All I Could Be

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“Riveting and enjoyable reading…  A powerful story.”
- Colonel Paul L. Ladd, USMC (Ret)

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Lynda O'Connor
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Military Sexual Trauma Amendment to Iowa Code of Military Justice

From today’s press conference:

Over the past two years, we have watched the highest ranking officers in almost every branch of the military with sexual assault prevention assignments, dismissed from their duties for committing crimes of sexual assault and harassment that they were supposed to provide the leadership and training to prevent.

Over the past 12 years, we have watched women service members come forward with their personal Military Sexual Trauma stories, from inside the wire of the forward operating bases in Iraq and Afghanistan and within the gates of military bases and training school here in America.

Eighteen of those women, featured in the military rape documentary “The Invisible War” sued the government for its system of handling MST cases that stripped their constitutional rights that as military members they’d sworn to defend for others.  Their case was dismissed, citing that “rape was an occupational hazard of military service.”

Meanwhile, every military commander and politician on camera has echoed the same sentiment: zero tolerance.

That phrase has been put to the test, and it has failed, miserably, year after year after year.  This is not just the military’s problem or a women’s issue.  It’s a human rights issue.  Every person has the right to live and work in a safe environment, free from sexual harassment, predation, assault and rape.

Our country has some big numbers to face: between 360,000 and half million service women have been sexually assaulted at some point in their military career which is at least 1 in 5 women in the military.  1 in 3 women that file a claim with the VA for any reason, report Military Sexual Trauma when asked.  Maybe only about 15% of MST incidents are reported.  But that report rate has increased by 50% in the last year alone.

What does our state face: the VNRC hasn’t found any solid data.  But we’re certain that Iowa is not too far outside the national trend.  In fact, the proposed MST Amendment would make it a military leaders “duty to report” MST incidents, therefore allowing us to begin tracking the status of MST crimes in the Iowa Guard and Reserves.  That’s a powerful start.  From a survivor standpoint, it explicitly protects her (or him) from retaliation.  And for a perpetrator, it holds him accountable for his crime in civilian court, with a conviction that cannot be overturned by his chain of command.

I honorably served my country in the active duty Army and Iowa Army National Guard from 1995-2004, including one tour in Iraq.  I was a victim of both military justice systems that ignored my reports, threatened my career and protected my perpetrators.  You see, it didn’t matter that MST was a relatively small issue when it happened to me.  It didn’t matter if I was 1 in 3 or 4 or 5 women traumatized during my military career or if I was part of only 8 or 15% that chose to report it.  What counted was that it happened at all and that my chain of command appeared to have a systematic method to ignore and conceal my report and re-victimize me in the process.  What is crushing is that the greatest professional Army in the world and one of the most ready and well trained Guard units in the country, made me one of its own—a sister among brothers, trained and battle tested.  Proud of the uniform I wore.  And from within the tightest woven threads of trust and loyalty, it unraveled everything it had taught me to believe in.

And I’m not alone.  Whenever I speak about my military service, at women’s groups, book clubs, service organization meetings and veteran events, one woman will stay afterward to tell me her sexual assault story.  At almost every event.

Military Sexual Trauma is NOT an occupational hazard of the military.  It is not simply the by-product of women training, living and fighting alongside men.  It’s not about young people, in an isolated and emotionally charged environment, being indiscreet.  MST is NOT about normal, consensual sex.  It’s a crime of coercion and power that is a temporary pain of the body and a lifetime disfigurement of the soul.

The MST Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice is an opportunity for our state to lead the nation’s charge against this egregious crime, to take action against perpetrators that do not stand for the values of the Iowa Guard and Reserves, and to protect the women and men that voluntarily give their best and if necessary, their life, in faithful service.

Only 1% of our citizens wear a military uniform, yet all of us enjoy the benefits, luxuries and liberties paid for by their sacrifice.  We owe them more than we can ever repay.  But we can start, with the MST Amendment today.

I’ve heard from several members of the Veterans Affairs Committee that there is no Republican or Democratic way to treat veterans, just a right way.  And the MST Amendment is a right step.

Tell Your Iowa Legislator You Support the MST Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice

Dear Representative or Senator ____________,

I’m writing to express my need for your support in making changes to the Iowa Code of Military Justice that help protect our defenders at a state level, in the midst of the national crisis of sexual assault against women in the military.

Unfortunately, Sen. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act was not included in the defense bill. But as she and her supporters continue to advocate at the national level, there are still ways that Iowans can take action to protect Iowa’s military team by supporting the Amendment to the Iowa Code of Military Justice drafted by the Veterans National Recovery Center.

