Those Fabulous Hallorans: Two Veteran-Writers on Military Service, the Writing Life, and the Importance of Reading Veterans’ Writing

I first encountered Lauren Halloran’s writing in a Glamour essay called “Home from War, But Not at Peace.”

glamour

http://www.glamour.com/inspired/2013/home-from-war-but-not-at-peace

Lauren had won the ninth annual essay contest, which is quite an accomplishment in itself, but the content of the essay got my attention even more: she described her time as an Air Force lieutenant in Afghanistan and the trouble she had reintegrating after she returned home. I thought her writing voice was honest and engaging, and I was very much pulled into reading her piece.

It turns out that Lauren is part of a little veteran’s writing dynasty (but, you know, a very democratic one!) with her husband, Colin Halloran, himself a veteran and a poet (I read his first collection, Shortly Thereafter, in one night, and enjoyed it very much).

halloran_2Colin Halloran in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, 2006

They are both now quite involved with the veteran’s writing community — Colin leads writing workshops for veterans — and are actively writing, themselves; Lauren is working on a memoir and Colin has another book of poetry in the works. They were kind enough to answer some questions for me here about their military experiences, their writing, and the way they have managed to combine the two. I can’t thank them enough for being here and for their generosity with both their time and thoughts.

1. Mil Spouse Book Review: Lauren, you come from what you good-naturedly describe as “a very military family.” Your mother is a retired Army colonel who served as a nurse in the Gulf War. She also deployed when you were seven years old. I know that deployment is a stressor for so many women in the military, so I wanted to ask if you remembered much of the deployment and how you felt about it. When you first considered entering the Air Force, did your mother encourage you, or caution you against it?

LAUREN: I remember snippets from her deployment—watching the military transport bus drive away, staying with school moms while my dad was at work, and eating new things they cooked. For some reason cheese quesadillas stick in my mind. We were the only local family who had a parent deployed, so it was a very different dynamic than I experienced in the era of my military service. It was isolating because no one else was going through the same thing, but we also had tremendous support from our community. Our neighbors all pitched in cooking meals and shuttling us around to afterschool activities. Everyone put up yellow ribbons in honor of my mom, and there was a huge ribbon tied around a tree at my sister and my elementary school. I cried a lot, usually at night because Mom wasn’t there to tuck us in. We listened to tape recordings of her reading bedtime stories. We had no idea when she would come home, so that unknown element weighed on everyone. I didn’t know it at the time, but her orders were for up to two years.

I remember my dad pointing out Saudi Arabia on our office globe and watching news clips of the war effort. I had never watched the news before. One of my most vivid memories is the French braid my mom put in my hair before she left. I told her I would keep it in until she got back, and I refused to wash my hair for a long time. Eventually my dad persuaded me to wash it and let a neighbor redo the braid. Of course I remember Mom coming home. There was a huge gathering at McChord Air Force base outside Seattle, with families, supporters and media. My Girl Scout troop was even there! We had homemade signs and American flags, and I remember cheering frantically when we saw the plane approaching. We were supposed to stay behind a cordon, but when the troops started disembarking everyone swarmed onto the flightline. Lots of hugging and crying.

I think a lot about my initial decision to join the military, because it seems such an unexpected course of action after my mom deployed. I accepted my Air Force ROTC scholarship right after 9/11, but 9/11 wasn’t the reason, or at least not the conscious reason. It was more an issue of being able to afford my dream school. My parents were both supportive, but probably more wary than I acknowledged at the time. My mom didn’t pressure me either way; she just wanted to make sure I thought about the longer-term implications of a military contract. I don’t think, as an eighteen-year-old, I was really focused on the could-be’s of a few years down the road. None of us could have anticipated how embroiled the military would become in two drawn-out conflicts. It all seemed very distant and vague at that point, in the very beginning of OEF and before the invasion of Iraq, from a pristine college campus in Los Angeles.

