Excerpt From "Homefront 911: How Families of Veterans are Wounded by Our Wars"
Every morning I flip a coin: heads, I stay, tails, I go. I'm trying to decide whether or not to leave Lorin, my husband of nearly fifteen years, a two-time Iraq war veteran who just completed six weeks of treatment for a crystal meth addiction. I also go to counseling, and pray, and meditate; I get acupuncture to relieve the chronic stress and anxiety that seem to have taken up residence in the nucleus of my cells. I have chiropractic adjustments regularly, and have altered my diet in an attempt to boost my immune system, which faltered badly in 2013, landing me in the hospital with a periorbital cellulitis infection so severe I was asked for my advance directive. I get a massage once a week; Lorin hasn't touched me with love or lust since 2010 and I am so starved for the feel of human hands on my skin that I will pay someone to provide it. I talk to other family members of veterans and attempt to have some sort of social life, which is complicated by being married but effectively single, since he is unable, or unwilling, or some combination of both, to accompany me anywhere.
I do all of the crap that I, as the spouse and caregiver of an 80 percent service-connected disabled veteran with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), am encouraged to do to take care of myself, to "put on your oxygen mask first." That's what the people at the Veterans Administration (VA) down here in White City, Oregon, (the people who don't live with what I live with) tell me to do. None of it seems to help. So I flip a coin. This morning it was heads, buying me-or sentencing me to-another twenty-four hours, depending on how the day unfolds. I love my husband, but I just don't know when he's coming home, and it feels like I've been waiting far too long already. I learned how to wait during two deployments that lasted twelve and thirteen months each, and then another year apart while he was at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the Warrior Training Unit. Being the one left behind, without children or family or military spouse friends nearby, requires a shoring up and pulling in of emotional energy. With no one in physical proximity to open your heart to, you endure by keeping it closed. I got so good at waiting that when I came home from work one day to find a glass vase containing a dozen American Beauties by the front door, tucked out of sight from the street, I wondered, Who the fuck are those from?
The swearing problem started during my husband's first deployment, when I was learning military culture, and the acronyms, and how to deal with the part of his employment contract requiring that, every day at work, there were people whose job it was to kill him and it was his job to kill them back. I wanted to kill the women who told me they understood how hard it was to have your husband gone, because their husband traveled for work, too, and once he was in Dallas for, like, three weeks! I tried a few times to gently explain the differences between a three-week business trip to Texas and a thirteen-month combat deployment to Iraq, but was so quickly tuned out or met with such blank stares that I quit. Being unable to evoke my husband with words, to keep him alive in conversation, made it feel a little bit like he had already died. I grieved for him; I grieved for us almost every single day. At forty-three and forty-eight, we were middle-aged and getting older fast-this war was aging us in dog years.
The Army kept preaching resilience. How I came to hate that word, as if the problem and the cure were both wholly within my domain if only I were a little more flexible. If only I were Army Strong. If only I got on board with being an Army of one, a short-lived messaging campaign the Army abruptly discontinued when it determined it wasn't necessarily the message they wanted to send. Or perhaps it was a tad too close for comfort.
If there is an Army of one, it's not deploying to Iraq. I wasn't prepared at all for this life, and I still cannot quite fathom how it became mine.
One week after Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden, the New York Times ran an article by military spouse Rebekah Sanderlin in their At War blog. Sanderlin pulled few punches as she described dealing with her husband's three deployments, her two bouts with depression, and how she nearly lost her marriage to war. Sanderlin also laid out what a lot of military family members were saying to themselves and one another as we watched the news feeds of elated young Americans congregating at Ground Zero and the White House, chanting, "We got him." For America's troops and their families, who carried 100 percent of the weight of two wars for too long, the only "we" has been us.
During World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the last three major wars of the twentieth century, taxes and the draft ensured that all Americans served or sacrificed something. In contrast, less than 1 percent of this nation has been directly affected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unprecedented imbalance of the burden of service and simultaneous abdication of civilian sacrifice has created an epidemic of disconnection between the civilian and military communities. According to Air Force researchers and other reports, that divide seems to be contributing to skyrocketing rates of post-combat mental health problems in returning veterans. The divide is also deeply felt by the families who are struggling with the stress and strain of the churn cycle, their loved one's service-related injuries and post-combat changes, and homefront war wounds of their own.
Read More Excerpts:
Excerpt from "When The War Came Home"
He Got the Call Today.
"Please don't overreact if you read about soldiers being killed or wounded. If something happens to one of your soldiers, we will come to your house and inform you, don't worry."
