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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

RELIVING MILITARY SEXUAL TRAUMA ON HER LAST DAY OF ACTIVE DUTY

Joy Craig's retirement ceremony was set to take place that day, but first, she had to sit down with an NCIS agent on base and relive sexual assaults she'd been scared to report for fear of retaliation.

Read Joy's story.



BALANCING AUTHORITY AND UNDERSTANDING AS A YOUNG LIEUTENANT

Nina Semczuk worried that as a new second lieutenant she wouldn't strike the right balance between enforcing the rules and being a compassionate, understanding officer. One private's lunch paid the price. 

Read Nina's story.


HIS CLOSEST BRUSH WITH COMBAT WAS A DRAMATIC HELICOPTER LANDING

Sam Gisselman was confident of his ability as a rifleman. He'd trained for war and looked forward to going on combat patrol and to proving himself, but it wasn't mean to be.

Read Sam's story.


HE CRAVED NORMALCY, BUT HE COULD THINK ONLY OF GETTING BACK TO WAR

When his kid brother came back from war, Marine veteran Drew Pham recognized in him the conflicted yearning to go back and desire to stay away. Drew's brother rejected terms like PTS, calling what he had a "soldier's heart."

Read Drew's story.


ARMED ONLY WITH COLORED FLAGS, HE AND HIS FELLOW MARINES COMBED THE WRECKAGE SITE

When two aircraft collided in midair above North Carolina, Adam Stone and dozens of fellow Marines were tasked with identifying bits of the wreckage, including their brothers.

Read Adam's Story.


SHE STAYED QUIET WHEN MARINES' WIVES CALLED FEMALE MARINES "SLUTS." THEN SHE MET JOY

A chance encounter with a female Marine veteran brought back memories for Liesel Kershul of what it was like to be on the outside of the Marine wives' "sorority."

Read Liesel's story.


MARINES' WIVES ARE ALL THE SAME, SHE THOUGHT. AND THEN SHE MET LIESEL

Marine veteran Joy Craig writes an open letter to a new friend and Marine officers' wife, Liesel, about the chasm between the two groups of women—and her desire to change that.

Read Joy's story.


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

Brandon's children have endured moves every few years and experienced their father leaving for long periods. They've visited countless battlefields, monuments, and war museums. Brandon's children have been at war their entire lives. 

Read Brandon's Story
 



My Religion Of Death And Praying To Kill

The Marine Corps taught Peter that despair and violence were renewing. In boot camp he shouted "kill" 100 times a day, and went to two church services back to back on Sundays. He prayed to kill and believed that, in some way, it would save him.
Read Peter's Story


The afghan girls I couldn't save

As long as the Afghans he encountered thought it was OK to treat women like property, like killing a woman was equivalent to killing a goat, Tim Patterson writes, 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 Nate Eckman, veteran" was synonymous with "warrior," and because he hadn't seen combat, he feels strange owning the title "veteran." 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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Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet


William Gehrung was a veteran who'd written for The War Horse. In late August 2017, he killed himself. Fellow War Horse writer Nate Eckman remembers his friend.

Some Journeys Home End With a Bullet


William Gehrung was a veteran who'd written for The War Horse. In late August 2017, he killed himself. Fellow War Horse writer Nate Eckman remembers his friend.

By Nate Eckman

I saw a lot of myself in Billy, until the day he put a bullet in his head. Then I drew a line. That was not me; though, a few days before, it wasn’t him either. I thought of him the way I thought of myself, he could never. I suppose that’s the most rattling part of his suicide: If it could take him, then who else? Me too?

I have entertained convictions of self-pity and welcomed immobilizing forms of melancholy before, neither of which ever seemed significant enough to admit. The thoughts would infiltrate but never occupy my mind. They seemed too fleeting to acknowledge, something I could overcome myself. I second guess that behavior now, because last I knew his were too. Last I knew, two weeks before he took his own life, he was excited about what was next: working on another piece for The War Horse, training to rejoin the military—though not the Corps—to finally accomplish one of his lifelong dreams—a dream many of us share but never see through—to join the ranks of those in Special Forces.

What’s most maddening about his way of dying is how deceptively it portrays his way of living.

Courtesy of William Gehrung

Courtesy of William Gehrung

Suicide suggests he spent a day on this earth weaker than most men, or that he never attached himself to much worth living for. These are both lies. Billy—“G,” we called him—possessed a rare combination of physical, artistic, and personality-driven attributes that made you wonder if there was a thing he couldn’t do well. I remember laps with him on the flight deck, running with no particular number in mind, and me desperately wishing he’d tire. I remember returning the favor in the pool, the one place I could outperform him. His physicality wasn’t an end in itself but an expression of his aspiring spirit. One best exemplified during my first deployment with him: When he wanted to quit dipping, he forced himself to run laps every time he craved a pinch. He brought us all into his stride, raised everyone around him to his standards. Jordan recalls one of the earliest days he met G, who, disgusted by Jordan’s tardy and sloppy appearance, slapped him in the face saying, “I’m going to fix you,” and he did. He had animated what it meant to be a Viking—a member of 3/2 Kilo—not just by leading, but by drawing the logos for our deployment memorabilia, through both deployments. Most vividly, I remember the late evening trips to his barracks room or the berthing space, where we’d exchange books and talk about the news, curious happenings in society, and our future as writers.     

