Question 1208: What movie or book ending really left you hanging to the point of anger?
Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen that Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie movie, and you still want to, then don’t read …
We were in Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan, our fifth location in less than four weeks. It was August, and everything was hot and dusty as we schlepped all our gear, weapons, and armour from place to place, documenting Airmen as they went on convoys, destroyed weapons caches, and trained the Afghan police force.
I was sleeping in a room designated for distinguished visitors, since I obviously couldn’t sleep with my two male teammates in their room. The room had a bunkbed, a wardrobe without a door, and bars over the tiny window in the corner near the ceiling. Compared to a tent, it was nice.
[dropcap style=”color: #9b9b9b;”]Y[/dropcap]esterday moved with a frenetic pace. There was my morning commute. A full day of work with meetings scheduled back-to-back with few breaks in between. Then I was a part of a panel discussion at the New America Foundation (which I’ll write about in another post), where I got to answer questions about government data monitoring, information privacy, and Edward Snowden.
Admittedly, not a usual place for Martin and me to land on a Thursday evening, but it was an incredible experience for a few reasons.
First, the performances were wonderful, and the story of a woman in the grips of her mental illness was very moving. In one of those funny life coincidences, I just read the memoir “First Person Plural” a few weeks ago, written by a man with multiple personalities, who I learned about while doing some job-related research, so I was familiar with the disorder, and recognized the aspects of it alluded to in the play.
Second, it was wonderful being back in a small theater environment. It’s been a long time — too long — since Martin and I attended a show like that, even though we both used to work in theater all the time: me in Cincinnati, and he in Germany before our military careers. Being so close to the stage, and being able to really pick up on the details of the costumes, set, and lighting … it all brought back a sense of nostalgia, and really fun memories.
And finally, our attendance last night was especially nice because Martin and I were there as guests, the result of a really amazing opportunity the theater group extended to me.
About a week ago, I was sorting through my email late at night when I got a message from this blog’s “Contact Us” page. It was from Elliott Bales, who explained he is the managing director at DC’s Theater Alliance. He wrote that while doing research for his theater company’s upcoming production, he discovered my blog.
He explain that his company is preparing for an upcoming world premiere production of Obie Award-winning playwright Caridad Svich‘s play “Spark.” The play is about a female soldier returning from war to an economically depressed home with a family of three sisters who have their own problems and do not understand each other. Mr. Bales noted that he himself retired from the U.S. Army after 26 years, and found the story to be “a poignant and beautiful representation for all veterans, and women veterans in particular.”
He spent some time reading through my blog, and based upon my writings about my personal military experiences — both as a female veteran, and as a spouse and having my loved one away from home — he invited me to meet his staff and discuss my unique perspectives as part of their pre-production work as most of the staff never served in the military at all.
I reviewed the information and script he sent me, and responded, and we talked over the phone the next day, where we talked of our past military assignments and I mentioned that I’m the oldest of three sisters, too. It was one of those funny life coincidences, right?
Of course, I accepted the invitation, both to meet with his cast and crew, and to see their current production and become familiar with the theater and the type of work they do, as most of their productions focus on socially conscious themes with a lot of educational and community outreach in the mix.
After last night’s show, as Martin and I walked to our minivan, with both the Washington Monument and the Capitol building lit up in front of us, we spoke about the play, about the upcoming “Spark” production (which begins later this summer), and wondered about the types of things I’ll share with the cast and crew, what kinds of questions they may ask, what they would want to know as they develop their characters and stories.
We also marveled at how all of this came to be, how Mr. Bales found our blog, how these opportunities stumble upon us, and how fortunate we are to be given these opportunities.
For that reason, for Flashback Friday (when I take a dip into my blog archives), I’m sharing a post that I wrote in 2007 shortly after coming home from my deployment, and the immediate adjustments Martin and I were experiencing. I was reminded of this post as I read one of the scenes in the “Spark” script, as it rang remarkably true.
There was a moment a few months ago when JB’s wife, Jessica, paused as she was talking with me and a few others after his retirement ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada.