2. I’m intrigued by how both of you – bookish, scholarly types, both admittedly sort of odd ducks within your units – came to enter the military in the first place. Lauren, we’ve already talked about your family history with the military; Colin, did you have anything similar? (I know you mention a great-uncle in one of your poems who served in WWII.)

halloran_1Colin and Lauren (left and center) discussing military writing at the 2012 Boston Book Fair (with fellow veteran-writer Dario Di Battista)

In an interview with “Radio Boston,” Colin, you described “the strange, surprising call to duty” that spurred you to join the Army (and choose infantry as your MOS!). You’ve said that this decision even surprised yourself, having been a person who “wore Birkenstocks year-round, [had] hair down past my shoulders, carried an acoustic guitar everywhere, went to war protests.” (I could relate, somewhat – my own husband [then-boyfriend] was a UC-Berkeley history major who bewildered all our friends and family by joining the Navy in ’04. I’d been recycling his Navy recruitment pamphlets for a year whenever I’d get to the mail first.)

Looking back on it, does it make sense to you why those then-twenty-something kids that you were joined the military?

LAUREN: For me it makes sense, even though it’s not entirely clear how all those pieces came together at the time. Besides the education benefits, I was raised in a very patriotic family, and I know that service mindset was there—probably more of a sub-conscious motivator. I also didn’t have a lot of direction in terms of career goals when I graduated high school. I’d always loved writing and knew it would be a part of my life in some way, but that was about it. I signed on as an English major, and my ROTC advisors helped me find a career track (public affairs) that would allow me to utilize that skillset. I loved ROTC. It was where I felt most comfortable, around like-minded people who were passionate and hard-working. Plus, guys in uniform.  🙂  It also really gave me the structure and direction I needed at that point in my life.

COLIN: She’s just kidding about the guys in uniform thing. I think we all know she prefers purple bowties to head-to-toe camo.

LAUREN: My tastes have changed a bit.

COLIN: Anyway, I really didn’t have a strong military history on either side of my family. My grandfather served in the Navy during WWII, but was mostly stateside; I have the great-uncle I wrote about in “4th of July” who was a submariner in WWII; and I had an uncle who was drafted for Vietnam, but the war ended just a couple weeks before he was supposed to ship out.
So does it make sense? I think it does, maybe not for who I had been prior to enlisting, but for who I knew I wanted to be, and who I’ve since become (very different from who I “knew” I wanted to be back then). I wasn’t even a twenty-something yet, having just turned 19 when I signed the paperwork, and just turned 20 when I headed over to Afghanistan. I had direction, but not much of a means of getting anywhere. I was notoriously disorganized, undisciplined, and anti-authoritarian (ok, maybe that’s a little harsh, but I didn’t like taking directions from anyone but myself). I wanted to go to college, but couldn’t afford it; I wanted a career in politics, and in one of the bluest of blue states figured military service would bring in votes from the other side of the aisle; my friends and their families were stressed about a potential draft reinstatement, and I wasn’t doing much and didn’t mind going, especially if it kept someone who’d already been from going back or someone who didn’t want to go from having to; and yes, that strange and surprising “call to duty” if that’s what you want to call it. In the end, it was a way for me to challenge myself (hence going infantry—I figured I had the rest of my life to sit behind a desk), figure out a little more about who I was, serve my country, and advance closer to life goals I’d already established.

3. Both of you write very frankly, with skill and without self-pity, about your tours in Afghanistan. Lauren, you volunteered for a tour documenting rebuilding efforts in rural Afghanistan; Colin, you were part of an infantry unit on a small FOB. Both of you mention the isolation of your posts in your writing, and the grinding, ever-present awareness of potential harm. What were the hardest parts of your deployments, and how did you deal with them? Did you write during your deployments, or mainly after?

LAUREN: The hardest part for me was the disillusionment. I left for Afghanistan very idealistic—which is partly due to naivety and partly because my experiences in the military and the way the particular deployment was publicized established a certain set of expectations that ultimately came into conflict with reality. I volunteered for a Provincial Reconstruction Team because I wanted to be hands-on, not sitting behind a desk at a big base writing press releases.

halloran_3Lauren with (incredibly adorable) Afghan children, Gardez City, Paktia Province, Afghanistan, 2009

But I got very frustrated by the restrictions of operating at that boots-on-the-ground level. So much of what we wanted to do got tied up in bureaucratic red tape. There was tremendous disconnect between what we were seeing and what the higher-ups directed us to do. Afghanistan is an extremely complicated place, and instead of acknowledging those complications and their underlying reasons, we could really only dabble at surface level.

