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.

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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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