Many Forms of Service: An Interview with Caroline LeBlanc

Caroline LeBlanc is a poet, playwright, and nonfiction writer who’s also currently the Writer-in-Residence at the American Museum of the Military Family. She’s also an Army veteran, military spouse, and advocate for military families. She leads a writing group for women veterans, volunteers with Operation Footlocker, and is the producer of “Telling Albuquerque,” the local segment of The Telling Project.

I appreciated Caroline’s honesty and humor about her self-professed “problem with authority,” her long career as a “not very good Army wife,” and her work with military families. Enjoy! — Andria

Caroline_LeBlanc_2Caroline LeBlanc, left, with Gen. Judy Griego of the New Mexico Air National Guard

1. Mil Spouse Book Review: Caroline, can you tell us a little bit about your background, growing up?

Caroline LeBlanc: I grew up in a first to third generation Franco-American family.  My mother’s family had immigrated to Massachusetts from Quebec, Canada, one and two generations before, to work in the American mills, as did many French in Canada who wanted to escape economic, religious, and cultural discrimination under English rule. Mine was the first generation to have the opportunity for higher education, and I am sure our family’s Jesuit patron at Holy Cross College played a big role in my love of learning, and my chance at an education.

My mother married up, and out of her family’s restrictions—or so she hoped— when she married a Franco-American from another region of Canada. He was an Acadian, born in the Maritime province of New Brunswick. When my father was a child, the family moved to Massachusetts, where my grandfather became a successful builder. My grandmother, matriarch of matriarchs, saw to it that my father got an education. He left for service in World War II after he completed dental school. Through the war, he served as a dentist in Seattle and on small staging islands in the Pacific.

While he was in the service, my mother’s husband fathered a child with another woman—a fact I learned as an adult, and only when we thought he was on his deathbed. At that time, I had worked as a psychotherapist for about twenty years.  The news should not have shocked me. But it did, and I was bitter for quite some time—about her existence (I was no longer the oldest), and about the fact that her existence had been kept a secret from me and my brother. Eventually, I attempted to establish a relationship with her, but she was unresponsive.

After eleven years, my father divorced my mother and married his new dental assistant.  In the 1980s, family research and reconnections became my passion, due in large part to my studies as a family therapist. I discovered the differences between Acadians and French Canadians (now Quebecois), as well as both their Franco renaissance that accompanied a host of other ethnic group re-discovery and pride movements in the wake of the American civil rights movement. My genealogical questions to family have been met with kind, tolerant politeness, but little enthusiasm, especially if I inquired about anything sensitive.

Over the next twenty years, I gradually moved from the privacy of listening to people’s stories in my psychotherapy office to an interest in the poetry and writing of others with ethnic histories similar to mine.  I studied what Quebecois/Acadian writings I could find in English translations, since, despite many efforts, I have not become proficient in my ancestral tongue.  Irish poets, especially Seamus Heaney, Eavan Boland, and Thomas Kinsella have inspired me. I devoured the writings of modern day refugees–modern survivors of worse, but similar, sufferings to those I imagine my Quebec and Acadian ancestors lived through during centuries of oppressive English rule, including the Acadian deportations, during the 1700s.  It is a mistake, I believe, to dilute what our ancestors lived through in the optimistic Madison Avenue melting pot of the United States.

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“Coming from a working class background … I never did get comfortable with the chasm between the officer and enlisted ranks. I often felt like I was on the wrong side of the tracks.”

2. You were an Army nurse from 1982-88. What made you decide to become an Army nurse, and what was the experience like for you?

Caroline: I became an Army Nurse because I needed to support my family when, at the age of 37, my husband went to medical school on an Army scholarship. The story begins during the Vietnam War days when there was a draft, but also deferments for college students.  After he graduated from college, my husband, who had been in ROTC, became a Special Forces officer who eventually was in charge of an A team.  His team was based out of Okinawa. Against my new husband’s and the Army’s instruction, I went to Okinawa as an “unauthorized spouse.”  While in Okinawa, I worked as a civil service nurse in the Ryukyu Island Army Hospital in 1970. By 1972, my husband’s obligation was up, and he was a civilian again.