I also got uncomfortable in my role as the information filter. I was communicating with both the Afghan people and the American and international publics, and what I was authorized to communicate was rarely the whole story. There was a level of censorship and “spinning,” and it often went against my personal ethical standards. A lot of deployed soldiers had valid questions and concerns about our mission—I quickly started to feel that way, too—and I started to wonder if in some indirect way I was perpetuating that cycle. Was I “selling” a corrupt government to the Afghan people? Was I selling war and American lives and treasury?

I’ve always been an emotional and pretty open-book person, but a couple months into my deployment I felt like I couldn’t be that way anymore. I had started a blog, but I got tired of self-censoring (in addition to regulations governing military blogs, I didn’t want to worry my family). In hindsight, I’m sure journaling would have been beneficial in giving me an outlet for my frustrations, but my response was to stop writing in a non-official capacity. I couldn’t find the emotional energy to do it anymore. That shutting down stayed with me when I got home. It took quite a few months and working with a therapist to help me begin to open up again. Writing proved to be a good way of sorting things out; putting my thoughts and feelings down on paper made them tangible and less overwhelming.

COLIN: To continue with the frankness, the best and really only way to deal with what I was living through on a daily basis was to accept and embrace my mortality. I knew that I was damn good at my job, but I also knew that there were things that were going to be way out of my hands no matter how prepared I was. We got hit pretty hard within our first couple of weeks in-country and one of the guys I was closest to was seriously injured. A child was killed in the same attack. I put some of that blame on myself as the convoy leader and that helped me focus and remain vigilant no matter how run down I got physically, mentally, and emotionally. A few weeks later an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) malfunctioned. I was the target. That shook me pretty hard, but I had to keep reminding myself that I was not the target, but what I represented.

Coping came through music, playing in the rare downtime I got, and listening, either in my bed/cot or on missions through the incredibly ghetto sound system I rigged up in my Humvee. The music helped me focus, unwind, and maintain some sense of normalcy amidst all the chaos.

And I didn’t write while I was there. I don’t think I could have. While I was there I needed to focus on being there, and only form of reflection I could afford was in the form of after action reports and debriefs. I think I needed some distance before I could really face it, which is why I didn’t start writing about it until I’d been home and discharged for almost two years. And I think that’s why once I started, I wasn’t able to stop.

4. Both of you describe a certain sense of disappointment, and fuzziness of mission, that you felt to some extent after your wartime service. Lauren, you write, “I volunteered thinking I’d be part of an effort that made a noticeable difference. We did celebrate some small victories. But what I noticed most was corruption winding through every layer of Afghan society, crisscrossed by a growing barricade of U.S. red tape. If we couldn’t make progress, the danger and paranoia were for nothing. How silly I’d been to think we could change the world one schoolhouse, one medical clinic, at a time.”

Colin, in the aforementioned “Radio Boston” interview, you said, “I want to feel like what I did there had a purpose — but I couldn’t tell you what that purpose is.”

How do you feel now about what you did during your deployments? Do you ever feel competing loyalties to the military and to the writer’s imperative to honesty?

LAUREN: While in the midst of it, it was easy to get discouraged by the stress and frustrations. It felt like every little progress was countered by a digression: A village would hold a pro-government meeting, then the village leader would be brutally murdered. We would fund and oversee the construction of a much-needed medical clinic or school, but the building would fall apart because contractors cut corners to pay bribes, or would be abandoned because of threats or poor maintenance.

The 2009 Presidential Election was initially a success from our vantage point because there wasn’t widespread violence, but it was ultimately marred by corruption and low voter turnout.