We were standing at a back table in the room, looking over JB’s military memorabilia, and she was explaining a few of the photos. She had stopped herself after saying, “… after he got hurt.”
She smiled at us.
“You know, there was a time when I couldn’t say that without bursting into tears.”
It’s taken me a few months to write this blog post for much the same reason. I still get teary when I think about it, but it was such a moving and emotional experience, and one that really made me appreciate what it means to be thankful, which is one of the recommendations for living the Good Life.
While I have written often about that day in Iraq, and can talk or write about it without feeling as much of a tug anymore, attending the retirement ceremony for my team’s broadcaster was way more emotional than I expected.
As far as Air Force retirement ceremonies go, it was nice and traditional. There was a summary of JB’s military accomplishments as a broadcaster, and recognition of his family and colleagues. There were laughs, nodding heads, and polite applause at all the right places. You could tell everyone involved and in attendance really admires JB, and put a lot of effort into it.
However, it was after the ceremony when I got a huge emotional wallop straight to the heart.
His mom came up to me.
Until that moment, I never met JB’s family. While he may have mentioned his parents a time or two, I knew more about Jessica and his kids from the stories we shared while deployed together.
And since the deployment didn’t stop for JV and me after JB was evacuated, I wasn’t able to really keep connected to his recovery as much as I would have liked. The most we got were updates through our colleagues and mutual friends until social media allowed us to reconnect some years later.
Of course, I knew that JB’s family would be at the retirement ceremony, but it never occurred to me that they would want to seek me out, but that’s what his mom did. I was leaning over to read some of his certificates when she came up to me and asked, “Are you the young lady who was with JB in Iraq?”
I looked up at her and said, “Yes, I’m Julie. I was the writer on his team.”
She politely put her hand out.
“We’ve heard so much about you, the girl who was with him,” she said.
“Oh, are you a relative?” I asked, still not sure who I was speaking to. She offered me a warm smile.
“Oh, I’m his mother,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for being there for him.”
I remember repeating, “His mother? His mother!” as it dawned on me who she was, but before I could think or say anything else, she was wrapping her arms around me as I began to cry, telling her I was so glad to finally meet her.
Let me be more honest: I was a shuddering, hiccuping, sobbing mess, totally caught off guard by my reaction. I just never considered that I would be mentioned whenever the events of that day were shared with JB’s family, but then to have his mom there, wanting to meet me?
It was a lot.
She rubbed my back, explaining how she and her husband had no idea where JB was while he was deployed, that they weren’t expecting a call like the one they got when they learned he had been injured, how they traveled to him when he arrived stateside for care at Walter Reed, that they were relieved to learn he wasn’t alone when the attack happened, and how grateful they were for the things everyone did for JB that day.
Between gasps for breath, I blubbered about how bad he looked the last time I saw him, how pale and weak he was, how the last thing I did was kiss his sweaty bald head as they carried him away, and how great it was to see him so healthy again, to see him standing and walking.
And then she said, “You know? He’s okay now. You don’t have to worry now. And you’re okay, too. We are so thankful for that.”
I’m not sure how long we stood there like that, but eventually, she pulled away and turned to her husband behind her, and said, “Hey, this is the girl who was with JB over there.”
And then her husband approached me, and JB’s older brother (a former Marine), and even though I tried to compose myself, it was just so much to be surrounded by all of that. After we talked some more, I rushed to a corner of the room to check my make-up to make sure my meltdown wasn’t too obvious.
I was fine during the rest of the reception, and even stayed behind to help clean up, but as soon as I returned to my hotel room, I sat on my bed and cried some more.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I cried out six years worth of tears.
For as much as I’ve shared about my deployment experience, there’s so much more I haven’t shared because it’s just so exhausting and draining.
The aftermath of that incident (both immediate and long-term) and the way things were handled by some of the “leadership” (quotes intentional) were about as traumatic as the incident itself, and changed my perspective on many, many things.
