Posts Tagged With: writing

“Fear” #32

Some time ago, I sat across from my professor and talked about different types of fear.  He was very interested in how I, as a member of the military, processed fear in a deployed environment.  Like most of the things my professors asked me, I hadn’t thought about my fear before.  But I want to try to think about it now, and what I’ve concluded is:  There isn’t much that scares me anymore.

I used to play around with fear. If there was a group going to the haunted houses for Halloween, I was there.  Game of flashlight tag in a cemetery?  Let’s do it.  Scary movie marathon? Can’t wait.  Death-defying roller coaster drop?  Let’s go again.  The charge of electrons that sparked in my brain when it came to being scared was something I sought after as much as I could, in very safe and predictable ways. In all those situations, the thing that I allowed to scare me was controlled. I was secure in the knowledge that the roller coaster would wind its way back to the start, and I would soon find myself safe on the loading platform again.  I knew the scary movie wasn’t real, and the folks in the cemetery were not the same as those from Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, waiting to break through their dirt-packed resting places and snatch at my ankles (That video was terrifying when I was a kid!).  Those safe experiences brought a younger type of fear.  It was flimsy and tin-foil thin, and it could be broken through anytime I wanted simply by reminding myself that it wasn’t real.

During my deployments, there were times when I was nervous about being harmed; times when I was grateful for the weight of my small bowie-knife bouncing against the outside of my leg as I walked through a darkened compound alone under watchful eyes; times when I was grateful for my M-4 grasped firmly in my semi-steady hands and the ammunition snuggled inside her; and times when I was happy for the heaviness of the helmet and Kevlar vest weighing me down as our aircraft flew low over enemies with high vantage points. There were several moments when I thought violence towards me was a real possibility and life, as I knew it, could be changed forever, but those fears were never allowed to fully materialize.  They were simply breath-catching minutes that passed with little more than a racing heart, brief body shakes, and a mental sense of relief that something I couldn’t fully fathom hadn’t come to pass. That fear was the type of fear that I wouldn’t allow myself to linger in because what would be the point? Nothing happened. I wasn’t shot or raped by the Saudi guard at the checkpoint who was angry to see a woman alone, driving a car, and pointed his weapon at me while yelling for some explanation I could not provide. I didn’t have to fire my weapon at the young men greedily watching us walk across the bridge towards a village of Al Qaeda sympathizers.  My limbs weren’t blown off by an IED (improvised explosive device) as our SUV bounced along the streets of Kabul days after an attack on an American convoy. No good could come of being traumatized by the possibility of terror.  It was all around me when I was deployed, and I would not be able to function in other ways if I was overcome by possibilities rather than realities.

For me, the possible deployment atrocities where more shallow moments when compared to the fears-come-to-life I had already lived through.   I wrapped those realized fears over my shoulders, tattered shreds hanging down my back, slipping over my chest and down my arms, enshrouding my body and everything in it like an invisible, bullet-riddled bed sheet.  As far as I knew, I had already been through the worst sort of trauma, and it had numbed me to everything to follow behind it.  When I was married, I had a fear that he would find someone else. And then he did. And after the divorce, there were the fears about him moving on, falling in love, re-marrying, and my children getting a stepmother whom they loved.  All those things came to pass.  These fears weren’t the same controlled fears of my youth, and they weren’t the distant fears of being killed in a foreign land.  They were the fears of actuality.  They really happened to me, emptying me of all the things that had filled me since I was a little girl.  During those immediate months after the divorce, I was often like a wild animal, unable to control my thoughts or emotions.  I would writhe in pain, sometimes physically rolling around the floor of my bedroom after my children were asleep, grabbing at my chest, begging for release, begging for my breathing to stop and for my heart to quit its insufferable beating.  My fear was embodied within me.  I could touch it, and stare it down in the mirror.  I wrestled with it, and it kicked my ass.  But with each new terror that came true, the struggle began to subside.  I stopped fighting the fear and began to recognize it as a foreshadowing of strength to come.  The fears happened, and I had to experience them fully, undiluted and unchecked by any protection.  And the happenings made me braver and more certain that I was being held by something so much stronger than me because the fear didn’t kill me.