It addresses two important aspects: accountability and reporting. 1 in 5 service women are sexually assaulted during their time of duty and 1 in 3 that seek treatment at the VA for any condition “test positive” for MST when surveyed. Our state can do better.

Can I count on your support in co-sponsoring the amendment?

My female veteran friend and lobbyist Miyoko Hikiji is advocating on behalf of the VNRC for these changes because of how she knows both personally and anecdotally how this issue has effected women warriors in our state.

Contact her to get more information at: m_hikiji@yahoo.com.  She will also be at the Capitol, Senate Room 206, next Tuesday January 21st  at 10am to outline the amendment and answer questions.

Thank you for pledging to protect our defenders.

Sincerely,

Name

Street Address

My Medals, My Heart: Displaying Pride in Service

Fellow female vet Kristin Delfs asked me about my brooch. Here is (of course) … the whole story. Women veterans don’t have a lot of feminine or fashionable ways to show they served. The hats and tees or actual ribbon bar some men wear on their suit coats don’t work on women’s dresses or blouses. I knew sometime last summer I’d be spending a lot of time talking about my service and I needed the appropriate gear. I went to Sheena Thomas, a jewelry designer, metalsmith and co-owner of Elements, Ltd. She let me talk, and she listened intently. I needed it to be more than pretty; it had to be symbolic too. These are the concepts we came up with together.

 

1. It’s outer ring and the ribbons inside it are circular instead of rectangular to represent the shape of a woman, with balance and harmony, and how that doesn’t match the Army’s hypermasculine, rigid ideals.

2. The ribbons are not fixed, but are free flowing and dynamic. Instead of being pinned on in a static position to represent one past event, they are meant to show the power of those qualities in the present moment.

3. They are anchored, however, by the U.S. pin, for my country and it’s values will always be my foundation.

4. I picked 7 awards plus my unit award from my 14 decorations (without noting any second awards or devices). They are (left to right): Army Achievement Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Reserve Components Achievement Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Valorous Unit Award.

 

I can’t resist this final note, for the naysayers (whom I abhor) that claim I destroyed or disrespected military property … the military nearly destroyed me and for much of my career it didn’t give me much respect. I love it still, always will. But I am the commander of my own life now. I decide. And that freedom, which I partly paid for, is my privilege and right to exercise.Elements Brooch

Van Meter, Iowa: It’s just that simple

Last week I drove out to Van Meter, Iowa, where I’m scheduled to deliver my first Veterans Day speech of the year: Friday, November 8th at 0930 hours.  It’ll be in the school’s gym—a K-12 facility that is both the pride and center of the community … the kind of community that when I stopped at the Casey’s General Store to ask for directions I got, “follow the road into town, around the bend, you’ll see it on the right.”  It’s just that simple.

Van Meter, population just over 1,000, is only about a 20-minute drive west from where I commune with 200,000 others living in and around the state’s capitol.  Now it seems trite to say driving to Van Meter was like a going “back in time” or to “another world” and inaccurate as well, for the community didn’t feel “behind the times” or strange at all.  It was more like a smaller version of everything good and right in the Heartland.

Now I don’t want to idealize, but it’s only fair to brag a bit about this small Iowa town where one morning I stopped, breathed and just let things be.  It’s an easy place, and quiet, and it reminded me of why I’m proud to be an Iowan and an American, living at the core of our country.

Now they say nothing is more American than baseball and apple pie.  I didn’t find any dessert (there’s always next Friday) but I did pass the Bob Feller Museum.  For those of you that don’t know, I was admittedly one of them, Bob Feller made his major league baseball debut in 1936 at the age of 17.  Fans and players recall “Rapid Robert” as having a helluva fastball and TIME magazine agreed, putting him on one of its covers that following spring.  NBC Radio covered Feller’s graduation from Van Meter High School in 1937 and in 1962 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.  His 18 loyal seasons with the Cleveland Indians was interrupted only by his Navy service during WWII.  Feller was the sole provider for his family, but was so compelled to join the war he waved his draft deferment, becoming the first major league player to join the service.  Feller died three Decembers ago at the age of 92.

Van Meter is also home to the Iowa Veterans Cemetery.  About 100,000 veterans live within about an hour’s drive of the location, where groundbreaking took place in 2006.  Funds for the state-run burial grounds came from the State Cemetery Grants Program, established in 1978, by the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration whose history dates back to 1862.  It was during the Civil War that Congress recognized the need for designated resting places for soldiers that died serving their country.  If you’ve ever been to Arlington you’ve had the privilege of experiencing our nation’s grandest gesture of gratitude for its heroes.  And the Iowa Veterans Cemetery, well, it’s simply our version—smaller geography, same gratitude and honor.

