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Look beyond the lapel pin

A VMFP panel discussion gets underway at the 2009 Biennial conference in Arlington, VA.
A VMFP panel discussion gets underway at the 2009 Biennial conference in Arlington, VA.

Six years ago this weekend, Veterans and Military Families for Progress held its biennial national conference in Arlington, Virginia. I was a founding member and for several years served on the board of the national 501(c)4 organization. That weekend event hosted high-ranking government officials from the VA, DOD, a number of national veterans non-profits and other agencies and organizations.  And it was my great honor to serve as chair of the three-day event.

The conference covered weighty issues such as the challenges faced by veterans transitioning to civilian life, reconnecting with their families, and rejoining the workforce. An awards gala recognized the legislative advocacy of Congressman Chris Smith of NJ, former Cabinet Secretary Max Cleland, and Bob Woodruff, the TV News Anchor injured in Iraq. And through a fundraising effort, we were able to reunite and host an entire U.S. Army Fireteam that served together in Iraq.

I’d been involved in Veterans causes since high school when I served as a “candystriper” for not one but two local Veterans Administration hospitals in the Nashville area. The fact that my dad served directly under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower in the European theater during WWII and an uncle was a Marine officer killed at Iwo Jima added to my desire to serve veterans. But becoming a blue star mom was the thing that confirmed my commitment to this noble but small percent of the population as I endured the deployments of my two sons to Iraq a total of five times.

Living in Tennessee at the time, the weekend before that major conference in Virginia, my husband and I were fortunate to volunteer in Operation Stand Down Tennessee’s weekend stand down annual event collecting, sorting and distributing warm clothing for homeless veterans living in the Nashville area who were fortunate enough to be bused to that weekend event. I might sound corny, but my eyes still tear up as I think about those individuals, what they endured and continue to endure because of their service and duty to our nation.

In three weeks time it will be Veterans Day. All over the country politicians will be pinning their Old Glory flags to their lapels.  I’d like to believe they keep our Veterans and those serving and their families in mind as they ponder legislation, budgets and taxes.  I’m afraid that’s not always the case and have found it helpful to follow the legislative updates of non-partisan veterans organizations out there to find out what’s really going on and who’s really advocating on their behalf and who’s really just sticking on the lapel pin for show. Another way is to delve more deeply into their particular voting record for yourself at Project Votesmart. It’s time consuming, but if you’re passionate about it, it will be worth your time to cut through “the filter” to parse votes yourself.

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Me: Part 2

Us and boysAfter a couple of years in the country, we relocated back to Nashville where I went through two years of high school before another move to Murfreesboro, an hour south of Nashville. During my high school, I got involved in school programs, ranging from sports – basketball, track and swimming – to acting (yes, acting!) and church (I was secretary of our CYO group) and even earned a 100 hour badge as a candystriper volunteering at the local V.A. hospital.

Despite all these activities, the transition to Murfreesboro was tough since I’d left some close, wonderful friends behind during a crucial time in my teenage years to try to gain acceptance in a school where most everyone had grown up together. I processed my feelings in writing and escaped into books even more. In fact, I often got in trouble for reading off-topic in class — even honors English class.

I absolutely loved writing and felt comfortable doing so. So much so, that in college, I frequently wrote other student’s term papers along with my own.  I left school to earn a paycheck, married young and soon had a couple of children and life as a stay at home mom bringing in a little side money as a sportswriter for a local weekly paper and then working as a stringer for another local newspaper.

My tumultuous six-year-marriage ended so I entered the ranks of the 9-5 employed in customer service. A few years later I remarried a wonderful man — my best friend — and continued to work, too busy to write. I returned to school and received a B.A. (cum laude, I might add) in Mass Comm from Middle Tennessee State University. While there, I was writing for the school newspaper and as a stringer with the Tennessean, covering some random stories from a major pollution issue to the cotton crop’s prospects to tragedies such as a young boy dying from diabetes.

After graduating, I moved into a fulltime reporters role with a suburban Nashville daily paper and wrote for a few years longer before deciding a corporate communications job would be more lucrative. I simultaneously joined forces with a friend of my brothers and co-wrote a screenplay and, with my partner’s approval, wrote the subsequent novel based on the story. It gathered dust on a shelf as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged on but I’m glad to say became my first published novel, Empty Sky, which was finally published in 2014.

The art came into play this way: My two sons joined different branches of the military and served in Iraq. They both served in the infantry and both were embroiled in some of the worst fighting during our years there. My eldest, a Marine, was in Nasariyah in the beginning of the war which was described as “a Turkey Shoot, with our Marines as the targets.”  My younger son was in the mechanized infantry in Anbar Province where half-ton IEDs were the widow-makers and son-stealers.

I’ll be honest. It unbalanced me for a few years. Not that I became a raging alcoholic or ended up in an institution. Rather, I let anger and outrage over what I perceived as an egregiously ill-advised course of action eat away at me. I was bitter and intense and outspoken and not a pleasant person to be around.

Then I found art.

My sons were stateside and safe and I was able to let down my guard. With a makeshift studio beckoning, I taught myself some basics and took classes and workshops and found a community of fellow artists to paint with.  It was the release I needed and at once my soul felt so much lighter!

Technological advances sent my consulting business the way of travel agencies, and forced me to find steady employment. I did, and have since moved to Florida with my husband. Thankfully, we have a great home with a great studio and separate office where I can paint or write as is my inclination. I decided after finally publishing Empty Sky last year to take a stab at completing the sketch of another story I’d started years ago. Over this past several months I finished it. It is my sweet second novel The Gray Lady of Long Branch and it’s being released August 25.  I hope you’ll consider reading it!

 

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Anniversary of the Iraq War

Wow, hard to believe such a defining moment in my life passed by and I almost forgot about it!  I say defining because as my bio hints, I was a Blue Star mother six times over as my sons – Marine and Soldier – were deployed to Iraq or other war zones in the Middle East.  And my oldest, Kris-the-Marine infantryman, was there for the invasion.  And I made the mistake of becoming way too invested in knowing what was going on.

I was still in college, majoring in Journalism, and had access to all sorts of investigative tools and made it my business to learn all I could about what the U.S. would be up against, what the Marines would be in for.  And I learned the embedded reporters names and when they would file reports, I’d download the transcripts and parse them, sharing them with a few other parents of fellow Marines in Kris’ unit.  After that first deployment, I learned.  I learned to detach and accept that no matter what I knew, it would never change things, so for the most part, during Kris’ following deployments, I took on the ignorance is bliss mindset. Notso with Pete, my baby.  He’d cringe to hear me say that but I don’t think he reads this, so, it’s OK.  It was different with him, an armored infantryman.  I wasn’t as obsessive about the news as I’d been during that first deployment, but I did set up a Google alert “Anbar Province” where he was deployed.

The thing is, I’m just one of many military families radically effected by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And I’m going on record to say we should never have invaded Iraq, but kept our resources and focus on Afghanistan, providing breathing room to the new government instead of allowing the weeds of radical Taliban renew and retake most of the country as they did.   For a while I was loud, vocal and critical but, like worry, realized it wouldn’t get me anywhere.

So I learned to paint to take my mind off it and to focus on something more life-affirming and positive instead.  And today was a splendid day of painting and creating.  Still, I can’t help but be disheartened when I think about the trillions of dollars our country has wasted – yes, wasted (in economics, one learns there are good expenditures and bad – war is one of the most wasteful of all) – on these wars.  Fortunately, my sons came home from war and after some tough times, they’re doing pretty well and I’m very proud of both.  Other families, though, are not so fortunate.