“I felt like I knew him, like he could have been Stephen”: A Conversation with Army Wife Amy Bermudez About Roxana Robinson’s ‘Sparta’

My book-loving pal Amy Bermudez and I recently decided to take a new approach to book reviews. We both read Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and decided to have a little conversation about it, book-club-style (if you had a two-person book club where one person was in San Diego and the other was in El Paso). Heck, this is an age of technology, we’re both kicking it alone* while our husbands are on deployment, and, it seems from our respective blogs, we are both reading a lot and eating a lot of chips and salsa. It’s a match made in book-lover heaven. So I read the book first and passed it on to her.

*alright, I am technically not “alone.” I have three kids here with me. But I am not going to let them read Sparta.

On a more serious level, I knew the book was a heavy one going in; it deals with a young Marine, Conrad Farrell, who returns home from Iraq and suffers from intense PTSD. With Amy’s husband on a combat tour in Afghanistan, I didn’t want her reading the book by herself! (I also didn’t want to be that jerk who keeps sending the Army wives depressing books.)

Luckily, Amy seemed to get a lot out of Sparta, and it even spurred some conversations between she and her husband about whether war is actually more “real” than “real life” (as Conrad, at points in the novel, seems to believe).

head_shot1Andria (yours truly)

  moi Amy

So, yeah, not to brag, but I had an intellectual discussion with another mil spouse about a Serious Book and then I even got a husband-and-wife team discussing it on their own. BAM!

My former-English-teacher self has been pacified for the time being.

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Andria (Mil Spouse Book Review): So, Amy, part of the reason I wanted to chat with you about this book is that you are (in your own words) “passionate about reintegration” for soldiers and their families, and that, in essence, is what ‘Sparta’ is about, although as reintegrations go, Conrad’s is a sort of worst-case scenario.

roxana-robinson-sparta-cover-resized

For folks who haven’t read ‘Sparta,’ here’s my stab at a plot summary:

Conrad is a scholarly, historically-minded college grad from a classy, professional family. When he joined the Marines fresh out of college it surprised everyone he knew, and now he is home after fulfilling his four-year commitment, having endured tours of duty in some of the toughest battles in Iraq (including what seems like having witnessed the aftermath of a Haditha Massacre-type event). He’s suffering from serious post-traumatic stress — inexplicable anger, racing heart, difficulty connecting with his family and his girlfriend, Claire — and finds it nearly impossible to open up to the people he cares about. The reader follows him on this tense, uncertain journey, rooting for him even as his future seems increasingly difficult.

roxanaRoxana Robinson (washingtonpost.com)

I guess I’d start by asking what you thought of the portrayal of Conrad. How did you feel about his character? Did you find his portrayal believable, and did aspects of his struggles upon returning home (not too many, I hope!) feel familiar to you?

Amy Bermudez: The character of Conrad felt very real to me. Not real in the sense that I saw my husband or any of his fellow-soldiers on the page, but real in the way that he was complicated. If there’s one word to sum up deployment and reintegration and all that comes with, that would be it. Conrad is annoyed that the world has rolled on as if there is no war, but he’s also glad that his loved ones haven’t been touched by war. He wants things to be unchanged in his relationship with his girlfriend, while at the same time he knows things can’t be the same. He seems to want to forget what happened in Iraq, and yet he doesn’t want to forget. He needs to talk about what happened in combat, but he can’t bring himself to do it.

My family’s experience has been very different from Conrad’s. Despite 20 months spent in Afghanistan spread across 2 deployments, my husband (thankfully!) hasn’t been involved in any experiences quite as traumatic as Conrad’s. The frustration that every single character dealt with, however, was very relatable. I felt a kinship to Claire, Conrad’s girlfriend. She tried every avenue to help him (giving him space, treading lightly, spending more time together, being more assertive), but she couldn’t reach him. On the few occasions where my husband has overreacted post-deployment (word to the wise: don’t plan a trip involving a 16-hour flight immediately after deployment!), I was at a loss for how to soothe things. I consider myself someone who spends a lot of time thinking about these issues and I have the support of the FRG and on-post programs; I should know better than anyone, right? And for family members whose day-to-day isn’t impacted by deployment, I’m sure it’s even more confusing.

