badge of honor

it’s easy to get caught up in your own misery and pain, and wear it around like a badge of honor. it’s harder not to let the painful experiences define you. you are not just the sum of everything that has befallen to you, but it is foolish to think you can brush those things aside as if they have no power or meaning. the answer, I think, is to face the pain as honestly as you are able; wail at it, shake your fists at it, howl, sob… and then walk on. come back if you need to but do not dwell, for the ground there is a sloppy muck that will suck you in if you stay to wallow.

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Randi Rhodes

After being assaulted by Rush Limbaugh for so many years, I clearly remember the joy I felt the first time I heard the Randi Rhodes show. “AHA!”, I said. “Right back atcha!” I wasn’t what you would call a regular listener, but would smirk with quite a bit of satisfaction any time I happened upon the show.

I saw Randi at Invesco Field the night Barack Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. I started to thank her and mentioned that Clay was getting ready to deploy. She interrupted me with, “What the hell is he doing in the military.” She was so nasty that it caught me off guard. “Well, it’s kinda complicated…”, I stammered. “Complicated? I have no sympathy for gay people in the military…” she said. She railed on for a few moments, dressing me down.

To be honest, I was in a bit of shock and can’t remember the exact wording after that, but the jist was this: His misery is his fault for being stupid enough to voluntarily be in an institution that hates gays. Without giving me a chance to respond, she snatched her pack of cigarettes off the table, turned her back on me, and stormed off. Determined that this brushoff wasn’t going to ruin the night, I put it aside and went back to the events at hand. I didn’t mention it to Clay because I knew it would put a damper on his joy that day.

While I understand her point, it smacks of blaming the victim to me. Would she say that same thing to every American who followed their dreams even when society told them it was unacceptable? Would she say that to the black children who were escorted by the National Guard past jeering racist faces, just so they could go to school? Should they have just stayed in their all-black, ‘separate but equal’ places? Are the riots and killings and lynchings their fault because they had the strength to do it anyway? What about the Stonewall Riots? Isn’t it just as easy to say that gays shouldn’t have been congregating together that night anyway? They KNEW about the raids and police brutality, but they did it anyway.

My Mom was the first female Director at the corporation she worked for on Madison Avenue. She endured all sorts of sexist indignations. When she questioned being repeatedly passed over for promotion by people with half of her experience and qualifications, her boss said “Oh, it’s just that I could never work so closely with someone I’d want to fuck.” There was no such thing as suing for sexual discrimination back then. Do you suppose Randi would say to her, “It’s your fault, you knew that business hates women. Go home and bake your cookies.”

If people didn’t push there would never be any change. And it can get really, really messy.

Randi, think about telling your kid “You can’t do ____ because you’re ___.” Fill in the blanks with whatever you want, and be ashamed of yourself.

Shit

Clay called during breakfast. I could tell right away that something was bothering him. “What’s wrong?” I was in a noisy place, so I ran outside so I could hear him. The connection isn’t always the greatest and I usually have to ask him to talk loudly. This is a bit of a problem because there’s no privacy, and he’s literally surrounded by his fellow soldiers during his calls. They often banter back and forth in the middle of our conversations, giving each other shit.

He witnessed two soldiers get blown up by and IED today. One female, one male. He said they lived but that there really wasn’t much left of either of them. It happened close to where he was, and he just happened to be looking right at them when it happened. He was the one who called in for help.

They also showed him pictures of the latest casualties in Mosul. I can’t figure out what the fuck for, other than they’re trying to desensitize them. I wanted to just tell him over and over that I love him, knowing how soothing that would be to him – but I couldn’t. I used our code word instead, but it sounds so childish and hollow.

He’s trying to channel his anger and pain into something positive by getting involved with getting school supplies to local Iraqi children. This might involve leaving the base on days off to go with the convoys to the local schools – he’s not sure of the Army will let him tag along, or that his leadership would let him. I am obviously conflicted about that one.

Irony

Right after Clay got done telling me that a rocket, fired from the city, just missed him, he told me that he had trouble sleeping. But not for the reason you might imagine. He had read about the plane crash in Buffalo and knew that I fly on that exact type of plane several times a month. Of all the freakin’ things to lose sleep over when your getting you’re getting your ass shot at on a regular basis…

Fairness?

It would be good to have access to the Base support services.  I really don’t have any idea what they would be, but I imagine things like spousal and family phone trees, potlucks and various other gatherings, counseling; the benefit of sharing with others going through similar things.

Fair is not a word I use much anymore.  There is no guarantee of fairness in this life.  There are those who will sympathize with me, those who scold me that I knew what I was getting into, and even those will who tell me I shouldn’t have any ‘special rights’.

What I think, however, is that it is just plain cruelty.  It’s cruel that a good soldier who has been shot at, rocketed, mortared since his first day on duty in Iraq, never got to say a proper goodbye to the person he loves.  Instead,  we pulled behind a warehouse at the edge of the base, stepped out of the car and held each other briefly in the pouring rain.  The rain started to change to snow.  I dropped him a bit away from the main gate, so that nobody would see me, and he walked alone in the sleet  to report for duty.  I held it together so that he could make that walk without looking back in worry.