A school staff member greeted me at the door when I arrived and walked me to the office to check in.  My “tour guide,” special education teacher Colleen Tendall, showed me the gym and how it would be set up—marching band in this corner, students over here and veterans bused from the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown in front of the bleachers here.

“People from town will show up too,” Tendall said.  “Everything happens here.  We’re one of those schools that still says the Pledge of Allegiance every morning.”  I like those schools, I thought to myself.

We visited the student coffee shop, peeked into the cafeteria and cruised down the halls decorated with dozens of construction paper spiders and autumn leaves.  I could hear tiny voices burst from tiny tots in the kindergarten room as their hands waved excitedly ‘pick me, pick me.’

It’ll be the first year in the school Veteran’s Day assembly tradition that a woman will speak.  What will I tell such a diverse audience in such short time?  I took one last glimpse into the gym on my way out, imagining the faces and their reactions to my attempt over the sound system to inform, inspire and entertain.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, teachers, parents, fellow veterans … (readers):

When I was 18 years old, and coincidentally knew everything, I couldn’t wait to get the heck out of Iowa.  It was small and simple and there was never anything to do.  I saw a commercial on television, two men riding on a tank, the “Be All That You Can Be” Army motto flashed across the screen and I thought, “Yes!  I wanna do that!”  Three weeks later, I landed in the red dirt of Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for basic training.  While I was doing pushups and sweating and marching and picking cockleburs out of my socks and firing an M60 machine gun and shining my boots and screaming “Drill Sergeant, yes, Drill Sergeant” my senior class was adjusting pushup bras and sweating and dirty dancing in fashion heels and popping blisters and throwing glitter and screaming “We don’t need no education” while firing off bottle rockets in the parking lot.  Essentially we all had basically the same senior torture—mine just lasted longer, I got to wear more comfortable shoes and I was hanging out with all the hot guys. <<fast forward>>

Over the next nine years I sojourned in four states and three countries.  I met and conversed and ate meals and prayed with soldiers and citizens from all across the States and the Middle East.  And in being about 6,000 miles away from the corn fields and hog confinements, I learned a few things about Iowans that I didn’t know when I was living among them.

First, Iowans are truly some of the friendliest folks around.  Strangers to our ways often label our immediate kindness as weakness.  But I see our gift of hospitality as strength.  We are willing to be vulnerable in order to offer help because it is the right thing to do.  It’s just that simple.

We offer good help.  The year I was deployed to Iraq, I served in an Iowa National Guard unit.  Our job during the war was to transport supplies and troops and supplement the security missions of other units.  We kept watch in towers, trained Iraqi Border Police and guarded enemy prisoners.  But back home our full time jobs included electrician, farmer, plumber, fire fighter, teacher … dozens of other jobs and skills and knowledge bases.  So when the active duty units at our forward operating base needed help repairing or implementing something for their living quarters they knew to come to “Hawkeye Company.”  That was our nickname—sorry Cyclones from the western part of the state.  I’m a Cyclone grad myself but none of that mattered there.  We were in Iraq as Americans first, then Iowans.  After that, it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just that simple.

In Van Meter, 2013, I’m not that far from where I started my adult life and military career 18 years ago.  Things look different to me now that I realize I have a lot to learn.  Iowa, from its small town to its larger cities, has enough art and culture and entertainment for a lifetime.  Ten years ago when I deployed to Iraq, Iowa was the one place I couldn’t wait to get back to.  So many of the people in its communities still believe in and live by the values I came to understand in the Army: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  It’s an amazing place to live.  It’s just that simple.

Now a brief morning time speech that ties that reflection together for a diverse audience: not that simple.  So if you want to see how it’s done, you’ll have to plop yourself down in the bleachers among the crowd on Friday November 8th.  The full speech will appear as a blog after the event.  Here’s your teaser:  There will be a test, after all it’s mostly school kids.  There will be four questions.  Three answers will be ideals that begin with “to be.”  And because it wouldn’t be fun without a visual aid, expect a stuffed, striped bumblebee to be a part of it all.  It’s a great day to “bee” an Iowan!  Happy Veterans Day!

Sources:

https://va.iowa.gov/vetcemetery/

www.bobfellermuseum.org

www.navalhistory.org

Coming soon … to your organization’s next event!

