His Mission Now

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Then.

His story, he tells me, is not so different from the stories of other veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. He doesn’t know if he can come up with the right words, words that are “profound” enough for the post I’ve asked him to help me write.

He knows that talking can unleash a storm of thoughts, feelings, memories and anxiety that take days to settle down. And the last thing he wants is attention for himself.

He tells me later that he almost didn’t show.

There he is though, a little before noon on a November Friday full of blue skies, rolling surf, and people packing the sidewalks of Ocean Beach. He’s surrounded by shouts, laughter, and the cell-phone chatter of people already giddy about the upcoming weekend. From the outside, he fits right in. Jeans. Black tee-shirt. Sunglasses under the bill of a blue cap with the words “True Religion” sewn in front.

Three and a half hours later, I understand that civilian life often seems more foreign to him than Iraq where he served three tours as a Marine. His mission now is to try to live in this world even though he often wishes he could go back.

“I’d go in a minute,” he says more than once, looking at me from across the table where we are eating lunch, or at least I am. He has barely touched his salad. He still wears the sunglasses and the hat because the light streaming through the windows can trigger migraines that have gotten worse since the blasts that caused his first concussion.

The sense of purpose that got him and his fellow Marines through 18 or 20-hour days on the small base near the Syrian border, is gone. That sense of purpose took root the day he saw the towers fall on television.

“This was our generation’s fight, the way Vietnam was another generation’s fight.”

His life then was just taking shape. He was twenty. He had a steady girlfriend, a job, went to community college. Worked on his Mustang, went to the races at night. As the fallout from 9/11 sank in, he knew he wanted to do his part. In June 2003 he graduated from boot camp at Parris Island. By February 2004 he was in Iraq.

That sense of purpose motivated him to want a career with the Marines. It carried him through two more deployments. He carried it with him on 200 patrols, on guard duty, all the jobs he did in addition to his own job as a Supply Administration and Operations Specialist because that is what everyone in his unit did.

“We were all cross trained. We all had to be able to do each other’s job.”

That sense of purpose kept him and his fellow Marines alert during the crushing hours of boredom that come with every deployment. He held onto it after mortars screamed into two contractor trailers at the wall of the base and fell inches from where he’d been standing moments before. The sense of purpose did not desert him after a rocket propelled grenade knocked him to the ground, or when a female suicide bomber exploded an SUV sending a down a rain of car and body parts onto the base.

He was not alone in that purpose.

“I believe that most of us were there for the right reasons. We believed in America. We were there to help the Iraqis.”

They were also there for each other. He forged bonds with fellow Marines that he will always feel even though some of them — too many of them — are gone. Around his wrist he wears a black metal band engraved with 8 names. Two died in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. The remaining four — and five whose names are not on the bracelet — died after they got home, where they should have been safe.

He learned early on how much could change at home. He’d married his fiancee before deploying. The marriage was over by the time he got back. He found out that his mother, from whom he’d been estranged, had died. When he wasn’t on duty, he drank. He met a woman who cared about him. “She told me to get help. But I didn’t have time for that. I needed to be there for my guys.”

He “doubled down” – more training. Two deployments back to back. In the space between them, his daughter was conceived. He came home to El Cajon from the last deployment in April 2008, four days before her birth.

By then he was a Senior Sergeant stationed in Monterey. As long as he was at work, he could handle things. After hours, the headaches came. The panic attacks. His relationship with his daughter’s mom ended. Then his career with the Marines ended.

“There is no instruction manual for coming home,” he says with a sad smile.

He’s been figuring it out one day at a time. First there was asking for help, something that came hard, something that comes hard for a lot of vets, he says. “We are supposed to tough it out. We are used to looking out for the other guy, not ourselves.”

Even now, he says, “I will get in line behind the amputees and older vets. They deserve every bit of help they can get.”

He struggles with short-term memory loss, the migraines, panic attacks and thoughts that ambush him. If he’s lucky he can sleep four hours a night. He has been diagnosed with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. There are days when he wonders if he will ever feel better. There are days when he thinks about friends who haven’t made it this far. A year ago last month one of his closest friends who served with him committed suicide.