I didn’t die of a broken heart, just as I didn’t die from an IED. I didn’t die at the hands of my enemies, either home or abroad.  Instead, the sun came up every morning and switched places with the moon every night. The trash kept getting picked up from the curb, and the mail kept getting delivered.  My kids kept calling me mom, and the dog continued to need food and water.  So, when one of my friends off-handedly remarked that I didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, I guess he was right.  I may have a moment of panic, but I soon come around to the certainty that things will be better than fine.   I am not afraid of things (most things) because I live in the reality that something much bigger, much greater, much more powerful than me and my capabilities keeps things going. I can take a deep, sometimes ragged, breath and step into the street in Kabul or sit down to a cup of coffee with my sons’ stepmom, because I have met the type of fear that I thought would destroy me and lived to tell the tale.  Things kept going.  Things keep going.  I am one of the lucky ones.

Categories: Military, Military, Personal Story, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,


When I arrived in San Antonio for basic training nearly 16 years ago, I didn’t have a name.  Technically, I had one, but nobody there cared what it was.  I was called “female,” if I was called anything at all.  It was very strange how quickly I became used to my new name:  female.  It came with a certain ambiguous identity.  I had a place, but it was along with all the other female basic recruits.  And I didn’t have to settle into that name:  female.  I didn’t have to put it on, button it up, wear it, truly inhabit it, believe in it, or define it.  It already came with a body, and I just had to stay in its shadow.  Then, when I graduated basic training, I was recognized in a new way, the name I was born with:  Thurman.

The military moves in graduations.  We never jump in, head-first, full-bodied into the next phase.  We are gingerly allowed to dip a toe, then up to the knee, then wade to the neck into the too shallow tub of individualism.  In keeping with the tradition of less individuality is more, my first name was not used by my newly created friends, but I was allowed my surname.  Being called by my last name was strange, but not uncharted territory.  I played sports for many years, and the military wasn’t so different from the athletic world in the regard of last names.  But, my teammates called me by my nickname more often than not:  Red.  No one calls me Red anymore.  Maybe I’ve outgrown it; maybe it’s too strange a name to call a nearly 40-year-old woman.  So, what happened to Red?  In fact, what happens to any names I’ve carried, but no longer wear?  I think there is a Lost and Found.

Before I married so many years ago, my fiancé and I discussed what name I would use–it was a discussion initiated by me.   For him, taking on his last name was a foregone conclusion.  A done deal.  No discussion necessary.  I remember trying to talk to him about how nervous it made me to no longer be Thurman after 24 years of being Thurman.  Who was this Clemens person?  What made her tick?  How did she navigate the world?  He saw my nerves as rejection.  His name was a source of pride for him, and he wanted his wife to wear his name.  In love, trusting that I was loved in return, the discussion ended.  I acquiesced.  Passive.  I would no longer wear the name I had worn since birth.  I would just put on a new one.  Clemens was born.

With slightly less ease than he exerted when he gave me his name, the gift that he was convinced made me more his than not his, he jumped away from me, but left his name behind.  And when we divorced, my children, young, strapping Clemens’ boys, were upset at the thought of me shedding the name they had worn since birth.  “If you’re not a Clemens, you won’t be our mom anymore!”  They are worried.  For them, my existence is wrapped up in the name.  And, again, I acquiesce, and wear it, a strip on my military uniform, a flourish on my driver’s license.

Just go back, someone suggested.  Be Thurman again.  If only.  But I’m not Thurman anymore; I abandoned her.  She was less changed, less formed by names she no longer carries.  Will I still fit her?  I worry she will not have me back.  Thurman died at 24.  Can I resurrect her?  I’m not Red anymore, either.  I didn’t leave Red, but she left me when I turned–what–22 or maybe before?  Regardless, I’m too old for cute nicknames, now.  And I’m beginning to grow out of my Clemens’ skin.  Someone else is filling the clothes of Mrs. Clemens now.

What name will I wear moving forward?  When I achieve something, who will get the achievement?  Will I still be the same mother to my Clemens’ boys?  I don’t know.

Categories: Military, Military, Personal Story, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Another One Bites the Dust” #30

Today is New Year’s Eve.  As I sit here in my down-sized, divorce house in Colorado (about half the size of my married home in Illinois–the home my then-husband designed and had built for our growing family), I’m staring at all the clutter, toys, video games, books, suddenly out-of-place Christmas decorations and just stuff lying around what seems to be every square inch, and I really wish I already started drinking.  Yes, I admit it.  I wish I had a nice, super-friendly, alcohol-induced buzz humming through my body, making my brain a little fuzzy, a little less perfectly clear and present in this mess of a house.  But I didn’t, so I don’t.  What I do have is too much dust on the surfaces, too many dishes in the sink and too much dog hair on the dull wooden floors.

