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Moral Injury

“The guilt and moral tension many veterans feel are not necessarily being dubbed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) any longer, but Moral Injury. Moral Injury refers to the emotional shame and psychological damage incurred when a soldier has to do things that violate their sense of right and wrong.”

I found this mentioned this heartwrenching and powerful post by Benjamin Sledge “The Conversation about War our Veterans Refuse to Have.” It brings back a flood of memories to me, not as a vet, but as the mom of two vets who were in war and came back scarred. I can’t imagine the kind of scars inflicted on our servicemen and women who were forced to make these ugly choices to survive.

This is why I paint. To escape the painful thoughts of these wounds inflicted on so damn many souls.

 

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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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Iraq invasion was 9 years ago today.

The Iraq invasion 9 years ago today. I get emotional thinking about it as my oldest son was a Marine 0311 (infantryman) on the berms. #verklempt

The truth is, back then I was immersed in the role of supportive military mom. But with reservations. I had watched (and videotaped for my son) EVERY SINGLE hour of the U.N. Security Council meetings, hearing the testimony of the UN WMD Inspectors and our own Colin Powell, in dire hopes that this invasion I was sure was about to happen would not be in vain and the UN would find just cause to go in.  Alas, as we all know …

So, five tours, two veteran sons and massive personal and national cost later, I found art my way of escaping the ugliness and death and misery of all that. I wanted to celebrate life instead and found this my way of doing just that!

I’m so glad for the distance between then and now.

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My son is taking a hike – to raise $ for the Wounded Warrior Project.

He’s hiking with a former Army buddy who was injured in Iraq. The WWP did his friend a world of good and they want to pay it back in their own way. Here’s a link to the fundraising site if you happen to have some extra funds to support their cause.

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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.

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Farewell Elizabeth!

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Long before it was a catchphrase in politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave meaning to the term “Military Families.”  The daughter of a Naval Admiral, she moved with her family to U.S. naval bases around the globe.  And so it was, during the height of my political awakening that our paths crossed in the fall of 2004 when I was named part of a small group of women called “Military Moms with a Mission.”  My eldest had already been through one tour in Iraq, my baby was graduating from Army basic training as the group was forming, and I had the attitude of a Mother bear (a full four years before “Mamma Grizzlies” became the fashion) watching out for her son’s best interests.

I’d just received my B.S. in Journalism and had all those college resources at my disposal when the war started.  I arm myself with the facts of the Iraq War, Bush Administration Military and Foreign Policy, and from Senate and House testimony transcripts, the discussions in those bodies that explored the pros and cons of various actions by the administration.  After my “education,” I lent my considerably informed and confident voice to the Kerry/Edwards campaign, knowing that the way forward for our country was by employing all of the tools of foreign policy — military being only the last resort after such things as economic, diplomatic, educational and cultural tools are employed.

So, the DNC and the Kerry/Edwards campaign called upon Nita Martin, Pat Heineman, Lisa Leitz, Lara Bertsch and myself to tour the country on behalf of military mothers and spouses, publicly calling for a new commander in chief during wartime.  We were coached and spoiled by some great young folks, including Tara McGuinness, Mike Lake, Marshall Hevron, Melissa Wideman, and others who I know will save our world in years to come, each of them!  At times we were joined by fellow wives, especially the stellar Gwen Walz, wife of the great young Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz.  Our original group of five first met Elizabeth at a Senior Citizens Center in Ohio.  Before the public event, she whirred into a private anteroom where we were waiting and posed for a few photos, spoke with us about our loved ones, and then went off to host the planned town hall meeting, setting a positive tone but putting forth facts and information that countered what the Bush Administration was proposing.  She was a brilliant advocate for the Kerry Edwards campaign and a voice that was respected.  Her words carried the gravitas of one who would never choose political expediency over the truth.

After our brief encounter, we exchanged hugs with the savvy woman and hopped into our minivans in order to make Columbus by nightfall.  Or some such.  And our one week tour rolled on to its inevitable conclusion.

Or so we thought.  Over the weekend, we each got calls to see if we could fly up to West Virginia for a CSpan televised Town Hall with … Elizabeth Edwards!  Doh!  It was scheduled for Tuesday and we were flown up Monday afternoon and those of us who needed it (me!) had our hair cut, colored and styled (on our own dime).  That evening we shared a private dinner with Elizabeth who showed us that her private self was identical to that which she portrayed in public.  Warm, genuine, without any veneer or bullshit.  Knowing we’d have this opportunity, I printed up enough copies of the digital photo we’d taken during our first meeting and like in high school yearbooks, all signed one another’s photos.  Mine is dear to me, framed and on my desk.  Elizabeth included a copy of that image in her first book Saving Graces.