“I talked to him two nights before he died,” he says in a low voice. The words come haltingly and behind the sunglasses I see him blinking. “He didn’t say anything. I think he didn’t want to burden me.”

When he struggles the most, he thinks of his daughter. He lives near her now and spends time with her regularly. “She’s my saving grace.”

She’s one of the reasons he takes a full course load at a nearby college and is working to figure out a career path. She’s the reason he continues to get the help he can from the VA. When he talks about his daughter, his voice steadies and I see a father, a student, a caring human being whose shoulders straighten under his his tee shirt when he talks about the mission he has now.

I ask him, “What would you like most from people who have never been to war?”

“Most of us don’t want anything but a little respect because they don’t really know what we’ve done or been through other than the media. That’s not always accurate. Talk to us.”

How, I ask, do we get started?

“Just talk like we are people. Isn’t that how everyone should be? Human beings. We’re just trying to make it like everyone else.”

Here are three sites that are dedicated to helping Veterans to tell their stories. They offer Veterans the chance to tell their stories in ways they may not have thought of. They offer ways for those of us who have never served to listen, learn, and bridge the distance we imagine exists between us and those who have gone to war.

Paving The Road Back

When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home

The Veterans Book Project

 

 

Sunset 2013

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Sunset
Photo by Kit Guest, Ventura, CA, December 2013

As 2013 began to draw to its close, the skies over southern California began to light up. For several weeks in December, many of us would be on our way into the house to make dinner only to become spellbound. More than once, the early risers among us caught the moon fading into a glory of blues, golds, violet and, salmon. Pictures of sunsets and sunrises passed among friends on Facebook, were sent to relatives back east by email, or were snapped on smart phones and shared with any who happened to be nearby.

It wasn’t just the singular beauty of each moment that caught us by the heart and wouldn’t let go. It was the unprecedented abundance of such moments. Each night, each morning offered a new gift of light, a new chance to feel our bodies turn towards the light and stop, transfixed. The palm trees we passed every day without a glance went black against the sky as if scorched or danced in the softening light, fronds shining.

There is no such thing as an ugly sunrise or sunset. It’s just that the beauty is often more subtle, so subtle we may forget to look. When the skies lit up this month, some of us wondered what it meant — was it some new weather pattern? It’s possible. But it is also possible that the heavens were hurling bolts of beauty at us to make us stop, to make us look, to rob us temporarily of our speech and our thoughts which keep us from noticing the every day beauty that surrounds us. Look now, the skies seemed to be telling us. Look deeply.

Or, maybe this was 2013’s way of saying good-bye.

Happy New Year! Thank you to each and every one of you who has made my first year with this blog a joy. Here’s to healthy, happiness, and peace in the year ahead.

Sunset transforms a utility pole outside my house.

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A utility pole outside my house is transformed by the sunset

The next day, sunrise – a new day

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December sunrise, Point Loma, December 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise (and moon-set), Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

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December sunrise, Point Loma, 2103
Photo: Elizabeth Marro

Many thanks to my sister, Kit Guest, who provided the photo of the sunset from Ventura at the opening of this post. Her eye for beauty and gift for capturing it never cease to delight all who know her.  If anyone else has photos of sunrises or sunsets they would like to share, please give us all a way to look at them and appreciate them as the year comes to a close.

Letter to an Unknown Soldier

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Dear One,

I may have seen you a few years ago in the months before you left for war, walking with a child in your arms or crowded into a small fast car with others like you, music blaring, tattoos fresh. I may see you this week as we both wait for our food orders at the local Baja Fresh.

I have probably been close enough to shake your hand but I never have.

I see your face reflected in the photographs lined up in the obituary pages of our newspaper each week.

I see your eyes looking out of each one but you remain unknown to me.

I may have seen your mother’s face yesterday in the grocery store as she shopped for one less mouth to feed at the family gathering, or your sister’s face when she placed a vase of flowers at your grave in the national cemetery near my home.

I saw them but never knew.