I hope memories of the way G inspired us to a higher, happier, way of life aren’t lost in the sadness that follows his death. I hope his cool head in trying times, snappy humor in the worst of conditions, and encouraging drive for self fulfillment is what we remember in his absence. After reading through each text we shared leading up to the last weeks of his life, I still can’t find a single sign he was depressed, or that he was dropping a hint for help. The fact that he wanted to go back into the military could be read as a sign he was dissatisfied with life on the outside. Something I think every veteran has felt. And if every veteran has felt that, feels that, how many more thoughts away are we from reality’s harsh hand… forever, I’d rather feel his again… but reality has taken Billy’s place now.

Read William Gehrung's War Horse piece, "In The Absence Of Trust And Confidence."

•••

Nathan Eckman was an Marine infantryman (0351) with Third Battalion, Second Marine Regiment. During his service he toured on the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and deployed to Southeast Asia. Now Nate is a student of the Middle East and the Persian language at Columbia University. After college he intends on pursuing a career as a journalist covering international affairs.

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Reliving Military Sexual Trauma on Her Last Day of Active Duty


Joy Craig hadn't wanted to spend her last morning of active duty reliving sexual assaults, but there she sat in the base NCIS office, talking with an agent.

Reliving Military Sexual Trauma on Her Last Day of Active Duty


Joy Craig hadn't wanted to spend her last morning of active duty reliving sexual assaults, but there she sat in the base NCIS office, talking with an agent.

By Joy Craig

    It was the last thing I had to do. The final official order of business before I could wash my hands of the whole filthy event. This was not where I wanted to spend this particular morning, confessing my deepest secrets to a stranger, but there we were. Winona and I introduced ourselves to the agent, then sank into the deep, leather chairs across from his desk. The chairs seemed better suited for a comfy New England library than the office of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service aboard Parris Island, S.C.

The Harbor River spans between Parris Island and Port Royal, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The Harbor River spans between Parris Island and Port Royal, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“I understand that you’re here to discuss a sexual assault, Chief Warrant Officer?” the NCIS agent began.

“No, sir. I’m here because my commanding officer insisted I make this appointment.” I’d made up my mind not to give the name of the Marine captain who had taken it too far on not just one, but three occasions.

“Well, your CO was right; you don’t need to protect him. He can’t do anything to you now. You know that, right?” he pressed.

How could I explain to the agent that I wasn’t afraid of the man? It wasn’t fear of him that kept me from reporting the assault; it was fear of the fallout. I was sure, if I wanted to, I could destroy this officer’s personal life and career, but the cost to me would be unbearable. I’d witnessed it too many times with female friends and colleagues: the dismissal, public shame, and retaliation that often befell women who “cried rape.” I’d experienced it myself early in my career. No, I wasn’t being quiet because I was afraid; at my rank, reporting the assault wouldn’t end well for me.

I focused on the matter at hand, took a measured breath, and explained how my CO, XO, sergeant major, and I were discussing the handling of an alleged sexual assault in our command. I had a feeling the CO wasn’t aware of how frequent sexual assaults were in the ranks of the Marine Corps, so I casually had mentioned that I had been sexually assaulted a couple of years prior by a captain I worked with. Maybe it was because the XO and sergeant major were also women that I felt comfortable revealing this with them, or maybe it was because they’d all worked with pilots themselves. They’d seen these men chase their vices first hand.

I was trying to relate to the accuser, a young woman I’d worked with before. I wanted to show the CO, the only man in the room, that it was more common than he probably understood. I joked, “Who hasn’t been sexually assaulted?” But the commander didn’t get my gallows humor, and upon realizing that he was now the senior person with my secret, he made the appointment for me, for no other reason than to cover his ass. “He could give two shits about me personally,” I remarked.  

I went on to explain how the executive officer had gotten upset by my story and left the office while the SgtMaj nodded, understanding it were entirely plausible. They both knew I was telling the truth. The XO later admitted in private that practically the same thing had happened to her on deployment.

Joy Craig aboard Parris Island, S.C. in 2013. Courtesy of Joy Craig

Joy Craig aboard Parris Island, S.C. in 2013. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“It’s a part of their playbook: Break in and pass around the new girl,” I added with a smile, forever trying to lighten the mood. I sank further into the leather chair as the agent gave me a frustrated look, failing to see what was funny about not reporting an assault. I knew he was just trying to do his job; playing coy was pointless. “The damage is done. He’s probably forgotten about the whole thing. He’d be stunned by an investigation, I’m sure. His version of events and mine are probably very different. I’m sure he believes I wanted it all; he’d say I’d consented. Besides, he’s moved up and will probably be a CO soon himself. Pilots are untouchable.”  

“Will you tell me what happened?” the agent asked. “Off the record?”

I knew there was no such thing, but I indulged him: “A few months after I checked into my squadron over on the Air Station, we deployed to Japan. One night after ‘mandatory fun’ at the Officers Club, the captain knocked on my barracks room door and pushed his way inside. I put up a pretty good argument and made enough noise that the major, who lived next door, came over and pulled him out of my room.”

Sitting in that room, I thought about Marc, my boyfriend at the time. He had never trusted these guys around me, and it was a source of constant strain in our relationship. Trying not to give anyone the impression I was available, I had spoken about Marc constantly, avoided giving any kind of flirty impressions, and dodged the drunken nights at the O-club. That was until the major I reported to, had pulled me aside and scolded me for not acting like one of the boys. He’d explained, when the boss says, I’ll see you at the officers club on Friday evenings; it wasn’t optional. He made it clear that I’d attend future events.

Explaining this to Marc had caused an argument that, as I sat in the agent’s office, I began replaying inside my head.

“So, there’s a witness?” the agent asked, interrupting my daydream.