Though all those negative memories are still there, the more distance I get from the experience, the more I’m able to look through the fuzziness and see the positives, too. The result is a more balanced, nuanced account. One of the most difficult things about writing about a challenging or traumatic experience is to not let bitterness color the writing. I think it’s important to honestly discuss what happened without telling readers how to think or feel about it—especially with a topic like war that has tremendous socio-political implications. I struggle to find that balance every day, and I’m sure my public affairs background makes it tougher. I was basically trained to communicate in a way that encourages a specific reaction. I’m sure people in the military community take issue with some of what I write. Actually, based on the feedback I got from the Glamour essay, I know they do. But I’m okay with that. As long as I’m honest with myself in my writing. War is such a spectrum of experiences; no two perspectives will ever be exactly the same. The more people who share their story, the greater understanding the public will have, and the greater the chance that a soldier will find something to relate to.

COLIN: For the most part, I still feel pretty good about what I did, personally and with my squad, while I was over there. There were a few missions I questioned and disagreed with while I was over there, and those are the ones I remain skeptical about today, but for the most part I know that I and we did our best to help the people we were able to. There were casualties, but I understand that that is a consequence of war, no matter how unnecessary and unfortunate it may be or seem.

Much like when I was on the ground, I try to focus on the micro, not the macro. I can only control what I can control; worrying about anything else is counterproductive. And that’s how I feel about the experience now. I feel good about what I was involved with, but when I step back and look at the still ongoing war in Afghanistan as a whole, it’s difficult for me to reconcile the casualties on all sides with the very little that seems to actually have been accomplished as a whole for the country.

I say what I said to ‘Radio Boston’ because I strongly want for there to be a valid reason for the injury to my friend, the death of that young boy, all of the death, all of the destruction, the pain I feel and that I’ve put others through. But for the life of me, I still couldn’t tell you what that reason is.

5. Lauren, do you feel there are ways that your military experience differed from Colin’s because you are a woman?

LAUREN: Yes, it’s much harder to pee as a female wearing body armor. Seriously. Also of course there’s the issue of being a vast minority. I was one of seven females on my PRT of 80 people, which is actually a pretty high percentage. The ratio on our FOB was more drastic. It was a blackout FOB, and I was always on edge walking alone at night. My team was amazing and the guys were very protective, and I think because of that, and maybe because I was an officer, I never personally dealt with serious harassment. But I know women who have. It’s a terrible added stress you shouldn’t have to worry about in a war zone.

Being a woman in a bureaucratic role was interesting, because my reception from Afghan men was highly variable. Some men warily shook my hand, some skipped right over me to the male soldier on either side, some were overly enthusiastic, like I was an exciting anomaly. When females were out on missions, the Afghan media would film and take photos of us, even if we had nothing to do with what was going on. More than once I ended up on the government news station. It was weird and uncomfortable and sometimes deflected the focus from the mission.

The best part about being a deployed female was that I could talk to Afghan women. We sat in on women’s affairs meetings and PRT-sponsored training programs for women, like midwifery training or civics training educating women about their constitutional rights. I found all the women unbelievably beautiful and inspiring. They spoke candidly about wanting to build a better future for their children and were so grateful for us leaving our families to come work with them. And I loved the little girls. They tended to be pushed around by the boys, and we all hoped that seeing females in uniform, doing the same things as the men, would be empowering to them. Colin and I have talked about adopting an Afghan girl someday.

COLIN: This is why it’s so important for Lauren and others to share their accounts. There wasn’t a single female on either of the FOBs where I was stationed. No deployment experience is the same; that’s why it’s so important we get as many narratives out as possible.

6. To open your poem “Spring Offensive,” Colin, you quote Mahmoud Darwish:
Sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.
Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.

Both of you have struggled with the reintegration process since your return home. Colin, you lead workshops for veterans and civilians to help them understand war through writing. Lauren, your essay in Glamour described the shame and fear you felt in seeking help for your own Chronic Adjustment Disorder, which you describe as “PTSD lite,” but ended on the more hopeful note of gradual recovery and having met Colin. How has this connection with other veterans developed over the last few years, and how important has talking with like-minded or sympathetic people been to your recovery?