When I was a 21-year-old newspaper reporter, my first job assignment was to cover the Memorial Day Parade in Rockport, Massachusetts. I snapped photographs of men with creased faces in uniforms brushed clean as they placed wreaths, spoke words and then went silent as they remembered you.

I saw all this too and could not know what was in their memories or their hearts.

I can never know. I only know a life that comes with never having had to face the choices you have made or that were made for you.

It has been all too easy not to know you.

I have lived all my life behind the shield created for me by my age, luck, family, timing, the country into which I was born. In this country now, there are those who go to war and those who can remain behind. Those who know what it costs and those of us who believe we know, who try to imagine but can’t. We’ve never been there. We’ve never lost a child or a husband or a mother or a sister or a brother or a friend to enemy fire. There are those who, inspired by attacks like the ones on 9/11, rushed to join and to help and put their lives at risk. There are those of us who, made afraid by these same attacks, let you. We asked it, maybe not out loud but with our actions, or our inaction.

In every generation, in every country of the world, there have been people like you and people like me. There have been warriors who die instantly from their wounds on the battlefield and those who die years later of injuries no one can see or understand. There have been families who have had to face sudden and devastating loss and those who witness the loss of their loved one as it plays out over months and years. There are those who never know what happened to the ones they have lost.

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And then there are people like me who lose sight of all these casualties simply because we can. We can lose ourselves in our dreams, our plans, in Memorial Day sales, and food and in the families who have not been altered forever by war.

I learned this week that a moment of silence has long been part of a the right way to observe Memorial Day. At  3 p.m., all across the country, people will be silent and will acknowledge you and honor you or simply fall silent and let themselves feel that your death is our loss. Today, at 3 p.m. Pacific time, I will be thinking of you and I will be thinking of those you faced and fought who have also suffered and died.

I still won’t know you but I will wish I had. And I hope that taking that moment will lead me to a deeper acknowledgment of what I ask of you and to give more to you and to those who love you.

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The photos above were taken yesterday at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego where thousands of military men and women and their families have been buried for more than a hundred years.

Here is a link to some numbers that I will be thinking about when I am silent today at  3 p.m: US War Deaths

Drinking Lessons

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The distiller and I are sitting across from each other in the swelter of a Denver June afternoon, three tiny unlabeled bottles of bourbon lined up before us. He pours from one into a scratched goblet that will serve as a snifter, lifts it to his nose, and then offers it to me like a teacher holding out a piece of chalk.

My turn.

Our classroom is the backyard of the rented house that he shares with his girlfriend, his Bassett hound, a cat, and a roommate to help pay the rent while he gets his business off the ground. He is showing me how to taste the spirit in which he has invested thousands of hours and dollars that he has scraped to earn, borrow, or finance at vertiginous rates on credit cards. As with wine, there is the “nosing,” the swirling, the chewing, the spitting, but the step that follows the first taste is the one that gets my full attention.

“Warm it,” he instructs. “Cup the glass in your hands, like this. Bring it in close, hold it next to your heart.”

The moment feels as fragile as the glass in my palm. I know from experience that one false move can shatter it.

I swirl and swish. While my nose strains to pick up notes of oak, the judge who lives inside me inhales a whiff of old anxieties. The distiller is my son. There is the matter of the credit cards, the nagging concern about the business he’s chosen given his past, complicated relationship with alcohol, the kinds of things mothers are supposed to worry about. I have a list of those things. It seems to write itself during the long stretches between our visits, it unfurls in my brain after our phone calls which often leave me with more questions than they answer. The details of his days are lost to me and so I fill in the blanks with pictures patched together from casual references, the sudden silences when I ask a question that goes too far, or assumptions based on the boy I knew who lived with me for sixteen years. It’s my job to worry, I used to tell him with a smile meant to smooth things over between us.

But I’m no longer sure what my job is when it comes to him. I weigh the fear in my heart as the glass warms in my palm. I’m tired of this worry. It seems to have outlived its usefulness which, I am beginning to understand, was only useful to me. I believed it tethered us but in fact it has been driving us apart for years. It has never stopped anything bad from happening. It has never helped anything good happen. And right now I am sitting in the sun occupying a moment with a person I have loved his whole life and I want to savor it. All of it.

