Posts Tagged With: #militarymomma1
Although the fire teams were four-person crews, we had an honorary fifth man on the “A Team”: P Dawg. She was an Air Force nurse from Wisconsin and she had the cheese head wedge to prove it. She also had the innocent face and sweet smile of the girl next door, combined with the sharp wit and colorful language of the girl I wanted to sit next to at a party. To go along with her terrific ‘Sconsin accent, she also brought a renewed energy that made me, and everybody else she hung around, fall in love. We became fast friends sharing our stories of heartbreak and rejuvenation around the barracks room table as we sifted through the best military rations (Packaged Jalapeño cheese spread for your flattened, sponge-like crackers? Yes, please). Everybody needs a P Dawg on her deployment. I gravitated towards her because she was just full of good.
When I wasn’t hanging with Nurse P, I was learning field manuevers with the self-proclaimed, second-coming of the A Team. We didn’t have gold chains, a mohawk or a sweet van, but we did have helmets, kevlar vests and weapons. The basis of the training, according to our trainers, was to become “less of a liability.” With the bar set so low, we paid careful attention to the things we were told, but kept a fun outlook. Any pre-deployment training has the pall hanging over it of maybe not coming home again. We were not immune to the seriousness of where we were going in just a few days, but we inoculated through humor.
In the arctic tundra that is Wyoming in January, we practiced land navigation skills and found lots of barbed wire fences where there weren’t supposed to be any, frozen lakes that almost made the perfect shortcut until we fell into them, stiffened snow that looked sturdy and solid until it had the weight of me and my Kevlar vest on top of it, and plenty of unfriendly cacti. When we were training indoors, we re-enacted scenes from a Youtube sensation video, vocalizing “LEEEEEEROY JENKINS,” as we practiced kicking in doors, seeing around corners without sticking our necks out to be shot off, and clearing plywood rooms of imaginary Taliban. We even learned how to exit a rolled over armored carrier vehicle, yelling “Roll over, roll over, roll over,” (as if that would be my reaction in real life) before becoming completely disoriented and trying to figure out where the door was—it was like pin the tail on the donkey where you’re blindfolded, spun around until you almost vomit and then told to grab your M-4 carbine weapon and get out. Being in that chassis was tantamount to being flipped around like Bingo balls in a shuffle cage.
I have a forever memory of that day because Nurse P thought to take a picture of the four of us after we finally figured out where the door was to exit the rolled over armored carrier vehicle. It’s one of my all-time favorite photos from any deployment. Both my bulletproof vest and my teammates dwarfed me, and I had a black eye from the kick back of my M-4 against my cheek at the shooting range the day before. Brandon, Knotts and Brinkley looked strong, solid, confident and healthy. They looked like they could take care of themselves if the enemy struck. They looked like their legs were mighty strongholds, not likely to be swept out from underneath them by the unexpected. They looked badass. And so did I.
On the first day of training, we were placed in four-person fire teams. In preparation for leaving, I packed my uniforms, my government issued bug spray and fire-retardant underwear (by the time the fire gets to my underwear, isn’t it too late?), and a year’s supply of styling mousse for my hair (trust me, no one wanted to see me without it), but I failed to really think about leading people during the deployment. I’m embarrassed to admit, my mindset was focused on my emotional and mental survival. I didn’t think about being responsible for anyone’s actual safety. I assumed there would be plenty of officers who were much higher ranking than me, and who would be placed in charge. It wasn’t until the trainers began calling the names of the fire team leads, and I heard my own, that reality began to solidify.
The trainer called roll: “Captain Clemens, Lieutenant Brinkley, Tech Sergeant Brandon and Airman Knotts. Fire Team Alpha.” Upon hearing my name called first, I slowly stood up from the metal bleachers that had been arranged in a U-shape around the warehouse and made my way toward the non-commissioned officer who bellowed. I wasn’t confident about anything, but I hoped I wasn’t letting it show. It had been nearly six years since I last deployed. I was much younger then, enlisted, happily married, complete and self-assured; not like now. Now, someone I trusted tore me down, pretty handily. He used fears, which I had armed him with in the confidence of marriage, as the very reasons he didn’t want to be with me anymore. I was a shell, like those locust casings my cousins and I used to find clinging to the trees back home in Indiana. I appeared to be real, but there was nothing inside; if too much pressure were given to my outsides, I would crumble. I was in no place to lead anyone to anywhere, let alone into a firefight, real or not.