In 2010, I counted down the minutes until 2011 by crying on my couch in my roomier, cleaner, dust-free married home in Illinois.  I had a better idea of what I faced:  a year-long deployment to Afghanistan, a divorce, and a year away from my children.  In 2011, I counted down the minutes to 2012 from Afghanistan, happy in the knowledge that I would be heading back to the states in a few weeks, and strangely secure in the knowledge that I would be starting over in the new year.  Last year, I counted down the New Year from a party in New Orleans with my great friend, Varner.   We dressed up, went out, drank responsibly, and I danced for the first time in a very long time.  It was fun, and I was excited about the prospects of 2013 because, before my trip, I went on a date with a guy from Denver and I had excitement about possibilities.  My excitement wasn’t authentic though; it was me trying to keep up with my ex who was getting married in a couple of months.  I wasn’t ready and still had personal work to do.

New Year’s is marketed as the time of the year when we should take account of the past and celebrate the hope of the future.  But what happens if the unknown is just too unknown, you know?  Yesterday, I drove to the mountains to do some snowboarding before my kids came home from their weekend with their dad.  The powder was nearly perfect:  soft, ample, fluffy–what the seasoned riders call “pow.”  Feeling brave, I decided to hit some of the trails that I hadn’t explored yet–it was time to branch away from the beginner “greens” to the more experienced “blue” trails.  There’s one lift at Winter Park called the Panoramic Lift.  It takes riders to the top of the mountain to overlook the brilliance of the peaks at over 12,000 feet above sea level.  After clumsily exiting the lift to the top of the world, I pulled out my cellphone to snap a picture and was disappointed to see the coveted panoramic view of everything below blocked by an unmoving, cloudy haze.  With the exception of the top of the ridge, all I could clearly know was the Parsenn Bowl, what resembled a spoon’s scoop out of the mountaintop.  After waiting patiently for the 20-minute ride to the top of the summit, I couldn’t see anything below me, and now I had to dive down into it.  That’s a bit what New Year’s Eve looks like to me this year.

12,600 feet

Marketing picture of 12,600 feet–what I didn’t get to see

This year, I’m cleaning my cluttered house (or going to be), taking stock of 2013, and trying to see past my own cloudy haze into 2014.  Over the last few years, I’ve been sowing, rebuilding, healing, thinking, crying, starting and starting and starting over and over again.  What’s in store for 2014?  This is probably the part where my readers (all 20 of you) expect me to say that I’m confident in the future, but, truthfully, I don’t feel anything for 2014 yet.  I don’t feel sad like I did in 2010, or brave like I did in 2011, or falsely excited like I did in 2012.   I feel…nothing.  Maybe I’m too tired from sowing.  And a little impatient to see some buds sprouting through the packed earth.  My faith calls me to remember that I’ve been consistently led through darkness in my past to the light, but I can’t see any light…yet.  So, I keep coming back to my time on the mountain yesterday, when I stood at the top, and I was certain of one thing:  I had to get back to the base somehow.  I had my board strapped to my feet, and I knew how to use it.  Regardless whether or not I could see what was beyond the cloud cover, I did have what I needed to ride my way to where I could see things more clearly.  I stood up, pushed off and started the descent.


My views on the way down

Even though I couldn’t see anything clearly from the top, with every inch I rode down, the paths became clearer.  I may not have been able to take the picture I wanted, but the scenery that surrounded me was breathtaking, and when I got to the bottom I could look back up the slopes and catch my breath at the distance I’d covered.  I’m holding onto that experience as 2014 looms ahead of me.  I have what it takes to face the unknown, and the clouds can’t stay there forever.  Some day, they will move.  For now, it’s time to get back to work.

Categories: Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Along for the Ride” #29

My friend Holly is responsible for my addiction.  She said it was what all the cool people were doing, and I wanted to be cool.  She made it look so great, and fun, and freeing.  She was my pusher, and after only one trip on the powder I was hooked.  Before I knew it, I was taking a trip every other weekend when my kids were with their dad, sometimes even taking off work to maximize the experience.  I fell madly in love with snowboarding.549978_10100860160658054_1268818898_n

The first time I tried snowboarding was the same day my ex was getting married somewhere in Pittsburgh.  It was about a week before my 37th birthday, and I could not sit at home counting down the minutes.  Instead, I agreed to take a snowboarding lesson at Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado.  I guess I figured what better way to keep my mind occupied than by hurtling down a mountain at breakneck speeds?  I wasn’t a total novice to the slopes.  I had tried skiing once in college when my roommate wanted to go to Paoli Peaks in Indiana.  I was super ready because the hills of Indiana are EXACTLY the same as the 12,400 foot peaks in Colorado.

