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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“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.

Is She Tough Enough for Combat?

I feel like I need to approach the physical fitness of women right up front.  It’s one of the most common objections to women serving in combat and I believe is probably one of the weakest arguments.  My plan is to assault this argument from five sides and then drop a smart bomb direct center.

Picture this: two soldiers are out on the “front line,” advancing on the enemy.  Smoke from exploded bombs obscures their view.  The enemy is well entrenched in their fighting positions.  Machine gun spray erupts.  They’re pinned down.  They’ve been cut off from their squad; no communication.  Confusion.  A scream.  The female soldier of the buddy team sees her “battle” is down.  He’s 6’4” and weighs over 200 pounds.  Her 5’2” just over 100 pound frame rushes to his side, but is helpless to shoulder his dying body and retreat to the nearest medic station “in the rear.”  He will die because he is was forced to fight alongside a woman who had no business being on the battlefield.

This is the scenario most often recounted to me as the launching pad for an argument against women in combat due to smaller physical size and weaker physical strength.  After all, doesn’t this scene make is obvious?  Well, not exactly.

First, while the great majority of adults have watched a war movie, less than 1% of adults in the United States are currently serving in its Armed Forces.  In other words, this scenario is more like a Hollywood war than a real one.  I know a bit about it because I was in that one percent.

Secondly, in my last blog post, I discussed the war fighting operations of the last decade—the battlefield being non-linear, or fluid—the fallacy of a “front line.”  Prior to the rescinding of the combat exclusion policy, women were already encountering the enemy and acting as combat soldiers—successfully.

Thirdly, combat operations occur in teams.  Squads of eight soldiers or more secure buildings and raid bunkers.  Quick reaction forces, or additional teams of soldiers within that same sector, are usually minutes away.  Air support, Apache and Blackhawk helicopters, function as both firepower and MEDIVAC support.  It is not likely that any two soldiers, let alone one man and one woman, be isolated during a combat mission.

Fourth: Combat is extremely technologically based.  There has been very little hand-to-hand combat in the wars of the last decade.  SINGARS (Single-Channel Ground-Air Radio Systems) on frequency hop allow for the secure communication of information from soldier to operations headquarters to higher headquarters to medical personnel to quick reaction force teams.  The MTS (Movement Tracking System) uses GPS technology to map vehicles in convoys and allows for long band satellite two-way text messages.  NVGs (Night Vision Goggles) and scopes increase shooting accuracy.  The M4 rifle, a shorter, lighter version of the M16, increases mobility of soldiers in close combat situations.

Warfare technology has likely reduced the gender gap that might have existed between men and women due to physical ability alone because both genders can equally master its use.  In addition, both men and women can equally assimilate the necessary leadership skills, discipline and mental endurance needed in a war environment.  Before a single shot is fired, all these elements must first be in place.

Only now can we evaluate the physical strength differences between men and women.  The caveat here is not to note that differences exist (because I fully admit that they do), but to grapple with how much those differences truly matter on today’s battlefield.  My fifth point is the distinction of physical differences in combat matter less than what the public collectively assumes.

Also, the military does not train the average of all men and all women, but individuals.  These soldiers, first self-selected volunteers, then trained and tested recruits, must pass a set standard of tasks and abilities.  So if the standards are met, whatever the Armed Forces deems those to be for each branch and job, a soldier should not be disqualified based on gender alone.

I must digress to two brief sub-points.  One is the assumption that all men in the military have  greater physical stature and strength than all women in the military.  This is simply false.  Despite the fact that as a woman warrior, my physical fitness standards were designed lower than my male counterparts, I still was more fit than most of them.  Measured by the Army Physical Fitness Test of two minutes of push-ups, followed by two minutes sit-ups and a two-mile run, I did more push-ups, more sit-ups and ran faster than many men.  Period.

While almost all of the men were taller than me, they were not all muscular giants and most would have made a poor model soldier for a military recruitment poster.  And most of the women, were larger than me too.  When we think of men and women soldiers, we often get stuck in the stereotypes—polar opposites—when in fact there is a wide and overlapping range of physicality between genders.

Second subpoint … stay with me, this is an important consideration.  If you check the military entrance records of the soldiers of “The Greatest Generation” you’ll find that the average man judged to be fit enough to storm the beaches at Normandy was closer to the size of the average woman in the military today.  Men have gotten taller and stronger because of better nutrition, fitness and health care.  So have women.  Today’s woman is fit to fight today’s wars.

I had this discussion with a radio DJ lately, who admitted—as nearly all men do—that I don’t “look like a soldier.”  Well, “that’s why I need to be out in public, telling my story and conveying my message that today’s wars are fought by tenacious women with a feminine look like mine.”  But the DJ followed my response with the most poignant argument I have heard yet:  “The heart of a soldier is always the same.”

And this hit me square in the chest.  You see, there are physical standards, training drills, an entire checklist of tasks and requirements that can be measured.  But one thing cannot: the heart.  It takes a special person to raise her or his hand and take an oath to willingly defend freedom even at the cost of her or his life.

The Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.  This is the heart of a soldier.  These qualities cannot be screened for or tested, except in those moments when everything is demanded and there is less than a second to choose.  At that moment the most powerful muscle a soldier can rely on is the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

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“Engaging, edgy, enlightening would be the three takeaways or truths about Miyoko’s book.  It’s a masterful look at our military’s gender roles, but allows us to make high-level connections about how we can apply it to today’s life.  It reminded that everyone has a role to play, and everyone on the team deserves the same respect and most of all chance to contribute.” Richard Rowe, USN ret
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