For all the wonderful things that happened to me because of my Air Force service, there were very bitter things to happen, too. Time, focusing on all the opportunities ahead of me, and the amazing support of those close to me during that time helped lessen the burden.
Yet, when JB’s mother approached me, and talked to me, she unintentionally opened up some things that are still very raw and emotional … and yet in the process, her words healed my heart in a way I absolutely wasn’t expecting.
There was a reason I was there that day, why I was a part of that team, and why I was moved to do the things I did, and as I thought about these things, and the words she said to me, I felt like an incredible weight was lifted off my shoulders.
I’ve never questioned or doubted my service over there, but she gave me an answer I didn’t know I needed.
Ever since my deployment in 2007, I’ve been able to keep in touch with my team: JV, JB, and JZ.
Unlike the experiences of my grandfathers and uncles who served in previous conflicts, I didn’t just go home and never see my fellow Airmen again.
Through social media, the grapevine, and in-person reunions, I’ve actually been able to keep track of retirements, career changes, families, and such.
Out of all my connections — military and professional colleagues, friends, and family — there is a special place in my heart for these three men.
For six months (if you include the time I spent training with them, too), I worked, lived, traveled, laughed, annoyed (I admit it), cared, and thankfully, survived with those guys. In the entire span of my lifetime, those months are just a small chunk of my life experience, right?
But whoa, was it extraordinary.
Because we actually worked together at the Pentagon for a few more years upon our return home, and because we live in the same region and invite each other to family barbecues and birthday parties, I actually get to see JV quite a bit.
That was an awesome surprise for me, and I actually had Martin drive up with the kids so we could all sit and talk and catch up.
When I saw JZ, and got the scoop on how well he and his family were doing, and how his career was doing, there was such an unexpected sense of relief there for me. It’s one thing to see updates on social media or through the grapevine, or get emails every now and then.
It’s another to actually put eyes on your battle buddies, and see that they are well.
Which leads me to JB.
He’s the one dude from my team that I haven’t been able to see again in person.
The last time I saw him and his bald head was when they ran out of that kitchen (which was set up as the medical clinic) with him on the stretcher, out to the helicopter waiting to take him to Baghdad after his legs got shredded from the mortar blast.
He spent that summer in Washington DC at Walter Reed in recovery. Martin even got to visit with him.
But he was released and flown home just days before JV and I returned to the United States.
And we haven’t been in the same place ever since.
This evening, I’m on my way to put a status check on him as he retires from the Air Force.
It will be good to see him.
I did not know it was International Talk Like A Pirate day when I picked my nautical-inspired outfit this morning, ahoy! But thar you have it.
Thanks to Ashley the Intern for takin’ t’ picture.
All that snow (ha!) earlier this week brought back some training memories.
I spent a few weeks at Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2007, preparing for my deployment to Iraq. At least, I was under the impression I was going to Iraq then. I was going to be working in the public affairs office at Balad Air Base for the summer. When I wrote today’s Flashback Friday post, I was still under the impression that I was going to Balad.
But midway through my training, I was reassigned to the three-man combat news team.
That was a rough time for me. I was away from Martin and Miss C. Just a few weeks earlier, I discovered my neighbor moments after she committed suicide, and then I got the news my job was going to be different. And suddenly, training for two weeks in a blizzard for a summer in the Middle East that would routinely involve convoys, mortar attacks, almost daily interaction with the locals in two extremely different cultures and countries … I remember feeling anxious that two weeks of combat skills training wasn’t going to be enough for a job like that.
While I still think the combat news teams back then should have received more training, the truth is that the training we did receive was pretty awesome, and our instructors were incredibly passionate and dedicated to ensuring we knew enough to get home safely.
They crammed as much as they could in the time they had us because they knew our lives depended on it.
And my team did get home safely using the lessons learned at Fort Dix.
Confident in his masculinity, Jaz wore his sister’s pink jacket yesterday evening to show solidarity for International Women’s Day. So adorable was this that it took less than 10 seconds for someone to point it out.