The morning of my snowboarding lesson I was excited but nervous.  My last trip on powder ended up with one ski wrapped backwards (and my knee along with it), a swollen ankle, some sort of medical snowmobile ride and young children whizzing past my mangled form on tiny skis.  And that was nearly 20 years earlier.  I was determined not to give in to the very real fear (some may say “common sense”) that threatened to talk me out of jumping on the board and taking it for a ride.

Fresh powder

In the first few minutes of the lesson I learned how to strap my feet into the bindings (straps on the board that keep your feet attached when you fall again and again and again–and they’re supposed to help you actually control the board like reins on a willful stallion), and I learned to “skate,” by strapping in my lead foot and pushing my back foot along the snow, moving the board forward like a skateboard.  I rocked skating.  Rocked it.  If skating on a snowboard was an Olympic event, I definitely would have received a silver medal.  Feeling pretty cocky, I stupidly indicated I was ready for more.  Eventually, I moved into the phase where both feet could be strapped firmly into the bindings, and my instructor and I took a magic carpet (moving sidewalk) up the gentle slope of “learner’s hill.”

The hill looked very sweet from the bottom.  Its gentle sloping and harmless, cloud-like snow was inviting and safe–from the bottom.  Once the carpet deposited me at the top of the “bump,” as my instructor called it, I made the mistake of looking down.  The bottom was miles away, and seemed to be on an almost straight-down, death drop from where I was standing with my inadequate skating accomplishments.  The instructor reminded me that I did, indeed, know how to stop (I had practiced several times), and we were here at the top of Mt Everest so I could practice “leafing,” which was riding down the hill, drifting from side to side like a leaf falling from a tree to the ground.  I rocked falling.  I fell trying to stand up on the board; I fell within a few feet of standing up on the board; I fell midway down the hill; I fell two or three more times before I reached the bottom of the hill; and I fell trying to get in line for the magic carpet to take me back up the hill.  The snow falsely presented its softness and every fall hurt, a lot.  It was the longest 15 minutes of my life, and I couldn’t get enough.  Traveling on the snow, even upright only a few feet at time, I felt unfettered.  Despite being strapped onto the board, I started to feel parts of my heart and mind become resuscitated after years of flatlining.

I took another lesson a week later and the conditions were perfect.  Inches and inches of fresh, soft, ample snow cushioned the slopes, and I started progressing in my skills.  I was hooked.  The feeling of riding down the mountain was enough to keep me coming back fall after fall, ride after ride.  During those first few days, I could barely sit on my backside and I knocked my shoulder away from the comfy home of its socket.  I didn’t care.  Each time I got on the lift, my fear (common sense) would build, and my heart would flap its wings frantically in my chest.  Was I really going to hurl myself down the 12,000 foot mountain?  Seriously?  Yep–over and over.


The first time I made it down the mountain without falling was a personal triumph–and my butt-bone was pretty happy about it, too.  I don’t know what the triumph was over exactly, maybe loss.   For the last few years going through a divorce and taking inventory of whatever was left, I had lost so much, even the ability to truly feel anything–but snowboarding helped me stir some embers and bring something about me back to life.  And, even though there’s a line at every ski lift that’s clearly marked “Singles only,” I hold my head high, skate right to the front like a silver medalist would, hop on the lift with whatever 12-year old snowboard aficionados are heading up the mountain, and get ready to enjoy my ride.

Categories: Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Girlfriends” #28



In middle school, high school, and most of college, my girlfriends were my center.  Everything I did, and everything I knew came from them and returned to them.  But, over time, let’s say college age, I became one of those girls who would describe herself as someone who “got along better with guys than with girls.”   Which really just meant I wanted the boys I thought were cute all to myself, but I used the unoriginal excuse that girls seemed to crave drama and guys were just easy going and liked to hang out, not gossip or start trouble.  As time moved on, the girlfriends I had from my younger days, I kept, but I wasn’t interested in making any new ones–really ever.

295293_3379028404535_633336833_nWhen I got married, some woman, I don’t remember who, told me to find good girlfriends and hold them tight.  And whatever-her-name-was was right.  My husband did not like my male friends, not even my old ones.  It was better for him that we made couple friends, and after a few fights, I agreed it was better for our relationship if we made couple friends.  I thought making friends with a couple would mean my husband would get to hang out with the cool half of the couple and I would get stuck with the wife.  But what I didn’t know was that making couple friends would save me by opening up a whole world I hadn’t really explored in my youth:  the world of girlfriends.