Caroline_LeBlanc_5Caroline and her husband with a palace guard in Seoul, South Korea

In my job in Okinawa, I had taken care of too many soldiers being medevaced back to “the world” from Vietnam. When my husband seriously considered re-upping, I could not see losing him in a war with which I did not agree.  And lots of people were getting killed in Vietnam. I told my husband I would not be an Army wife.  It was me or the Army. In those days, SF was pretty new, and the traditional Army machine looked down on this rowdy and glitzy step-child. Promotion meant paying your dues in regular infantry units.  SF guys and wives all had a rebel—dare I say renegade—streak. I might have been able to manage that—though the risk of widowhood still loomed large.  But the infantry wives’ (“spouse” not yet PC) hierarchies I had encountered were rigid, competitive, and unfriendly.  They were particularly unsupportive, even scolding, toward lower rank wives—especially wives who wanted a career of their own. Not for me, thank you.

And, coming from a working class background myself, I never did get comfortable with the chasm between officer and enlisted ranks.  I often felt like I was on the wrong side of the tracks.

Fortunately, my husband chose our marriage. For the next decade, we made multiple moves for jobs and school. Eventually, my husband became a Physician’s Assistant (PA) in a rural health care clinic, and I became an Assistant Professor of Nursing at a rural university.

Now, my husband is an Alpha male. The PA thing did not work for long. In 1982, when we had a 3 & 4 year old, he received an Army scholarship to attend medical school in Philadelphia. It covered his tuition & other school expenses, but not family living expenses.  Since I had worked in an Army hospital in Okinawa, I felt comfortable with the idea of working in one again. At the time, the Army was short of nurses and was pushing their “Dual Career” program, which promised “concurrent” assignments to married couples in the military. With my Master, and my experience as a Lieutenant in the US Public Health Service Corps (1972-4), they gave me the assignment I wanted (a promise I got in writing), as well as the rank of Captain. It was peace time, with no wars were in sight, so I took the calculated risk.  In Nursing School, I had thought I’d like to take care of troops in combat areas, but it had never happened. Now, I was a mother with two young children, so my priorities had changed.

I did well in the Army, got both rank and assignment promotions, despite what my husband calls my “problem with authority.” After working a year on the Psychiatric ward, I became Head Nurse of the Family Practice, and  I carried a psychotherapy case load of my own. My nursing supervisor, a dear woman, even asked me if I thought I’d like to be Chief Nurse one day. I most humbly say that I think she was sincerely offering to help me move through the right slots to make that a possibility, if I had such ambitions. I did not. Plus, I soon discovered that the Army’s idea of “concurrent” assignment was different than mine. Often couples were assigned to duty stations hours away from each other—which is what the Army personnel office eventually offered us. My husband would be at Fort Gordon, and I would be at Fort Benning—4 hours apart.  Both posts are, after all in the same state.  After 4 years of active duty at Fort Dix, I finished my obligation as a reserve IMA officer at Fort Gordon, Georgia where I was promoted to Major.  However, I resigned my commission before the 3 years required to make that my discharge rank, so my DD214 states I left service as a Captain.

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“My affection and loyalty are to the individual service member and his/her family members, rather than to the military as an institution.”  

3. You were also an Army wife for 20+ years. In your beautiful poem “Mission Creep,” you write

This is mission creep,

he grumbled.

After all, I had asked him to help me

do one thing. Now I had him doing

 

his fifth garden chore. He seemed to forget

the five deployments he’d gone on in ten years.

For them, he had been an unusually keen volunteer.

 

I could identify with some of the residual soreness of the poem — not being part of that connection your spouse feels to his job and his unit. Can you speak to this a little bit, and to your experience as an Army wife, overall?

Caroline_LeBlanc_1Working on the script for “Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family”

Caroline: After medical school and training, my husband owed the Army 6 years, which he paid back at Fort Drum, NY.  By the time he did his payback time, he had over 10 years of service, so he finished out his 20+ years as a Reserve Officer, which is when he went on most of his deployments. Somehow, I had become a military wife, living through one war after another.

I must say, though, that the hoops for a medical officer’s wife were not nearly as strenuous as the hoops for an infantry officer’s wife, so I had it much easier than I would have 10 years before. We lived off post. I had my own professional practice as a nurse psychotherapist, and I did very little with my husband’s units, even when he was active duty.  Once he was a reservist in an IMA slot, I had almost no connection with the military, except for living through deployments and losing my husband to the post gym for at least 20 hours a week.