Speaker Sheet

Who writes reviews? Readers do.

Who writes book reviews?  For any author, the answer is everyone that reads her book … please.  Now I know a lot of readers don’t feel “qualified” to pen a review but think about it like this.  When your sister or your best friend goes to a new movie or checks out a new sports bar, do you really care how they phrase their “review” of it?  Of course not!  You want to know the gist of the plot, whether the action was entertaining or dragged on, maybe a detail about one of the actors … could someone that normally did comedies play a serious role well?  Did he get really ripped for the part?  Or, in the case of the sports bar you would want to know if the beer selection was unique, if the servers were fast, if the appetizers were tasty and if they played your team on the big screen.

Why the pressure friends?  Book reviews drive book sales.  For the same reason you end up going to that movie or that bar because it was recommended, a reader will purchase a book that’s recommended because they trust they will get their money’s worth.  There’s a lot of competition out there and that’s the bottom line for all of us not living as independently wealthy heirs.  We have, at some point, a limited amount of funds to spend on entertainment so we’d rather take a risk on something someone else liked than on something no one knows anything about.

A review can be a few sentences long.  Believe me, “I liked it overall.  It was not what I expected but would recommend it to anyone, especially young women,” is more powerful than (silence).  There are a lot of questions you can address in a book review but here are a few starting points:

1. How do you know the author?  Are you in the same industry that the book is about?  (That can validate her expertise on the subject matter).

2. What did you learn?  Did anything in particular surprise or amaze you?

3. Were you entertained?  Was it a “good read,” “fast read,” “easy read,” etc.

4. What was the writing style?  Was there a lot of dialogue, dictionary words, long sentences, or references to other literature?

5. Was it honest, objective and relatable to a common reader’s life experiences?

6. What was the goal or purpose of the work, do you think?  Was it achieved?

7. Does it fill a gap in books in the current marketplace?  Is it a first account, unique perspective, discuss new or developing topic?

8. What was your overall feeling of it and because of that would you recommend it?

The best part is there are no right or wrong answers.  You’re not submitting a thesis for a literature course and no one in spectacles and wool socks wrapped in Birkenstocks will reach for a red pen.  In fact, less academic reviews are preferred.  Everyone appreciates honest, everyday language.  And no author expects a glowing review.  Criticism is valued and helps writers move their craft to the next higher level.  So, reviews that include some questions or parts they didn’t like, as long as they are balanced with positive aspects are highly beneficial to both a potential book buyer and the author.

So get real and get writing … then post your review first to barnesandnoble.com, Amazon.com and iTunes under the author’s book.  Good secondary options to post your review include your website, and any of your social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, Google +, Tumblr, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Pinterest, You Tube or by simply emailing it to your contact list.  If you want credit, tag or CC: the author so she can Forward it, Like it, Share it, Retweet it or Pin it.  And more importantly, so  the author has the opportunity to reciprocate heartfelt thanks to you for spending valuable time in order to help further her writing dreams.

 

Be All You Can Be, The Army Motto that Inspired a Generation

June 7th, two weeks after the official publication date of my memoir, I had a book launch party at the Gold Star Military Museum on Camp Dodge, in Johnston, Iowa.  It was a evening of eat, drink and be merry.   The guest list included the mayor of the city of Johnston, the state’s former and current public affairs officers, the museum’s board of directors, officers from my American Legion Post 663, actors from The Peak Agency, fellow writers, friends and family.  Outreach Pastor Craig Ferguson of New Hope United Methodist Church provided the invocation and professional singer Sarah Stallman sung one of the most beautiful renditions of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard.  Museum Curator Mike Vogt, “the best pilot I know” who provided the foreword in my book, told the audience about the museum and introduced me.  This is what I said:

I hope that this event brings a touch of inspiration to your life tonight, because I am standing here as evidence that dreams can come true.  Now they don’t always and they don’t automatically, but they can.  And that tiny word “can,” gave me just enough conviction to decide to deploy to Iraq three days before the end of my enlistment contract, just enough resilience to get me through 403 days away from home, just enough hope to start a book that nearly everyone I talked to said would never be published, just enough faith to trust that God designed it all for a purpose higher than what I could ever anticipate.

“Be All You Can Be,” the Army slogan from 1980-2001, the slogan that drew me in on commercial breaks during M*A*S*H and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather—two of the only television programs I watched growing up.  I’m not sure which had a deeper influence on me, Rather’s reporting, his trustworthy voice and presence delivering  what I assumed to be God’s truth, or Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce, the undeniably brilliant surgeon that never could quite play by the rules.