3345_1078543849454_1791839_nDuring the early years of my marriage, I met great girlfriends like Rachel who was married to Josh and Jill who was married to Doug.  Luckily, both my husband and I got along with both halves of the couple, and they got along with us—or at least they continued to invite us over for weekend football games, game nights and holidays.  As time went on, my husband became more comfortable with me hanging out with single girlfriends like Rachael who lived with me when my husband was in Korea (man, did we have some fun times!), Courtney who has a firecracker wit and the smarts to match, my supervisor Eliza who was awesome wrapped in a small package sealed with terrificness, or Jilly who was deemed “safe” because she was dating one of my husband’s friends–luckily for me she was also full of energy and had a caring heart.  I started accumulating so many girlfriends; it became hard to see the forest for the trees.  But my early instincts to keep the cute boys all to myself wasn’t wrong, and eventually the drama came, not in the form of any of my girlfriends, but in the form of one of my husband’s.

22731_1348393108090_433644_nWhen my world began imploding, it was my girlfriends who stood by my side, sometimes holding me up and other times, picking me up off the floor.  It was my girlfriends who talked me through the crazy thoughts and allowed me to sharpen my faith on the stones of their experience, grace and compassion.  I didn’t necessarily seek out girlfriends, but they kept coming into my life through my Bible study class, or through work, or friends from my past who reached out to help me, like my girl Meg in Tennessee who spent countless hours on the phone with me, letting me weep and curse, shout and sit silently.  Women opened their arms to me like my sister-in-law-turned-friend, Jen, who put up with more of my whining and crying at the same time she was pushing me to run farther, run faster and pick up the pieces of my perspective.

167341_1840581296886_750572_nDuring my deployment to Afghanistan, I met Peggy, Melissa and Megan, and I deepened my friendship-turned-sisterhood with Tommi.  All these women let me expel the demons of my thoughts, and, like the best girlfriends should, they cried with me sometimes; they made me laugh sometimes; they told me it wasn’t my fault sometimes; they gave me difficult truths sometimes, and they showed up all the times I needed them.


I continue to receive the gifts of girlfriends as the shadows are starting to dissolve back to where they came from a little more each year.  I meet wonderful women; some of them are introduced to me by their husbands, and some I have the honor of serving alongside like Shelmon and Deb who have shared their faith and never-say-die-attitudes.  Others are in my life just because sisterhood is a beautiful thing that I didn’t understand or appreciate because I was so blind for so long.


My family, Melissa and Megan

 There is little more precious a gift than sharing your life with someone else.  Each one of my beautiful girlfriends has shared her heart with me in some way, lifted me up and pushed me forward in others, commiserated with my pain and disappointment and my struggles with motherhood and being an ex-wife.  Now, I’m moving into a phase where there are women in my life who are there because they need girlfriends, too, to show them that the girls don’t bring the drama.  When you get older, girlfriends bring the healing and, hopefully, the wine.

Categories: Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Special Deliveries” #26

I don’t know if I made choices during my deployment to Afghanistan based on my past deployment experiences to Saudi, Bosnia, or Kuwait (all of which usually consisted of being trapped on a base for several months, then rushing through Germany or Spain, sampling the liquid fare on my way back home, arriving hung over and none the wiser) or if my ongoing heartbreak removed layers of protection that had been in place for as long as I could remember.  Whatever the impulsion, I made choices during this deployment that I’m not sure I would have made at other times in my life.  I wasn’t taking unnecessary risks so much as I was refusing to be held back from fully experiencing things.   That is probably why I did what I did when the helicopter approached.  Or it could have been the Australian accents.  Yep.  That was probably it.  There’s something about an Australian accent that just makes me go all soft inside.  Listening to all those Aussies, so rugged and masculine, combined with the jarring ride in the Bushmaster, must have scrambled my ability to logically think through causes to their effects.


The Bushmaster.

When we arrived, there was a buzz in the air around the camp.  I experienced some excitement earlier in the trip when we had to make a quick stop in an open field situated in a valley between two Afghan hills.  The back of our he-lo dropped open and a security team scrambled out into the grass just in time to greet the heads popping up all around them, like groundhogs sniffing springtime air.  Almost before I realized what was happening in the middle of this nowhere, the security team grabbed a couple wooden chests containing foodstuffs and supplies for the Aussies we would see at their remote location.  The moments on the ground were tense and everyone was very alert; I learned later the drop zone was a place known for its Taliban activity.  The General was a high value target, and no one wanted to have to report that they allowed him to be harmed, but every opportunity to get much-needed supplies had to be fully exploited.  In less than two-minutes the gear was loaded and we were hoisted away by the whipping blades above us.

