count our numbers, guess our intent, give the order to strike. The Talib stumbles as the ANA drag him down the hill. He’s haggard, beard streaked grey, the elbows of his green shalwar kameez are shiny from wear.

The Afghan soldiers close in around the Talib. I ask my interpreter what they’re saying.

He tells me, it doesn’t matter, the Talib is a liar.

The Author in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The Author in Afghanistan. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The ANA Lieutenant brings his bootheel down on the Talib’s ribcage. The other ANA soldiers strike the Talib with the butts of their rifles, careful not to leave any marks on his face or hands. I just stand there watching, trying to rationalize this brutal act. War is brutal. This one is no exception. My chest is tight, and I’m thankful that when my deployment is over, I get to climb aboard a plane to go home. The Afghans have to go on living with the war—the suicide bombs, kidnappings, assassinations—long after I’m gone. For them, it’s victory or death. The Talib sobs between blows. I turn away, listening to my comrades beat the man. I do nothing, committing my own little war crime.

While no one is watching, I offer the prisoner a cigarette as if that will absolve me. Of course he doesn’t smoke; the devout are forbidden from such decadence. The Afghan soldiers drag him through the village streets. We march into the valley, back to the outpost. On the road back, we pass what seems to be the Talib’s home. His family waits outside the qalat gates; the children wail as he passes. The Talib reaches out to them, but the soldiers shove him onward. When we reach the outpost, the Afghans blindfold the man, and lock him in a room under armed guard. In the morning he disappears.

•••

Drew Pham is a Brooklyn based writer and contributing editor at The Wrath Bearing Tree. In 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. Follow Drew on Twitter @Drewspeak.

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Circumstances, Misfortunes or Fortunes


Teresa Fazio hid her beer beneath a tissue - polite women didn't drink. She received prasad, like communion, and searched for salvation amidst memories of Iraq.

Circumstances, Misfortunes or Fortunes


Teresa Fazio hid her beer beneath a tissue - polite women didn't drink. She received prasad, like communion, and searched for salvation amidst memories of Iraq.

By Teresa Fazio

On the road from Delhi to Chandigarh, the smoke in the air made me chant to myself: You’re not in Iraq, not in Iraq, not in Iraq. I drowsed on the drive, jerking awake at the driver’s regular honks. I practiced the Punjabi greetings my host family taught me with the 10-year-old servant boy, who brought me hot chai in the evenings. It was milkier than the hot tea the locals had sold when I was deployed to Iraq.

My host family didn’t burden me with expectations; I was the sole American guest at a grad school friend’s wedding. I didn’t speak Hindi, and I was a lapsed Catholic who hadn’t yet started meditating. So I watched a rotating cast of aunties flutter amid the festivities, while the bride’s mother’s cell phone rang every five minutes. I mingled with the bride and groom’s English-speaking siblings and friends, and was paired with a 15-year-old female cousin for trips to local tourist sites. At the celebration, the men were freely offered alcohol. I had to ask for it, and was coached to conceal my beer under a tissue; polite women didn’t drink. I minced around and hoped my habits didn’t offend anyone.

The city of Amritsar. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

The city of Amritsar. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A few days in, after a home-cooked lunch, one of the aunties arrived. She brought out a small paper sack and made her way around the room, doling out pinches of oily, sugared grain. It tasted sweet, with slight grit to its texture. They called it karah prasad, or just prasad, a word that I later learned means “divine gift.” I watched the family receive thumb-sized portions; when Auntie came to me, I followed their lead. Prasad was a symbol of equality and community in what seemed, to me, a highly stratified country. Following hospitality protocols, it’s customary to take at least a little bit anytime it’s offered.   

I received my prasad with both hands, like communion, and ducked my head in thanks, not unlike when the locals on our Iraqi base had given me samples of freshly made flatbread. I swallowed the slug of sweet lead, barely needing to chew. Auntie put the bag away, and I filed the ritual with the other customs learned that week: yellow clay smeared on the bride’s face; a mandala of sand and flowers she constructed; young people touching older women’s feet as a sign of respect.