Fort Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the most deployed units in the Army. Unless you are HOOAH, or at least in uniform, you don’t have much visibility.  Beyond the VFW, there was no veteran’s community and certainly no community for women veterans in the area. In our civilian neighborhood, it simply went unnoticed that I had been in an Army nurse, and that I had a spouse in the military.

When Desert Storm came along, all kinds of people who thought they were done with the Army got called up.  Fortunately, when I finished my original obligation I took the advice of a kind soul who told me to fully resign my commission, unless I wanted to be subject to re-activation in the future. Many women and mothers my age were totally, and sadly, surprised when they got orders to deploy to the Middle East.  My hardship was limited to living through my husband’s deployments. I often thank that kind soul for his advice. While, being a non-combat vet gives me less status in the veteran community, I am glad that my children did not have to live through having two parents deployed.

In the end, I was a military wife, despite my ultimatum, and my husband’s decision to choose our marriage over a military career immediately after his Vietnam era service.  As Carl Jung insisted, we cannot escape our fate.  I can’t say I’ve enjoyed all of my association with the military, but I am grateful for the opportunities and life experiences it gave me—and for the many wonderful people I met. My affection and loyalty are to the individual service member and his/her family members, rather than to the military as an institution.

Clearly, I was not a good Army wife. Nor was I a good doctor’s wife.  I’ve always had a great need for my own identity in the world, and the two roles felt mutually exclusive.  Years ago I decided that I would not join any organization that granted me no more than an auxiliary status.  In my opinion, my husband had to succeed at his career on his own, just as I did.  What we did together was raise a family and share a marriage. We were supportive of each other’s careers, went to each other’s important work related social activities and ceremonial events.  But he had his network of work relationships, and I had mine. When I went away for work, he took care of the children and visa-versa.  We could always reach each other. Combat deployments were the game changer.  No longer were our contributions reciprocal. No longer could I reach him if I needed him.  This is the subject of my poem, “Not Just Another Business Trip.”

After my husband left Active Duty and became an IMA (Individual Mobilization Augmentee) reserve officer, we lived like other civilian families except for his 3 weeks ADT (which were really like a business trip) during peacetime years, or his deployments during the war years.  I don’t think the deployment experience for reservist families is any worse than for active duty families, but it is qualitatively different because their lives are much less intertwined with the military community.  Many reservist-families understand little about how the military works—its benefits and restrictions.  The realities of deployment, especially if they never lived through any active duty service, can be mind boggling.  Civilian family members and friends understand even less.  Even when well intentioned, the teachers in the civilian schools not located near a military base do not understand what the children of a deployed reservists’ member go through.  As an IMA spouse, I had no unit to turn to for information, even if I needed to.  Someone, I think from Army One Source, called me once or twice, told me I could call if I needed anything.  But I’d have had to be desperate to call. Though I never served in combat, I had lived through the Vietnam years and, later, had been in the Army, so I was confident about taking care of my end of business while my husband was gone.  And I had a pretty clear idea of what my husband had to take care of at his end.

I hope this does not sound judgmental of women who find fulfillment in helping their husbands’ succeed in their military careers, because I am well aware of and appreciate the important contributions many of these women make in the military community.  For better or worse, it was just not something I wanted to do.  Maybe because I had a single mother, maybe because in my family, it was the women who were stronger than the men, but who still had to pretend the men were stronger.

I feel great loyalty and devotion to my marriage and family.  I don’t know what was harder about my husband’s deployments:  the actual deployment, or the fact that it felt as though he was often more devoted to his “army family” than to our family.  I understood that when he was deployed, he needed to dedicate undivided attention to his work.  I just wanted him to tell me that he’d miss me/us, or that he wished he didn’t have to go, instead of being so obviously psyched about leaving for his next adventure.

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“For the first time in years, I remembered [that] I am a woman veteran.”

4. Nowadays, you are still very much involved with the military community: you host a Women Veterans Writing Salon every other week, and you are a Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family. Can you tell us a little more about these commitments, why you undertook them, and what the experience has been like?