Last week, I took all three kids to Chuck E Cheese.
Miss C’s school had a fundraiser there, and she had her heart set on showing some school spirit. So, as soon as I got home from work, the three kids and I headed right back out again to the land of pizza and video arcade games and dancing animatronic mice and friends.
It actually wasn’t too bad. I was nervous about having the girls run off and play by themselves. Usually, Martin is there to go out on the floor with them while I hang back at the table to watch Jaz and our belongings.
Going solo meant having to be a bit more strategic.
I found us a table right in the middle of the action, so I could see everything and keep an eye on the girls while eating pizza with Jaz, who hasn’t yet warmed up to the flashy lights and screaming children there, and prefers just sitting and watching. I also doled out the game coins sparingly, requiring the girls to come back to me every few minutes for more.
Every year around this time, I get a little twinge in my heart. It’s not a bad twinge. It’s more a reminder for me to remember just how closely you succeeded, and be grateful that you failed.
I didn’t think of you until about a year after the attack. In the days, weeks, and months that followed the attack, you were an abstract, thrown in with a larger group. The bad guys. The enemies. The men we saw funneling weapons from house to house on the satellite images we saw the day before.
At some point, though, it dawned on me that it was an individual who lit the fuse and took aim. It was a person — a living, breathing person — who took his hands and resources, and used them in an effort to destroy and kill.
And for the longest time, I deemed you the biggest, sorriest piece of **** out there.
As much as I learned and experienced a lot of good while deployed, there were a lot of things I found rather horrible about my experiences over there in Iraq. For a long time, there was such a simmering anger, and it was easy to waffle the blame for that whole mess on targets that ranged from my team’s leadership and their decisions, to then-President Bush and his whole administration for wasting so much time, money, resources, and precious lives over there.
It’s an odd state of being, to be so proud of my part in it, but to be so turned off and haunted by the macabre mess.
However, throughout the past five years, I’ve talked, studied, reflected, prayed, digested, and accepted the facts and circumstances of my experiences there.
Life’s moved on for me.
But for you? The person who tried to take us out? Who were you?
I do wonder.
You were probably a young man. Maybe a fundamentalist foreigner spurred by the fire of your faith and your hate for Western culture? A local Iraqi avenging the death of your family? What life circumstances led you to make the choices you did that day, and every other day during those years of bloodshed and violence?
Maybe you were killed soon after. Maybe you are still alive.
You’ll forever be a person without a name. Violent, ruthless, nameless, but still a person.
I know to you, I wasn’t even a sorry piece of *****: I was an abstract. From your perspective, my team and I were the bad guys. The enemies. The people you tried to kill.
But let me remind you: you failed that day. We — the people you were targeting – lived, and we’ve flourished.
And as I sit here safe in my home, surrounded by the people I love, I feel pity for you and for all of those around the world whose hearts are fed by misguided faith and zealotry in which violence and bloodshed is justified. I will never understand it.
I will always be angry that such evilness is part of the human condition. I will mourn for our losses from the war for the rest of my life.
Yet as much as your actions caused such pain, they also brought so much awareness and lessons I could have never learned otherwise. I believe there is a reason for everything. Despite everything that happened, I believe our lives – no matter how different, no matter how strange — were meant to intersect that hot, horrible day in Iraq.
Solidly rooted and supported by love, family, and faith, I am truly at peace.
And from that peace comes my prayer for your own.
Earlier today, the Federal Center SW metro station smelled unusually awful. Saw one woman actually gagging. Gross!
And this is random, but listening this evening to my oldest patiently read a bedtime story to her sister in the other room assures me my kids are going to be all right.
It was the mother of a wounded Virginia Tech student who provided an emotional connection of understanding to my husband during my deployment five years ago. I woke up this morning to my radio news channel announcing the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre today, and it brought forth a bittersweet memory that’s not really mine, but I hold it as dear to my heart as if it all happened to me. It happened between Martin and someone we just refer to as the “Virginia Tech Mom.”