A closer look at the Harmandir Sahib, or “Abode of God,” known as the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A closer look at the Harmandir Sahib, or “Abode of God,” known as the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

Towards the end of my 10-day stay in Chandigarh, the family arranged for me to see the golden temple at Amritsar—the holiest temple in Sikhism—a several-hour ride away. As we walked towards the entrance, the driver motioned toward the communal faucets. I washed my hands and feet, and rubbed water on the back of my neck. Dressed in t-shirt and cargo pants, I wrapped a white scarf around my head. I was the only white person there. People stared at me as I walked through an entry arch and down a few shallow marble steps that opened into a huge, airy plaza. But they were only curious, and their stares were not as intense as those I’d drawn running in shorts, pistol in hand, along our Iraqi base’s perimeter.

A pool the size of a football field reflected gleams from the golden temple. Gold leaf plated its upper floors, roofs, and domes. I slowly circled the pool’s marble perimeter, slick with holy water. Low walls held memorials.

The driver and I entered the langar—a low building with an empty cafeteria line where prasad was distributed. A man pushed me a fluted paper cup through metal bars: a hefty portion of ghee and grain. It was as if prasad was meant to be eaten like the coco helado Dominican ladies sold from carts back in Harlem.

The author at the Golden Temple of Amritsar in 2009. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

The author at the Golden Temple of Amritsar in 2009. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

I wasn’t particularly hungry; the lump of prasad was the size of my fist. I had no bag in which to store it, nor a spoon. I took a small bite at first, then a few large ones. It was mine to squander.

The driver finished all of his. Then he balled up the sticky mess of his paper cup, rubbing his hands together as if washing them free of the holy stuff.

I kept eating as I walked, until I was more than full. I barely tasted sweetness, just the cloying mouth-feel of ghee. But I couldn’t finish the last few fingerfuls of prasad; grease had seeped through the paper cup. So I twisted it up and tossed it—thunk—into a wire trash can. On the long drive home, we waited for a herd of oxen to cross in front of us. I felt much calmer than the last time I’d seen roadside shepherds, on a convoy northwest of Nasiriyah.

That evening, my host family looked at me expectantly in their living room. I complimented the Golden Temple. “And did you take prasad?” they asked. Yes. “And did you bring some back?” No. Why? Was I supposed to?

The family largely glossed over my misstep. I had thought it was meant to be similar to Catholic communion: go to church, get a snack. I burned with the shame of not having decoded Sikh social norms. And I wondered if throwing out the last of my prasad would doom me to bad luck.

A man sits in front of the reflecting pool at the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A man sits in front of the reflecting pool at the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

Though prasad is given equally, life happens to each of us unequally. Prasad recognizes the fundamentally divine kernel inside each person, and provides a reminder: No matter our lives’ circumstances, misfortunes or fortunes, all are equal in the eyes of the divine. And back to the divine we all will go. Years later, I would memorize a related phrase written on a coffee-shop chalkboard: “Be humble, for you are made of dirt; be noble, for you are made of stars.”

Five years before, a few days before I left Iraq, about 50 of us in our Marine company had our exit brief. We sat in plastic chairs in the wooden chapel, where, five months prior, a dud rocket had crashed through the roof. Our 60-something Protestant chaplain swept a paternal gaze over us. Only one part of his debrief stuck with me. He shouted that we owed the Marines who had died. We had to honor their memory with our future success.

We met him with silence. I owe no one anything, I thought at the time. I was bitter after seven months of Groundhog Day, and thought he was trying to shame us into behaving when we got home. I later found out that another officer had walked out of the chapel in disgust at the chaplain’s words. Honor in war, as in life, is not zero-sum. The chaplain may have only been trying to get us to pay others’ sacrifices forward. But at the time, his words felt manipulative and divisive.