I take a sip. The bourbon settles on my tongue and begins to release its history layer by layer. He talks about the charring of oak barrels, the differences between this and whiskey aged in peat but I’m letting the warmth sink into me. I’m thinking about how competent he seems, how intensely serious he is about what he is doing, how undeterred he has been since he started down this road, and of how little he wants or needs the things I used to provide.

It occurs to me that this moment is the distillation of every one that had has led up to it beginning with the moment he slithered out of my body and began to breathe on his own. It holds the echoes of the social worker who tried to convince me at eighteen to give him up to older parents who were ready in ways I could not be. It grew from the doubt and fear of being responsible for a person’s life along with the determination to hold on to him and prove her wrong. It contains the ache I felt when, sixteen years later, I realized I needed to find him a safe place to finish growing up even if it was over two thousand miles away. In this moment are the lessons I’ve learned and relearned in the nearly sixteen years since then about what I can control and what I can’t and that being his mother means, ultimately, letting him go.

The fact is, he’s done fine. He’s done better than fine even with some false starts and some painful setbacks that I sometimes knew of but other times discovered after his wounds had healed and the lessons they taught, absorbed.

The glass in my hand flashes in the sun and seems to expose my worry for what it is: a reflex and something I need to fill spaces left empty by my job, by the writing I haven’t started yet, by the need to define myself to others according to his successes and failures. I have been afraid that if I stop worrying, I will be letting him go. If I let him go, I will lose him.

This realization opens inside me like a window and before I can do much about it, the fear slips out. I am left with my son, his eyes shining with enthusiasm and some surprise — I haven’t interrupted him once since we sat down. I am left in this moment full of sun and promise and a kind of stillness we have never shared before.

In the five years since that visit, he’s moved from that backyard to Grand Junction. The distillery thrives and so does he. We’ve had more moments since then. Some perfect, some not. Keepers, all. But here is the one that I summon up when I come home and begin to wonder again how to be a mother of a grown and still-growing human being:

We are driving to the tiny Grand Junction airport after one more visit that in the old days I would have complained was too short. The hot breath of the high desert blows through his truck windows and surrounds us. There is so much I want to say but I don’t trust myself to speak when we are about to leave each other for another long absence. My son reaches over and closes his hand around mine. His palm is rough against my skin, his grip gentle and unhurried. I say nothing. I don’t think about when he’ll have to let go. I taste the moment fully, breathe it in. I hold it close to my heart.

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If you find yourself thirsty for more information about this bourbon and other fine spirits, here’s a video and a link to the site for Peach Street Distillers.

What I Wish She Had Told Me…

I’m not a historian but I am a woman and Women’s History Month reminds me that without the help of incredible women working over many years, my personal history would read very differently.

This point was driven home for me earlier this month as my husband and I watched Makers: The Women Who Make America. It was driven home even more deeply by 26 women who shared with me their thoughts on the kinds of questions I haven’t asked or answered in a long time, if ever. I sent them eleven sentences I asked them to finish (to see them all, play the video above). The group includes mothers, teachers, lawyers, judges, students, marketing executives, accountants, and women who have had to work at any job they could find. Some are married. Some are not. Some have been and are no longer. This is a very strong and mixed group of women but we know that there are many women from all walks of life and philosophy who are not represented here. This will be something to work towards.

One thing is clear: as women we have the power to influence other women through our words, our example, our work, the art we make or love and share –and not always in ways one might expect.

Doing this made me realize that I don’t spend enough time talking with other women about things that matter. I hope that this exercise is the beginning of many conversations I will have with the women in my life and women I come to know. I’ve decided to tuck these questions away and use them like those little cards people hand out at parties called, “conversation starters.” I invite you to do the same. Even better, use the comments section here to add to the conversation with your answers and even better questions. If nothing else, we will have paused together for a moment to reflect on a piece of history both past and perhaps shape our stories-in-the-making. All the questions appear in the video so go ahead and play it if you’d like a quick look.