I've got to believe the officer in the National Guard uniform intends for this to make people feel better, but predictably, it has the opposite effect, and a palpable wave of apprehension rolls through the audience of Guardsmen and their family members. Can it be possible that he was completely oblivious to the impact that statement would have? As he continues speaking, a scrap of paper with a few hand-scrawled words is being passed down our row.
One of the guys in my husband's Platoon has a phone gizmo with Internet access and he'd logged on for the day's news when the speakers bored him. Lorin looks at it before handing it to me.
SEVENTEEN KILLED IN IRAQ.
After reading the note taken from this morning's headlines, I search the stone faces of the men in my row who've seen this. Turning my attention back to the presenter, who's still trying to reassure us, it seems as though he's speaking another language.
I've been at the Kent National Guard Armory for nearly two hours, struggling to comprehend why I'm here.
Normally, Sundays in Seattle are tailor-made for five pounds of newspaper and four cups of steaming dark roast. Between the Seattle Times and the Post Intelligencer, there's enough material to occupy several hours, scanning the headlines, engrossed in the Op-Eds, flipping through glossy pages of ads for bargains on things I don't need.
That's what we usually do, but not today. The alarm blares at half past six, and I kiss Lorin's cheek as I roll out of bed. I press the button on the coffee pot and scoot outside to grab the paper. I drop five pounds of newspaper on the kitchen counter, not bothering to remove it from its bright blue plastic sleeve. We have to be at the Kent Army National Guard Armory by eight, and won't have time to read it. A one and a half mile stretch of Military Highway lies between our house and the Armory, and my husband and I are quiet during the three-minute drive that will eventually take him to Iraq.
People are milling about outside when we arrive, and parking spaces are scarce. Lorin drops me off at the door, and I walk quickly through the drizzling rain to wait for him inside. Leaning against the cinder block wall of the Armory's gymnasium, I watch two hundred men and a few dozen women in camouflage; their glossy black boots leave tire-track mud prints on the tile floor. Seriously, what am I doing here? I cannot shake the feeling that someone, somewhere, has gotten me mixed up with someone else. I've spent my career trying to change the conditions that create war; I never imagined my husband would be fighting one. But attendance at the Family Support Briefing is mandatory, so here I am. Lorin hurries through the double doors just in time to locate his Platoon and find me a seat with the other wives and girlfriends.
He joins the sea of soldiers at the north end of the hall. They call out names and rank and I'm not sure what else, because they're so far away and the buzz of a hundred conversations makes for too much background noise. A high, skittish energy permeates the room. It manifests in the men as a false bravado, but it shows, panicky, in the eyes of the women.
We studiously avoid looking at one another, for when we do, we see ourselves reflected in the unvarnished fear of the other. The sanctuary that's so often found in the company of women is absent today. We know what this war holds for us, what it will take from us, and we are afraid.
Pulling my baseball cap down over my eyes, I slump against the back of the metal folding chair. A young woman with a beautiful dark-haired baby girl wearing a fuzzy pink onesie sits on my right. Two seats to my left, another woman, barely in her twenties, is rigid in her chair. I glance at her white-knuckled hands clutching the metal seat on either side of her body, and my heart goes out to her.
There are perhaps four hundred civilians in the gym, their loved ones now the property of the United States government. A week ago, their husbands and partners were computer programmers, Boeing engineers, delivery drivers, teachers, and realtors. Some were fire fighters, policemen, ambulance drivers or part of the local Emergency Response Teams. They will not resume those roles and responsibilities for eighteen months, if then. It's illegal for companies to prevent their employees from returning to their jobs after extended periods of active duty service, but it happens.
What with the deployments being so long, and the economy so bad, it's happening more and more often, especially to the men and women who aren't employed by government or big companies. Although Guard and Reservists are paid regular military pay according to their rank, once they're federalized, it's a pretty significant pay cut for almost 40% of them. Some generous corporations, like Microsoft and Safeco, are making up the difference, but the government won't fill the wage gap for federal employees, citing concerns about costs. There's nothing that can be done for the soldiers that are small business owners themselves, and many of them will be shut down.
Looking around, I see that a lot of the soldiers are puppies, young guys, barely in their twenties, but then there's a jump, dozens of people in uniform who are in their late thirties, forties, and even older. Scanning the faces of the men in formation, I think, Grandpa's going to war. Then an officer gives the order allowing the soldiers to break rank and find seats with their families.
Another officer steps up to the mike in the front of the room and makes a few announcements, telling people where the restrooms are, and inviting them to help themselves to refreshments. As Lorin settles next to me, a tall man in a sport coat steps out from behind one of the tables laden with donuts. He's with a coffee distributing company, and announces they've created a new Freedom Blend just for this group.
Sickened by the use of war as a marketing maneuver, I lean over to Lorin with a sarcastic remark, "Why not just call it Casualty Coffee?" It's this kind of thing that gets me in trouble.
