Defining Terms

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Last week a Facebook friend posed the question – what does the word warrior mean to you?

A combat vet friend emailed a couple days later to ask me for a definition of Warrior. I’m pretty sure some lovely woman asked him this question and he was struggling to get the answer right without scaring her with so much honesty that she ran for the woods. Nonetheless, it’s a valid and important question.
The Wounded Warrior Project is now treating us to extended commercials interspersed throughout our evenings of zoning out on the couch, staring at the television, and bemoaning the fact that there’s nothing of interest to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the work The Wounded Warrior Project does. Though it angers me each time I see one of their commercials that an individual who goes to war at the biding our government, now has to resort to begging for donations in order to get top-notch care for the injuries sustained doing what he was ordered to do.
But that’s another blog post altogether.
My point here is that the word warrior is being bandied about with great frequency and it would behoove us to think about just what the term means to us.
I suspect, like most complicated concepts, the meaning is different from individual to individual. Therefore, I’m going to tell you my understanding of the word and I am asking you to comment and share what the word warrior means to you personally.
For me, a warrior is someone who has found a way, reached within themselves and found a power most of us don’t even know exists, to walk through horror and come out the other side alive. I, personally, never use the word warrior for anyone but a combat veteran. But I do not call them warriors because of what they did during war. I call them warriors because of what they do every single day since returning from war. Many have done things, seen things, experienced things that changed them. Forever.
No one goes to war and comes back the same person. No one.
The rules of war are not the rules of polite society. Battle is about keeping yourself and your buddies alive. Period. War traumatizes because what is required in combat is directly and dramatically opposed to everything we are taught, and everything we know innately within ourselves about the sanctity of life. Why else demonize the enemy? Why else work so hard to convince ourselves that for those we kill in war life and death hold different meanings than they do for us.
All of this denial of long-held beliefs in order to survive is burned into those who go to war. If it were not, none would return to us.
The courage, the incredible power of the warrior, is that once he returns to us, day-by-day, night-by-night he lives through the adjustment necessary to live among a society that does its best to transform his experience into flag waving honor when the warrior knows damn good and well there is nothing glorious about war. Nothing whatsoever.

Books by Pamela Foster
All books can be ordered through any bookstore or library. In addition they are available through Amazon.com as both conventional books and as download to Kindle

Redneck Goddess, Contemporary southern novel
Noisy Creek, Contemporary southern novel
Bigfoot Blues, Contemporary novel set in the Pacific Northwest
My Life with a Wounded Warrior, Personal essays
Clueless Gringos in Paradise, Humorous travel Memoir
Ridgeline, Historical Fiction, Western
The Perfect Victim, Suspense
Boogie with Chesty, an essay about a PTSD Service Dog

Driving Mr. Jack

jack's chevy.
Jack’s first car was a ’47 Chevy. At sixteen, he’d work all week at the creosote plant, cash his paycheck on Friday, load the car with friends who were still attending Americus High School, and they’d head for Panama City. Get back at dawn-thirty Monday morning, just in time for his buddies to get back to classes and him to get to work.
After Vietnam, when he was driving 100 miles each day, back and forth between work and home and Sacramento State, he had a conversion van. As I understand it, a lot of adventures took place in the back of that van. He had a Porsche when we started dating twenty-five years ago. He drove another conversion van on a stumbling-four-breakdown trip the length of Mexico pulling a thirty-five foot trailer with me in the captain chair beside him and a wrinkled Sharpei dog on his lap. Traded the van for a Dodge Ram when we came back to the states. Traded the Ram for a 4×4 a year later, and, at that vehicles first oil change, traded the 4×4 for a Diesel four wheeler.
Two years ago, against my ranting protests, he nearly ended the marriage when he bought a blood red Lexus. Eighteen months later, he swapped the Lexus for an Audi convertible which he bombed around town in all winter with the heated seats cranked up to cook and the icy wind blowing through his white hair.