“Be All You Can Be” was the Army’s slogan for 21 years and for good reason.  It worked.  It inspired a nation of young people to become their best by entering into military service; what really could be more truthful.  It certainly was for me.

Three years in the active duty Army, five years in the National Guard and one year deployed to Iraq made an indelible print on my life.  That impression, like a fingerprint, shares characteristics with other military members’ impressions, including putting the mission above all, being prepared for and efficient in all working conditions—indoor or outdoor, physical and mental—adapting and overcoming in order to get the job done, never giving up, being a good leader and team member and always, always keeping that “can-do” spirit.

Yet my experience, and reflection back on it, like a fingerprint is unique to me.  My story, “All I Could Be” a title derived from that old Army slogan, cannot begin to tell the whole story for women in the military or the entire truth of the 2133rd Transportation Company that I was deployed with.  I accepted that limitation from the sketching of the first draft because of the benefit, I believe, that has come and will continue to develop from the final draft.

One benefit is that it starts the conversation.  It’s a line of dialogue, a single descriptive scene, a character portrait that asks the reader first to walk alongside me for a while, endure the gritty desert environment, explore the uniqueness of the female soldier experience, envision the destruction of war and feel the camaraderie, friendship and love of the brother and sisterhood.  It reminds the reader that young people go to war and while making the mistakes expected of their years, they also become hardened and old and wise beyond their years.

Many of you know that during my deployment part of my sanity was kept in recording my days in journals, letters, pictures, a mission log and calendar—hundreds of pages, thousands of details and memory joggers—that helped me piece my story back together one chapter at a time over the eight years following my deployment.  Aside from my personal notes, when I wasn’t driving a truck, I worked as the designated unit correspondent.  I wrote Family Support Group updates, the company newsletter, stories for my Squadron’s newsletter and penned a few articles for an Iowa newspaper.  I completed all the required hours of my journalism internship while deployed and the public affairs officer of the Regiment choose me to be interviewed by Geraldo Rivera, a moment of excitement that I woke up at 0300 for that never even aired.

But I was not deterred from finding my place in front of the camera or in the sun.  And that just enough conviction and resilience and hope and faith, well, it originated far before my military training.  My story is not a new story, it’s a continuation from generations past that grew up from the sturdy roots of my parents.  They passed to me a legacy of hard work and cultural literacy that I am responsible for carrying forward until my daughters are able to take it over.

Grace and Noelle, my two beautiful daughters, about to turn three and four are home playing with Dad tonight.  Now they love books, but my husband and I both agreed they should not read mine until they are about 14.  I hope they are proud of their mother that day they finally read it.  To Tom, I reserve the utmost respect and admiration for.  Being a writer’s spouse (I now think) must be something like being an officer’s spouse—it’s a lot of behind the scenes, tiring, often undervalued and thankless work.  Tonight I recognize how his sacrifices contributed to my success and I will be forever grateful to him for that.  To my family here tonight, my mother, my brother Lonnie and sister-in-law Lori, thank you for your support.  To my fellow veterans, writers, artists, church members, friends: thank you for being here and for sharing in the pinnacle event of this book journey with me.

Be All You Can Be.  It’s a motto that doesn’t require all of us to become doctors or generals or astronauts or best-selling authors (though some of us it will), but it does demand that we embrace our individual destiny.  It insists we take our unique gifts and talents, add our hard work and dedication, deposit generously into the dream accounts of others so that combined with a little bit of magic, we can all rise to our very best, to further the larger story, pass along a greater legacy, and fulfill our part in life’s ultimate design, a plan we will never be privy to or fully understand.

But we don’t need to read ahead to the end of the book in order to be the author of our own lives.  We need only enough light for the page we’re on.

[Thank you to everyone in attendance and those that were present in spirit for your encouraging words and generous support.  When I was discouraged, your faith became the necessary footholds along my route to the publishing summit.  I will be grateful, always, for each of you.]