A plaque memorializing Sergeant Uday Singh, US Army, at the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

A plaque memorializing Sergeant Uday Singh, US Army, at the Golden Temple. Courtesy of Teresa Fazio

At the Golden Temple, one memorial in particular stood out to me. It was a block of pinkish marble with black writing: a name and two dates, 21 years apart. Sergeant Uday Singh, U.S. Army. The plaque named him “the first Sikh who laid down his life in the war against terrorism.” He’d been killed in action in Habbaniyah, Iraq in 2003. Four months after that, I’d arrived less than five miles from where he’d died. I flashed back to our sandy base, where everything had seemed to be the color of cement. I stared for long minutes at that memorial brick, awed, in respectful silence. Though our fates had diverged, we’d met there, at Amritsar. The questions still linger: Why him and not me? Am I wasting my divine gift? Have I failed to pay a debt I incurred by surviving?

In the Sikh tradition, prasad is a manifestation of the human desire for equal treatment. Congregants are encouraged to take it home and share it with neighbors; it is meant to overflow. One might even compare it to the Christian story of the loaves and the fishes. That day, I did find communion— just not the kind I was used to.

•••

Teresa Fazio was a Marine Corps communications officer from 2002-2006, deploying once to Iraq. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in the New York TimesRolling StoneTask and PurposeVassar QuarterlyConsequence Magazine, and Penthouse, and the anthologies Retire the ColorsThe Road Ahead, and It’s My Country, Too. She lives, works, and occasionally skateboards in New York City.

 

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Sailing the Atlantic Ocean – 2005


Tenley Lozano watched the Barque Eagle's bow cut through the Atlantic Ocean's night waters, which swelled with bioluminescence and dolphins.

Sailing the Atlantic Ocean – 2005


Tenley Lozano watched the Barque Eagle's bow cut through the Atlantic Ocean's night waters, which swelled with bioluminescence and dolphins.

By Tenley Lozano

Bundled in our parkas, hands in pockets, scratchy black wool caps pulled tight over our ears, we peered out over the ocean into the moonlight and wondered if anyone else was out there. That was our job: Lookout. Gazing out into the distance for other vessels on the water, or anyone in distress. Kirsten was peering through the small binoculars they let the cadets use, while the enlisted person on watch had the portable Big Eyes slung around his neck and propped up with one arm. Looking through those, he could spot a ship 12 nautical miles away on the horizon and radio its relative position to the Pilot House. With the small binoculars, Kirsten and I were lucky to have a clear field of vision just a few miles away.

The Eagle at night. Photo by Walter Shinn

The Eagle at night. Photo by Walter Shinn

When people asked how I’d be spending my summer, I told them, “Imagine a big pirate ship with sails, that’s basically where I’ll be. We’re sailing from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. to Newfoundland, Canada, and then we have another three weeks of travel straight across the North Sea to Germany, then over to Scotland.” The enlisted sailors onboard told us we were earning nautical star tattoos by sailing across the North Sea. Sailors had started getting inked with five-pointed stars a century ago as signs of good luck and guidance back when they used the celestial bodies to navigate. Not that I wanted a star tattoo at 18 years old, but it made me feel a bit like a salty motherfucker, as if I belonged with the sailors who came before me, tattooing all their travels on their bodies, with sparrows, nautical stars, banners, and sea creatures for each voyage.

We wouldn’t sail the whole way on the journey; the ship had a Caterpillar diesel engine for when the winds weren’t favorable. But at that moment, the seas were calm and the wind was heading straight up the east coast of the United States. My duty section had to adjust a couple sails during that watch, changing the angles on Mainmast Topgallant and Mainsail to give us a little boost in speed and stop them from luffing and flapping in the wind.

The Eagle viewed from Bowsprint in 2005. Photo by Ryan Beck

The Eagle viewed from Bowsprint in 2005. Photo by Ryan Beck

The Barque Eagle was on such a scale that I hardly knew the names of all the sails, let alone the names of all of the lines that we pulled and loosened to adjust them, making the 295-foot ship glide through the water. There were rows and rows of lines belayed on pins all along the railings of the ship, and all of the crew stationed onboard and upperclass cadet supervisors, called “cadre,” had to memorize them.