Jack and Audi 11
The man has a history with cars is what I’m telling you here.
This week, after yet another near miss, he accepted that he could no longer drive.
PTSD, TBI, some other neurological problem the docs haven’t yet found? Whatever the cause, he was consistently pulling out in front of cars, crossing into the oncoming traffic, and weaving between lanes. And true to form, he stepped up, gave me the keys, had the courage to say, “Behind the wheel of a vehicle I am a danger to myself and others.”
Big change for both Jack and for me. I teased him that he could get me a chauffeur’s hat for my birthday.
Jack attends four support groups a week, a weekly evening meeting of Soldier on Service Dogs, has at least two VA appointments every week, and meets with other vets and good friends for a few more meetings and gatherings. I work full-time as a writer and speaker. Have commitments and contracts to fulfill.
We inquired at the VA about shuttle buses or help with transportation.
“Well, honey,” I was told, “that’s why they say for better or worse.”
So, we made a plan, Jack and I. I cut back on a few things. He cut back on a meeting or two.
Yesterday, I took him into town in the morning and dropped him off at the VA for his support group. He called a few hours later, about an hour before our agreed upon pickup time and said, “Come get me.” He sounded tired. I immediately worried that he’d fallen again.
He hung up.
I was in the middle of one of those chores where I had four screens up on my computer and was jumping back and forth between them, juggling the info in my slow brain. It took less than a minute for me to close out the computer and head into town. At the VetCenter, I found him talking to his guys, big smile.
“Hey there,” he greeted me. “It’ll be another half hour before I’m ready. Something came up since I called you.”
Jack and I had a little discussion. Yes, we did.
Turns out I will not be needing that new cap after all.
He is to think of me, not as his personal chauffeur, but as a friendly, busy, shuttle bus driver.
Sometimes he will have to wait for the bus and, like all good shuttle services, the bus will not wait more than five minutes for him before pulling away.
I learned that when Jack calls and says he’s ready to be picked up, it’s okay for me to say, “I’m right in the middle of something that’s going to take me an hour to replicate if I walk away. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
There’s a learning curve with change. Thank God, Jack and are familiar with making mistakes together, feeling our way along life’s twists and turns. Hell, I might even get another book out of this newest adventure. Driving Mr. Jack.
What do you think?

