Tag Archives: Military

Blessed 4th of July

Last week I had the honor of meeting with photographer and fellow veteran Stacy Pearsall at the Junction City USAA for a portrait session through her Veterans Portrait Project. It was an incredible experience. Persall, an Air Force veteran, is an energetic woman with eyes that reflect  a kind heart. She guided me onto the stool and helped me find a comfortable pose. Often shy in front of the camera, I end up looking stiff and imperious, so she asked questions about my tour of duty while placing my hands in a natural positions and turning me toward the camera.

 

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project.  I retain no rights.

Photo credits: Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project. I retain no rights.

She asked one of those typical questions that I love to hear — so, deployment/family?  And I blurted “Oh, going to war is great practice for raising a family.  Dealing with children is similar to dealing with terrorists, and vice versa!” and her lighting assistant gave a belly laugh.  After that I felt more at ease and tried to charm the camera.  It was a fun session, and having my portrait taken this way was extremely special.  I often don’t give myself credit for my work in Iraq; I step back and let better veterans, more deserving veterans, take credit.  And I’m okay with that.  But on this day, it was about me, and it was nice.

Stacy took several silly photos of me with my kids, and then gave me a big hug.  The paperwork to fill out — so the pictures would be sent to me — included a question about what being a veteran meant to me.  I wrote ‘continued support and service to those in the military’.  I love the photos I received.  The images are perfect.  They show a person who isn’t a soldier anymore, but who wants to continue to serve.  And someday I will have them enlarged and framed for each of the kids, not to glorify the fact that I was  on the battlefield, but to convey a message that even though war must split up families, it doesn’t change the fact that love remains.

Have a blessed 4th of July.

 

Please take time to look at these images of the men and women who have served.

http://stacypearsall.photoshelter.com

 

Remembering Our Veterans

Moriah 001Nine years ago, on December 7th, I stood on Mount Moriah in Deadwood, South Dakota with two well creased pieces of paper in my hand.  I was feeling nervous and honored to be counted among a small dignified group of veterans gathered for a Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony.  We had ridden together in a trolley to the cemetery where many other veterans had been buried after shuffling off their earthly coils, and we circled around a flagpole for a series of speeches.  A Pear Harbor survivor, among the last living in the Black Hills, was slated to speak first.  He was a tall, distinguished older gentleman in a gray coat and spectacles; probably a grandfather or maybe even a great-grandfather by then.  I imagined that when he signed up for military service he was only a teenager like I had been when I joined the National Guard.  I couldn’t even comprehend what he had been through during the attack at Pearl Harbor.

When he stepped up to the microphone and began to speak, the memories of the day, so many decades before, came flooding back and tears ran down his cheeks.  So overwhelmed by his emotions, he became unable to speak, and the MC requested that I start the ceremony.  As I stepped forward, I reached out and gave the man a big hug.  I commented to the crowd that we should all spread love and support on this day by hugging a veteran.  During my deployment I saw nothing like what this man had experienced, but I tried to honor him and his comrades with a speech on which I had spent long, tedious hours of refection.

Pearl Harbor Speech from 7 December 2004

It is a tremendous honor to be here with you today.  I am truly grateful to be among so many real life heroes!  I was asked to speak about my perspective on deployment in Iraq as well as my feelings about being a veteran.  There are endless comments I could make about my experience, so I spent several days pondering the best message to share with you before putting pen to paper.

To me, being a foreign war veteran is a very special privilege, one I never expected when I enlisted.  Veterans are part of an exclusive group because what we go through in combat situations is often so beyond comprehension to those who have never seen it that we can only connect in certain ways to our brethren.  Veterans bear scars that run deeper than the surface, emotionMy beautiful pictureal and psychological wounds that sometimes never go away.  We all come back from combat changed in profound ways and the reality is that the changes are not always for the better.  We put our bodies, minds and spirits through hell because it is expected of us, and when the mission is complete we are commended for our actions.  We act bashful and gruff because we are not comfortable with being given praise for what we do.  We separate ourselves from the rest of the human race by becoming finely tuned, hyper-vigilant machines of progress, and we accomplish nearly impossible missions by ignoring our screaming instincts.  The tempering we  go through makes us tougher than ever before, yet our innermost identities remain very vulnerable.  We can change ourselves drastically from the rest of humanity through our service, but essentially we are still the same because we are all Americans.

Rushmore

My favorite veteran with me at Mount Rushmore.

As veterans we have given of ourselves and given up a lot to protect our loved ones and give them a life of peace and freedom.  We’ve done our best.  You veterans in the audience need never doubt what you’ve done for your country.  You have done your best!  I am proud to be associated with you all and I am proud to have served my country as you all have done over the decades.