The Eagle was home to 17 officers, 45 enlisted members, 109 cadets on our sophomore summer cruise, 12 cadre senior cadets who had spent six weeks sailing on Eagle when they were younger cadets. Close to a third of the people on Eagle right then were women. The first Coast Guard Academy class to graduate any women at all was the class of 1980. The Coast Guard was the only military service at the time that had all positions open to women. Despite that, the size of the Eagle's female population was unprecedented.

The ship also carried two civilians who were know-it-all tall ship museum snobs, and a ghost crew of who-knows-how-many spirits whose deaths spanned most of the 20th century. We heard scuttlebutt from the crew that an Academy cadet had fallen to his death from the rigging years ago, and that another had been swept overboard and drowned during a storm. No one was sure how many people had died onboard the ship, but rumors had it over a dozen.

The Horst Wessel.

The Horst Wessel.

The ship was built in 1936 by Blohm and Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany and commissioned as the Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel. She was built by Nazi Germany to train cadets for the German Navy, but during World War II, the Horst Wessel was equipped with anti-aircraft guns and sent into battle. After the war, the U.S. took the tallship from the Nazis as reparations in 1946. She was renamed the Barque Eagle and commissioned as a U.S. Coast Guard vessel before sailing from Bremerhaven, Germany to her new homeport at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. The crusty old head engineer onboard told me about the ship’s history, taking me down to a storage space to show me a swastika that was still visible on the metal hull.

Why the rest of the crew and cadre didn’t care about those stories I’d never understand. At that very moment, we were sailing the Eagle back to her original home port of Bremerhaven, Germany for the first time since she’d been captured by the Americans in WWII. Instead of sending restless cadets to do busywork like shining brass in the rain, I wished they’d spent some time teaching us the history of this beautiful and badass sailing ship.

The Horst Wessel crew in 1937.

The Horst Wessel crew in 1937.

On the bow as Lookout with the enlisted man and Kirsten, I tuned out their conversation about plans for the upcoming port call and looked up to the sails to imagine the Horst Wessel’s crew skittering up the rigging like monkeys to unfurl the sails. I pictured close to the minimum crew possible—65 people—to sail the vessel. Each one knows exactly where to be. The First Lieutenant barks out orders in German to the enlisted members holding lines on the waist and they heave, turning the direction of the sails so they’ll catch the wind. Once the sails are set, the crew on the line leans away from the block and takes the strain at the bitter end of the line. They bring the line to the pin to belay, faking out the slack in a figure eight pattern, keeping the line ready but tidy and out of the way of foot traffic. Once one job is done, they’re off to the next. I watch them zig and zag in an organized chaos that seems choreographed. Each person is crucial; no one can afford to be lazy. A momentary lapse in judgment could cause a line to take too much strain and snap in two, taking out limbs and lives in its way.

The helm of the Eagle in 2005. Photo by Ryan Beck

The helm of the Eagle in 2005. Photo by Ryan Beck

Kirsten tapped me on the shoulder interrupting my daydream and passed me her binoculars. “Your turn,” she said and leaned over the railing to stare down at the black water rushing by the ship’s bow. I spent a few minutes watching the horizon in the moonlight then leaned over the rail to face the water as well. We were far enough from the coast that we hadn’t seen land for a couple days. I thought about all the creatures below us. I envisioned families of hungry whales scooping up mouthful after huge mouthful of water filled with plankton, anglerfish with their little glowing lures lit and wriggling like bait on fishing line and their long sharp teeth ready to snap closed, giant squid with long tentacles propelling themselves through secret lives, and purple jellies brainlessly following the ocean currents and trapping their food in delicate tentacles.

The Barque Eagle's sails. Photo by Tenley Lozano

The Barque Eagle's sails. Photo by Tenley Lozano

As I watched the cold water stream by, the sea lit up like a liquid field of fireflies. The water that had been midnight dark only a moment ago, lit only by the faint light of the waning crescent moon, transformed into a sparkling electric green reaching a few feet from where the ship touched. The rippling waves spreading out from our bow were little bright islands moving away from the ship. Kirsten squealed and waved the watchstander over to look. “It’s bioluminescence,” the enlisted man explained. “There are microorganisms that live in the water, a type of plankton, and when they’re disturbed they react.”