Before even laying eyes on them, I assumed this team, all men, felt like they were stuck with me. There was only one other team led by a female, and she was one of the highest-ranking officers attending the training, a Lieutenant Colonel. No one was going to complain about her, but I thought they would feel cheated by being with me. We met up around the Sergeant in charge, and made our introductions. I choked down the urge to blurt apologies for being their fire team lead, for being a woman, and for being such a mess. I had never felt any of those doubts before in life, but I was like an abused puppy waiting to be kicked. I felt DYSFUNCTIONAL.
Just when I thought my positive attitude wasn’t going to survive the training beyond Day One, one of the other men said, “I have no idea how to do this Army stuff. I hope one of you know how to do this.” I exhaled and smiled. These weren’t rough and ready soldiers trying to prove their toughness by making others feel smaller. These were confident guys who would let you stand on their shoulders to see over the next ridge, or, as I would soon learn, pick you up out of a snow bank by the back of your pants and toss you forward. Right then and there, I decided I loved every one of them.
My last few days before leaving went by much as I expected. I didn’t talk to my husband again before I left, not even when he came to pick up the boys from our house the night before my plane left, and I guess I didn’t really expect to—even now, I don’t understand his ability to erase me, erase us, and move on so totally, but he did. My therapist said that my husband’s seeming lack of attachment was not “normal.” I liked her diagnosis better than my own–that I was unlovable–so, I readily accepted it.
When the time came, saying goodbye to my sons was gut wrenching. I learned the human body can produce endless amounts of tears. During the days and nights leading up to my departure, there was more crying, mostly after the boys went to bed and my mind raced with all the things I would miss while I was away for so long. I gave the boys so many hugs and kisses that they were entirely ready for me to leave. When the doorbell rang and their dad was there to pick them up, I reminded them that they would be staying with daddy for a little bit, but I would be back soon. To young children, a year and a week are the same. No sense in trying to explain it by reiterating how long it was. I didn’t need that either. Earlier in the evening, when I was packing the last of my supplies in my duffle bag and suitcases, my oldest son grabbed onto my neck and cried, his little body shaking and his warm tears running over my skin where he had tucked his sweet face. I didn’t break in that moment. I had compartmentalized my motherhood too much by the time I had to leave. My emotions were anesthetized, and I just held him tightly, shushing him and rocking back and forth until he, at last, pulled away. As they grabbed their coats and favorite toys to take to their dad’s, my oldest hugged me again, adding a wet, unpracticed kiss to my cheek. Then, he walked through the threshold, grabbing onto his dad’s hand and disappearing into the darkness of the front yard.
It is hard to explain to people who have never experienced deployments before that this, being called away, was my mission. I was peaceful about serving my nation in Afghanistan because, if I were to die there, I would die doing something honorable and respectable. My sons would have a war hero for a mother, and I could leave them a legacy. At least those are the things I tried to convince myself were important as I finally boarded the plane.
Pre-deployment training took place in Northern Wyoming. Wyoming in January is the stuff that old westerns are written about: a wind chill in the negative double digits, tumbleweeds impersonating grass, and cold–bitter, skin-cutting cold–slicing through layers and layers of clothing. It was the sort of cold that made the tiny hairs inside your nose snap to violent attention. The Army loved it, and they loved training the Air Force in it—sometimes too much. We low-crawled through the bramble, practiced walking in field formation around the frozen ground outside, and conducted land navigation skills through freezing ponds that cracked the skin from your bones. Once, I sank into snow up to my waist and received an abrupt, hefty shove from one of my teammates so I could make it up the damn hill. Instead, I made it about two feet forward, face first in the snow. I loved every minute of it, largely due to the people I met. At this point in my travels, I had made up my mind that positivity was the key to survival, regardless of how much I wanted to be back home with my boys. Afghanistan was my assignment for the next year; time to put on my big girl panties—a confusing term used to mean grow up and stop whining—and get the job done. But even more important than any positive intention was my openness to others around me, an unexpected gift from my heart being broken. I know that some people respond to heartache with bitterness and self-containment, but it wasn’t in the plan for me to die slowly that way. My impending divorce left gaping holes all over everything, and, if I shut people out and let ugliness invade every cell in my body, reek out of my pores and pollute everyone around me, I would never see those holes filled again. For whatever reason, I didn’t entertain that sort of darkness. As my reward, I met P-Dawg and the A Team.
Like Santa’s elves, we hauled the goods from Black Friday shopping back to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rose Bud. The rest of the day was filled with a few unfulfilling hours of exhausted sleep, then plates of leftover turkey, potatoes and corn, and, finally, calls to my family in Indiana. I hadn’t wanted to ruin Thanksgiving for them, or me, by telling anyone about my upcoming yearlong deployment. Whenever a substantial struggle presented itself in my life (divorce, sickness, a year in a war zone away from my sons), it was important that, before I told anyone the news, I was able to handle the concerned reactions. Sometimes, the love of others was too heavy to carry when I was barely able to lift my own chin. All my energy went to simply functioning. Until my marriage was breaking, I never realized the strength needed just to share my life with others. I barely survived telling family and friends when my husband moved out, and now I had to tell them about my deployment, while calming their fears that I wasn’t going to have a nervous breakdown. Unsure if I was rebuilt enough to handle this next struggle, I started dialing the numbers, and the phone calls to family and friends were, as expected, exhausting.
