Sunday, October 31, 2004

FULL METAL JACKET

I recently watched Full Metal Jacket and the movie took on a whole new meaning since the last time I had seen it, which was before my husband enlisted. The beginning of the movie, which shows Marines in basic training before they are sent to Vietnam, is amazing in revealing the kind of indoctrination that troops go through. The drill sergeant, in his booming and commanding voice, tells the Marines that “God has a hard on for Marines because we kill everything we see.” At another point in the movie, the drill sergeant asks the men, “What do we do for a living, ladies?” The men reply, “Kill, kill, kill.” During my husband's basic training, he, too, had to repeat similar slogans advocating taking another person’s life. Phrases like “Kill I will” and “I want to kill somebody” became a part of his everyday routine.

Since my husband became a soldier, I’ve thought a lot about the human capacity to kill. When we are growing up, one of the core moral values we are taught is to not harm people. We are so conditioned against killing. It is one of the basic tenants of most religions. And our justice system reserves the harshest punishments for those who kill.

But when soldiers are trained, all that prior teaching is thrown out the door. You are taught that you have to be ready to kill at a moment’s notice, that the act of shooting your rifle must come as easily as blinking your eye. And the military does an amazing job of teaching soldiers to kill. I know that kind of training is necessary for troops to accomplish their mission and to stay alive. Still, it is so strange to know that my husband’s ultimate job is to kill people in war. That is what his field training, target practice and weapons maintenance are for; it’s all geared toward helping him become the best possible killing instrument.

I wonder if I could readily kill somebody if I went through similar training. Is there a difference between men and women when it comes to violence? Or with enough training, could anyone do it? My husband tells me that pulling the trigger comes easier than you would think.

If it comes down to my husband’s life or another’s, of course I want my husband to be the one to come out alive. I selfishly want him to do what it takes to come home to me in one piece. Yet, I will feel disturbed that he took another person’s life. I will wonder if killing someone will change his moral fiber. How do you measure the value of a human life if you have taken one? A recent study said more than 100,000 Iraqis have been killed since the beginning of the war, although others say the number is more in the tens of thousands. And more than 1,200 coalition troops have died in Iraq. Do the insurgents have nightmares about the lives they have taken and the mangled bodies they have seen, as our soldiers do?

My husband and I have talked about how killing someone could change him. But we also talked about soldiers doing what they have to do to make it home. You save yourself and you save your buddies, and the consequences of your actions are secondary. Still, he knows it will haunt him. And I’m glad that he feels that way. It shows me that despite all the training, he is still my husband.

Friday, October 29, 2004

WHAT IS A SOLDIER WORTH?

According to the latest statistics posted on the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund web site, the average payment for a person killed because of the terrorist attacks is $2,082,035.

If a soldier is killed, his or her beneficiary typically receives $250,000 from the Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, for which the soldier paid $240 a year in premium costs. Under a new law, the surviving family member now receives a $12,000 military death benefit, which is double the past amount and is not taxable. You are also given up to $2,000 for funeral expenses. And if you are a surviving spouse, you receive $833 a month until you remarry and $211 per month for each child under 18.

So, if my husband is killed in Iraq and I don’t remarry for another 10 years, I will receive a total of $363,960 over a 10-year period, compared to the more than $2 million that a spouse of a 9-11 victim receives. I know that many of those killed on 9-11 earned six-figure salaries and compensation was based on what they would earn in their lifetime. But is it right that in purely monetary terms, a 9-11 victim’s life is worth almost six times more than my husband’s life?

Meanwhile, the Army Times calculated that according to the hours worked in a combat zone, many guys I know are making between $8-$9 an hour in Iraq. But security personnel working for private contractors are being paid six-figure salaries for doing the same job as soldiers. A trainer at the gym on the base told me a former co-worker, who is a lifeguard, is now earning $125,000 a year in Iraq.

Before I became an army wife, I had no idea that many military families were living on the brink of poverty. I assumed that soldiers earned a decent middle class wage. But a specialist, who is committed to four years in service, earns a base pay of $21,768. If the specialist has a family of four, he/she is earning just $3,000 more than the official federal poverty level, which is $18,850 for a family of four. When I came here I was surprised at how easily people talked about their finances, which is considered unseemly in my world. But I guess when you don’t have that much money, it’s not a big deal to talk about it.