We spent several minutes watching our bow wake light up as we cut through the water and recede as the ship sailed swiftly northward. There were small white caps all around us, flickering green with the beautiful plankton as the wind created chop. The female cadre member in charge in the Pilot House called us on the radio for an update.

The Horst Wessel under Sail in 1936.

The Horst Wessel under Sail in 1936.

I stared at the flickering green lights in the water and out across the vast unforgiving ocean. A large shape darted next to the ship and I saw a dorsal fin emblazoned in bioluminescence by the bow. SHARK! I thought, but then another two round shapes with dorsal fins torpedoed into the slipstream of the bow wake. Kirsten and I jumped up and down laughing and squealing “Dolphins! Dolphins!” as the enlisted man stared in awe and whispered, “Wow. I know that dolphins like sailing ships, but I’ve never seen this.” We all grinned at the sight of the bioluminescent outline of three dolphins frolicking in the slipstream of this former Nazi tall-ship.

***

After graduating from the United States Coast Guard Academy in 2008, Tenley Lozano spent five years as an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. During her tenure, she worked in the engineering department on a ship that patrolled the Pacific Ocean from Vancouver to the equator chasing drug runners. She then attended Navy Dive School and spent two years as a Coast Guard Diver at Maritime Safety and Security Team 91109.

Tenley’s work has appeared in Permission to Speak Freely, O-Dark ThirtyThe War Horse, the anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home, and is forthcoming on the NPR series Incoming Radio. She was awarded Crab Orchard Review’s 2017 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction prize. Her nonfiction chapbook Ascent/Descent is forthcoming in summer of 2017 from Broken Leg Books. Tenley graduated from Sierra Nevada College in 2016 with an MFA in Creative Writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter, and visit her website.

 

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Photographing Innocence Amidst The Chaos And Silence Of War


Dan Bellis' memories from war swirl among the grains of sand he shared with civilians. He describes his wordless interaction with Afghan children.

Photographing Innocence Amidst The Chaos And Silence Of War


Dan Bellis' memories from war swirl among the grains of sand he shared with civilians. He describes his wordless interaction with Afghan children.

By Dan Bellis

I saw them about a hundred yards away, amid a sparse herd of goats. They were playing, running, chasing each other. I wanted to see them close up. I wanted to photograph them, but really, I just wanted to see them. I guess I wanted to play, too.

Military construction equipment works to build a road in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Dan Bellis

Military construction equipment works to build a road in Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Dan Bellis

I was in the Afghan countryside in Paktika Province with a small U.S. military convoy and construction crew. They were building a road. I was enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, working as a journalist for a military magazine, so I took photos and interviewed soldiers and Afghan villagers. My work was done and we weren't going back to base anytime soon, so my attention started to wander. That’s when I noticed them and their goats.

I left the road and started across the dirty sand, or sandy dirt. I looked for tripwires, landmines and anything else suspicious. As I got closer, the two girls noticed me, stopped playing, and huddled together on the ground. They watched as I made my way closer. They looked me up and down over and over, a stranger in alien clothes, armed, big. The younger girl covered most of her face with a scarf. They seemed concerned, but not scared. I got within about 30 feet and the older of the two put her hand out, palm toward me, as if to say, "That's close enough." I stopped and placed my right hand over my heart, a Muslim greeting. They didn't respond.

Dan Bellis on a humanitarian mission in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy: Dan Bellis

Dan Bellis on a humanitarian mission in Parwan Province, Afghanistan. Courtesy: Dan Bellis

I was covered in protective gear; the only skin showing was from the bridge of my nose to my chin. So, I smiled as wide as I could. I guess I overdid it, because they both laughed. We weren't friends yet, but the mood was starting to lighten. The older girl spoke to me in Pashto. I didn't recognize her words, but she was definitely asking a question. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. She murmured to the younger girl, then turned to me and spoke again, louder. I shrugged again and smiled.