A Picture of Life Through Letters

I finally found the letters I had stashed away for all these years.  They were in an ugly little box tucked away in a closet, just as I suspected. After sorting through them, I chose a few of my favorites, and compiled statements for readers to browse through for a taste of life in 2003 and 2004.

home

   From an anonymous student:

April 23, 2004

Dear Soldier,

            Hello, my name is Kay.  We are watching “Saving Private Ryan” in our English class.  As I watch I wonder, is this how it really is or do they show all this violence for the sake of our entertainment?  I’ve got two older brothers that were over there; one is now out of the Marines and the other is going back for the second time.  It’s scary when there are people you love over there and you never really know if they are okay or not.  We only heard from my brothers a few times when they were there.  Because it takes so long for the mail to get back and forth, which I’m sure you already know.  I was just wondering what you do over there and how long you have been there and how much longer you have to stay…wanted to say Thank You for all you have done for the U.S. while you have been over there.

Sabers 001

Part of a letter I did not actually send:

First of all it’s very humid.  I’m never dry…always sweaty.  Don’t worry, but it is still dangerous here.  We have our Engineer Village along the West Wall [of BIAP].  This is a favorite spot for the Fedayeen, the Baath Party, and Iranians to launch mortars…Luckily so far the incidents have been minor.  Nothing more than a mortar here or there and a few quick shots over the wall.  We haven’t been officially attacked…I’ve been doing a lot of foreman and NCO/leader stuff.  I’m coming into my own now, feeling better about my position.  The Iraqi men on the projects will ask me questions about cement, soils, etc. and respect my expertise (if any?).  Some are cautious about talking to me and most do not shake my hand.  I think it is custom…not prejudice…

Today I went to the Gates of Hell in downtown Baghdad for a ceremony practice.  Tomorrow the brigade commander for First Armor Division will relinquish command…I’ll be in another ceremony, this time as the guidon bearer for the company.  The Gates of Hell is a gorgeous monument: arches that look like two arms with crossed sabers.  I got pictures, so you will get to see them.

Mysterious letter dated on my birthday, writer unknown:

October 9, 2003

How are things in Baghdad, Iraq?  Everyday lately on the news we see that our men and women are getting killed.  I trust that you are okay.  I pray that you are…I am glad you like the [care package] items.  I went by the list your CO put out…About the tape — you didn’t mention the kind of tape that works best for you so I sent “Duck” tape.  I’m grateful for the person that invented this product; there are hundreds of uses for this item…

What do you do about the dust problem?  Do they supply you with dust masks?  What can be done about the dust that settles in your lungs each day?  If it stays in there and stacks up won’t that cause problems in the future…health problems?

This one

Survived the Easter Attack, 2004.

Letter from an ex who joined the Air Force:

…just finished my first week of Tech School.  I don’t know if you had them but we got these stupid things called phases where we are limited as to what we can do.  This phase concept blows absolute ass, because seeing how I just got here I am in Phase 1, and in Phase 1 you have to be in your dorm by 2200 every night…Plus you have to be in BDUs all the time except when in your room…not to mention no alcohol until Phase 2.

OKAY TIME OUTIf you are an Army veteran who went to Basic Training and AIT circa 2000 like me you are probably laughing at this joker right now because he is totally whining about PRIVILEGES that we Army grunts NEVER got.  I have no idea about training for the Navy or Marines, but seriously.  The Air Force is spoiled.  Let’s read more, shall we?

So right now I’m pretty disappointed, but at least it isn’t basic training…I’m sorry  I didn’t write to you while I was in BMT (Basic Military Training), I just didn’t have time.  It’s kinda funny.  I was talking to one of my real good friends…and he just couldn’t believe I made it through Basic Training without talking back to anyone…I don’t know how I made it…it really wasn’t that bad, I mean besides the yelling.  I lost 20 pounds, then put on 7 pounds of muscle, so I’m feeling pretty good right now…proud of myself.

The part about BMT that did make me smile was Warrior Week.  If you didn’t know, Warrior Week was a week we spent at a mock forward deployment camp.  Tents, MREs, fake MIGs, the whole nine yards.  We did the confidence course, the tactical assault course, road march, all that war game stuff.  Only thing is we didn’t really do any war games, which is the whole point to the week…I thought the best part was shooting the M16; it was hella fun and I missed getting expert marksman by 2 but I can retest in six months.  But the real reason I kept a smile on my face is because I remembered a certain someone telling me about her National Guard war games experience…I don’t know why, but the second day of Warrior Games I got the thought of you doing your little war games stuff stuck in my head and I couldn’t quit smiling all Warrior Week.  The thought of you runnin’ around in a Kevlar helmet with BDUs or fatigues or whatever you call them made me smile…At the time you told me, I only had a mental picture to go by, couldn’t really put myself in that spot.  And then Bam!  There it was, I was at Warrior Week understanding what you were talking about and being like “Damn, this is what G-money did, well kinda did.”