The gang

The gang

Now, finally reaching the location, I could see why the supplies were so important.  There was nothing here but some plywood sheds, cots, camo-netting and sandbag bunkers.   We traveled back in time to Vietnam or Korea.  The dedication of these men, to live completely unprotected and exposed in order to hold this position was truly inspiring.  And now, something more wonderful than getting supplies was happening.  They were finally getting some protection.  Yellow smoke was popped, denoting the drop position for the incoming he-lo.  As it approached, the large gun was attached to the belly of the machine like a young monkey clinging to her mother.  Wanting to get as close as I could for the video I was shooting with my camera, I stood just a few feet away from the expected delivery point.  I was pushed forward by the invisible excitement of the men, mesmerized by the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of the giant, scissor-like blades whipping, whipping, whipping around the hairline of the machine.

No one cautioned me.  No one suggested I stay back.  I didn’t notice when the Chief and General, along with nearly everyone else, positioned themselves well-behind the blasting walls several feet behind where I was standing.  How could they not want to see this?  I decided my brothers in the Army were desensitized by the absolute awesomeness of watching a helicopter drop a giant gun down in the middle of nowhere in the same way I was desensitized to seeing F-16s on a runway.  But I was determined not to miss this, possibly, once in a lifetime experience.  I wanted to see everything, and to feel the wind whirling around, trying to push me over.  I got my wish.  With a steady hand, I recorded the magisterial entrance, in fact, I was right underneath the passageway of the incoming he-lo and its cargo…like an idiot.  The blades did what the blades do, picking the air up, and grabbing handfuls of debris with it.  Before I could compute the physics of the situation, I was overcome by a tidal wave of rocks and dirt.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt.  I guess it was.

The Chief thought it was hilarious to see me covered in dirt. I guess it was.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Helicopters” #25

Sometimes, the locations we traveled to were far enough away that the hum and rocking of the helicopter, combined with my limited three or four hours of sleep each night, was enough to lull me off to sleep. My vest made a sufficient pillow if I let it creep up a little over my shoulders, and I tucked my chin down into the newly formed pocket, folded my arms over my chest and dozed. I had been “resting my eyes” for about fifteen or twenty minutes when I was yanked awake by the “rat tat tat tat tat, rat tat tat tat tat” of the gunner and his M-60 machine gun firing into the mountain tops a few hundred feet below the bird.



For a second upon waking, I thought of what impending death would entail: disorientation as the helicopter started its unplanned dizzying descent into the valleys of whatever mountain range we were flying over, pain and fear as we most likely bounced from one peak to the next, and possibly the hot metal of a rocket slicing through the floor where my feet rested. In the initial moment when my eyes flew open, before I could shake the webs from my brain, I thought of how to conduct myself if these were my final moments. Be calm. Don’t scream. Brace for impact. Don’t scream. A few seconds after my eyes were opened, my mind caught up and I took note that none of my fellow passengers seemed concerned about the gunner and his persistent “rat tat tat tat tat.”

I mouthed the words to the Soldier strapped in next to me, “what’s he doing,” and jerked my head towards the gunner. Yelling loud enough to be heard over the whirling wings, he replied, “He’s sighting the gun.” I nodded back with a flippant lift of my chin as if to say, “Ah, yes. Of course he is.” My heart, angrily pumping blood through my body at a rate and speed that Lance Armstrong would envy, began to settle slightly. He was only sighting the weapon to be certain it shot straight. He wasn’t firing at Al Qaeda hidden in the sides of the landscape. He wasn’t defending the bird from someone lifting a rocket-propelled grenade launcher up to his shoulder, and taking aim at a slow-moving, low flying target. He was simply making sure the cross hairs were plumb and could deliver a bullet to its intended target. Good. After another minute or two of watching the gunner finish his work, I tucked my chin back into its nest and continued my nap.