 

 

Teach Children About Citizenship

I was recently contacted by Maya, a 7th grader, via her mother’s Facebook page.  She had an assignment for her communications class about the military and she wanted to interview a female veteran.  Could she ask me a few questions? Absolutely!
Now some veterans might have hesitated because war is a complex topic, often gory and difficult to talk about.  But I feel obligated to educate anyone that don’t wear a uniform about what military service is like.  Doing so doesn’t glorify war, it magnifies truth.  And there are appropriate answers for every age group.  Military service is the embodiment of citizenship–the living history of this country’s commitment to maintain freedom, liberty and equal opportunity for all its people.
So what did Maya want to know?  Here are her questions and my responses:
1.  What was your childhood like?  Was it fun or boring?
My childhood had both fun and boring parts.  My family fished and camped and rode bikes and ice skated.  That was fun.  But I would say it was mostly strict.  My parents expected me to study hard, always do my best, get top grades, play at least one musical instrument, and participate in extracurricular activities.  I played piano and accordion and violin.  I sang in all the school choirs, including show choir, and I ran track and played volleyball.  My parents had me involved in a lot of activities to teach me to work hard, be disciplined and learn how to be a good team member and leader.

2.  Who are your parents?

My mother’s name is Patricia, my father’s name is Harold and my stepmother’s name is Janice.  My parents divorced when I was 10 and my dad remarried.  All three adults worked hard to raise me and make mold me into the person I am today.

3.  Why did you pick journalism in college?

I actually choose journalism because I loved to write and it was a good undergraduate degree for law school.  I was deployed to Iraq my senior year in college, which changed my plans to continue on that path at the time.  But I still think about it and I plan to pursue some type of graduate degree in the future.

4.  Why did you write a book?

I wrote a book for several reasons.  While I was in Iraq I knew that I was doing something that many people could not understand and would never see.  War is costly, in lives, injuries, environmental damage, structural damage to city buildings and roads, and the country’s national debt.  In a democracy the people vote for politicians to make decisions, like declaring war, for them.  If we are an informed public, we can make more informed decisions.  I wanted people to see the war in Iraq from my point of view, not just as a 30 second TV segment that is sandwiched between an advertisement for shampoo and a funny story about, let’s just say for example, a dog that dances to music.  That’s not a good perspective.  Stories are powerful because they bring you alongside the main character.  You experience days and pains and joys with them. When the country declared war on Iraq, they didn’t just send soldiers, they sent Patricia’s daughter and hundreds of thousands more parents’ sons and daughters.  When the numbers are that large, it’s hard to see the tremendous impact on one life.  When we do and begin to imagine it multiplied many thousand times, wow, that’s something powerful.  Also, two soldiers died in my unit, a transportation company of about 130, and two were injured.  I wanted to keep telling their stories because they deserve a nation’s appreciation and honor for the rest of their lives for their sacrifice.  Lastly, it helped me cope with very stressful things that happened while I was there.

5.  Did the military change you?

My life changed forever since the day I decided to join the Army: April 4, 1995.  The military is like another world, different people, new rules, travel, unique experiences like firing weapons and throwing hand grenades.  I appreciate my freedoms in this country much more.  And I have a network of military brothers and sisters across the country and around the world that I’m proud to call “my family.”  The war was the cornerstone experience of my adult life.  I lived without hot meals, dairy products, comfortable bed, cozy clothes, air conditioning.  While on an important mission once, I could not sleep for three days.  I don’t take these things for granted now.  Sleeping in is my favorite luxury, and it still doesn’t happen very often.

6.  What are some events you remember from Iraq?

I visited a girls elementary school once.  The government had outlawed education for girls, but when the war started the schools opened for them to attend.  They had no desks, chairs, pencils, paper, no electricity, and they went to the bathroom outside.  We built them desks and chairs and people back home collected supplies to send to us to deliver to them.  It was one time I felt like I was doing something good there.

Once when I was on a mission at the Iraq/Jordan border I saw a sign pointing down the road, like a highway sign, that said Damascus.  I am a Christian, and this had significance to me as the story of the Apostle Paul in the Bible had a conversion of faith “on the road to Damascus.”  He started to believe in Jesus on that road I was on.  I was very close to Holy Lands from the Bible while in Iraq, which felt very strange since the land when I was there lacked the peace or beauty that you would expect a Holy place to have.  I prayed a lot and felt that God was protecting me while I was there.

7. What was life like in Iraq?

Life in Iraq was very scary.  I did not know if I would live or die or come home without an arm or a leg.  The summers were so hot they are difficult to describe, but about 120 degrees with no shade.  With our uniforms and equipment inside a vehicle, the temperatures I lived in were about 140 degrees.  The winters felt cold even though they only got to about freezing, but there was less to insulate us since we weren’t living in houses.  There was sand everywhere and it got in everything.  I never felt clean and took short showers or baby wipe baths for 9 months.  A bath at home felt really refreshing, my second favorite “me time” activity besides sleeping in.