“Well, to the first one, I guess. Although you’d never get that major to testify against one of his own.” The very idea was absurd. “Six months later we deployed to Twentynine Palms. The same captain managed to get me away from the group one night and forced my hand down his pants. He wanted me to jerk him off, but I threatened to yell and was drawing attention, so he gave up. A week later, all the officers went to Palm Springs for a night, and he just wouldn’t leave me alone.” I shook my head and fought the memory I was exhuming. Grief threatened to overwhelm me as I sorted through the events that had led to that night, and how Marc eventually had ended our relationship when it became too much for him.

Winona reached over and put her hand on top of mine. She always knew when I needed a pull back from the edge.   

The iconic We Make Marines sign spans Boulevard de France aboard Parris Island, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

The iconic We Make Marines sign spans Boulevard de France aboard Parris Island, S.C. Courtesy of Joy Craig

“I gave in,” I confessed, wanting to hurry the conversation to its end. I looked the agent in the eye. “He was never going to stop. The only way to get him to leave me alone was to fuck him and get it over with.” I paused and absorbed the sting of the bandage I’d just ripped off. “I’ve endured worse.”

I knew that if I refused to tell the agent the captain’s name I’d be able to leave the office without being roped into an investigation. I just had to get through this fucking appointment. Then I could go.   

I looked at Winona sitting next to me. My best friend of over 20 years had driven from Virginia for my big day and was willing to take the bad with the good. I must have thanked her half a dozen times for going to the appointment with me. It was as hard for her as it was for me; holding a secret the both of us kept from my daughters, but Winona and I had plenty of secrets.  

Joy Craig holds the U.S. flag given in honor of her 23 years service to the United States Marine Corps on the day of her retirement, January 2014. Courtesy of Nevada Craig

Joy Craig holds the U.S. flag given in honor of her 23 years service to the United States Marine Corps on the day of her retirement, January 2014. Courtesy of Nevada Craig

I leveled with the guy, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know it’s frustrating when female Marines don’t report sexual assaults, but you have to believe me that it’ll only make things worse if I do. Most of the officers on the Air Station just want to see me go, especially my CO… Starting a new investigation right now would accomplish nothing; it would drag me, my daughters, the captain’s wife, and his children through the ringer, and for what? He would be painted the victim, and I’d be painted a slut… again. I’m not doing it. I just want this to end.”

The agent tried guilt. “If you don’t report it, he’ll do it again.”

I tilted my head and smiled. This guy looked about my age. He was probably a Marine veteran himself; there was no use in bullshitting him. “I already know another woman he’s assaulted. He’s a privileged, white, frat boy, a fighter pilot who’s never been told ‘no’ a day in his life.  Of course he’ll do it again. And if another woman ever asks me to testify, I’ll gladly do it, but for now I just want out.”

The agent relented, “I understand. If you change your mind…” he handed over his business card.

As Winona and I walked to my car I looked across the wide Harbor River that separates Parris Island from Port Royal, SC. This stretch of water held a thousand secrets, and I’d just added another. I said to Winona, “That agent would have shit his pants if I told him about that rape when I was a Lance Corporal.” I gave a snort at my joke as we began the short drive to the Fourth Recruit Training Battalion. The Parris Island Band was setting up for my retirement ceremony.

•••

     Joy Craig is an emerging writer and activist focused on veterans and women’s issues. Joy retired from the United States Marine Corps after 23 years of service as an Aviation Ordnance Officer and Drill Instructor. During her service she was awarded the Navy Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. She’s spent the past two years penning the forthcoming memoir focusing on her experiences in the Marine Corps. Joy is a native Californian residing in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her two daughters. She donates her time coaching for Dragonboat Beaufort, a cancer survivor/supporter charity, and is an alumni of the Leadership Beaufort program.

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Balancing Authority and Understanding as a Young Lieutenant


Nina Semczuk struggled to walk the line between being "that guy" and a pushover when she became a new officer. One private's lunch paid the price.

Balancing Authority and Understanding as a Young Lieutenant


Nina Semczuk struggled to walk the line between being "that guy" and a pushover when she became a new officer. One private's lunch paid the price.

By Nina Semczuk

Don’t be “that guy,” our instructors told every cadet and newly minted lieutenant. “That guy” was a fresh second lieutenant, usually from West Point, but not always. “That guy” would attempt to establish authority in small and petty ways—by having subordinates stand at attention in all interactions, or by flipping out if a salute wasn’t rendered correctly, or at all.

The author shakes hands with General Casey during her commissioning ceremony. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author shakes hands with General Casey during her commissioning ceremony. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

No lieutenant, especially the handful of females in my basic officer class, wanted to be seen as a ball-swinging, chest-puffing, insecure new officer. But it still happened. We knew no soldier would listen or respect our authority if we acted like that—hypervigilant and overcompensating. But we struggled to learn where the fine line between confident leader and quiet pushover lay.

One day, shortly after joining my first unit after officer course, I headed to a meeting with a couple lieutenants and a senior NCO. As we made our way down the sidewalk, a group of soldiers walked by without saluting.

“Hey! Did you miss the four officers?” barked the NCO. He jerked his head, indicating our group. I hadn’t even noticed. The soldiers looked sheepish and quickly lifted their arms to salute us. I was farthest from the group of passing soldiers, and I was relieved it hadn’t been on me to spot them and point out their mistake.

“You can’t let them get away with that,” the NCO said. “They know they’re supposed to salute. It’s a lack of respect when they ignore you.”

“Well, this brigade is where standards go to die,” joked one of the first lieutenants. He elbowed me. “Semczuk, next time you gotta yell at them. You’re the butter bar,” he said, looking at my golden lieutenant rank. I felt a prick of apprehension.