Aha moment

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When Mutual of Omaha sent me an email inviting me to participate in their Aha Moment, I knew exactly which moment I wanted to share.
But sharing that moment in a thirty-second commercial? Holy smoke, you all know me. I have no problem exposing my emotional vulnerabilities but it takes longer than thirty seconds for me to say good morning, let alone draw back the curtain verbally to reveal an epiphany.
Still, I put on my makeup, combed my hair and trotted down to Mutual of Omaha’s cute little Airstream trailer set up on the Fayetteville town square. Now, I do a bit of speaking in front of large groups and I’ve long ago gotten over any stage fright in front of crowds. But this was a whole new experience.
The technicians, a friendly young woman and man recorded my information and brought me inside the Airstream. Told to take a seat in a tiny, curtained alcove surrounded by equipment, I perched my butt on a narrow stool and wished I’d lost those twenty pounds I keep promising myself to lose.
“Just relax,” the lovely young woman said.
Two giant lights came on, and the temperature instantly leaped twenty degrees. My carefully applied makeup began to run in little flesh-toned rivulets. I blinked my eyes. Swallowed. Reminded myself that squinting would intensify those two gigantic vertical wrinkles between my eyes.
“Tell me your story.” A gentle voice said from between the two blinding lights.
Well, here’s the thing.
When I do public speaking, I count on, feed upon, desperately need eye contact from individuals in the audience. Inside this tiny trailer, I was looking into blinding lights. It felt a bit like talking to God. I took a deep breath and remembered the power of the experience I wanted to share. Sank into the strength of the individual man, and the incredible men in general, who gifted me with that moment.
And then I started to talk.
Jack and I were at the VA for one of his appointments. Married to a Vietnam vet, a Marine who stepped on a landmine just outside Danang in ’65, I spend a good bit of time at one VA facility or another. My Life with a Wounded Warrior, my latest book at that time, had just been released and was being used by the local VetCenter to help combat vets in our area of the world.
I was tired and hungry and at that point in a day of VA doctor’s appointments when I felt as though I’d been there forever and there was no hope of ever leaving. Seriously, there comes a point at the VA when I can actually hear Rod Serling’s voice in my head.
A very large man made eye contact with me from down the hall and his eyes immediately crinkled at the corners. Long, salt-and-pepper beard, hair tied in a leather thong at the back of his thick neck, black leather jacket with a small skull on one side and a 1st CAV patch on the other – this grinning man strode directly to me. It was crowded in that VA hallway, but folks got the hell out of his way. He never slowed, came directly to me and wrapped me in a hug.
“You wrote that book.” His breath warmed my neck.
“I did.”
“Thank you. Thank you for writing it and thank you for accepting and understanding us.”
He gave me one more breath-stealing squeeze and then turned and walked away.
I’ve written a lot of books. God willing, I’ll tell more stories and entertain more people as the years go by. But that day, standing in that crowded VA corridor, I understood that in writing that particular book, in exposing my own vulnerability– the pain and joy and challenges and rewards of living with a combat veteran with PTSD – I helped to heal both myself and others.
That was my Aha Moment.
Please click here and watch the video. I’m the one with the purple streak in her hair. Vote, of course vote every day from now until October 10th so that this thirty seconds can air on national TV and people will pause for just that brief moment and think about how we might all do a better job as individuals to welcome our warriors back home, to accept and love and understand them for the remarkable men and women they are.
Think too about how we all spend so much of our lives trying to look good to others, when really, it’s sharing our flaws, our imperfections and struggles that help best to heal ourselves and others.
I think that friendly young man and woman from Mutual of Omaha did a fine job of squeezing all that into thirty seconds, don’t you?

The Great Buttermilk War

 

DSCN4939Jack is in the hospital and he and I are fighting over buttermilk. I kid you not.

Here’s a little background for you.

Over the last few months, it has become increasingly difficult for Jack to breathe until even walking across the room left him struggling for breath, then even just standing up got him gasping.

We returned from a visit to the VA with the knowledge that his heart rate was irregular and slow. We also obtained a promise of an echo cardiogram in a month’s time. That night Jack had pain that ran across the back of his neck, down both arms, across his chest and into his abdomen.

He went to the ER by ambulance. He was taken to the local hospital because the VA did not have a bed for him. Within hours of his being admitted to the heart ward, an echo cardiogram had been done as well as a catheter heart procedure which revealed that an upper chamber of his heart was not able to pump blood out like it should. I am still fuzzy as to how, but apparently this defect causes fluid to build up around the lungs which is what is causing his shortness of breath.

For the first time in twenty-five years of hospital visits and emergencies with his health, we have a diagnosis that is less about an acute problem that can be solved and more of a long-term, chronic condition that may well end up killing him.

Both Jack and I are scared.

We deal with fear in polar opposite ways.

Fear makes Jack desperate to be the center of my universe, as though my acknowledgement of his central importance will convince the gods that they cannot take him. I, on the other hand, am desperate to know that my life will, in fact, go on if I lose him.

You see the issue.

This inconsistency in our methods has started The Great Buttermilk War.

He called from the hospital. “Bring me a quart of buttermilk when you come up.”

“What?” I pulled myself out of the lovely world I was building on my computer screen, a scene with its own problem, none of which involved a husband, the love of my life, in the hospital. “Buttermilk?”
I’m slow to catch on when jerked from one world into another.

“Yeah. The nurses don’t have any and I need some.”

“No, I’m not sneaking you buttermilk. They’re feeding you what they want you to have.”
Jack is well over a hundred pounds too heavy. This extra weight contributes directly to his high blood pressure, his diabetes and now it seems to this damn heart condition which may rob me of him. I went, not only from one world into another, but from calm and reasonable to fighting mad in less than ten seconds.

