All I Could Be

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“American Sniper,” a Conversation

First of all, I wasn’t sure I was ready to see “American Sniper.”  There’s an interesting conundrum for me as a veteran involved with veteran advocacy—especially in aspects of post-traumatic stress and suicide.  As a survivor and now champion of issues that almost choked my joy from me, I make it a priority to do everything I can to maintain my mental health so that I have the strength to pull other struggling veterans from the dark places they sometimes fall into.

That means, not reading every suicide story, not watching every war film, not hearing every sexual assault testimony.  They’re important.  Every one.  But the battle is bigger than I am.  And long ago my mentor taught me about “battle rhythm.”  Time to fight; time to rest.  And so I save myself for the calls that come at midnight.  I save my energy for my brothers and sisters right here in my Iowa community that I give my cell phone number to in case they need to talk now—whenever their now is.  If it rings, I answer.

But out of the blue, a friend, Michael Libbie, the incredibly educated, talented, worldly and … yeah, he’s got one of those makes-butter-melt radio voices … called me up and said “hey, what do you think about American Sniper?”

“Uh … I haven’t seen it … yet,” I said.

After a few minutes of chatting about the emotional upheaval on all fronts over the movie, I agreed to see it in two weeks and be a guest on his show.

Honestly, I faced it with some dread and anxiety.  I wasn’t certain how seeing a dramatic depiction of the streets of Iraq, the streets I drove and patrolled, would make me feel.  I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to seeing dead Iraqis.  I had no idea what would well up inside me when seeing Bradley Cooper, an actor, pretend to be Chris Kyle, the deadliest American soldier sniper of our time.

It went to a Sunday matinee at the Carmike Wynnsong Theatre in Johnston.  The rows were all more than half filled.  I sat in an aisle seat, near an exit, and to my right was a family of four that included two elementary-age kids.  Everyone was nestled in with their theatre fare.  I was surprised knowing what was about to be shown on the screen that folks had any kind of appetite.

A passage from my book jumped to the forefront of my mind.  I described my experience in Iraq as a shitty “full color, 3-D, surround sound” movie that had been running for 137 days without a “single barrel of extra-butter popcorn or quart-sized Coke.”

When the screen came to life with too-bright light and too-loud sound, I slumped down into my seat and felt myself fall into the story and back into desert camo.

February 17th at 5:30pm when, “Insight on Business” 1350 KRNT, began I read through the reflections I’d jotted down after the credits rolled.  Michael and I talked about “American Sniper” and a few other veteran issues in those few minutes of airtime.  And because we only had a few minutes, I had to return to the page to share more depth and detail.

I remember Bradley Cooper fondly from one of my favorite movies, “Silver Linings Playbook,” where he plays a character challenged by a mental disorder.  I thought his portrayal was brilliant and breathtaking in that film and I thought his performance was even more superb in “American Sniper.  He was a believable character, who wore body armor and the soldier spirit convincingly.  He was tough.   I felt he accurately showed the real human side of both combat and post-deployment.

When he used the term “savages,” as Chris Kyle did in his memoir, I did not take it as a generalization of the Iraqi people or the Islamic faith.  If the audience really pays attention, it’s seems he uses the word to describe the organized, funded sociopaths that tortured and murdered their own people and people they considered decenters.  If we look at the activity of ISIS (or ISIL) I think we can all agree it is exactly that: savagery.

I didn’t find glorification of war in this film.  Such an absolute conclusion is too superficial for my way of thinking.  Every story has a hero, and personally, if any writer cannot make her (or his) character the heroine of her story, then frankly, I don’t know who else will.  Hollywood productions are entertainment.  “American Sniper” was not produced to be a documentary or the definitive summation of the Iraq war—politically or historically.  I believe that American audiences are savvy enough to not place that expectation on anything that is over in two hours.

Was Chris Kyle a hero?  To me, yes.  And to his fellow service members as well.  It was evidenced in the film—being called “The Legend” or their “Hero.”  It was not a way for filmmaker Clint Eastwood to persuade the audience that that’s what snipers are.  These honorary titles were reflections of how Chris’ brothers in arms felt about him.  It demonstrated their admiration and respect.  Hooah!

I didn’t view the film as particularly political.  However, like Sebastian Wen shouts in the poem “Maggie’s Farm:”

Everything is political, all art is political and everything is art!