On payday, which comes on the 1st and 15th of every month, the commissary (grocery store on base) is packed because many could not afford to buy food until they got their paycheck. My friend who works at the credit union on the base tells me stories of people coming in a few days before payday with bags of coins to exchange for a few dollar bills. She also tells me about people coming in to take out the remaining $5 left in their bank account. Many military families live from paycheck to paycheck and have to choose between paying bills and putting food on the table. During Thanksgiving and Christmas last year, we gave canned food and Christmas toy donations. Half of the donations ended up going to army families. Yes, some people live beyond their means and are financially irresponsible. But others just can’t make ends meet on a military salary with two to three children.

Some will argue that military families get free housing. Yes, but many families still have mortgages from homes they bought in their hometown. Some will also say that deployed soldiers get additional pay. Most of the extra $475 per month is spent on phone cards and Internet time so soldiers can communicate with loved ones back home. And before the guys left, most of the soldiers I know spent several hundred dollars of their money on supplies they needed for Iraq, like socks, backpacks and additional uniforms.

How we treat our soldiers says a lot about who we are as a nation, especially now that our nation is at war. Rhetoric about troops being heroes on the forefront of the war on terrorism does not pay the bills. We have to put our money where our mouth is and give soldiers what they deserve, in life and in death.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

IT'S A SMALL, SMALL WORLD

Today an insurgent group announced it had killed 11 Iraqi troops who had been taken hostage a few days earlier. A video showed the National Guardsmen reading aloud their names before 10 of them were shot and one was beheaded. This followed the news that 50 unarmed Iraqi soldiers heading home were killed in an ambush five days earlier. I saw the pictures of the bodies in blood-soaked clothing laid out in rows. And I thought about their wives and what must have been going through their mind when they saw the gruesome images.

Hundreds of Iraqi soldiers, National Guardsmen and police officers have been killed in recent months. More than the coalition troops, the Iraqi security forces are one of the beacons of hope in Iraq. And they are being killed off, one by one.

We military spouses here have a profound connection to the wives of the Iraqi men who have volunteered to protect their country. Our loved ones are the targets of daily attacks and all of them face danger and death on a routine basis. And we are all fighting the same enemy.

A few weeks after the guys left, I had a dinner party for four other wives. I made Middle Eastern food – hummus, couscous, and a Moroccan chicken stew. Middle Eastern music played in the background. I wanted them to learn about the culture where our husbands now lived so they wouldn’t see Iraq and its people as a strange world to which they had no connection.

I’m sure if some of the wives of Iraqi soldiers were at my dinner, we would have had much to talk about. We would’ve traded tales of being glued to television news, raising children as virtual single parents and dealing with the stress of constant worrying. Although thousands of miles stand between us, we are all in the same boat now.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

DON'T WORRY, BE HAPPY

Since I started this blog, many of my friends have sent me messages of support, telling me they are here for me. I know they are worried about me and I understand why. I know from reading these entries, they are wondering if I’m depressed or unhappy. I want everyone to know that I’m fine. Even better than fine. I’m happy.

I am in good health and so is my family. I have great friends whom I can count on in any crisis. I have the luxury of pursuing my professional dreams and I feel fulfilled in my career. I am financially secure. I have had the opportunity to live in other countries and travel the world. And despite our current circumstance, my husband and I have an awesome relationship and it has only gotten stronger.

So really, I feel grateful in many ways. I am not worried about being gang raped and my family being massacred because I don’t live in Sudan. I know where my next meal is coming from because I’m not starving in North Korea. I do not have to think about suicide bombers or missile strikes or my house being demolished because I do not live in Israel or the West Bank.

Considering the luck of the draw that determines which family, which country and which economic class you are born into, I feel I came out with a pretty good hand. Yes, my husband is in a war zone and his life is in constant danger. But life goes on. And life is good.

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Several years ago when I was living in Asia, I met an Iraqi refugee family. The father was an engineer and had worked in one of Saddam’s chemical weapons plants. He had been accused of being a spy and was tortured by being immersed in an oil-filled vat. He escaped with his family after the first Gulf war and was waiting for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to help transport his family to Europe or the U.S. In the meantime, he and his family were stuck in Asia, isolated from the local population because they could not speak the local language and were not familiar with the local customs. They spoke only Arabic so I communicated with them through a Sudanese refugee who spoke both English and Arabic. The Iraqi man's wife and three sons mainly stayed inside the home because they had no other friends and were scared to go outside.