The Virginia Tech shootings happened about a month before I was scheduled to deploy to the Middle East. I remember following the initial reports online that day, when CNN uploaded grainy cell phone videos submitted to them from students there on the scene. This was before Twitter, obviously, before YouTube really became the resource for footage like that. Having been in high school in the late 90s, when it seemed like there was a school shooting somewhere every semester culminating with the Columbine shootings my senior year, the news of a school shooting was not shocking. Of course, learning the details and about the loss of 32 lives was horrifying and tragic, especially when we learned that the shooter and countless victims (both those killed and injured) were from our area. But as it goes with major news stories that don’t really claim any real personal investment, Martin and I never thought about it beyond the headlines, especially as we were focused on our own situation: my involvement with the war in Iraq, which was peppering the news with scary and tragic headlines on its own. I was gone in the Middle East for a few months when she walked into his bank. She was a new client, and she needed to cash some checks and make some changes to some personal accounts. As Martin was the first available finance manager to assist her, he approached her and led her to his desk. Initially, the conversation was a pretty generic exchange of information. As Martin plugged away at the computer, though, he realized the mother was making some changes on behalf of her daughter. More questions were asked. More information was given. As it turned out, a few months before, the daughter was a college student in another part of the state before a gunman walked into her classroom and shot her at her desk, along with several other classmates. Her daughter survived, but many around her did not. She was critically injured, and had to wait in that classroom for hours before medical assistance was able to reach her. Now, she was back home with her mother and on a long road to recovery. Maybe it was because he knew about the Virginia Tech shootings. Maybe it was because this woman spoke with him so easily. For whatever reason, Martin opened up to this. He shared that I was deployed and my news team had also survived a recent surprise mortar attack that required my team’s broadcaster to be medically evacuated by helicopter for his injuries. Thus, what would have probably been a simple 15-minute banking appointment evolved into something much longer than that. The two of them talked about how awful it is to send a loved one off with the reasonable expectation that they would return safely, only to discover that something terrible can happen in a second. The mother admitted she worried if her daughter would ever be the same again, having witnessed all of that, and Martin agreed he worried about the same thing with me. They spoke of what’s it like to appreciate the flood of support from the community, but to be embarrassed and uncomfortable with it, too. They shared the frustration of not knowing all the details of what happened, and being scared to watch the news anymore. Martin spoke of how powerless he felt watching me walk away from him and Miss C at the airport, and knowing he couldn’t stop me from leaving. The woman spoke about watching her daughter struggle with physical therapy, and feeling the rage that all of it was beyond her (the mother’s) control. Throughout the conversation, Martin worked to complete all the woman’s transactions, and when they were done, he walked her out of the bank. Then, my stoic German husband had to step away and collect himself before returning to his desk. All during the deployment and for a long time after, Martin never opened up to me about what it was like while I was gone. He, of course, shared that he missed me, but assured me he didn’t worry as long as I was writing. In a letter, he briefly mentioned meeting the Virginia Tech mother, only saying it made him feel weird to hear the mother talk about what happened to her daughter. Only a year later, when I was going through all my deployment paperwork and rereading the letters we’d sent to each other, that I remembered and asked him for more details. Martin saw his client every now and then over the years, but never exchanged more than greetings and passing updates about her daughter. Now that he’s no longer working at the bank, there’s no way to find out how that family is doing this anniversary. But I am thinking of them, of the young lady who got shot, but especially of her mother. I’m sure she wouldn’t remember that conversation with my husband, but I do, and while I know she was probably sharing with Martin as a way to vent some of the emotions she was experiencing, she actually allowed my husband to articulate a lot of what he was going through at the time, too, something that does not come easily for him at all. Her strength and grace in such a situation was — and continues to be — very inspiring. I never think those kinds of encounters are merely coincidence. I hope on this anniversary that Martin’s client, the Virginia Tech Mom, and her daughter — and all the people who were affected by the shootings there — have come to a place of peace now, and that life has moved in a positive direction for all of them. We’re definitely thinking of all of them.