I like the idea of Conrad’s complexity making him feel real to you — and “annoyed” is the right word. He is very annoyed by people who have not been to war — like when he sees the photo on the wall of Claire’s parents on some kind of vacation together before their marriage, smiling and long-haired.

And yet he has the strong impulse to protect these people from what they don’t know, too. It’s like he’s protecting them from reality — but at the same time I felt like the novel, through what felt like a quietly anti-war stance to me, was also asking if war indeed is “more real” than everyday life. Was Conrad protecting his family from “real life,” or just from this one, brutal aspect of real life that he volunteered to see (pre-9/11, of course, so maybe he didn’t understand exactly what he was getting into)? Were they not living “real” lives while he was at war?

A big source of pain for Conrad is that he feels misunderstood, though he probably wouldn’t put it that way because he’d feel whiny doing so. But not only can every major person from his former life NOT understand what he went through in Iraq, they can’t wrap their heads around why he even went there in the first place.

I’m over here nodding my head! I highlighted the part of the book where Conrad reflects back on telling Claire that he’s joining the Marines. She says to him him, “There are lots of other ways you could serve your country…This is like resigning from the world.”

His response: “‘The opposite,” Conrad said stiffly. “I’d be joining the world. The real world. The larger world.'”

Perhaps Conrad was idealistic and naïve, but aren’t we all when we start our careers? I wonder if the fact that he felt so sure, so optimistic in joining is part of what left him feeling so disillusioned after his combat experience. In that respect, the book feels a little bit like modern day Hemingway. I guess the themes of war literature span the generations.

It’s interesting that the book came across as anti-war to you. That wasn’t something I picked up on while I read, but I agree. I’m not sure that you can have a book about PTSD that isn’t anti-war. At no point did author Roxana Robinson discuss the reasons behind the war (justified or not). That made have made it come across more neutral. But I also wonder if the bigger reasons behind the war are a factor in the lives of everyday soldiers. I know that they are pretty much irrelevant in my family.

That’s fascinating: “But I also wonder if the bigger reasons behind the war are a factor in the lives of everyday soldiers. I know that they are pretty much irrelevant in my family.” I guess we feel the same way, but isn’t that kind of strange?!

So, hey, do you care to talk for a minute about why Stephen decided to go in enlisted even though he had a college degree? That’s really admirable but it involves more sacrifice, and therefore more commitment, on your part. I know that you two were high school sweethearts, like me and Dave. What was the general reaction among your friends and family when Stephen joined up? How did YOU feel? Were people pretty much on-board? Was it especially tricky for Stephen’s parents (stop me, and my apologies, if this is too personal) because of Ben’s illness? [Amy’s beloved brother-in-law, Ben, dealt with Cystic Fibrosis throughout his life and passed away in 2013 at age 25.]

I guess I’m wondering about this because we both came from college backgrounds, as did the fictional Conrad, and at least among mine and Dave’s family and friends, it WAS kind of incomprehensible to people why Dave would join the military post-9/11 (even in a career that was much less strenuous than Stephen’s). So I almost found myself defending Dave’s decision in my head when I read ‘Sparta.’

Andria, this is my some of my favorite stuff to talk about in regards to our military journey! Stephen and I met in high school in 2001.

 

high_school_a_and_s(1)

Dear God, you are young.

