by Terri Barnes (Air Force)
Those of us inside military are often so used to our way of life we are incapable of recognizing some of its absurdities. Emily Gray Tedrowe’s book, Blue Stars, brings some of these to light, and it’s not always comfortable.
More importantly, her story reminds us of the poor treatment of injured veterans and their families in our recent past. Blue Stars takes place from 2005-2007, when two wars were raging and not enough attention was being given to the care and well-being of those who were sent home injured. Reading this book, for a military wife like me, is a bit like having a sad chapter from one’s family past dragged out and retold to strangers. Yet, it’s a chapter our community and our nation would do well to remember and not repeat. To me this is the most compelling part of the story, though it doesn’t begin until halfway through the book.
Part One of Blue Stars sets up the complicated lives and relationships of two very different women, Lacy and Ellen, and sets up the trajectories that will bring their disparate lives together. Their stories are told at first in alternate chapters, jumping from New York City to a university town in Wisconsin.
Lacy is a tough-talking city girl, who lives near Fort Hamilton, New York, where her husband, Eddie, is an Army reservist. She grew up the hard way, had a son when she was young, married her soldier years later. Lacy has a restless soul, a problem with alcohol, and is trying to redeem past mistakes by being a dutiful Army wife.
Ellen is an English professor, widowed with two young adult children, straight-A Wesley and troubled Jane. Ellen is also the guardian of another young man, Michael. She has the luxury of opposing the war in Iraq on philosophical terms without real world events intruding much on her life, until Michael joins the Marines.
This section develops rather slowly, as the author creates her deep and complex characters. I would have been more engaged in Part One if there had been some foreshadowing of Part Two, which I found impossible to put down. At the halfway point of the book, the real story begins, and the painstaking character development pays off. The two women meet when their service members, Michael and Eddie, are injured in different ways and different locations. Both are treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Lacy and Ellen come to be at their sides. Eventually they become friends, their strengths and weaknesses complementary as they help one another through the difficulties of being caregivers, and the crises of life that do not take time out even for catastrophic injury.
This part of the story takes place at the old campus of Walter Reed, now defunct, and in the nearby residences for outpatients and their families, Mologne House and the infamous Building 18. Although the characters are fictional, much of the story is based on reality. Veterans who had been discharged from Walter Reed but were still in need of medical treatment were required to live nearby and return to the hospital for follow up care, so their residential options were limited. The author depicts the actual, documented living conditions at Building 18—poor sanitation, broken elevators and vermin—and the way the medical treatment of many outpatient veterans was mismanaged. These facts were disclosed by the families of wounded veterans and were widely reported by the media in 2007.
author Emily Gray Tedrowe
This is the world where Tedrowe places her characters, unsuspecting and unprepared, the world they must learn to navigate. While dealing with those challenges, Lacy is advocating for her blinded and brain-injured husband, insisting on surgery to restore some of his sight. Ellen, as Michael’s guardian, has to make a decision about amputating his injured leg above the knee while Michael is still too sedated to voice his own wishes. Months of recover and rehabilitation would follow, but both women have other personal issues that need their attention, as well as jobs to and finances to consider.
Tedrowe, whose brother served in both wars, captures and conveys the experiences of extended families of military members. They live outside military life yet are deeply connected to the consequences of that life by a vital link. Those of us who are married to the military may not understand the reactions of parents, siblings and in-laws. This book explores their lives and feelings, giving them context and empathy.
The author has created characters so real that you want to reach out and pull Lacy back from a poor decision when she’s had too much to drink, or offer Ellen comfort in her moments of self-doubt as a parent. I never walked the halls of Ward 57 at Walter Reed or saw the crumbling rooms of Building 18, so I can’t judge whether these places are accurately portrayed, but the setting felt authentic, and the characters resurrected the awful news stories I read years ago. After reading this book, I looked up the real stories and read them again.
I hope all those wrongs have been addressed and corrected, but the painful experiences of the veterans and families who endured those years can’t be erased. It’s important that they are remembered. More than anything, I hope reading Blue Stars reminds us of our obligations to those who fight our wars and strengthen our resolve that stories like this won’t have to be in the news again.
Tedrowe, Emily Gray. Blue Stars. St. Martin’s, 2015.
(In related reading, Terri highly recommends this Pulitzer-winning news story about Walter Reed and Building 18 from The Washington Post.)
About the Author: Emily Gray Tedrowe is the author of Blue Stars, which is her second novel. Her first, Commuters, was named a Best New Paperback by Entertainment Weekly, an IndieNext Notable pick, and a Target Breakout Book. Emily is based in Chicago and has received an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award as well as fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Purchase Blue Stars here
A well-respected columnist, Terri is the writer and creator of the weekly Stars and Stripes column Spouse Calls, which first appeared in 2007. Now published in print editions worldwide and online, Spouse Calls serves as a voice for military spouses and families, through personal stories, incisive interviews, news analysis, and interaction with readers. Terri has been a member of the Washington, DC, press corps and has contributed to several other books about military life. Her work has appeared in Air Force/Army/Navy Times, The Huffington Post, and Books Make a Difference, as well as newspapers, magazines, and base publications in many of her adopted hometowns around the world (of which she estimates there have been seventeen, so far, since the start of her family’s military journey). Currently, she’s stationed in the St. Louis area.