Both stared at me incredulously as their tangled hair fluttered in the breeze. The older girl had spoken to me and, clearly, I had heard them, yet I didn't understand. It dawned on me that these two girls, who were maybe 10 and seven years old, might have been unaware that other languages existed.

Two young shepherd girls look inquisitively to the camera in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.Photo by Dan Bellis

Two young shepherd girls look inquisitively to the camera in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.Photo by Dan Bellis

I raised my camera and lifted it toward them, showing its harmlessness, silently asking for permission to take their picture. They shrugged, a gesture that was the foundation of our new language. I squatted, took a few photos, then stood up and took a few steps closer. Both girls, startled, shot to their feet and scurried backwards in a small cloud of dust. I stopped, raised my hands and squatted back down slowly. I smiled again, less awkwardly this time. They looked at each other and slowly huddled down again. They were upset with me. I had broken our distance agreement.

I let my camera dangle from its strap at my side. I slowly raised my hands, put my thumbs on the sides of my helmet and waved my fingers like moving moose antlers. The girls were curious. I stuck out my tongue and made a rude noise. They laughed. We were at peace with each other again.

A boy and his grandmother pose for the camera with US Military construction equipment in the background. Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Dan Bellis

A boy and his grandmother pose for the camera with US Military construction equipment in the background. Paktika Province, Afghanistan. Photo by Dan Bellis

I looked over the barren landscape and didn't see any structures, no house, no shack, no tent. They were out in the field alone, under the sun, in charge of the goats. Their hands were dirty and grown up. These girls worked for a living. They probably didn't know how old they were in terms of years, only in moons. They had seen war, but not television, malls, or tricycles. They could play in the dust, but only after the work was done. They had been tasked with their family's survival. They were tiny adults. I wanted them to be children. I wanted to hug them and give them candy and toys. I wanted to tell them that I was proud of them and that they were tougher than most of the adults that I knew, that they were tougher than me. I felt like a fool for taking my life of privilege for granted—for ever having sent food back in a restaurant or for being disappointed in my birthday gifts. I was weak and entitled, and I was ashamed.

We kept our distance and made faces at each other and giggled. I danced a little for them. They were unimpressed; I was embarrassed. I took a few more photos. Each time, they looked a little confused. They didn't understand the camera, but they had gotten used to it.

I wanted to stay and play, but I felt like I had been away from the convoy for long enough. I was out in the open, exposed. So I raised my hand in a wave, then pointed over my shoulder to the armored vehicles. The older girl made a "tsk-tsk," and looked at me disappointingly. I shrugged and smiled. She shrugged and smiled, waved, then ran off with the other girl.

I looked back down at the ground for tripwires and landmines before I stepped. The sweat was heavy in my helmet and boots. I watched little sand clouds settle around my feet. I thought about a hot shower, a clean uniform, and my thin, government-issued mattress back on the base. I thought about where my new friends would sleep that night, but I couldn't picture it. I thought about how this country that terrified me was their playground. I thought about going home, back to my air conditioning, grocery stores, and taxis.

I turned, hoping to catch one more smile. I spoke to them for the first time. "Thank you," I said, but they didn't hear me. They were already lost in a cloud of dust and a rousing game of chase.

A child runs alongside a convoy departing her village in Parwan Province, Afghanistan.Photo by Dan Bellis

A child runs alongside a convoy departing her village in Parwan Province, Afghanistan.Photo by Dan Bellis

***

Dan Bellis was born and raised in Bergen County, New Jersey where he had an uneventful childhood and excelled in mediocrity. After 12 years as an award-winning broadcaster, photographer, and journalist in the US Air Force, he majored in paramedicine, nursing, speech and hearing, and even briefly considered culinary school.  Luckily, he married above his station and is now a full-time stay-at-home dad.  He lives in Minneapolis with his beautiful wife, and two amazing children, who patiently listen to his repeated stories about his tours in Afghanistan and travels to more than 30 countries on four continents. He is an active member of Team Red, White, and Blue, an organization dedicated to enriching the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. He enjoys CrossFit, fishing, running, and complaining about Minnesota winters. 

 

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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.

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.

  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.

  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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