“I’ve been selected for a 365 to Afghanistan. I leave for pre-deployment training on the third of January.” It didn’t matter very much who received the news; the responses were interchangeable.
“Oh, Nancy, honey! Where are the boys going to go? Won’t you miss their birthdays and holidays? How are you going to get ready to leave in just 30 days? Gone for a whole year! Why would you need to go for an entire year? Will you be in danger? You won’t recognize the boys when you get back.”
I knew they didn’t mean to be cruel. The concern simply voiced every fear and doubt that resided in my head. But I knew the fears and doubts I held inside were also held by the people who loved me. They wanted me to give calming, reasonable, panic-dampening answers to reassure them that I was okay with the deployment. If I was okay, they could be okay, too. I could bear the weight of nearly all their concerns except one: “What does your husband say?”
The phone call to my stranger-like husband wouldn’t come until after we returned to Illinois. I needed time. I needed to pretend, for just awhile longer, that I could laugh again, and feel content again, and be normal again, because it had been so long that I almost forgot that I could. I needed the extra days to wrap my mind around the implications of this deployment. I had never deployed as a mother before. I had never deployed for a year before, and I was being sent to the same location where my husband became a stranger in the first place. My hand shook as I dialed the number to his cell phone.
I was starving. The mall harbored a Chinese fast food stand, and I was waiting in line with Emily and several other hungry, cranky, tired and broke shoppers to get some re-heated fried rice and rubbery orange chicken. It was 7 in the morning on Black Friday, the aptly named day after Thanksgiving when all the dedicated deal makers wait for hours in lines outside the Kohl’s stores and Targets, the Wal-marts and Best Buys to get 75 inch television sets for $150 and 6-slice toaster ovens for $10. My aunts, cousins, their friends and I had been out since 3 a.m., standing in lines waiting for stores to open, waiting to pay for things, now waiting to get something to eat. Lines, lines, lines. My buzz from the “special punch” in our Big Gulp cups had dissipated hours ago, the 5 Hour Energy shot Amber made me buy at the gas station in their town had me crashing hard, and my feet were tenderized and swollen. My public politeness had been stored away somewhere with my good judgment, which explained why I had let that saleslady straighten only half of my hair at a mall kiosk.
After waiting in line, mostly patiently, for my moo goo gai pan, I took a step towards the cash register and was interrupted by two fellow deal hunters. These ladies, brunette ninjas, slipped in front of me with not so much as a sheepish smile in my direction. Until this moment, my first Black Friday experience had been filled with story-making memories like the conversation with the self-described “smart sister” and the “pretty sister,” twins with clangy Arkansas accents in front of Kohl’s who just couldn’t get boyfriends and their mom didn’t understand why, or the unexpected joy of finding an outside electrical outlet where we could plug in a warming blanket for Erica and me to huddle under while we waited for the Target store to open. Not the least of these memories was the very public parking lot dance Emily did to the latest hip hop song blaring from our mini-van. I genuinely laughed while she twerked in an empty parking space—a real, healthy belly laugh. The early morning hours had been filled with friendly encounters with southern strangers and good times.
Some of the Arkansans’ southern drawl must have seeped into my subconscious because I spoke to these women, these linecutters, these testers of my charm and pleasant disposition with a full-on southern sass. “I just want YOU to know that I know you cut in front of me. I DO see you cutting in front of me,” I twanged.
“I’m sorry…what did you say?” One of them drawled.
I felt empowered as I twanged right back, “It’s important that you know, I see you standing in front of me in line when you weren’t there before.”
“I jist waunted to git a draaank,” she began to reason why it was acceptable for a grown woman to cut in line like a kindergarten kid who didn’t know any better.
“Say what you need to say, lady, I just need you to know that I see what you’re doing, and it’s not okay,” my gaze was direct, but I was surprised at the steadiness of my voice. After almost a year of becoming smaller as my marriage broke, shrinking under the unloving words and gestures of someone I trusted, it felt good to vocalize to this stranger woman that I knew what she was doing. I knew why she was justifying her disregard for me and for my feelings, and her lack of consideration for how I might feel to be cheated in this way. It was a rebuilding moment, even if she did think I was crazy. If I could find that woman again today, I would thank her by buying her a mall eggroll.