LAUREN: We both get pretty fired up talking about veteran mental health because it’s such a poorly handled topic. For a long time no one talked about it. Now, PTSD is kind of a trendy issue, but it’s discussed in a very sensationalized way. The media focuses on extreme cases where a veteran has totally debilitating PTSD or where someone “snaps” and commits a violent crime. Dr. Phil had a segment literally titled “PTSD takes veterans from heroes to monsters.” Obviously those things happen, and we as a society need to do a better job of supporting people who are suffering to that degree. But there is a whole range of mental health that isn’t acknowledged. It’s not black and white, you’re totally fine or you’re a danger to yourself and everyone around you. The vast majority are somewhere in the middle: fully-functional adults contributing positively to society, but who have triggers and sometimes struggle with complicated emotions or reactions to stimuli.

The lack of discussion about that gray area was part of what was so hard for me when I redeployed. I knew I was having issues, but they weren’t in line with what I knew about PTSD. And there’s this idea that you have to earn the right to have mental health issues. I hadn’t been in direct combat, so I didn’t feel like I’d earned it. That made me feel guilty, which just amplified everything else. I know now that it’s a neuro-chemical issue. Science is finally at a point where we can see that. Everyone is programmed differently and responds differently to situations. You can’t choose whether or not you’ll suffer or to what degree.

That issue—being a non-combat veteran who struggled with readjustment—is a big part of what I write about because I think like it’s an important missing piece of the discussion. For me, the goal of veteran writing is twofold (besides personal reasons): to share your story with other veterans so they can find elements to relate to, and also to promote better understanding in the general public and hopefully build a better support system. Like I said earlier, the more narratives there are, the greater our understanding of war will be.

There’s a growing veteran writing community, and it’s amazing. Colin and I have both been so inspired reading or listening to work by other veterans. There aren’t a lot of creative outlets in the military, and it’s incredible what happens when vets find one. We all tend to relate on multiple levels, as veterans and as artists. That’s a pretty incredible instant bond. And even though our experiences are all so different, there are always similarities. My mom and I connected in a new way when I started talking to her about my deployment; she was able to open up for the first time about a lot of her own post-deployment struggles—twenty years later! That was also what initially drew me to Colin. I read a few of his poems and thought, “holy crap, this guy reached into my head and knows exactly how I feel!” The rest, as they say, is history.

COLIN: As is so often the case, Lauren has said it much better than I ever could. But I’ll try to add something.

Obviously, sharing my story with fellow vets and non-vets alike has literally changed my life. I often say, because it’s true, that writing saved my life. Without that creative outlet, I’m sure I would have succumbed to my self-destructive tendencies.

shortlythereafterAnd sharing followed from the writing. It was not only a way to get the negative energy out of myself, but to put it out in the world, not to hurt the world, but as an inquiry. And I got responses. I got responses from other writers, who helped me hone my craft, make me better at transposing my inner-turmoil. I got responses from fellow-vets, who related. I got responses from other vets who write, the beginning of what has turned into great friendships and collaborations. I got responses from people in my life, who after being pushed away were able to begin to understand why I had become the person I was.

And for me, the most important response was that I entered treatment. People sometimes hear the word “therapy” and get uncomfortable. But put the word “physical” in front of it and it’s not an issue. If someone injures their leg or arm, they receive medication, they go to physical therapy and have to work hard, often painfully, to rehab the injured part back to its pre-injury state. That’s exactly what I’m doing. PTSD is not a disorder so much as an injury (there’s a movement to get the “D” removed, but that’s a discussion for another day). The brain alters its physiology, its neurochemistry, in the extreme and prolonged stress of war. And there are other effects that come with that, just as a broken bone will often lead to atrophied muscles. The approach to healing and restoration is the same, but only one comes with the stigma. And that’s what we’re working against.