A few weeks passed, and I still hadn’t piped up. “You can’t be shy when you become platoon leader,” said the same first lieutenant who had elbowed me, and then taken me under his wing. All I had to do was correct someone ignoring the rules, he reminded me. But which rules? In our brigade, discipline was sloppy, and the line was unclear.

The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author, second from left, during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

My very first day arriving to the unit, a senior warrant officer and an NCO didn’t address me with the requisite “ma’am” for female officers. I wondered if it was carelessness or just how the “real army” worked outside of schooling. I would have attributed it to them sharing my gender, but they also avoided saying “sir” to the captain who was also in the room. When he didn’t say anything, I considered it the unit’s norm. After all, he had more than five years of active duty service under his belt; he would know what’s what. But when the senior warrant and NCO said some rude things about the previous female lieutenant whom I was apparently replacing, laughing at her perceived sluttiness, I felt they’d certainly crossed the line. But the captain said nothing.

So when my comrades badgered me about correcting soldiers, I felt stuck.

It’s not like I had shied away from confrontation in my previous lives. In high school, I had dealt with rude Dunkin’ Donuts customers on a daily basis, letting them know they could make their own coffee if they had a problem with ours. During my college days in Boston, I had answered a knock on our apartment door, which opened directly onto Beacon Street. A woman and a young man, strangers to me, stepped into the doorframe as though they were about to bypass me. I threw out an arm, catching the woman on her collarbone and shouted, “What are you doing?!” Startled, the woman and young man jumped back. “We’re Marisa’s family,” the woman said. I had succeeded in scaring and meeting my roommate’s family, all at once.

The author during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author during Basic Officer Leader Course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona circa 2012. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

A few weeks passed at my new unit and, as the only female lieutenant among hundreds of men, I was still getting used to the stares. The newness of the tank brigade started to fade, and with it faded my discomfort. I became tired of taking shit from the other lieutenants in my section, who’d point out any imaginary slight or minor instance of disrespect to try to get me to exert authority. I felt dangerously close to being labeled a pushover.

Not much time passed after having those thoughts, when I found myself heading to the dining facility, on my own, to get lunch. As I got closer to the building, a blonde-haired, pink-faced private walked toward me, only a foot or so separating us. I waited, and hoped, but his arm didn’t twitch. He walked by me, no salute, not even an attempt—a slap in the face at this distance. Deliberate disrespect, my comrades back at brigade would’ve said. So I took a breath and turned.

The author in uniform. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author in uniform. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

“Hey! Did you forget how to salute?” I asked, borrowing a friend’s favorite rebuke. I was proud how loud and clear my voice sounded.

The private turned and stammered out, “I’m sorry!” He flung his left hand toward his patrol cap, attempting to salute me with the wrong arm. A split-second later, realizing his mistake, he started to switch hands, but knocked into the lunch tray in his left hand, scattering the contents onto the grass.

“Sorry, sir! I didn’t see you,” he stuttered out as he dropped to pick up his milk carton.

“Sir?” I asked. My cheeks started to heat up. At closer look, the poor private had coke-bottle thick glasses. He was so scared; he had saluted me with the wrong arm. And now his lunch was in the grass.

The author when she was a cadet during Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Washington circa 2011. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

The author when she was a cadet during Leadership Development and Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Washington circa 2011. Courtesy of Nina Semczuk

I stooped to help him gather his food, hoping he couldn’t see my red face, embarrassed for him, but mostly for myself.

“Thanks, sir—I mean, ma’am,” he said, finally catching sight of the blonde bun under my patrol cap. He gathered his things and fled.

I shook my head, a rueful chuckle sputtering out. Of all the soldiers on post, I would come across the rare private who genuinely didn’t wish to flout the rules of respect.

•••

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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His Closest Brush With Combat Was a Dramatic Helicopter Landing


Sam Gisselman's prided himself on his marksmanship and wanted to see what he was capable of doing during combat. But he was never chosen for combat patrol.

His Closest Brush With Combat Was a Dramatic Helicopter Landing


Sam Gisselman's prided himself on his marksmanship and wanted to see what he was capable of doing during combat. But he was never chosen for combat patrol.

By Sam Gisselman

Our Sergeant Major, Big Cat, had been pumping me up all week about going on my first combat patrol, asking if I was excited to “get my first taste of action.” “Yes, Sergeant Major.” It had been all I could think about. But the evening before we were to set off in our helicopter to a team site, I had all-night radio watch. The next morning my eyes burned and my body ached from fatigue as we hopped on the Huey, and I was too tired to feel like it was anything but business as usual. As we flew across the open desert, the drone of the helo’s engines and the cool breeze flowing through the open doors lulled me into a stupor. Big Cat sat across from me and watched as I had tried to fight off sleep.

View from the author's last ride of his deployment. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

View from the author's last ride of his deployment. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

After what felt like an hour, Big Cat and the door gunner perked up and looked down toward the ground. Other members of the group followed suit, and suddenly, the helo rapidly gained altitude, making a wide circle over a mud-hut village that was split in half by a silty river. The helo climbed until we couldn’t make out the people we had seen wandering the streets, and the small white bongo trucks that weaved their way through the village were barely visible. We began circling the village from high above, and I tried to ask Big Cat over the noise of the helo’s engines what was going on. He threw up some unrecognizable hand gestures, so I nodded like I understood and went back to dozing.

For no reason that I can remember, I opened my eyes a few minutes later, and a second after that, the helo started to drop. As we dove, the floor fell out from beneath us, and my rifle that had been sitting between my legs rose in front of my face. Adrenaline coursed through my body as I reached out with both hands and squeezed the buttstock. Only my harness kept me from slamming into Big Cat, or flying out of the helo as we dive bombed the ground.