I felt sorry for them and wanted to do something to cheer them up. So my husband and I took them out to a Moroccan restaurant where they could eat dishes familiar to them, like hummus and couscous. A few weeks later, they returned the favor by cooking a meal for 20 in their small home. We ate like kings. Afterward, the wife told me my fortune by “reading” the grinds left at the bottom of my coffee cup. Although we did not know each other well, the gathering felt easy and comfortable, like a meeting of old acquaintances.

Since the war in Iraq began last year, I have wondered from time to time what happened to them. Did they make it back to Iraq? How do they feel about the U.S. presence in their homeland? If the family and my husband happen to meet in Iraq, will they remember that they once sat at a table together and laughed and talked as friends? Or is there too much water under the bridge now?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

SUMMER OF '69

A few weeks before the guys left, we had a party at our house, sort of a last hurrah before they headed to Iraq. The weather was perfect - a bright, sunny afternoon that faded into a cool, summer night. Burgers and hotdogs blackened on the grill and dozens of beers chilled in the coolers. The wives sat in the shade of our backyard trees while the kids ran around at the nearby playground. The guys played basketball with a beer in one hand, and amazingly no bottles were dropped. At dusk, the guys decided to relive their childhood and set up a game of dodgeball. Later the platoon leader was ductaped to a tree. As the night wore on, people moved into the house and moved on to tequila shots. When that was gone, they did shots of Jim Beam. Some even did shots of Pucker. By all accounts, it was a great party.

But it was also bittersweet. It reminded me of the last day of high school, when everyone is trying to hang on to those waning moments when the gang is still all together. You don’t want the day to end because afterward, you know you will never be the same people again.

I could tell those thoughts were already going through the guys’ heads during the party. Into the wee hours of the night, they became a bit melancholy and philosophical. One talked about how he broke up with his girlfriend because when he deploys, he considers his life to be on pause. Another talked about how he was coming home to his family no matter what. They debated what they were going to face in their second trip to Iraq and what they had to do to make sure all of them returned alive.

Last year when the guys returned from Iraq, some of the wives were cautious around their husbands, worried that the wrong word or action could unleash a simmering dark side. This year, people are already asking me if I think my husband is going to be fucked up when he comes back. I don’t know the answer to that, but I think some change in him is inevitable given his circumstance.

The wives and I are already talking about the party we are going to throw when the guys come back. And I wonder how much of who they were at our summer party will remain intact. Will I still recognize them, will they still be familiar to me?

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE UGLY

There is a pool on the base in Iraq. It has caused arguments and sparked outrage. The pool has become the forbidden fruit. Some of the wives have banned the pool from the list of off duty activities that are acceptable for their husbands. But it’s not the pool itself that the wives are worried about. No, they are worried about who could be surrounding the pool or wading in it. Namely, the wives are worried about other women. They are worried that in their husbands’ current state of forced celibacy, the sight of the opposite sex will cause their normally faithful men to go into a frenzy.

On the other end, some of the husbands have told their wives they are not allowed to go out during the deployment. That means no going to a bar to have drinks with the girls, no break from the kids to have an “adult dinner.” They are worried about their fellow man, and more specifically, their fellow soldier. They have heard and participated in enough locker room talk to know how nightlife operates in a military town. And I guess with the male to female ratio, perhaps they are not totally paranoid.

War always brings out the best and worst qualities in human beings. Incredible acts of kindness and generosity are mixed with scenes of inhumane brutality and cruelty.

On the homefront, the love and support that spouses give to each other would impress the most pessimistic cynic. But sometimes, insecurities are amplified and past wrongs are dug up. The frustration of missing each other and living separate lives is taken out on each other. Conversations between husbands and wives lapse into petty arguments and phones being slammed down on the receiver. You don’t call enough. You don’t understand what I’m going through. You are not there for me.

During last year’s deployment, I admit that some of my conversations with my husband also ended in anger. I was still dealing with residual resentment over him joining the army. I was still bitter over the choice he made that forced us to be separated.

But this year, there is none of that. The anger has disappeared. Our conversations are filled with laughter, teasing and affection. This is not to say that we are the perfect couple, but we don’t want to waste our limited phone time on arguing over who is right and who is wrong. The length of his deployment doesn’t bother me. I almost don’t even care when I will see him again. My only concern is his safety and that he comes home in one piece. If that is our future, then I will gamely endure this for as long as I have to.