When I was in Iraq (and I get this question a lot) I didn’t think much about politics.  At least, I don’t remember giving it deep thoughts.  I’m not sure I always had deep thoughts or complete thoughts.  I had feelings and reflections that were quickly swept aside when I tapped a magazine into my M16.  My thoughts were hair trigger decisions on two things only: keeping my buddy alive and accomplishing the mission.  The deeper reflections come post-deployment.

My journey home has been lined with previous war veterans, especially those of the Vietnam era.  One of the most valuable lessons these brothers and sisters have exemplified (and one they’re begging this generation to grasp) is that you don’t have to agree with the war to support those that fight it.  The American military is the made up of some of America’s finest citizens and Patriots.  They deserve our respect and support from the day they enlist until the day the bugle plays Taps.  Another lesson they taught me is that the wrongs of the past hurt less when you do your part to correct them for the next generation.

I was up all night after seeing “American Sniper.”  I was pumped up.  Amped.  There will always be an urge in me that wants to be a physical force for good that gets the bad guys.  But the real fuel for my midnight fire was thinking on how Chris Kyle maximized his God-given talents through his profession.  There is an authenticity that rides the line between being your true and best self and doing your best with your gifts.  To me, that’s what Chris Kyle did.  And the result was nothing short of electric.

The challenge then, to me, and all of us, is to find that line for ourselves.  We should feel encouraged by the proof that greatness is a personal journey that every person can reach.  It’s not about being a sniper or doing a dangerous job or being a “tough guy.”  It’s all about being bold enough to go after with all your might, that which means the most to you.  It’s about finding your passion and embodying it.

One of the important wins of “American Sniper” to me was that it opened up a nationwide dialogue about war, multiple deployments, military families and post-traumatic stress.  On my first mission in Iraq in 2003, an insurgency group fired on my convoy at dusk as we were pulling in the gates of a forward operating base after the bridge we were supposed to cross had been blown up.  My adrenaline was like razor blades in my veins and I hesitated to take my Kevlar off to sleep.  I turned to my co-driver and asked, “does anybody back home know what we’re going through right now?”

Chris Kyle said something similar in the film after his first deployment.  He was amazed at how his community had gone on almost unchanged.  Couples were watching sports and families were having picnics and he couldn’t be fully present at home when he knew what was happening in Iraq.  He said, how can anybody do this … don’t they know there’s a war going on?

Not always.  War for a new generation of young people is something that you can turn off with the click of a button.  I think that speaks to just how uninvolved we are as a community—really un-invested—in these wars.  I think when it’s personal, when it not just media, when it’s your daughter and your father, things can suddenly look differently.  “American Sniper” made Chris Kyle our brother and father and son.

Finally, there is a forum for a discussion about American troops because an American veteran became worthy of being center stage.  We readily usher athletes, entertainers and serial killers into the spotlight all the time.  So when the credits role, I do not feel the greatest merit is in inspecting personal or historical inaccuracies, arguing fact over truth, or searching for political agenda threads.  We should not leave our emotions or thoughts in the theatres, nor should we post them on social media in a way that discourages comments.  We should simply ask, “what does Chris Kyle’s life and narrative mean to me?” and “how does his example guide the community in the tougher conversations that must be had?”

For the past decade, when I’d think back to the music of the 60’s, like CCR singing “Fortunate Son” or “My Boyfriends Back” by The Angels, I’d ask myself, where are the songs about Iraq and Afghanistan?  What’s our country’s cultural response to these wars?  “American Sniper” is one response.  What’s yours?  I’m listening.

Reintegrating Vets Need Acceptance: A letter to my dentist as a call for community action

Dear Doctor,

I’ve been coming to your office for probably a decade now, for my bi-annual cleanings and some other minor dental work. I’m fortunate to have a good smile and few issues. One of my first visits there was after coming home from Iraq. I talked to you about the yellowish stains on my teeth—the result of taking an antibiotic for a year, one of the many pills, vaccines and precautions that are prescribed during deployment.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I was nervous as hell at that appointment. You see, doctors make me nervous, so do bright lights. Your exam space is efficient, but a tiny bit claustrophobic for me, and the chair facing the window? Well, that’s not tactical at all. People continuously walked and talked in the hallways at my back—my “fighting position” was useless. A good indicator of enemy activity is the watching the locals. So in you came wearing a perpetual smile. You were then, and have been since, kind, personable and professional. So I assumed there was nothing real to fear; your office was “all clear.”