The author on the rifle range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

The author on the rifle range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

Big Cat smirked as we plummeted and remained eerily calm. Huggy Bear, as stoic as can be, peered out the helo door like a passenger on a long road trip. I gathered my wits as the helo forcefully leveled off, smashing my body into my seat. We banked hard to the left, missing by only a few feet the mud huts that had been only the size of Lego blocks seconds before. We raced over the huts and fields like a trackless roller coaster, flying by a local who had stopped and watched with amazement as we whizzed by. The adrenaline rush got me high, and I found myself smiling and laughing. I was caught up in the thrill of it and, embarrassed, wondered later why I’d reacted as I had.

Camp Bastion. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

Camp Bastion. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

I was a year and a half into my service, and not wanting to look like a boot, I rarely took pictures, showed outward signs of emotion that might make me seem out of my depth, or talked during my outings with Huggy Bear or Big Cat. Being a lowly corporal at the time, I was always on edge around them. One mistake and I would be pulling weeds and painting signs for the rest of my time with the unit. After what seemed like dozens of banks and turns, the helo threw its nose up in the air to brake. Before the chopper touched down, Big Cat threw off his harness and rose out of his seat. He was smiling and looked to be in a good mood. The team site, he said, had been taking fire upon our initial approach.

We’d come close to combat, but still had no contact. I’d always been comfortable with my rifle, and now that I was deployed, I craved the chance to see what I could do with my weapon when it really counted.

My mind quickly snapped from our dramatic landing and my feeling of embarrassment to the combat patrol ahead that day. Finally I’d get my chance to go on patrol and gain some real combat experience. But at the mission briefing, my name wasn’t on the list; the team didn’t know who I was and didn’t feel comfortable with me coming along. I asked Big Cat if there had been a mistake. No mistake, he said, and there was nothing he could do either.

I wasn’t the only one left behind. Big Cat introduced me to the team’s Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) who brought me with him to the mortar pit. The Army mortarmen there were as fluid and efficient with their mortars as I was with my rifle.

The author posing on the range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

The author posing on the range. Courtesy of Sam Gisselman

As the mortars thundered and the mortarmen scurried about, I sat and wondered why I was even there. The majority of my Marine Corps career I had trained for combat, and now I wanted the chance to do what I’d been trained to do. The opportunity was right there in front of me, but still out of reach.

•••

Sam Gisselman joined the Marine Corps in 2011. He was deployed to Afghanistan in September 2012 and a month later was promoted to corporal. He returned home in May 2013, and within the next year was promoted to sergeant. Gisselman left the service in April 2015 and enrolled in college. He’s currently studying human physiology at the University of Oregon.

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He Craved Normalcy, But He Could Think Only of Getting Back to War


As a veteran Drew Pham understands craving both normalcy and war, but as his kid brother struggles with the same push and pull, Drew feels lost to help. 

He Craved Normalcy, But He Could Think Only of Getting Back to War


As a veteran Drew Pham understands craving both normalcy and war, but as his kid brother struggles with the same push and pull, Drew feels lost to help. 

By Drew Pham

Looking back, I can’t help but feel responsible for my brother’s decision to join the Army. I remember when he was five, he would sit in my lap while I played war games on the family computer. We often sat together on the couch watching war movies like Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon.

In high school I was in Junior ROTC. I wanted to be a soldier. I hoped my brother would choose another route. He was even tempered, confident, witty—things that I wasn’t. He ran varsity track; listened to ska and punk; and while I was too busy to notice, he developed a passion for cooking. When I left for college, my brother joined JROTC. After I joined the Army, I forbade him from enlisting just as my mother had forbidden me. He enlisted in secret as soon as he turned 17. She signed the papers without argument. Maybe I had worn her down. I was secretly proud of him.

A blue star hangs in the window of the author's home. Courtesy of Drew Pham

A blue star hangs in the window of the author's home. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The first time my brother deployed was difficult. I had just returned when he left in 2012. The strange landscape of a loved one’s deployment meant being at war in the walls of my own home—a blue star in the window, a calendar to count off the days, checking war coverage the way most people check the weather—while knowing that just outside, America hardly resembled a nation at war. When my brother returned, he posted a quote on social media from Apocalypse Now: “When I was here, I wanted to be there; when I was there, all I could think of was getting back into the jungle.” I knew exactly what he meant. When I left Afghanistan, I felt like someone had carved off a chunk of my heart and buried it in the sand. Now that the Army has sent my brother back, I wonder how much of his heart will be carved off this time and how much will remain when he returns.

I visited him not long after his first deployment in 2013, while he was on leave. Our mother implored me to help; he was coming home drunk every night, and she didn’t know what to do. My brother kept everyone at arm’s length, which frayed his relationships. I remember coming home one night to see him standing alone in mom’s living room, smelling of grain alcohol, breathing heavy, lost in some thought or memory. Watching him in the dark, I was helpless. It didn’t matter that we had grown up together, had both fought in Afghanistan, or even that he looked up to me, I couldn’t go back in time to undo what he’d endured. He’ll never be the same, he’ll never be my kid-brother again.

The author's mother, sister, and wife at a tattoo parlor in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's mother, sister, and wife at a tattoo parlor in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

On Thanksgiving in 2016, my brother told me he planned to go to culinary school after he left the Army. A new life. A fresh start. I texted him in March to ask if he was ready for civilian life. He said he wasn’t getting out, the Army had involuntarily extended his contract for a deployment to Afghanistan. My family planned to meet him in Richmond, the month before his unit departed in July.

My brother moved through the world like a stray cat that week in June, ready to fight or flee at the slightest provocation. He said little, avoiding people around us, watching the terrain, driving as if an ambush lay just around the bend in the road. He was only at ease after a few drinks, and even then, he didn’t talk about the war with my mom or sister.