Finally: this kind of conversation is not just for women. There will be men reading this who are at home with children while their wives work or serve in the military, there are men who have watched their daughters come of age during times of huge change followed by significant setbacks, there are husbands who have struggled, adapted and, struggled some more to figure out their roles in marriages that are influenced by the jobs available or not available to women along with the expectations society still has of men and of women. There are sons who have never sat down over a cup of coffee with their mothers and asked them what being a woman in today’s world means to them.

If that is too much to start with, then just ask a woman who her favorite female character in a book or movie is. Then ask her why. You’ll both probably learn something.

Okay, I’ll shut up now and let these wonderful women speak. Or, rather, I’ll show you their answers.  Each section below shows the question asked and provides a link in blue to the answers right below the photo. Clicking on the link will take you to a few slides with all the wonderful answers. If you’d like to see everything all at once, scroll to the end and click onto the link “Women Talking to Women Master.”

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The wisest woman I ever knew told me..

Women who offered us insights over the years might be surprised at what “stuck.” Wisdom reflected here ranges from  practical safety “cover your drink when you go to a party” to the inspiring “you can do anything.” Perhaps most poignant is that some of the women responding here could not point to a woman who offered wisdom along the way.

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The worst advice I ever received from a woman was..

Sometimes the people who love us the most give us bad advice. Which means it’s a good thing when we ignore it or find our path in spite of it. These answers provide required reading for anyone thinking of giving any advice to any woman.

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My favorite female writer is..

A list that features everyone from Pearl S. Buck to Chelsea Handler is worth a look. Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) made the list along with Isabel Allende, Margaret Mitchell, Ann Patchett, Alicia Keys, Lalita Tademy and others.

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My favorite female character in a book or movie is…

This list confirms that art can inspire us or show us the kind of women we would like to be (some of the time anyway). Some characters draw admirers from all ages (Nancy Drew, Scarlett O’Hara) some show us that we really should be reading more.

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The most important woman on the world scene today is..

Not surprisingly, Hillary gets lots of mentions but so does Malala Yousufzai, one of the youngest women to show courage and vision in the face of oppression.

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The most important events that have changed opportunities for women are…

The right to vote, access to birth control, access to education for all women regardless of race, the women’s movement of the Sixties and Seventies have profoundly impacted women’s opportunities.

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The most important challenges facing women are…

Education. Poverty. Health. Equal pay. Equal rights. These are running themes when women list challenges faced by women in the US and around the world. The answers reflect that nothing should be taken for granted and that we have a long way to go.

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I wish a woman I respected had told me..

This is just a sampling of the thoughtful responses inside, one representing each decade. Reading all of them will give you a very clear sense of the impact a few words can have and the vacuum that exists when no one offers them.

    • Looking back I would wish that I had been encouraged to think bigger.” [Anonymous 1930s]
    • “I can’t say it would have made any difference if a woman encouraged me because I came up in a male-dominated world. Women need to actively mentor other women continuously. We need to open doors for each other the way men do. Every time we move forward an inch, we need to reach back and bring a woman along with us.” [Rae 1940s]
    • “Stay in college.” [Joleen 1950s]
    • “Stay in Europe.” [MJ 1960s]
    • “Have the confidence to trust my instincts. That advice came from a male mentor. But it would have meant more coming from a woman because women, I think, have to work harder at developing confidence than men do.” [Elizabeth 1970s]
    • “Be strong but always keep an open mind, things are not always as they seem.” [Elisa 1980s]
    • “Speak loudly and without apologies.” [MEW 1990s]

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Here is the advice I would give a teenage woman today..

These answers are packed with with the lessons these women have learned and want to offer to young women preparing for their future. The beauty of these is that there is more than one voice from more than one generation. Individually and together, they can get a conversation started with a teenage woman near you.

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I am optimistic:not optimistic about the future for women and here is why…

Overall, the optimists outnumber those who view the future of women with more caution. The optimism is rooted in the strength and gifts of today’s young women and in the examples set by women who are leading the way in politics, human rights, business, education and more.

If you would like to see the entire slide deck in one go, here is the pdf version:

Women Talking to Women Master