I think it’s important to note a couple of things here. First, Lauren’s essay in Glamour rang true with me as well, as I, even to this day, feel guilt over my PTSD. One thing that the backlash she received after the essay’s publication revealed was something I had known for some time: we can all point to someone who had it better than us; we can all point to someone who had it worse. Second, I think it’s important that I make clear that this is a process for me. I still have PTSD. I still have days where I simply can’t leave the house. I still have nights where I lose myself, looking for answers at the bottom of a bottle, feeling unworthy of both the pain I feel and the happiness I’ve found, lost in some hazy emotional purgatory. They are certainly fewer and further between than they were six years ago, but they’re still there, lurking, waiting to come out.

I may be the one leading workshops and giving lectures, but I always walk away from them having learned something as well. Healing, it’s a process, a journey, not a destination. For me, that’s the most important thing I’ve learned, the most important thing I can share with others who find themselves in similar situations. I shared my story. I didn’t realize at first, but my writing was me reaching out to the world for help, for some semblance of an answer. And I’m still writing. And I’m still reaching out, asking questions, reflecting, writing more. I’m still in treatment. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

7. What are you both working on now?

LAUREN: Other than preparing to spend the rest of our lives in holy matrimony?

halloran_4Wedding day, July 12, 2014, at the Seattle Public Library (photo by Victoria Porto, Victoria Porto Photography). Congratulations, guys!

I just graduated from the Emerson College creative writing MFA program, so I’m working on turning my thesis manuscript into a full-length memoir about my mother’s and my service.

COLIN: I have another poetry manuscript that is out under consideration at a whole bunch of publishers. It’s not quite a sequel to Shortly Thereafter, but it picks up thematically where that collection left off, using metaphor, persona, and reflective narrative to further explore the challenges and struggles of my adjustment/reintegration journey. I won’t lie, it gets pretty dark, but I was in a pretty dark place while I was writing most of it.  Like Shortly Thereafter, I wanted the book to have an overall narrative arc, and that structure is a mirror of my spiral into darkness. But I like to think it ends on a note of hope, reflecting where I am now.

Next up is a prose memoir that I’ve started, but will likely be working on for quite some time. Having already explored the material through poetry in order to reach its emotional core and essence, I find that prose allows me to explore it in a broader, more philosophical and academic manner.

Also, I’m incredibly honored to be judging the poetry contest for this year’s Proud to Be: Writing by Warriors (Vol. 3).

8. Finally –
Colin, I love your lines in the poem “4th of July”
I fire off some flares
and wonder what this will look like
when my mind’s had
sixty years to shape it.

Any closing thoughts? Anything else you want to say about your experiences as writers, veterans?

LAUREN: Everyone should read work by and about veterans. It’s important, but also just really stinking good. And there are many resources out there for veterans wanting to give writing—or other creative endeavors—a try. Veterans Writing Project, Warrior Writers, Combat Paper Project, Words after War . . . It’s a growing community full of wonderful, intelligent, supportive people.

COLIN: I think that the most important thing I’ve learned through all of this is that no matter how isolated and alone you feel or think you are, you’re not. But the only way to discover that is to share your story and give others the opportunity and safe space to share theirs. It can be incredibly difficult to open up and share, but in the end, it is so worth it. And who knows, you may even meet your spouse because of it.

Lauren and Colin, thank you so much for joining me here! I’m eager to keep up with whatever you write!

———————————————–

Lauren Halloran blogs at UNCamouflaged. She’s also featured in the collection There: Writings on Returnings.

Colin Halloran has a poetry collection, Shortly Thereafter, and maintains a blog here.

Both Lauren and Colin have writing in the anthology Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors.

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.

—-

“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.

—-

“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.

—-

“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.

———————————

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.

 

an interview with Shannon Cain, editor of Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks, from Vietnam to Iraq

 

300x451xPowderfrnt.jpg.pagespeed.ic.vARmJUITxc

I was grateful to get the chance to interview Shannon Cain, editor of the collection Powder: Writing By Women in the Ranks — a collection of poetry and nonfiction by women currently serving, or who have served, in the military. Shannon had some great insights into what it was like to collect these stories and work with female soldiers/ sailors/ airmen, and I’m so happy she took the time!