My sister took us sightseeing, though it was mostly for my mother’s benefit—my brother’s silence worried her. On our second day together, we were stranded in an art gallery by a summer storm, thick pellets of water striking the steaming pavement. During a lull, my brother left to get his car to pick us up. Five minutes turned into 30. My mother panicked. She wanted to call the police, something must have happened. My sister and I went looking for him instead. When we finally found him, he looked like every hair on the back of his neck must have been standing up. I’d seen that look before—in soldiers shocked by IEDs, after a first firefight, and once in a man who had just taken a life. My brother never liked diagnoses and labels like PTS. He called what he’s experienced—that simultaneous yearning to return to war and return to normalcy—as soldier’s heart. I liked that—soldier’s heart.

The author's brother in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's brother in Richmond, VA. Courtesy of Drew Pham

That night my sister treated us to dinner at the Italian restaurant where she waits tables. We ordered drinks. My brother finished his cocktail as soon as it came. Then another, and another. I’m sure there were more, but I stopped paying attention; I wanted to ignore the truth for at least one night. Diners in starched button-downs and cashmere sweaters talked about corporate mergers and weekends at vineyards. The storm outside rumbled, and I thought about people a thousand miles away who were killing each other. Though surrounded by family and a hundred strangers, I felt alone, as if my war had cut me off from what was right in front of me. Although I had only spent one year in Afghanistan, I felt as if the world had passed me by, that my youth had dissipated, and my life had run its course. Over the years, I’ve watched my brother, hoping he would never feel the same way. I needed to speak to him alone, man to man, but he avoided me. At the end of the night, my brother gave me his keys, he was in no shape to drive.

The following night, we went to see my sister’s band perform at a punk-house. In that damp malt and hops perfumed basement, we were encircled by military-aged youth nodding and shifting to the singer’s hoarse screams, the vibrating guitars, the machine gun rattle of the drums. The music and crowd activated the manic heat of combat in me, thrown into sharp relief by the young punks huddled around us, so disconnected from the war my brother and I fought. From the corner of my eye, I watched my brother exit the room. After the first set, we agreed to leave after my sister’s performance.

The author's sister's band performing. Courtesy of Drew Pham

The author's sister's band performing. Courtesy of Drew Pham

Outside the mouldering punk-house and stopped outside his car to smoke. I tried to tell him that whatever he was feeling, I felt it too. I said the summer heat, the crush of bodies, and the adrenaline-fueled rock set off my fight response, but the more I opened up, the more I felt him closing off. I understood what he was doing—he’d been pushing us away the whole trip. As we smoked, my brother told me he was considering extending his tour. He said he wanted to see his men through the entire deployment. I was proud of his selflessness. I was ashamed that I wanted him to be a coward. Ashamed that I could not stop his impending departure.

The morning I left Richmond, we exchanged few words. He drove me to the train station and stopped at the curbside to let me out. He stayed in the car. We didn’t share an embrace, instead he shook my hand, his eyes still locked forward. I understood then what my wife has known ever since I returned from Afghanistan six years ago. When soldiers go to war, they take us—siblings, lovers, friends, and parents—to war with them, and when war wrests a part of them away, it takes a part of us too. When will I learn to embrace what he has lost at war? To love this void in him as much as the fair freckles he shares with my mother and sister, his quiet wit, and my childhood memories of him?

•••

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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Learning How to Talk About War Helped Their Family Heal


You can't hide anything from your children, John Sims learned. When their family began talking openly about his three decades of service, the healing began.

Learning How to Talk About War Helped Their Family Heal


You can't hide anything from your children, John Sims learned. When their family began talking openly about his three decades of service, the healing began.

By John Sims

Editor's note: This is the third 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 his first essay and his second essay.

Christmas of 2016 started as most Sims gatherings had: lots of Steve Martin movies, funny YouTube videos, and good-hearted ribbing and banter. But this year, Theresa and I began to broach with our kids the subject of our quest for healing and growth and, surprisingly, the jokes stopped. As we began to disclose some of the struggles we had faced as a couple during our military life, our kids began to do the same.

The Sims Team at home on the start of their Healing Journey. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims Team at home on the start of their Healing Journey. Courtesy of John Sims

Starting with a suicide bombing in Kabul on May 18, 2010, we unpacked, as a family, some of the difficult events I had experienced and brought back home during our war years. Theresa and I had learned that you can’t keep much from your kids, regardless of age, and just as they’d picked up on the hard times Theresa and I had endured, they also had begun to pick up that she and I were working hard to change.

It floored me that our children saw traumatic wartime events, from the Kabul bombing to attacks of 9/11 to countless Permanent Change of Station moves, with clarity equal to mine. Until now, I had seen the trauma from my vantage point, but now, I was hearing it from the perspective of those I love most. Revelations about how these events had affected them were painful to hear. For the first time, we were opening up about deep feelings, and, while not without lots of tears and sadness, the process was largely therapeutic and positive.

Marcella's Graduation from George Mason University in 2015. Courtesy of John Sims

Marcella's Graduation from George Mason University in 2015. Courtesy of John Sims

That Christmas began to feel more like a wellness retreat than a holiday gathering. In the past we had spent our time laughing and quoting lines from our favorite Steve Martin movies, but this year we shared the latest books we had read and wellness tips we had learned, from yoga poses to breathing techniques. These weren’t potato chip books, but meaty, substantive books about growth that comes from struggle by authors like Viktor Frankl, John Steinbeck, Brené Brown, Deepak Chopra, and others.

