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 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.

The Spirituality of War

“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.”
–-Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War.

Carry Me Home
There you have a longish quote from a brilliant writer and noble warrior.
I worry that in trying to demystify post-traumatic stress – separate the mythology of the media from the actual effects of the trauma of war – not enough attention is paid to the tremendous power possessed by combat veterans. It’s this power that draws me to these guys. They’ve walked point in a spiritual zone the rest of us glimpse only occasionally, as when a too bright sun breaks momentarily through thick fog.
If Marlantes is correct, and I believe he is dead on, the spiritual nature of the experience of war helps explain the intense brotherhood these men possess. It has been my privilege to witness the power of this brotherhood first hand and I’m here to tell you it raises the hairs on the back of my neck and touches a place deep inside usually reserved for mystics and monks. It’s the reason these guys NEVER leave a man behind.
Which is why I was surprised by the immediate and intense reaction to the release of Bowe Burgdahl. Especially as I have heard many Vietnam combat vets tell of their own feelings of wanting to walk away, of feeling that they should not have been there, that nothing was being accomplished but bloody awful killing. I was surprised because I layered the present situation with my own personal history and I am a child of the sixties. I was surprised because I did not at first see the complexity of emotions the release of Burgdahl would free in other combat veterans.
Burgdahl abandoned his brother warriors, and in the church of combat, that is the unforgivable sin. It’s the reason for survival guilt. It’s why combat vets struggle to allow joy into their lives even fifty years after they’ve returned to us.
Personally, I’m happy Burgdahl has come home, but then I am not one of those consecrated by the fires of war.

The Complications of War

Show me who makes a profit from war and I’ll show you how to stop war
–Henry Ford

Carry Me Home
Every so often someone approaches me, someone who knows I do my best to be an advocate for combat veterans, and either belligerently or apologetically, they proclaim:
“Young women should not be in combat. War ruins women.”
My reply is the same to all of them, be they meek or angry.
“I agree with you completely. And neither should young men be in combat. War ruins everything it touches with the exception of those few individuals who make a profit from the ruination.”
I mention this now in reference to Sergeant Bergdahl.
Lots of emotion flying around about this one. Yesterday, my friend Velda Brotherton wrote this thoughtful blog post. Now, and this could change by the time I get this essay on-line, it looks as though Berghdah did indeed desert. At least according to the men we’re seeing on the media who claim to be his buddies. My inclination is to trust a combat vet, so I’m going to go with the theory that these men really were with him in Afghanistan and that they are telling the truth as they know it.
I’ve been struggling to wrap my head around all this, so this morning when my good friend and Vietnam Veteran Jim Hale sent me the following email, I immediately asked him if I could share his thoughts with you about this complicated situation.
Here’s what Jim has to say.
This whole thing with the return of Bergdahl, the Afghanistan POW, took me back to 1968 when I considered walking away. Like him I was also 22 years old.

My illusions of the cause were broken after just 4 months in country. We were hated. Bad stuff was happening and it was all for a lie. Not just to me but most of us felt that.

Got on a C47 and went on an unauthorized R&R for two weeks in Thailand.

The girl I was with didn’t want me to leave, said she’d go with me, up to northern Thailand.

It sounded pretty good but I thought of my mother and never seeing her again. And I had buddies back in Vietnam some of them I’m still in touch with now.

So I went back to Vietnam and had to fill 2000 sandbags for my punishment. Was told I earned the sandbag beret and oh yeah, promoted to E5 within a few weeks.

Then all that shit happened, the Navy Seals, the mad minutes, the dead pregnant woman. The coup de grace, the Christmas skirmish and friendly fire. Severe PTSD for three quarters of my life.

What price we pay for our loyalty.

And the consequences are severe no matter what we do.

I can’t know his motivation for walking away but I think five years as a POW, all alone like that should be enough.

Yet I fear the last pound of flesh will be demanded. I fear they will now throw him in a US prison.

Please, let us all approach this complicated issue with as much compassion and insight as this Vietnam veteran, this man who, like Sergeant Bergdahl, has walked a trail that most of us can only imagine.

VA Rant

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VA hospitals are under attack right now. The whole country is suddenly aware of what every vet in the country knows and deals with every single time they want medical care. Half a dozen people this week have asked me, “What do you think of what’s going on at the Pheonix VA?”
Here’s what I tell them:
This is not news. Inadequate care is prevalent and built into the VA system. Every veteran knows that if they want good health care they are going to have to work hard to find it within the system and fight tooth and nail to receive it.
Is the system better than no health care at all? Of course. Is it what they were promised when they joined the military and risked, and in many cases lost, life and limb? Oh, hell no. Not even close.
We live in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the VA hospital here is one of the best in the nation. Some of the best nurses and psychologist and social workers I know work at the Fayetteville VA. Some of the worst are there too, but one quickly learns who to avoid when making an appointment. Telegraph, telephone, tell a vet. These guys look out for one another.
Veterans here fought hard to get alternative treatment for their post-traumatic stress. The VA now offers bio-feedback and acupuncture and rapid eye movement therapy and tapping. All excellent alternatives to opiates to control both physical and mental pain. But, this is the VA and when something is working, the solution is often to mess with it. It’s a bureaucracy. A beast not known for efficiency. A beast that eats tax dollars and poops poor results.
My husband, Jack, and four of his buddies are currently caught in this vise of VA bureaucracy and lack of funding. These are not peace-time soldiers and marines and airmen, all of these guys fought incountry. The moment the VA approved fee basis acupuncture as a treatment for pain, these guys signed up. They were already doing biofeedback and meditation and every damn thing they could come up with to stop the physical pain and relieve the anxiety and the rest of the PTSD symptoms. It wasn’t enough.
Jack came home from his first acupuncture appointment and, for the first time in years, lay down and slept without medication. Over the last year, I’ve watched all four of these guys get better. Their pain became manageable, their outlook on life improved, chronic problems like fibromyalgia and asthma and panic attacks all but disappeared.
Now the VA has stopped paying for acupuncture. The stated reason is that it’s costing far too much and that they are concerned with the quality of care. The VA claims to be hiring a chiropractor and says they will require he have 100 hours of acupuncture training. This will replace the miracle worker these guys have been seeing who’s been working full-time in the field for seven years. Hard to believe that will improve the care.
But the real issue, and the reason I’m angry enough to be writing this post, is that this acupuncture-trained chiropractor has not yet been hired, while approval of fee basis acupuncture has been terminated. These guys do not want to go back to opiates. They hate taking the pills, but with the pain returned and no relief in sight, they’re desperate for relief. Here’s where the story gets just plain ridiculous.
The VA is currently under scrutiny for its widespread practice of throwing narcotics by the suitcase full at veterans, and their solution is to deny any new prescription for narcotics. So decorated combat veterans wounded in the line of duty are caught in a vise. They can’t get the acupuncture that relieved the pain and now, because they worked hard to get off the pain meds and thus are technically asking for new prescriptions, they can’t receive the opiates either.
What a system.