The town hall was preceeded by a few live televised interviews for cable shows, the first of which was CNN.  I was to sit next to the great lady and speak live via satellite to the anchors back in Atlanta.  We’d been up since 5 a.m. for hair and makeup and I was confident that I looked as attractive as I ever would for this nationally televised feed.  But I was still nervous and Elizabeth squeezed my hand and whispered I’d do fine.  The interview was so quick and thankfully, most of the Anchor’s interest was focused on Elizabeth.  The interviewer asked me about our group’s call for a change in leadership during wartime and I felt it important to establish our credentials as very intelligent, well-informed women.  That’s as far as I got before getting cut off.  I never got to explain what we’d learned and discovered and felt important to share with the voting public and I was very disappointed.  Still, I think the message got across that we weren’t ill-informed women just whining about our sons and husbands having to serve.  I was also called upon to represent our group during a live Fox and Friends Morning feed too and I’d been so nervous about this interview, expecting the worst, but it went very well.  My dad, recuperating from a stroke in a nursing home had seen it and that’s all I cared about.  The other girls had been standing behind us during the interview and other national news crews interviewed Elizabeth and one of them as representative of our group as each network saw fit, based on our bios.    

After the excitement of these live national interviews, the town hall forum was a breeze.  We all sat in captains chairs onstage in front of an audience of probably 300 or so folks from the Westover, West Virginia area.  The one hour program went off beautifully, and of course, Elizabeth made brilliant points I’d never even given thought to before.  Including this strong one as to why we needed to extricate ourselves from Iraq as soon as possible and allow the country to self-govern.

“Nobody washes a rental car,” she said simply and then related an incident where the U.S. government had contracted to construct some vital public works facility and it had taken more than 18 months and millions and it was still not completed.  They turned over management of this and an identical project to the Iraqis who completed the project in a few short months and  on the second effort, well under budget.

My strongest memory of the forum though, occurred near the end, when an aging veteran — in uniform — came and stood directly in front of us onstage.  He began talking, and kept talking.  And talking.  And talking to the point I started to worry we were losing the audience.  At that point, Elizabeth graciously got up from her chair, walked over to the man, gave him a gentle hug, and managed to escort him to his seat all while keeping the conversation going and flowing.

We were all sickened at the election results and then downright crushed when we learned of her cancer and sent her flowers as a group.  When she was publishing Saving Graces, she asked me to send her the original jpg file.  I didn’t think anything more of it until getting a signed copy in the mail months later.  Our photo is included, along with a cutline, and her impression of each of us in the copy of the book itself.   

Pat, Nita and I met up with Elizabeth at the February 2007 DNC Winter Meeting.  Our first ever, we didn’t no what to make of what seemed to me a trade show for the presidential candidates.  Each had a hospitality room and after the day’s general sessions, would host specially designated attendees in their rooms.  We were not such specially designated attendees although one gentleman I serve with on a couple of vet/milfam advocacy boards is, so he went into the Edwards (he was still a candidate at that time) hospitality suite while we waited by the security area.  A moment later, who comes energetically bounding out but Elizabeth, all smiles and hugs.  None of us gave a hoot about status and were just so excited and happy to catch up with one another.  She escorted us through the security gate and seemed as genuinely happy to see us as we were to see her.  We expressed our concern about her health, but she brushed it aside and glowed, as we did, rekindling our connection after three long years.

I can’t believe she is gone, but I choose not to grieve her passing.  I do mourn for her lovely children, that they will be deprived of her in their lives as they grow up.  But I hope they can always keep her memory close, incorporate her influence, her values and her wisdom.  I just discovered this lovely Native American poem that I will now share which may help them and others missing this great, great woman.


“Don’t stand by my grave and weep, for I am not there. I do not sleep. 
I am a thousand winds that blow.  I’m the diamond’s glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.  I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
Don’t stand by my grave and cry.  I am not there.  I did not die.”

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Yay, the Conference is Over! I can go back to painting again!

The weekend conference, put on for Veterans and Military Families for Progress, was a tremendous success despite modest attendance. We were able to push out a lot of great ideas, inform those veterans, military family members, vets advocates, government officials, and the news media in the audience of a number of important issues, developments, and more related to our constituents. I had a lot vested in this because the group included Pete, one of my sons and his “band of brothers” a group of seven Iraq War vets in all who served in deadly Anbar Province together. Three are purple heart recipients and one has been awarded the Silver Star. We had been fortunate to put out a financial appeal ang received donations to “sponsor” the travel expenses and attendance of these men and some of their family members. It was, in my opinion, a great investment.

We all got to listen to Congressmen, a V.A. Assistant Secretary, an Undersecretary of the Pentagon, and a White House Special Assistant too! We heard compelling stories from military family members, veterans, and healthcare providers that treat veterans and those serving, as well as educators, employers and more. The main thing is, it is over, my effort paid off, and I learned and experienced a tremendous amount during the weekend. I know my son and all his army buddies did too.

Now, though, I am spent, both emotionally and physically and I can’t wait to get back to painting! Tonight I am spending the night at my lovely friend Pat’s home, located in the area around Manassas Battlefield! It’s a wonderful quiet and peaceful respite from the hustle and bustle of metro Washington, D.C. and we had a gorgeous walk in the battlefield with her black lab, Sherman. Pat, an art school graduate, showed me some of her work and encouraged me onward, noting my photography background would be helpful in composition. I took tons of photos of Sherman in the fields and Pat said she wants to paint landscape paintings incorporating him in them. I’ve promised to send her a CD of the pics. She uses her art, by the way, in her graphic design / trade show exhibit business called Showcase Portable Exhibits. Affordable trade show/ exhibit displays by a talented, great person (and fellow former Blue Star Mom!). Use her if you have the need and tell her “Moesse” sent you!