Then, maybe two summers ago, my post-traumatic stress injury flared up and I had what I’d characterize as a “disgruntled vet” moment in my car in your office parking lot. I was screaming into my cell phone and possibly banging on my steering wheel. I was for a moment, very distressed. And what that all looked like or sounded like (if in fact, anyone at all saw or heard me), is hard for me to know. But I have noticed that the short, brown-haired lady in your office that makes my appointments and checks me in has never treated me the same since. She seems cold toward me, very unfriendly in fact, and in a hurry to rush me from the counter. Could I be imagining this? It’s possible. After all I’ve seen, I believe anything is.

My point in writing to you is this: to raise community awareness of reintegrating veterans. Your receptionist probably doesn’t think I look like a veteran or a soldier; hell I get that everyday. But most of us out of uniform can’t be identified accept by some old and inaccurate stereotypes. Only 1% of the American population currently wears a military uniform, yet there are about 10,000 Guardsmen and women in Iowa alone and as close to Camp Dodge as your office is, I imagine several of them are your patients. For women vets, well, nationwide nearly 300,000 of us have deployed to the Middle East since 2001.

The Veterans Administration cannot give returning veterans everything we need to find our way back home and neither can the military-family community. It’s the people in our workplaces and businesses we visit each day that make such a critical impact.

You see, I got a lot of bars of soap in Iraq in troop care packages. And the fact that I didn’t have to arrange a trip to the Post Exchange to get them was truly a gift. Communities should keep doing that. But if that’s where it ends, we’re failing to take care of those that protect our way of life. I was only deployed for 14 months of my life; I will hopefully have 40 or more years to live.

The lather of this letter is this. If you as a professional doctor, as a businessman, as a community leader, or Iowan, or American patriot want to “Support the Troops,” then what veterans and service members need is respect and compassion in your office, in our neighborhoods, in all the places we meet the non-uniformed citizen. It is, really what each of us owes one another as decent human beings, regardless of veteran status. I think, however, putting it through the “Support the Troops” lens magnifies both the need and the call for action. No one really knows who a veteran is, and no one can tell what each of us has been through and if we’re triggered by something that reminds us of our past in your presence, we don’t want to be judged or stigmatized or ignored. Reintegration is dependent on acceptance. Should your receptionist have witnessed me melt down, she simply could have asked, “Are you ok? Is there anything you need?” And we both would have marched on with our days.

It has been my experience, as an injured veteran and veterans’ advocate that the simplest reasonable accommodations can keep a good day going well, or take a bad day and turn it around. You see, an unfortunately high number of us are still “fighting” everyday and 22 of us each day lose that battle to suicide but, we can all stand up and be counted for doing our best where we’re at to be a part of the cause. If every business leader had this conversation with his or her employees and thought of reasonable accommodations they could activate if needed, can you imagine how communities could be serving those that made a great sacrifice? I think about this all the time.

It’s as simple as asking. Some things you can change, others maybe not. Many veterans with post-traumatic stress injury have light and sound sensitivities. They may need to wear sunglasses or headphones or have an appointment time when the fewest number of patients are being seen. They may need to sit up and take a break in the middle of a cleaning. I don’t know all the solutions—every veteran is unique and most don’t have post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury. Some vets could take offense to being offered an accommodation, even when accepting it may reduce their stress level because we are hard-wired to suffer through a lot of physical and psychological pain. That “toughness” is one of our weaknesses and it makes it difficult for us to seek the help we need.

So, there it is Doc. Writing this letter has kept me up several nights so now your receiving it will have reduced my stress over you knowing these things prior to my next appointment.

Still serving,
Miyoko Hikiji

(Outside the dental chair I am a freelance writer and the author of All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq, the Project Director for the Military Sexual Trauma Initiative at the non-profit group Veterans National Recovery Center and a speaker with the National Women Veterans Speakers Bureau. The folks at Stars and Stripes, Marie Claire, USA Today, Armed Forces Radio and NPR have been kind enough to share my message around the world).

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

Coming soon … to your organization’s next event!

Speaker Sheet

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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All I Could Be: My Story as a Woman Warrior in Iraq is a compelling tribute to women who serve. More than a wartime romance, it honors love of country and the unique contributions women bring to the battlefield. It deserves to be read alongside the classics in military history. Debra Engle, author of Grace from the Garden: Changing the World One Garden at a Time and president of GoldenTree Communications
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