And in case you are wondering, my husband often goes to the pool and no, he doesn’t need my permission. As for me, Saturday night is often girls' night out, albeit it’s usually just me and one other girl.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

A FEW GOOD MEN

I recently saw some pictures of our guys in Iraq, posing with their sunglasses and rifles in hand. There they were riding in humvees or manning checkpoints. It was disconcerting to see the young ones, the single guys who I treated as little brothers. I’ll call them M, P and G. Whenever I hung out with them here, I was always struck by how young they seemed. In the photos in which they are wearing their desert combat uniform and cradling their weapon, they looked even younger. None of them are 21 yet but two of them are in Iraq now on their second deployment. It is illegal for them to drink alcohol in their homeland, but it is legal for them to kill and be killed in service to their country. Before they were deployed, two of them got in trouble for underage drinking and were busted down a rank.

M is the one with the inflated ego, but that can’t mask his insecurity and his overeagerness to be accepted by the older guys. He joined the army because he wanted adventure and liked the idea of being thought of as a hero. He was excited to go to Iraq because he had never deployed and he thought this was his chance to bring back macho tales of courage under fire that he could use to impress girls. P is shy and quiet in a way that makes the older soldiers want to take him under their wings. I asked him once why he joined the army and he said he didn’t know what to do after high school and decided to give this a try. He treated Iraq sort of like a homework assignment. He wasn’t happy about it but he had no choice so he was resigned to the task. G is perhaps the most mature out of them and has the easygoing nature of a cheerful little boy. Before he left, he told me he was more worried this time around because now, as a team leader, he was responsible for the lives of three guys. He still seemed to be a bit incredulous that at his young age, he was charged with such a solemn responsibility. He was eager to talk about his fears, perhaps because he knew with me, he didn’t have to inject any bravado into his concerns.

When I was their age, my life was about frat parties and studying for final exams. My biggest worries revolved around boys and summer internships. I was figuring out who I was and what I wanted out of life. At that age, I couldn’t imagine facing my own mortality or the possibility of taking another’s life.

I don’t know at what age you are deemed mature enough to see men, women and children die. How old do you have to be to handle the stench of burning flesh, or the sight of pools of blood? How did our nation decide that 18 was the appropriate time for men and women to go into battle? This is not to say that M, P and G cannot handle their mission; I know they can handle it. Still, it somehow doesn’t seem right that they are in Iraq, exposed to the ugliness of war. But that has always been the reality of conflict, whether it’s child soldiers in Liberia or 16-year-old boys lying about their age to fight Hitler. Their stories are all the same; they are all about lost innocence.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

My husband recently told me about a raid he had gone on. They searched dozens of houses in the middle of the night to look for someone who had been shooting at U.S. patrols. Sleeping Iraqis were woken by the unexpected sound of loud, insistent knocks. They were greeted by futuristic warriors wearing night vision goggles, who looked out of place in the cradle of civilization. While the soldiers looked around the house, the Iraqis stood outside and waited.

My husband described one woman to me and she has been in my head ever since. During the raid, many of the women stared at the ground and did not look at the soldiers. But this woman purposely held her head up high, displaying her dignity and her contempt for the intruders. I know that my husband was just doing his job, looking for a “bad guy,” but I imagine that was of no solace to her. I wonder what she thought of my husband. Did she think he was an American infidel? Did she secretly want to spit on him? Was one more anti-American sentiment born at that moment?

I wish I could tell her what my husband is really like, that the image she saw was a mirage. Underneath the body armor and camouflage is a gentle and compassionate man. I want to tell her that before he joined the army, we lived in another war-torn country and my husband was always the first to give out money, food or whatever else people needed. I want her to know that the other men my husband is serving with are good guys, good fathers, good husbands, good sons.

Maybe she wouldn’t believe me, or she just wouldn’t care. Maybe what only matters to her is that U.S. soldiers showed up at her home in the middle of the night, scaring her and her family and humiliating them by showing them they had no power in their own home. Moreover, maybe she sees my husband as a foreign invader, an occupier in her homeland. And I’m sure there is plenty she could tell me about her life, her family, her suffering.

My husband told me of another time when he was out on patrol and he saw a little girl walking with an even smaller boy. When the girl spotted the soldiers, she began to walk faster, pulling the boy behind her. When she briefly turned her head to see where the soldiers were, my husband waved at her and smiled. She hesitated, then smiled and waved back.