We have a code for ‘I love you’ on the phone, and in our correspondence.  There are things I ache to say to him, but try my best to sound like a good friend.  My writing is a stilted, messy kind of chicken scratching, no matter how hard I try – so there’s no disguising it as a woman’s (sorry if that’s a sexist remark…)  I could type it or have someone transpose it, but I refuse.  I stubbornly want him to somehow find comfort in its familiarity, in its messiness.

We are blessed with a cadre of close friends who have promised to send all sorts of goodies to him.  I know that soldiers long for these things; sometimes out of necessity, but more as a touchstone to home and the people they love.  I wonder how he’ll feel as his buddies pass around pictures of their wives and girlfriends.  I wonder if he’ll make up stories, remove himself or stay painfully silent.  I think the bond forged with his buddies in battle will suffer – him having to always hold back just a little; these the men who go through things together that I can’t even imagine.

Fairness has nothing to do with it.  But, if you even have a sliver of a conscience, an ounce of empathy, it should make you squirm in your seat a little.  At least I hope it does, because then there is the hope that it will change some day.

Taking Chance

I was in a hotel room by myself flipping through the channels when HBO’s Taking Chance came on. I can’t explain why, but I had to stand as I watched it, pacing back and forth a bit. I thought Kevin Bacon did a good job.

Clay called right before the funeral scene. I muted the TV, but when I found my eyes drifting over there during our conversation, I turned it off and admonished myself for not focusing on the ‘right now’. We laughed and talked about all kinds of stuff once I got my act together. He sounded good.

Yesterday was his day off, so I got to talk to him last night as well, after not hearing from him for a few days. He said the Army parked that vehicle, destroyed by the IED, in the motor pool right below his tower and he had to look at it all day.

He told me last night that they’re planning on using him for limited patrolling outside the perimeter. This won’t happen for a little while because he’ll have to go through some serious MRAP training. At least he won’t be in an up-armored Hummer like the one parked next to his tower. How the fuck can I complain? Am I supposed to pray that someone else’s kid/father/lover/husband go instead? I can’t. I just can’t.

I wonder if it will help him to look up the soldiers who were in that Hummer when he gets back. Will it help them to tell what he saw? Will it help him to see them if they make it?

Latest Email

“just a quick note, I’m really exhausted. got attacked three times yesterday evening, made it a looooooong night. also got attacked this afternoon, all were incoming rockets, some exploded, some didn’t. as usual, their aim is way off, rockets caused minimal damage, no injuries.”

Larry and my Grandfathers

In the middle of the night, sometime in 1972, my mother woke up screaming, “Larry’s dead! Oh my God, LARRY’S DEAD!” My father calmed her down and told her it was just a bad dream. A day later the call came. Indeed, Larry Marshall had died in Vietnam.

I was only 5 at the time, and it’s something that neither of my parents talk about anymore. If I were to ask them now, I would get the facts: Larry was a good friend. On his last mission before coming home, his aircraft suffered shrapnel damage from a proximity hit. He flew the crippled plane all the way back to the base but crashed on the runway. All aboard were killed.

Bits and pieces of the rest of his story stick out in my memory; overheard conversations during the rare times mom and dad discussed such things. Larry and my dad were B52 pilots in the 60s. He and his wife became close friends with my parents while they were stationed at various SAC bases around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. They were on alert a lot – loaded with nukes and ready to go at a moment’s notice, quartered on base and unable to see their families just a few miles away. From what I gather, the pilots and their wives were a pretty close-knit bunch. Lots of BBQs, potlucks, cards games and drinks at the Officers’ Club.

My father had a reputation for being a clean-cut rule follower – someone who took things a little too seriously. Larry was known for his sense of humor and his ability to keep things light. He was constantly giving my dad a hard time about being an old stick in the mud. Larry would drag my dad out for a good time often when my dad just wanted to stay home. My mom made it sound like Larry personally made a very difficult time almost bearable. My dad got out and started a civilian career when Vietnam started to heat up . Larry stayed in.

A year to the day after Larry was killed in Vietnam, his wife dropped dead, leaving behind two small children. She had never been able to deal with the loss of her husband and literally died of a broken heart.

I have two grandpas who fought in WWII. Grandpa Art was dropped behind enemy lines in Burma, and spent a year fighting a guerilla war with the locals against the occupying Japanese. He came home and had a successful career and family life.

Grandpa Steve was a marine in the South Pacific. He made an unheard of five (or was it seven?) consecutive beach head landings in some of the most brutal fighting of the war. He lost many good men, and often was one of the few surviving men on each mission. He too came home, settled down and lived a happy, successful life.

I try my damnedest to find hope and solace in my grandpas’ stories, and not to dwell on Larry’s. But in all honesty, I afraid of ending up like Larry’s wife. I wish to be a stronger person.