We finally landed in a remote location in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the location was so remote that the he-lo couldn’t drop us there, so we had to hitch a ride with our Australian allies for the last leg of our trip. G’day, mate. The Australians had their own brand of up-armored military vehicles called “Bushmasters,” and they loved to show what they could do. We piled into the back of the ride and the metal door sealed us in. It felt like being a single kernel of corn in a large, sand-colored tin can. There were no windows, no air holes, and apparently, no shocks in the Bushmaster. Every bump (and there were nothing but bumps) sent the occupants sailing into the air before banging them back down again with a painful and padding-free thump. It was the longest ten minute ride I’d ever experienced. When we finally arrived at their base camp, we exited just in time to watch the CH-47 Chinook approach the drop point and deliver her cargo: a new weapons system dangling underneath the belly of the beast. I hurried from the Bushmaster to get a ringside seat for this once in a lifetime experience.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“More Traveling” #24

The holidays are difficult to handle, as a rule, for everyone when deployed. It is never ideal to be away from friends and family. I hated missing out on my boys’ lives for long periods of time, but it had a special hurt when it was a national holiday and I knew they would be celebrating without me, making memories without me. Luckily, the pace of my job kept my mind focused on something else. Unlike carrying out our everyday mission in the States, the end-of-year holiday season didn’t come with a lull and a yawn in Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite happened in the Command Section where I worked. Top leadership had many responsibilities when leading troops, and one of the most important responsibilities was to keep morale from plummeting too low. The holiday season posed a direct adversary to that goal, so many leaders (like the general and the Chief) made sure to get “eyes on” their men and women in the field. This required time spent traveling in Army and Marine Corps helicopters to remote locations and checking on their people. I loaded up my backpack with schedules, a notebook, recognition coins, hand sanitizer, sunblock and a toothbrush and prepared to roll.

Getting ready to run.

Getting ready to run.

When the general was going on a trip, an Army helicopter, or he-lo, would descend into the landing zone by our compound and we would race out to meet it through a small metal door hidden in the perimeter wall. It was important to be on time, watch your step over the chunky rocks in the landing zone, keep your head low (not really a problem for me), and haul yourself up into the jump seat with a quickness born of near panic before the pilot skedaddled back to the safety of the skies. In theory, it was all very exciting and badass. In practice, I hated loading and unloading the he-lo. For everyone else, the ingress seemed to go smoothly as they athletically swung into the bed of the helicopter, hopped to their feet with barely a hesitation under the weight of their gear, and settled into the cot-like jump seats. It did not go that well for me the first few times I tried to get into the bird.

For starters, the lip of the he-lo floor came up almost to my armpits, as I stood next to her. I needed a running start, which wasn’t going to happen with giant boulders posing as a walkway. The engineer who designed this whirling contraption before the Korean War did not think to include a lift-step to assist the vertically challenged (everybody must have been giant then, or at least not female). To top it off, I had slacked off on my Arnold Schwarzenegger-time in the gym by sitting at a desk for 16 hours a day, and I had difficulty lifting my weight plus the additional 30 pounds of gear (which now felt completely unnecessary) high into the bird.

Noticing my plight before I had to draw attention to it, the Chief, after his gazelle-like leap into the he-lo, turned to offer me a hand. Someone else grabbed the back of my Kevlar vest, and a third person grabbed my other arm. Clearly under-estimating their combined strength, the three of them hurtled me into the helicopter like a half-empty sack of potatoes and sent me skimming across the metal-plated floor of our ride. Regaining my bearings, but not my dignity, I maneuvered my legs back underneath my body and dragged myself into an open jump seat. It wasn’t magisterial, to be certain, but I was in and the bird was lifting away.

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“Joyful Noise” #23


Ready to sing.

Teaching the students songs became more difficult than just breaking through their barriers of meekness. There were fundamental differences in how willing we were, as native English speakers, to simply read a word and not worry about understanding it. Non-native English learners were very concerned about understanding the words. Every single word. And they were not willing to let us off the hook in explaining them. We were asked to explain terms and phrases that we had never really questioned at all. After traversing through the complexities of “itsy bitsy” meaning “smaller than small,” we leapt headfirst into “Jingle Bells.” Even more difficult than the dreaded spider’s journey, “Jingle Bells” led to questions about horses with open sleighs, o’re fields (oh ree fields, as they pronounced it), and clarification on just what it meant to “dash” through something. When we finally navigated through their definition clarity requests, the ladies were ready to sing.

There is a scene in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” where a typical American family (father, mother, and two young sons) has Christmas dinner at a local Chinese restaurant after their home-cooked meal suffered a terrible fate. To bring some of the holiday cheer to the unusual experience, some of the staff sang, “Deck the Halls” to the family, in heavily accented English. Without intending to, we re-created that scene at the crowded picnic table inside the Zarghona English Department, minus the crispy duck and MSG.