Around the time I was finishing my MFA at Spalding University’s low residency program, I wondered how I would make the transition from psychotherapist to writer.  My husband had also retired from the military a few years earlier.  One day when I was using the indoor track at the Fort Drum gym, I watched a group of soldiers from the TBI program play an adapted form of basketball—sitting down, scooting on their bottoms, as do children who are just learning to walk.  That day, I decided that I wanted to offer writing programs to the military population. As a psychotherapist, I had worked with many military families, particularly wives. First, I started WFYL meetings for family members at the library, because the sentinels at that gate were less suspicious and more welcoming. After a while, I chanced to meet the post Occupational Therapist, an enthusiastic and open minded woman, who facilitated my leading a writing group with the soldiers in the TBI program, which ran in cycles—6 weeks if I remember right. During a delay between cycles, I started working with soldiers marking time in the Warrior Transition Battalion. While the family members were all women, the WTB soldiers were all men.

Then we moved to Albuquerque. There is a small Air Force Base in Albuquerque, a large VA, and a very active community of veterans, including a network for women veterans. For the first time in years, I remembered I am a woman veteran. Various feature articles about how female veterans discuss how they often don’t think of themselves as veterans, or even realize they are eligible for the same services as male veterans, so I was not alone.

Through the Albuquerque branch of the national Veterans’ History Project, I was introduced to several remarkable women who work at the VA. Two ran the Recreational Therapy Department’s weekly writing group for veterans, most of whom where men who had served in Vietnam. They were a nice bunch of guys, but I soon realized that women, especially women with military sexual trauma issues, would not feel very comfortable in the group.  So, the Recreational Department staff member and I started a writing group for women veterans. That evolved into the Women Veterans Writing Salon, which I plan to open to family members in the fall.

Simultaneously, I met another woman, Circe Olson Woessner. Circe was a DOD BRAT and the wife of a retired Army officer. When I met her, she had already started the virtual Museum of the American Military Family (http://www.museumoftheamericanmilitaryfamily.org/ ).  The first leg of the MAMF has been its Operation Foot Locker traveling exhibit (contained in a foot locker).

mil_family_museum1

OFL was started by a military brats’ organization, which eventually turned it over to the Museum. Mobile foot locker exhibits have been shipped around the nation.

Mil_fam_museum_2Caroline, left, with Circe Olson Woessner

Circe and I started working together on mutual interests. As the Museum took on greater form, Circe invited me to be the Writer in Residence. We’ve hosted a number of book readings as well as films viewings,  including Service: When Women Come Marching Home, Brats: Our Journey Home, and Brown Babies.   

Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family, an exhibit mounted by the MAMF at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Nuclear Science (here in Albuquerque), opened on Memorial Day and runs through Labor Day, 2014 (http://americanmilitaryfamilymuseum.wordpress.com/ ). Part of the display is a mobile constructed of postcards collected from individuals connected with the military over the previous 9 months (http://www.southwestwriters.com/newsletter/past-issues/ , March).

Caroline_LeBlanc_4

 

The exhibit has been very well received. I had the honor of writing the script. On July 4, I will be one of three military wives, and one Navy Brat, performing our collage spoken word piece, “4 Voices on the 4th.”   Currently, I am also the local producer for TELLING ALBUQUERQUE, our local production of The Telling Project (http://thetellingproject.org/ ), a performance by veterans and military family members who are ready to perform their stories on stage.  TELLING ALBUQUERQUE will premiere on 9/11/2014.

telling_project

 

As I look back at how I have gotten so involved with veteran and military family activities after so many years of distancing myself from the military, I repeatedly arrive at the same explanation. I believe I felt trapped by my husband’s dedication to the military while he was active duty and, later, as an enthusiastic reservist. Once he retired, I could breathe without the worry about deployments or command expectations.

My Acadian ancestors were libertarians of sorts, and I am more and more aware of how their blood runs through my veins. I’ve met many wonderful people because of my connections to the military, people who make outstanding contributions despite government bureaucracies that often undermine their efforts with inadequate funding, support, and questionable leadership. It is these individuals—service members, veterans and family members—I hope to honor with my service now.

Caroline_LeBlanc_3Caroline at her son’s wedding in South Korea

Gradually, especially as my husband’s deployments slowed down, my son’s deployments increased, and my writing skills developed, I began writing my own poems and non-fiction pieces about my heritage and my experience as a military wife and mother. Recently, I’ve branched into more playwriting and fiction.

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Thank you so much, Caroline, for taking the time to talk with me. Best of luck with “4 Voices on the 4th” — coming up tomorrow!

And I respectfully beg to differ when you say you were “not a good Army wife” — anyone who has done so much for other military families has served a hundred times over.