Yeah, he called me G-money when we were dating.  Okay back to Army stuff.

Rough draft to my father:

My beautiful picture15 October, 2003

Dear Dad,

Hi! How are you?  I am fine…back from a run!  We ran a mile, then turned around and alternated sprinting, walking and jogging on the way back.  After that we lifted weights to work our biceps.  I had a really good time…Today is our phone day, I mean at midnight our phone day begins.  I’ll try to stay awake to call Mom.  Our cell phone was taken away.  And now AT&T is running a monopoly.  The bastards are ripping us off so from now on I’m boycotting AT&T!  The battalion still has four phones, and the company gets them every five days, so I’ll just have to call then.  At least the battalion phones are on a [better] exchange rate, not like AT&T which charges 92 cents per minute.

My beautiful picture

A memo from a constituent services representative from Senator Tom Daschle’s office:

Tuesday, June 15 2004

At the pie and coffee social in Belle Fourche, I met with a woman…She and her husband were helping raise her beautiful grandson…two years old, but his mother hadn’t seen him for either of his birthdays because she was serving in Iraq.  [The] grandparents had placed pictures of [the] mom on the refrigerator, and the little boy would walk up to the pictures and kiss them.  [He] was an absolutely charming little boy; he had bright blue eyes and was wearing a floppy red hat that he refused to take off during the entire social.  He immediately jumped into my arms and gave me a big hug while his grandparents watched and laughed.  Her parents wanted [the boy] to meet Tom and talked about how important it was to watch out for our troops, and make sure they are properly protected and taken care of.

ASIDE: My son did get to meet Senator Daschle, and became a big fan of Tom.  At another pie and coffee social in Belle Fourche during the 2004 campaign my little monster wouldn’t stop yelling “where’s Tom Daschle!?” during Tom’s entire speech, so his wife  Linda gave him a tour of the campaign bus to keep him occupied.  At our redeployment ceremony both Senator Daschle and Governor Rounds were accosted by him because by that time he had developed a fetish for sticking his hand into men’s blazer pockets to find “treasures”. 

My beautiful picture

Letter from a Vietnam Veteran in Idaho:

Hope this finds you safe and well.  I talked with your dad last Sunday.  He said you were caught up in the 90 day extension.  I know it seems like a dirty trick.  I got caught in one in 1969 while in Korea.  I watch a couple hours of war news every day.  It is hard to believe…we don’t get much feedback on the good things that are going on.  We are well into Spring now; the blue birds are back.  I hope you know and will let your friends know that we support you and pray for your safe and speedy return home.

I heard about the Baghdad Boils, must be sand fleas?  In Nam there were leeches, snakes, and the occasional tiger.  I was planning to go to South Dakota when the school year was over but I think I’ll wait until you come home.  Gas is at $2.00 a gallon.  I am hoping to get caught up this spring.  I haven’t got your letter yet; I keep waiting got your mom to forward it.  I think she may be a little preoccupied, you suppose?  Be well, be safe, keep the faith.

Another friend from the Air Force, this time an Academy graduate:

10 September @ 9:30 p.m.

I found that other letter I wrote on my co-worker’s desk.  I was pleased to see it because I actually wrote down some thoughts I was meditating on, and they were significant to me.  What’s up?  Today I went to talk to some high school kids about the Academy.  I really think that they were bored because the teacher kept steering the subject onto the semantics on it.  You know, what’s the commitment, what exactly do you pay for…  I wanted to talk about the fun parts, challenges, prestige, and benefits of going there (of course I included the service to the nation thing too).  Oh well, we also talked about being a “special agent” but it was hard to gauge their reaction.  I’m sure they enjoyed it…  I kind of like public speaking.  It hasn’t presented any problem as far as nervousness or anxiety.  Only time I felt fidgety was when I was briefing a one star about the status of my squadron.  However, as long as I know the general topic I can usually get by.  Not to say I’m any good at tit.  I just don’t hate it or avoid it…

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Giving the flight simulator a spin at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Then I went to work out during lunch.  It’s really nice to knock out most if not all my lifting during my 45 minute workout.  Hardly anyone is there and I can really focus on the task.  Except for the occasional girl; that’s a give-me (is that the term or is it “givey”?)  Then in the afternoon (after work) I can run and be out quick to enjoy my night of reading and writing to you and cooking, witch is a learning process for me (very hard to make a good meal).  By the way, if you’re thinking “what guy reads, writes, and cooks at night?  He’s gotta be gay…no man does this for fun.”  Well my DVD player went out and so I have nothing but the radio and SNL and Family Guy on my computer.  That only lasts so long before picking up some books.  Currently I’m trying to improve my memory with a memory techniques book.  You reading anything over there?