Another man with a lot of hardware on his uniform takes the podium. He thanks us all for being there, and for supporting our soldiers.
"I know that up until now, being in the Army National Guard has meant just one weekend a month and two weeks a year."
I make a sound that falls somewhere between a snort and a laugh. Being in the Guard has almost always required more time than that from Lorin. When we were living in Spokane, he requested a transfer to the HHC 1-303rd Armor, Mortar Platoon, which meant he had to drive to Kent for Guard at least twice a month. There were a handful of times where he made the six hundred mile round trip more than once in the same week.
I learned there were a number of ploys and even bait-and-switch tactics used by Guard and Reserve recruiters, tricks more disturbing than the actual amount of time they demand from their soldiers. One night after training, Lorin came home and told me about one of the new guys in his unit.
"I was talking to him, and he moved up here from California, and just wanted to transfer units, not be called for active duty. The recruiter waited until after he signed the papers, and then said, 'Oh, by the way, pack your stuff. The unit you just signed up for was mobilized a few weeks ago'."
Apparently, the 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy has a broader application than I'd thought.
Now, sitting next to Lorin at the Armory, I feel the heat rise to my face, embarrassed that I'd been loud enough for the people in the rows around us to hear. From the looks on the faces of the other wives who've turned to see the ill-mannered woman near the aisle, it appears they share my sentiments. Lorin sneaks a look at me and rolls his eyes, patting my knee as he does. I tell him I'll be quiet, and slink further down in my seat.
A huge screen drops down at the front of the room, and the speaker says the video is to remind us why we're here. The lights dim and a country western singer croons he's proud to be an American as the screen fills with the images of 9-11.
Jerking up in my chair, I watch footage of the planes flying into the Twin Towers, people jumping from the buildings, and fleeing the scene. I cannot help but compare this with the propaganda films used by Nazi Germany, and I am ashamed by my lack of patriotism. And then I am ashamed to be an American.
The film ends, the lights come back on, and for the next couple of hours, we're briefed on what to expect in the upcoming months. Information about medical plans is provided, and we're told to make sure our papers are in order. Papers like wills, next-of-kin, and powers-of-attorney. I hear the words, but it feels less and less real to me. I don't belong here; this has nothing to do with me.
After the session breaks up, everyone in my husband's Platoon is coming to our house for a barbeque so that the wives can meet before the guys are mobilized. Before heading out, I follow Lorin down a long hallway and out the back door to the building where his office is located. We pass by wire cages with platoon equipment and training rounds stacked floor to ceiling. He introduces me to a few of his superior officers, and I mumble hello as we shake hands, wondering if it'll make Lorin look bad if I ask if maybe he can just stay home. I don't care how I look; I will grovel for his safety.
By the time we pull up to the house, there are already ten or twelve young men in uniform pacing on our front lawn. It looks as if the yard is being searched for land mines, and I wonder what the neighbors must think. The house fills up rapidly, and people spill into the fenced backyard. I move back and forth between the kitchen and the living room, greeting new arrivals, tending to our guests, meeting the wives, trying to make sure they've got what they need and know where the bathrooms are.
Washing a few dishes, up to my elbows in warm, soapy water, I glance out the large window that overlooks the deck. Flames leap out of the old, slightly tipsy black Weber kettle, and the guys stand in a circle around the fire, long necked beer bottles dangling from their hands.
As I'm setting chips and dips and dishes on the wooden table in the dining room, my neighbor Alisa walks in, calling my name. At five feet ten, she stands just an inch taller than me. She has light brown curly hair that falls to the middle of her back; hair she keeps threatening to cut, but never does. Alisa's quick to laugh, or cry, and that transparency is one of the things I like about her most. She moved into the house next door with her new husband and kids just a week before we arrived.
When our caravan of two cars and a U-Haul pulled into the cul-de-sac after seven hours on the road, they came over to introduce themselves and offered to help. As we unloaded the twenty-six foot truck, she and I talked about weddings and dresses and bridal showers. We've been friends ever since. I give her a quick hug, and see her four- and six-year-old sons and a playmate of theirs hopping and bouncing behind her.
They'd seen the soldiers and are drawn to them, their little boy dreams personified. Waving their toy guns in the air, the trio runs in between and around the men, yelling and shooting one another.
Falling and screaming with delight, this is way better than Sunday school.
Based on the current rate of casualties, at least two of the soldiers that I've seen today won't be coming home. Maybe two of the men that are even now standing and living and breathing and laughing in my back yard, while the sun pours gold on their heads. Trying not to think about it, I offer up a silent prayer that one of them isn't mine.