Our conversations began setting the foundation for us to become emotionally healthier, more compassionate individuals and a stronger, more loving family. I shared how I was benefiting from my daily meditation practice, Theresa offered her faith and spiritual growth, Marcella shared stories of how she had become more compassionate with struggling Marines and Soldiers, Billy kept us riveted us with his harrowing and dangerous climbing adventures, and Annalisa and Johnna gave great cooking tips and kept us well fed. Through these experience, we began to sense that we had grown from and were stronger as a result of our past trauma and struggles.

The Sims family with Danny Boy at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims family with Danny Boy at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

For the first time in years I felt that I was not only in the same space as Theresa and our children, but that we were truly connected not just physically through hugs, kisses, but also intellectually and spiritually. The cone of silence cracked. The suppressed fear and sadness we had all endured from Desert Storm, Kosovo, the Pentagon on 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan began to dissolve, and made room for a kinder, gentler, wiser me. By acknowledging my fear and sadness, I began realizing there was nothing wrong with me, just that bad things had happened, and now I was learning how to leave them where they are: in the past.

The Sims family at Boulder Crest Retreat. Courtesy of John Sims

The Sims family at Boulder Crest Retreat. Courtesy of John Sims

Theresa suggested that New Year's Eve could be a symbolic and powerful day to start anew. The six of us drove to Boulder Crest Retreat, a little over an hour from our home in Alexandria, VA. Ken had invited us to visit when the grounds would be quiet, while everyone was gone for the holidays. After walking through the gardens, we spent some time with the three former race horses that live on the grounds. Their great presence felt like an invitation to connect with them, and challenged us to surrender control, something I hadn’t been good at doing. In my previous visits to Boulder Crest Retreat, I was drawn to Danny Boy, an awe-inspiring and massive workhorse. Watching Theresa and the kids connect to the horses gave me a sense of peace, and I was thankful to slow down and be with them.

Time stands still when I’m at Boulder Crest. I feel as though I’m on sacred grounds; this was once home to native warriors. There’s a historical richness I relish, knowing the land was surveyed by George Washington. And at the eastern edge of the property is a labyrinth. For centuries, those in search of wisdom, from warriors to monks, have walked labyrinths’ single path in and out as a meditation practice to gain inner peace and clarity.

The labyrinth at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

The labyrinth at Boulder Crest Retreat on New Year's Eve 2016. Courtesy of John Sims

Our family began to walk. Some of the kids carried large rocks to symbolize the weight of their struggle to release. We walked in unison and with similar purpose, but there was also space for us to be with our own thoughts. I began to think of us as a “warrior family.” We were accepting our experiences as an Army family, both good and bad, and we were choosing to thrive.  

The day was drawing to a close, and it was time to get back home to Alexandria. On our drive out of the Blue Ridge Mountains we stopped into Mom’s Pies for slices and cups of coffee. As we sat together and devoured our slices of apple, blackberry, and pecan pie, a warm blanket of love seemed to engulf us, and we began to repeat Steve Martin lines and tell jokes.

We unloaded a lot of junk from our rucksacks that Christmas holiday of 2016. It didn’t just fall out on its own, we took it out. We did it through honest conversations, attentive listening, and lots forgiveness and empathy for each other. The work’s not over. There’s still a lot to unpack, but now there is more room for greater peace and joy. Today, we are more accepting of life's ups and downs. Our struggles aren’t over, but from this hardship we are now better equipped to forge a new path of service after the Army. Where this path might lead we shall see.

•••

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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Armed Only With Colored Flags, He and His Fellow Marines Combed the Wreckage Site


When two aircraft collided in midair above North Carolina, Adam Stone and dozens of fellow Marines were tasked with identifying bits of the wreckage, including their brothers.

Armed Only With Colored Flags, He and His Fellow Marines Combed the Wreckage Site


When two aircraft collided in midair above North Carolina, Adam Stone and dozens of fellow Marines were tasked with identifying bits of the wreckage, including their brothers.

By Adam Stone

“Griffin three, this is Griffin one. What is your location?”

“Griffin one, this is Griffin three. Currently at your six o’clock, moving to your nine.”

“Griffin three, say again. Coming in garbled and inaudible.”

“Griffin one, roger that. Currently at your seven o’clock moving to your—”

Silence.

White noise.

Static.

His finger rests on the toggle switch while he listens to the emptiness over the crackling speakers, as if he’s hoping that a voice from the other side, a ghost in the machine, will shed some light on what had happened a few hours before. Finally, the captain flips the switch off, and turns to face his audience.  

Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Taken when the author was deployed to Iraq. Courtesy of Adam Stone

“Those were the last words heard from Griffin one and Griffin three. At approximately zero-one, the two aircraft collided somewhere in this vicinity.” The captain pauses for a moment. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he takes a long, slow deep breath, exhaling the pain in his heart that’s carved clearly on his face. Slowly he begins again, “First responders have been on scene since approximately zero-two. They have cordoned off the area, and subdued all fires. We are here to identify what we can, and to bring the crew home."

Home? Where is home? I’ve heard that “home is where you hang your hat." If that’s true, then we’re bringing them back to the barracks, to their apartments, to their houses. I have also heard “you can’t go home again,” so where do they go? Which is it? Everyone here knows what the captain is referring to, that we’d be bringing them out of the Carolina swamp to return them to wherever they hailed from, to a place that some tried to escape from.

Approximately 75 Marines from multiple units have gathered in the early morning hours on the banks of these North Carolina swamps. We have all been specially trained in emergency reclamation and aircraft recovery, a job we pray never to have to do.