Even then, he was military-minded. At the time, his plan was to attend Texas Tech University, which we both did, and eventually go on to Veterinary school. After undergrad, however, we were both schooled-out and opted to join the workforce. I started teaching and he worked a variety of jobs. Eventually the mentions of the Army became more frequent. At 27-years-old and working a job that he wasn’t passionate about, Stephen decided it was now or never. Since it had always been part of the conversation, I wasn’t surprised; I was 100% on board. (A friend once described me as “flawlessly supportive,” which I took as possibly the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.) The portion of the book during which Conrad remembers joining is the point where I got in his corner. When he simply states, “I believe in national service. It’s a patriotic duty,” I felt like I knew him, like he could have been Stephen.

Stephen knew that if was going to join the military, he only wanted to go Army, he only wanted to go Infantry, and he only wanted to go enlisted. He was adamant. I think it’s because his desire to join has always stemmed from a sense of duty, and he felt that doing it this way let him go whole hog. There are some pretty unfortunate stereotypes about enlisted soldiers (that they are young, dumb, baby making machines, and can’t do anything else), but I think Stephen loves proving people wrong.

Okay, that made me laugh. But I do know the stereotype you’re referring to!

Initially, reactions from others were…mixed. There was definitely pressure from some family members for him to opt for the officer route or in some cases to not join at all. One family member took me aside after Stephen had already signed the paperwork to see if I could convince him to change his mind, not realizing that it was far too late for that discussion.

You might think that Stephen’s brother having a terminal illness (Cystic Fibrosis) would have been discussed during the to-join-or-no-to-join discussions, but it never came up. I probably worried about it more than anyone. I remember asking the recruiter how I would contact Stephen if something happened to his brother. It was always in the back of my mind that I might have to give Stephen this horrible news. I took my job of being Stephen’s stand-in during his absences very seriously. I visited Ben regularly in the hospital while Stephen was in Basic and later preparing to deploy. I drove to the hospital in the middle of the night when a set of lungs for transplant finally came through. I became very close to my mother-in-law during these months, which helped me tremendously when Stephen deployed. Ben passed away in 2013. We were living in Germany at the time. The Army flew us both back home to be with Ben in his final days and to attend the funeral.

We are now three and a half years into Stephen’s service, and everyone is fully on board. Skepticism has been replaced with pride. Everyone worries about Stephen, but they also love to brag on him. 🙂 Like the family members in the book, I think they are sometimes unsure of how to approach him. Stephen loves talking about all things military, so there’s no chance of him reacting like Conrad did.

I was really on the fence about Sparta when I first finished reading it. Roxana Robinson takes it to a really dark place, and I worried more than once about how it all would end. You did warn me that it would be a heavy read for me considering Stephen is currently wrapping up a combat deployment and the issues of reintegration are swirling around in my mind. Having given the book some space, I can say that I liked it. Robinson created a character that was complicated and a situation that was a difficult one. I respect the fact that she tackled that and did it so well. There weren’t any easy answers for Conrad just as there aren’t for real service members.

I feel like we can never say too much about war, the fraught side of homecomings, and sharing military members’ stories. As long as men and women are in harm’s way for our country, we should be talking about it, which sadly isn’t always the case.

Thank you, Amy!!

This was so much fun!

Whew. I’m glad!

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Andria Williams runs this here blog from a small table covered with pieces of scrap paper in her living room in San Diego. When she stands up, her feet land on kids’ toys.

Amy Bermudez is a writer, middle-school teacher, and Army wife currently living in Texas. She loves running, reading, and ice cream (but maybe not in that order) and writes a popular blog, Army Amy.  Some of her published articles include “Our Military Family, Our Reality” on The Huffington Post and “Moving is Not Following” on Spouse Buzz. She has a really adorable dog named Geronimo.

2 thoughts on ““I felt like I knew him, like he could have been Stephen”: A Conversation with Army Wife Amy Bermudez About Roxana Robinson’s ‘Sparta’

  1. It was such a treat for me to collaborate on this with you! Getting to talk about two things I love talking about (books and military life!) with someone I respect as much as you was seriously a highlight of the last few months for me! Thank you!

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