1. MilSpouse Review: Your bio at the back of Powder mentions that you are “a lifelong activist for peace and social justice,” and that your first act of civil disobedience took place at a Vietnam War protest when you were ten. Was this a common sort of event in your family? How did your family view the military when you were growing up, and did it surprise them (and yourself) when you began working on a collection of writing by military women?

Shannon Cain: I was raised by a stridently pacifist mother. For that anti-Vietnam protest, she painted the sign I carried: War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things. Like most peace activists, though, my family never, ever taught me to disrespect soldiers. In my house the shaming of returning Vietnam vets was seen as shameful in itself. My uncle served in Vietnam, as did my father’s cousin, who died there. But still, as a solidly left-wing family, military life wasn’t very near our sphere of daily life. So yes, I was surprised to find myself working on this anthology. My co-editor and I realized very early on that as tempted as we might be to highlight the voices of women whose military experiences were mostly negative, we would be compromising the book’s integrity. In large part because Powder was–and as far as I know, remains–the only anthology of writing in English by military women, we felt the responsibility to represent all views equally. The book found its way to libraries from Berkeley to West Point, so I figure we did a pretty good job remaining editorially neutral.

photo, shannoncain.com

2. MilSpouse Review: There’s been something of a surge, lately, in notable books by authors who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The most lauded, thus far, have been by men. Do you know of any comparable novels by women with military backgrounds? Do you think women have something in particular to offer the narrative of wartime?

SC: This situation is indicative of the publishing industry as a whole. Take a look at The Count, compiled by a marvelous group called VIDA. It chronicles in plain numbers the shocking disparity between male and female writers when it comes to getting their work in print. Powder was published by Kore Press, which is an independent literary press that publishes women writers. Yes, absolutely, women have unique insights into what it means to go to war. I think publishing those insights, whether regarding the military or corporations or academia or social institutions or whatever, is critical if we want to live in a healthy culture.

3. Milspouse Review: Since the publication of Powder, women have been officially allowed into combat roles for the first time (though many female soldiers have been on the front lines in some form or another for a long time). Having read so much writing by women who’ve served, what are your thoughts on this?

SC: Oh dear, this may not be a popular venue to say this. But I’ve never been able to get too excited about advances in our rights that lead us to assimilate into, rather than resist, institutions that are inherently violent or exploitive. For example, I’m relieved to see more women as corporate CEOs but I’m disturbed that corporate culture still expects us to neglect our families in order to improve the bottom line. I’m relieved that we’re on our way to legalizing gay marriage, but disturbed this means so many gays are embracing a heterosexist institution. I’m relieved that we’ve created a society in which military women are allowed to do the same jobs as men, but I’m disturbed that the end result is that more women are sent out into the world armed to kill. My hope is that once women and gays have fully infiltrated these institutions, they will begin to change them from within.

4. MilSpouse Review: Powder contains such a wide range of pieces, and the quality of the writing is so consistent. Were you surprised to find such a pool of talent to choose from?

SC: We worked really hard to get good submissions. We did a lot of outreach, and in the beginning we got practically nothing, in part because we were looking only for writing from active duty servicemembers. Finally we got a polite note from a Marine telling us how hard it was, for reasons both official and unofficial, for a woman in active duty to tell the truth about her life. So we regrouped, opened our guidelines to anyone woman who has served in any conflict, and the submissions rolled in. And as they did, we began to see more submissions from women currently serving.

5. MilSpouse Review: In the book’s foreword, you mention that these pieces were “edited but not manipulated, selected but not filtered.” Can you explain what the editing process was like for such a variety of pieces? Were most of the writers accustomed to the rigors of editing, or was it new for some of them?

SC: While several of the contributors to Powder were trained writers, a few with MFAs in creative writing and/or previous publications, many were not. Several hadn’t written much before; they were soldiers with good stories, with sharp observational skills, with something to say. We edited considerably, both with the newbies and the more experienced writers.

6. MilSpouse Review: Which piece in the collection surprised you the most?

SC: For me, surprise is one of the key elements of a good poem or story. So this is like asking me to choose a favorite child. Can’t do it!