“I asked the nurses and they said it was okay.”

“You don’t need buttermilk. Besides, how are you going to refrigerate it?” Yes, I know, here is where I messed up.  Never negotiate with a Marine.

“The nurses will keep it in their refrigerator for me.”

So, I closed out my computer and swung by the local neighborhood Walmart. No buttermilk. I asked the friendly clerk. Nope, they usually carry it but there was evidently a run on the disgusting crap. Sorry, no offense meant to those lovers of buttermilk, but yuck.

At the hospital Jack was sitting up in bed.
“You bring my buttermilk?”
His first words. I swear to you. His very first words to me.

I told him why I didn’t have any buttermilk for him. We talked about what his doctor had said. For about thirty seconds. He picked up his cell phone, called two of his buddies, Marty and Jim, both it goes without even saying, Vietnam combat vets.
Three guesses what he asked them to do. The first two guesses don’t count.

Before my head exploded or I said something I couldn’t take back, I left to walk with a friend.

When I came back to the hospital, I ran into Marty who was trying to talk a young Vietnamese nurse into marrying him at 4:00 that afternoon. Two quarts of buttermilk rested in a bed of ice in a bedpan.

Combat vets. You gotta love em.

Requirements of Honor

Taking care of our veterans is a cost of war. If we can spend
6 trillion dollars sending people to war, we can spend a few
Billion dollars more taking care of them when they come home.
–Senator Bernie Sanders

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There’s been a multitude of complaints, investigations and media frenzy lately about the inadequate, or in some cases nonexistent, healthcare veterans are receiving from V.A. hospitals. All of which is justified and needed. But I fear the basic reason for the poor performance of VA hospitals is being hidden under a witch hunt for individuals caught within a failing system.

As a nation we love waving flags at the Veterans Day parades. We dress our children in their best and teach them to plant tiny flags on Memorial Day. We weep at those Youtube videos of soldiers returning to their families. All this makes for heart-rendering Facebook posts and gives us a nice warm feeling in our chests.

But we turn our backs, squeeze shut our eyes, and rant about a balanced budget when it comes time to truly honor the people we send to fight our wars.

The expense of war does not stop when warriors come home. When war ends, the physical and psychological cost is only just beginning for those who fought, and the monetary cost is only just beginning for us as a nation. To pretend this is not so is to dishonor our veterans. I don’t care how many yellow ribbons we tie on our car antennas or how many tears the politicians cry on Veterans Day, it takes money to honor our veterans.
Write or call your congressional representative and your senator today, tell them to cough up the funds needed to make the V.A. healthcare system truly honor those who fight our bloody wars.

The Color Purple

roller coaster Living with Jack is an adventure. Well, maybe thrill ride is a more accurate way to describe living with my Vietnam veteran. For Jack the control needs of post-traumatic stress have morphed over the years into secondary OCD. For those of you who read My Life with a Wounded Warrior, I refer you to the chapter about the Lexus.

Well, Jack’s newest obsession is the desire to have his chest length beard dyed purple. See, a year or two ago I had a line of purple dyed into the streak of gray in my hair. A fair warning to everyone that, while I may look meek and mild, there is that one narrow streak of wildness lurking in the granny gray. I love that little rebellion against conformity, my friends love it, my publicist even used it in creating my brand. All was well.

Then, about six months ago, Jack began obsessing about having a purple Fu Manchu died into his white beard. He spent a lot of time in beauty salons talking with young women about just how this new fashion statement could be accomplished. This provided him the opportunity to flirt with a lot of pretty girls but brought him no closer to his purple Fu Manchu. No one could figure out how to isolate the dye to just the Fu Manchu without spotting the purple all through the rest of the beard. I thought I was safe.