A young lieutenant standing behind the Marines begins to give everyone present a handful of small plastic flags. One red. One white. One blue. Their resemblance to our national ensign does not escape us. I begin picturing flags around the bases at half-mast, flag-draped coffins, words spoken as Old Glory is passed to mother, or to spouse “on behalf of a grateful nation."

The captain continues, “The markers you are being handed are to be placed within the cordoned area, around areas of wreckage, or anything that is part of, or might be a part of the incident.”

“The blue flag is for non-biologic material,” he says.

Non-biologic: You mean the parts of our aircraft we’d learned to love, and spent countless hours repairing. Aircraft that have taken us to places around the world, and have pulled us out of harm’s way. Did we do something to cause all this? Did we forget an important part of the process? Was this our fault? Was this my fault?

“The red flag is for biologic material.”

The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2010. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Biologic: You mean our compatriots, our comrades in arms, our friends, our brothers, our family. Friends whose marriages we celebrated at bachelor parties and receptions, friends we cheered when their children were born over cigars and whiskey, friends we consoled in the bars as we tended to their broken hearts. Friends we will never see again. Friends I will never see again.

The captain touches the bridge of his nose as his forehead wrinkles with worry and tears begin to form in the corner of his eyes. Once again he takes a deep breath and exhales, brushes away his tears and looks back to the Marines.

“The white flag is for the unknown,” the captain finishes.

What can be unknown? I know a femur from a fuselage. I know what bone looks like and what a bearing looks like. I can identify an aircraft tire from my brother, Tucker. What can he mean by “unknown”? We know the difference. I know the difference!

The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author in Afghanistan in 2012. Courtesy of Adam Stone

As the Marines stare at their collection of flags, the captain adds one last thing, “You should be aware it’s unlikely there will be survivors, but there’s a chance nonetheless.”

Survivors. Two aircraft collided in the middle of the night over the swamps of North Carolina. How can there be survivors? And if anyone did manage to survive, what will become of their minds and bodies. Is that really survival?

The captain slowly walks between the Marines, touching the shoulders of a few as he passes. Every Marine he touches is holding back their own pain. Their eyes have swollen from tears; all the while they’re wringing their hands or pulling on their clothing. All eyes are on the captain as he stops before one young Marine in the back of the audience who’s barely able to stand. The Marine is riddled with pain, shaking uncontrollably, tears flowing down his face leaving trails in the dust on his cheeks. The captain, wraps him in his arms and they slowly kneel and cry together.

When they break their embrace all eyes shift to the lieutenant who begins assigning Marines to their search areas. We begin donning our protective clothing and respirators; none of us are paying full attention. The lieutenant’s voice is just white noise, like the radio static we heard a few moments before. It’s not out of disrespect; we are thinking of the task at hand: to find those we love. As we wade into the swamps, we hear the lieutenant’s final words to us: “Ok gentlemen, be careful, and bring them home.”

Home. Can we ever truly go there? Have any of us here ever known it. Will a part of me be left in this swamp, or is it already long gone?

I’m silent. This could have been any one of us, could have been me. We all love to fly, we all cherish escaping gravity’s relentless hold. Now, we’re searching for our brothers. I knew all of them. I knew their names. I knew their families, because we are their family. They are my Family.

Deeper into the swamp with my brothers I wade—knee to waist to chest deep. We search relentlessly, barely keeping our heads above the water. Not one person complains about the humidity, or the water sucking all the moisture out of our bodies. No one’s worried about the water moccasins, or the alligators, waiting to pull us down. I refuse to leave behind my brothers and the wreckage to become part of the landscape. All I care about are my flags, so my brothers may return home.

The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

The author has retired now, and is working on his college degree. Courtesy of Adam Stone

Red for biologics. White for unknown. Blue for non-biologics.

Red flag. Is for goodbye my friend.

Blue flag. Is for there is no repair this time.

Red flag. Is for you will be missed.

Blue flag. Is for no more turnarounds for you.

Red flag. Is for Semper Fi, my brother.

White flag...

What I hadn’t learned during training to be a crew chief in helicopters or to work on military aircraft—what nobody is told, the part they conveniently left out—is that when jet fuel ignites, it burns at such an alarming temperature it is almost impossible to extinguish. It burns so hot that it will melt bone to bearing.

White flag!

A flame so intense it will fuse femur to fuselage!

White flag!

A blaze so violent it will merge helmet to hair and skin!

White flag. White Flag. WHITE FLAG.

•••

Adam Stone is a retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant with 20 years of service, including multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and numerous peacekeeping deployments around the world. He is married with four kids. He’s a stay-at-home dad and beginning his college career in pursuit of an English literature degree.

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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.

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.

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

Courtesy of Liesel Kershul

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

•••

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

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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.

Courtesy of Joy Craig

Courtesy of Joy Craig

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.  

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

•••

Joy Craig is an emerging writer and activist focused on veterans and women’s issues. Joy retired from the United States Marine Corps after 23 years of service as an Aviation Ordnance Officer and Drill Instructor. During her service she was awarded the Navy Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals. She’s spent the past two years penning the forthcoming memoir focusing on her experiences in the Marine Corps. Joy is a native Californian residing in the South Carolina Lowcountry with her two daughters. She donates her time coaching for Dragonboat Beaufort, a cancer survivor/supporter charity, and is an alumni of the Leadership Beaufort program.

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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.

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.

Drown proofing class. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

Drown proofing class. Courtesy of Tenley Lozano

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.

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

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

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.

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.

•••

Liesel Kershul is a writer and a lifelong student of philosophy, politics, and human behavior. She holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California, Irvine, and an M.S. in applied psychology from Sacred Heart University.

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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 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

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.

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. 

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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.