7. MilSpouse Review: I know that you are a writer yourself and that your recent collection of short stories, The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, has had a very good critical reception (Publisher’s Weekly: “[the collection] sets the bar high for Cain’s next book”). What are you working on now?

SC: After five years as executive director, fiction editor and board member at Kore Press, I’ve stepped aside to work on other projects. I’m working on a collection of linked stories about a group of polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers. Seriously. I think it’s going to be a pretty hot little book.

————————————————————-

I’m grateful to Shannon Cain for taking the time to answer my questions, and I’ll admit I’m quite intrigued by this collection of stories about “polyamorous Air Force pilots and their civilian lovers.” (I’m assuming “polyamorous” is the scientific word for “sleeping around,” but if I’m wrong on that one let me know.) (p.s. I  confirmed with Cain that one of the fictional AF pilots in the book is a woman — and she’s their CO! Not to condone irresponsible behavior here, but all’s fair in love and fiction, so…..I’ll admit to giving a little fist-pump when she said that.)

Cain’s response on women in combat was thought-provoking for me, too. I fully support women in combat roles (Jane Blair’s memoir Hesitation Kills provides a fascinating perspective on this issue — and an interview with her is forthcoming here on the MilSpouse Review, too!). I’ll admit that my main hesitation on the issue was only that women in such low female-to-male ratios sometimes suffer consequences from being such an extreme minority, but there has always got to be a minority at the beginning, and many women are more than capable of handling that burden.

While Cain’s response regarding “inherently violent and exploitative institutions” shows her views to be quite far to the left (with marriage included in these “exploitative institutions”), I saw her point. Women in combat do, out of necessity, serve the war machine. All of us in the military do. I was reminded of Laura Harrington’s wise essay, “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About War:”

Celebrating the male experience of war, intentionally or not, celebrates war, and is in the great literary tradition of glorifying the power of personal sacrifice in the theatre of war.

This is a can of worms far too great for me to tackle here, during my toddler’s naptime. As part of a military family — a family that will most likely give at least 20 years of our lives to the military, with all the moves and separations and, yes, benefits that come along with such an affiliation — we do celebrate the military, we cheer, “Go Navy!,” we wave when a big ship comes close enough that we can see the sailors standing on board. Our kids love the sailors and soldiers they see, without hesitation. We love this culture because, after so many years in it, we understand it.

There are hundreds of thousands of people in our military, serving in capacities too numerous to list: anti-drug trafficking, education, medicine,transportation, intelligence, machine operation, food service, infantry, humanitarian aid — and for me, denigrating the military for being nothing more than a war machine is akin to criticizing humanity in general. Where on earth would you start? (And if there are women in the military, all possible roles should be open to them providing they qualify. [My husband once countered the argument that no woman could meet the demands of being a Navy SEAL by saying, “Well, 99% of  men couldn’t, either!”])

But Cain’s and Harrington’s words remind me to be careful, and honest — when I write fiction, when I discuss films or books that deal with military members and their families, or people who’ve encountered our military abroad in positive or negative ways. Being in the military is noble and brave and giving and thoughtful, or it can be. Glorifying violence for its own sake, tapping into jingoism or cultural misunderstanding, skimming over the scope of individual loss (and there has been way too much loss), is not okay. Without overstating my own role here, I hope I can take this responsibility with me, and remember the thousands of shades of experience people around the world have had in, and with, our military, and try my best to understand and honor all of them. I need to temper the knee-jerk reaction I inevitably have when the military comes under fire (my brain starts blurting: “I know so many people in the military and we are all so nice we would make great friends!”), and remember that as surely as our armed forces’s popularity rises during times of national stress, it will wane again. When I feel overwhelmed by what I read or watch about our military, I try to remember that my goal is to understand things as much as possible, in the same way I now, effortlessly, understand our own brand of Navy life. If we try to understand, compassion and honesty will follow, but if we don’t try to understand, then we are wasting what we could learn from what other people have experienced. And wasting what other people have been through is one of the worst things I can think of.