Never, ever, never underestimate the power of a Marine who sets out to get something done. Doesn’t matter the consequences, he will accomplish his mission. A week ago Jack had his beard cut. Except for a bushy, chest-length Fu Manchu. He saved the Fu Manchu. Today he’s having it died purple. So, this morning, as I flipped through Facebook, stopping at the Spouses of PTSD Groups, I spotted a post by a women with a common complaint. People who make comments like, “He looks fine to me. Most of this is in head,” or “It’s a scam to get VA money. Look at him. There’s nothing wrong with him.” Bet Jack and I don’t have to hear that one for a while.

How Was Your Day?

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Last month Jack spent a month on the other side of the country visiting with people he loves. I had hoped to keep in touch with him through texting, as we both now have phones far smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, he was visiting one of those dead zones where the only cell phone service is provided by the local drug dealer laundering his money through legitimate business.
But even without texting service my husband did call each evening. Those conversations, each and every one of them, consisted of Jack reciting a list of what he’d done that day. I would then ask if he was enjoying himself, if he’d had a chance to talk about this or that, how he was feeling. . . you know the drill. These queries he answered with one word. Fine. Good. Sure.
Never once did he ask how my day had gone, what I was doing, or what my plans for the next day were. He did always inquire about the dog.
So, about a week into these one-sided conversations, I began to get a little pissy. Yes, pissy is a word, ask the wife of any combat veteran. So I came up with three options for how to deal with this. You may think of others.
1. Say nothing and let my anger smolder into rage at Jack and turn inward while I sink into depression. This solution is an old time favorite.
2. Realize that with his post-traumatic stress, TBI, mild dementia, diabetes, and chronic pain he simply could not focus on anything outside his line of sight right then. It was taking every ounce of strength he had to make a trip he probably should not have made alone to begin with.
3. Tell him up front, “Hey, I miss you and I’d like to tell you how my day went. Are you up for that?”
This violates the ancient code of “If you really loved me you’d be able to read my mind and KNOW what I want without me having to TELL you.”
Still, it seemed the most likely to get me what I wanted.
I went with my old favorite, anger and self-pity for fifteen minutes or so, and then decided on a combination shot. Bounced understanding off the side to hit speaking-up-for- what-I-want to sink the three ball into the side pocket.
I also, and this is an important part of the process for me, made sure to spend plenty of time with friends who do not have PTSD, people who enjoy my company and whose company I enjoy in the carefree manner of non-spouses.
This incident came back to me this week because during the time that Jack was gone I made this Aha Moment in the Mutual of Omaha traveling Airstream. Part of the interview that was cut showed me saying that I wrote My Life with a Wounded Warrior at the worst time in my twenty-five years of marriage. I revealed that Jack read every story/essay as I wrote them but it wasn’t until he read the published book that he cried and hugged me and said, “You really DO love me.”
Really? Twenty-five years. Traveling all the hell over the world together, often accompanied by large service dogs. Living in foreign lands. Scuba diving side by side every day for five years. Frequenting VA hospitals and emergency rooms. Really? All this and it’s not until he sees it in black and white in a published book that he realizes I love him?
Well, yeah. Because while he’d charge into the enemy with guns blazing and a wide grin, emotional intimacy scares the holy crap out of him. Yes, it took seeing the words in black- and-white because survivor guilt seeks daily to rob him of joy. Yes, it took a public declaration of my love and frustrations for him to accept that at least one person in the world knew him for who he was and found him lovable.
Subtlety is not Jack’s strong point.
Which is why last month when he called on the sixth evening from California, I asked him to call me the next day in the morning when he was fresh and rested. It’s why the next morning I told him all about my feeling of seeing myself in the Aha Moment. How I was shocked at the difference between how young I feel on the inside and how old, so very old, I look on the outside. I rambled on about my vanity and listed all the things about the interview that made me cringe.
When I ran out of steam, Jack said simply, “Huh, so what are you doing today?”
Which made me laugh and reminded me to call a friend to go for a walk in the woods and then to lunch at a barbeque place where we could pig-out on greasy food and talk about every single mundane thing that popped into our heads.