Getting back to my day, after lunch I came back to work in my gym clothes.  I started washing cars and did about six cars.  Fun, right?  After 3-4 hours of that I noticed how much time people take out of their day with smoke breaks.  I have the occasional cig on a weekend, but even that is bad.  If I were General of the Military I would not allow smoking in uniform or on base.  What do you think?  Am I way off here?  Honestly, I don’t mind washing cars and putting my back into it.  You know what I hate is the 200 jackass/smartass comments as [people] walk by.  Here are some of my favorites: “you washing cars, huh?” (No, I’m massaging the car’s wax coat you stupid fuck!)  “You going to do mine next?” (Yeah, El Fucko, just as soon as I’m done using your office for a shitter!”) and last but not least, “you missed a spot…” (Holy shit!  Why did you open your mouth?!  You’re a freakin’ moron.  Lay down and put your head under the tire so I can release the parking brake and put you to use!)

Allright, that was pretty much my Wednesday.  Still looking for a letter, but no worries.  You just relax and try to keep healthy and strong.  Hmmm, I wonder if/when we’ll ever see each other again?

Your Friend on the Same Continent

Quick note from my Battle Buddy from Advanced Individual Training:

SGT Battle,

Wanted to add this quick letter to your package.  Hope it gets to you near the holidays.  I’m certainly not expectin’ miracles though…My boys are doing well, the third boy on the way.  After that I will find out my plan for duty…Our unit left on the 10th of December for Fort Sill…they will train up for three months roughly, then head out…I really admire your strength Battle.  I can just see that big white smile through all that beige and brown out there.  I have you all in my heart.  You just hold a special spot.  Love you and Happy Holidays!

Love,

Your Battle

My beautiful picture

A Baghdad sunset.

Ten Years: A Retrospective on My Deployment

For the month of November I have decided on a writing project that will be very challenging, but hopefully rewarding. I will be sharing stories that until now only certain family members have heard.  I have been scouring my closets, old photo boxes, scrapbooks, and my external hard drive to piece together fragmented memories of the time I spent in the Middle East.  It was ten years ago, so while many details are extremely vivid, other things like specific dates, events, and especially people have become fuzzy. I was hoping to gather enough helpful documents, photos, and memorabilia to jog my memory.  Some of these mementos were not to be found: a favorite picture of pillars near a body of water as we whizzed by on our way to a survey project, letters from family and friends that I likely packed away so carefully I just forgot where I put them, and little objects purchased in the bazaars that probably went missing after so many moves.  However, I did find enough other items to assemble a clearer picture of where I was, literally and figuratively, ten years ago, and how far I have come since then.

Love You

At my camp with a sign I made for family and friends back home.

In 2003 when I deployed to Iraq, I was barely old enough to drink alcohol legally, just on the verge of true adulthood, and suddenly bombarded with so much responsibility in a very dangerous world.  Life at the time was far from easy, and yet the fact that I stuck with the mission gave me a deep sense of gratitude for being part of a bigger picture.  I sacrificed, knowingly as well as unwittingly, more than I like to admit, but I would never go back to undo my decision to sign up for National Guard service or try to get out of deployment.  I served, and I gave a piece of myself for my country and for Iraq too.  I believe that has made me a better person despite all that was given up along the way.  Ultimately my life has only become better because now, after ten years of wondering what it was all for I can look back and say it doesn’t matter why I went to Iraq, just that I went.

An Iraqi translator who took a shine to me gave me the nickname ‘Malak’, which is the Arabic word for angel.  I was surprised to be given this lofty title, especially during a time when I constantly felt insecure, self conscious, stressed out, lonely, homesick, scared and far from perfect.  When I asked him why such a special name, the translator said he liked my smile.  Well!  He also pointed out that he knew I had potential to be like a guardian angel to many Iraqis, and that I could spend my deployment reaching out a hand to those truly in need instead of worrying about my own shortcomings.  His words inspired me to think of others rather than myself, to take chances and risk my own safety to be there for others.  I spent the whole deployment trying to live up to the name Malak.  Not every day went well for me, but I came home knowing that I did good things for as many Iraqis as I possibly could while I was there.

Headed for a free day of Rest and Relaxation, with my camera ready.

Headed for a free day of Rest and Relaxation, with my camera ready.

I have been warned by another blogger, who is also an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, that writing my stories about deployment will not be easy.  I didn’t want to believe him, but it turned out he is right.   Just gathering the mementos and jotting down notes to piece the stories together has been painful.  Many of my memories of deployment are at best unpleasant and at worst, quite sad.  However, some of the memories are good, and some of the bad memories are worth sharing.  So I am left with deciding which are worthy of turning into stories that readers will find valuable, and which are best kept to myself for the time being.  Not everything could make the cut, so I followed my husband’s advice: “Share the stories that will benefit and educate the readers.  If you don’t feel good about writing it, don’t share it.”  Please visit me frequently throughout the month of November for more stories.  And don’t forget to hug a veteran in honor of Veterans’ Day!

— G