Thank you Maya for the opportunity to share my story with you and your class.  Serving in the military is one of my proudest accomplishments and my service didn’t end when I took off my uniform in 2004.  I have the privilege now to continue serving through writing and telling my story, which I hope empowers and inspires you, and all my readers, to never give up on your dreams, to always strive to be your personal best and to care for everyone you befriend like a brother or sister.

 

 

Memorial Day: Remembering the Fallen

Today I had the privilege and pleasure to be part of the Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony at the Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center in Des Moines, Iowa.  The event was appropriately filled with ceremony and symbolism: prayers, vocal music, bagpipes, the assemblage of a fallen soldier battle cross, a wreath laying, flag folding and playing of Taps.

The Museum’s Veterans Education & Programs Coordinator Lisa Whitmarsh Peterson schooled us on the history of the day and of the 21 gun salute.  Brig. Gen. Janet Phipps, Deputy Commanding General-Sustainment, Iowa Army National Guard delivered the keynote address, paying tribute to Iowa’s fallen heroes and reminding us all of the magnitude of the day.

Then it was my turn.  Now I’m not a teacher or an officer, just a dusty old Specialist, so I had two tough acts to follow.  But I am a bit of a storyteller.  So …

When we start with the numbers, we forget their stories.  When we stop telling their stories, we fail to honor their memories, when we fail to honor their memories, we are no longer a grateful nation.

We are a grateful nation.  Every citizen that spends a moment in still silence, whispers a prayer, visits a gravesite or attends a remembrance event demonstrates that we are a nation that has not forgotten the sacrifices of the servicemen and women of the United States Armed Forces, or their families or communities that have lost the most precious commodity this country still produces—patriots.

A patriot is passionate about defending the liberties and luxuries of his or her country.  A patriot puts the needs of others above self.  A modern-day patriot grips  tightly to ideals that never go out of season: loyalty, duty and courage.

In the last decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of fallen patriots total  6679, 70 of those patriots called Iowa their home state, 147 of those patriots were women.

I don’t know how to describe 6679 pair of boots without feet, dog tag chains absent  necks to hang from or helmets missing heads.  I don’t know how to describe rifles without two hands on the grip and stock.  I don’t know how to articulate the heart piercing, soul quieting reverence of Arlington National Cemetery.  But nearly that same number, just over 6679 veterans and their dependents are buried there every year.

I don’t know how to talk to you about a number, but I do know how to tell you a story.

Aaron James “George” Sissel was born on Valentines Day in 1981 to Kirk and Joallyn Sissel.  He lived in Tipton and graduated from high school in 1998 and enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard the following fall.  He did his basic training and heavy vehicle job school at Fort Leonardwood, Missouri.  After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Sissel volunteered for Force Protection Duty, where he met his fiancé Kari, and me.  Sissel worked the overnight shift; I worked the first.  When we changed the guard shift over I always noticed that everything was squared away.  It was wintertime, so he’d warm up the Humvee, topped off the generator with fuel, cleaned the guard shack, completed the paperwork.  Not every guard did this; not everyone cared.  And now that the gates of Camp Dodge are no longer protected by body armor and M16s and no terrorist has ever infiltrated its gates, plenty could argue it never even mattered.  But it mattered to Sissel; he did things the right way, working hard, being a strong team member.  He cared.  And all those qualities, along with his easy smile, made him easy to like.  He was the type of friend you were glad to have at your side.  He was a true patriot.

In 2003 he answered the call again, deploying with the 2133rd Transportation Company to Iraq for a year where his above and beyond the call duty performance was recognized by General Roger Shultz, Director of the Army National Guard at the time, with the General’s coin.  But his highest military decorations—the Purple Heart, Army Commendation Medal and Bronze Star—were awarded only after making the highest sacrifice a soldier can make—his life.

It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 29th and the good people of AAFES had just put out the Christmas cards at our forward operating base’s Post Exchange.  It was the rainy season in Iraq, cold and windy and the fine desert sands turned into seas of muck and mud.  Everything was a depressed grey.

I was coming from FOB Quinn near the Syrian border, heading north on the main supply route returning from a supply convoy mission.  Sissel was returning from a mission at FOB Tiger, driving south on the same road when his convoy was ambushed.  Sissel and another Troop’s .50 gunner were killed.  Sissel’s co-driver Gottschaulk sustained a debilitating injury as a bullet passed through his ear and exited his eye.  I listened to the radio transmissions and messages sent over the movement tracking system laptop.  My convoy couldn’t get there in time; neither could the Medevac helicopter.