I wish the image of the girl was the one that replayed in my head, but it’s the woman with her head held high who stays with me.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

WISE WORDS

Rabindranath Tagore, India's Nobel laureate for literature in 1913 and a friend of Gandhi, wrote the following poem. Considering the current political climate here and the state of world affairs, it seems appropriate for these times.

Where the Mind is Without Fear
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

GRIM REAPER

Sometimes I feel like death is haunting me, chasing me, like a bounty hunter whom I can’t escape. Other times its presence is less obvious, like my watch, which I always have on but don’t always notice. The one constant is that death is always there, the possibility that it will hit home.

I don’t mean for this entry to be morbid. But this subject of death is with me so often, it seemed a natural topic to write about. People always ask me, “How do you do it?” Implicit in that question is more questions: “How do you deal with the danger that your husband is in, how do you deal with the possibility he might die?” To me, I am at a time in my life when many things are out of my hands so I am dealing with it the best I can. The only other option would be to stop functioning, to fall apart. And I don’t know of any army wife who has made that choice. I’m sure any of you would cope just as well, or as well as can be expected, if you were faced with this situation. And you would be amazed at what you can endure, the human capacity to take on hardship. But that is not to say I don’t have my moments.

You are told that if your spouse is killed, two military officials will come to your door. So I dread the unexpected knock or doorbell ring. The first time it happened, or didn’t happen, I should say, I felt like my stomach had dropped to my toes. I hadn’t heard from my husband for several days and we had already heard that two guys from his unit had been killed in fierce fighting just a day or two ago. It was 2 am and the noise of two car doors slamming woke me up. I immediately imagined two uniformed officers slowly walking to my door, preparing themselves for my reaction when they told me something had happened to my husband. I just lay in bed and waited. But the knock never came.

A few weeks later, the doorbell rang unexpectedly. Again, my initial thoughts were of my husband. But it turned out to be a cub scout selling candy. In the weeks that followed, my unannounced visitors included more cub scouts, fire department officials and others. It’s strange but now I feel like those moments have become a part of my routine life. But my heart still skips a beat every time it happens.

Before he left for each of his deployments, my husband and I discussed funeral arrangements, wills and all of the other details that are associated with death. I always wanted to be realistic about what could happen to him, that he might not come home. Some army wives could not bear to have these conversations with their husbands, they couldn’t face the outcome that always comes with war. Before the guys were deployed a second time around, one of my friends drove past a cemetery and started crying.

All of this talk of death does not mean I have stopped living my life. I am still forging ahead with my career. There are many times in the day when I feel happy, when I laugh and feel amazed at life’s possibilities.

I just hope that if my husband is killed in Iraq, I do not allow anger and hatred to consume me. I hope that my sorrow does not turn into feelings of revenge. Instead, I hope I will have an open enough heart that I try to understand the forces that brought my husband and his killer to that moment, when one life ended and another continued.

INTRODUCTION

I named this blog Strawberry Fields because I had read that John Lennon wrote the song at a time of chaotic change in his life and at a time when he felt he did not connect with his contemporaries. I don’t know if that’s true, but I instantly related because the same could be said of my current state. In many ways, I feel like I am in between two worlds and I don’t belong to either of them.

I am an army wife and I live on a military base. I am also college educated and have maintained my career, which apparently makes me a bit of a freak here. Some army wives said they were scared to talk to me at first because I had a degree. On the other side, many of my friends outside the military think I am crazy to live here and beg me to return to big city life, which fits my cosmopolitan personality. They think it is beneath me to live on an army base.

So Strawberry Fields is where I am at now.

My husband, a sergeant in the infantry, is in his second deployment to Iraq. It’s strange and surreal to be forced to confront the possibility of the love of your life’s death on a constant basis. And it’s those kinds of topics that I wanted to write about.

I started this blog because my head is overflowing with thoughts about what is going on in my life and what is going on in today’s world. Writing has always been a way for me to sort out the jumble in my head. I also wanted to provide a woman’s perspective on traditionally male topics, such as war and the military. There are so many things that I never knew about the military before my husband joined the army. And I admit that I had a very stereotypical view of what a soldier was like, where he came from, what he thought. As with most things, I have found the reality is more complicated than that.

I am remaining anonymous because I want to be free to speak my mind, without having to worry about my husband getting in trouble or my views affecting my career. I know that may sound like a cop out and perhaps when my husband returns home, I will be able to be more open.

I hope you will find the entries here to be thoughtful, poignant and informative. Most of all, I hope it will provoke conversations on what this world and our lives are all about.