Our students joyfully sang with us, “Daahshing through the snoweh, in a one-harse open sly; oh ree the feelds we go-eh, laughing all thee way: hawh-har-hawh.” The moment was hypnagogic, dreamlike, in its details. We were surrounded by beautiful women, no longer self-effacing, who were giggling and tapping their feet while laughter crinkled the corners of their eyes. Some of their hijabs had slipped from the tops of their heads to rest in folds around their shoulders, leaving their hair bare and unapologetic, but they didn’t notice. Their eyes were directly meeting our own, not casting downward unwilling to hold our stare. And I sat singing children’s songs with arms draped over my shoulders, pressed on both sides between warm bodies. I felt valued and seen, just as I valued and saw the totality of them in that moment, a created sisterhood. Each one of us healed soul fractures in the woman next to her. Big Bertha, Nazaneen, Sergeant B, all of us were like new shoots breaking through the hard ground of past experiences. As Nazaneen stood up to perform a solo of “Where Is Thumbkin,” complete with dance steps, I felt safe and happy in Afghanistan.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

“Singing” #22

Sergeant B quickly turned into my right-hand woman when it came to nurturing our budding relationship with our students, and by the American holiday season she thought they were ready for some singing. Sergeant B thought sharing nursery rhymes and non-secular carols would strengthen our ties with the Afghan women. I thought she was nuts. These women would not sing Ring-Around-the-Rosie and recite Wee-Willie-Winkie with us. But she was passionate about her idea, and I wouldn’t stand in her way.

After consulting with our cultural advisor, Dr. J, we carefully chose nursery rhymes and carols that were not offensive to the Muslim religion practiced by the Afghans. While Dr J didn’t object to Sergeant B’s idea, our translator, Salar, thought we were crazy for suggesting it, not because it went against any religious laws, but because he didn’t think the women would ever sing in front of each other. “They are way too shy to do this,” he adamantly stated. “But you can certainly try it.” Although we didn’t need Salar’s permission, the mindset of the males in Afghanistan requires they give consent to an idea, even if you didn’t ask for it. I accepted this part of his personality, but I didn’t love it. He wouldn’t be in the room anyway, so no harm could come of trying to prove him wrong.


Nazaneen (not her real name) and some of our other students.

Finding songs was pretty easy. It turned out that there were a lot of nursery rhymes and carols that didn’t cross any invisible lines of propriety, as long as we didn’t look too closely into the meaning. And since the women couldn’t really understand English all that well, what did we have to lose? We settled on “Jingle Bells,” “Where is Thumbkin,” and the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Sergeant B and I walked into the tiny English “department” (consisting of a picnic table and two small bookshelves), armed with our songs, and excitedly greeted our students.

“Today we have a special treat for you. Today we are going to sing songs!”

I tried to sound upbeat and positive, even though I thought this would be an exercise in ridiculousness. Maybe Salar was right. These were women who kept their eyes averted and their heads covered in conversation. When men were around they melted into the scenery as if by some illusionist’s spell. It took weeks to get most of them to open their mouths to speak to us because they were embarrassed of their English speaking skills. But, they were proud, too. They wouldn’t do something they thought made them look foolish. How would we convince them that singing songs would help them with their English? We’d have to demonstrate, a part I hadn’t really thought about when my right-hand-woman was planning this lesson.

Sergeant B and I stood in front of the room of twenty Afghan women, their eyes trained on our every movement, their heads tilted curiously, their hands placed demurely in their laps. When the room had settled, we opened our mouths and began singing, high-pitched and slightly off key, “The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout; down came the rain and washed the spider out.” With each verse we touched the fingers of our hands together and, side-by-side in our military uniforms in front of a raptured audience, pretended our hands were spiders. They climbed up waterspouts, slid down waterspouts, became rays of sunshine drying up rain and restarted the entire process because the spider just refused to give up. “Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, so the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.”

Sergeant B was highly animated. Maybe she was nuts. She was singing as if she had the house spotlight beaming down on her–center stage. As the mother of four, she was probably used to these impromptu performances; I certainly did them a time or two with my boys at home, but her excitement couldn’t be faked. She was digging it. Before I realized it, feeding off her enthusiasm, I was digging it, too. But more important than the apparent good time we were having standing in an indefensible school in the middle of a war torn nation, vulnerable in every way, singing these nursery rhymes was the joy on our students’ faces. They were like little children, unselfconscious about their happiness. We finished our performance, goofy grins on our faces. “Teach me! Teach me, Miss Naancy,” they asked in their elongated way, and they gave us a round of applause.

Categories: Military, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

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