Sissel died in the northwestern sands of Iraq at the age of 22.  He never got to marry Kari and start his family.  I did.  I have two beautiful daughters now.  And I don’t dare take them for granted.  I don’t dare act ungrateful for that chances I’ve had in life since returning from Iraq nearly 10 years ago.  I don’t dare forget to honor Sissel’s memory by failing to tell his story.  If I did, Aaron James “George” Sissel would just be one of 6679.  But he counts for so much more than one number.  You are not forgotten, brother.

For all the servicemen and women that have died for this great and grateful nation, we honor your sacrifice.  We revere and remember your service.  Thank you.  God Bless you.

Rising Veteran Suicide Rates, Part of an American Trend

A recent article by Frederick Reese in the Mint Press News alerted me to some staggering statistics from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):

–Suicide is the #4 cause of death in America, after cancer, heart disease and accidental death.

–There has been a 30% increase in suicides between 1999 and 2010.

–There were 38,364 suicides in 2010–105 per day.

Find the complete story here: http://www.mintpressnews.com/increase-in-u-s-suicides-may-be-linked-to-economic-downturn/

Why the increase?  Experts in the article suggested the current economic downturn and a significant decline in mental health services as key contributing factors.

After a year-long tour in Iraq, as I passed through Kuwait on my way home to Iowa, I was confronting with the reality of suicide.  One soldier, headed in the opposite direction, back into Iraq for a second deployment, killed himself in one of the recreation tents near my company area.

Currently, 33 military personnel or veterans attempt suicide daily with 22 veterans and 1 active duty soldier dying from that attempt.  Because suicide is closely connected to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), both prevalent in the veteran population and often untreated or poorly treated, insufficient mental health care could certainly be a key factor in veteran suicides also.

My senior undergraduate thesis in psychology at Iowa State University was on PTSD.  My experiment consisted of self-report surveys on college students on three scales: 1) exposure to traumatic event 2) stress level 3) presence of social support network.  My findings were statistically reliable, showing that exposure to trauma alone does not predict PTSD in an individual, but had to include high stress levels and/or lack of social support.
Veterans often feel as if no one understands their experiences.  This feeling can leave them disconnected from the sources of healing: community veteran organizations, support groups, family and friends.  But I believe these loving, intimate  relationships are vital to coping and healing deep psychological wounds.  The experience of combat and a long deployment (or multiple deployments) are difficult experiences to unpack and decompress.  But, veterans cannot receive what they do not ask for.
If you are connected to a military member, you can help by providing her or him a safe, non-judgemental, listening-focused environment.  Veterans, speak up!  It is difficult, painful even, but if you’re Stateside right now then you’ve already been through the worst of it.  The war over there is done; The war inside begins.
Some new ROE (Rules of Engagement):  1) SPEAK UP!  If you get burned or have a bad talk, try someone else.  People care about you.  Don’t give up, ever.  2) TRY DIFFERENT FORMS OF TREATMENT (You’re unique.  Your therapy regimen will be too.  Consider medication, veteran support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, transcendental meditation, specialty  yoga programs … )  3) DO THE WORK.  You won’t see results if you don’t do the work over time.  4) LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES TO THRIVE, NOT JUST SURVIVE  In other words, help someone else.  It doesn’t have to be a person with PTSD, in fact, that may be too much pressure on you during treatment.  But use one of your strengths to make a positive impact on another.  Too much self-focus can become a downward spiral, exhausting your energy and inhibiting your progress.  Give yourself breaks, from yourself … why do you think I’m writing this?
There are a lot of resources available, but I want to highlight two that I’ve recently come in contact with in my own wellness journey: 1) Welcoming Your Soldier Home Project (WYSH Project) started by Army veteran and PTSD suicide survivor Andrew O’Brien.  He wrote a guide to help families understand the transition period for their soldier after deployment.  Find him on Facebook and Twitter @WYSHProject  2) Gallant Few, dedicated to mentoring veterans and promoting an anti-suicide message, founded by retired Army Ranger Karl Monger.  Find him on Facebook and Twitter @gallantfew.  And I encourage all veterans to copy this link, make the call, and take the Spartan Pledge:  www.descendantsofsparta.com
Be well, warriors!

 

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“Reading this tribute to those who serve in combat only reinforces the respect I have for this soldier turned author.  This book is exactly how I recall the dedication, candid atmosphere, and unselfishness I grew to respect from the author long before Hikiji’s deployment.  I would have expected nothing less and congratulate her for this undertaking.”Michael A. Gardner Colonel, Ret, US Army
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