Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Climate Recon Team - Reflections

Climate Recon Team - Glacier National Park 2012
Photo provided by: Saif Khan
I have spent a lot of time processing my thoughts on the amazing experiences that occurred on my trip with the Sierra Club Mission Outdoor’s, Climate Recon Team ‘s (CRT) expedition to Glacier National Park. I tried to take time to journal many of these thoughts while on the trip as well as note the many reflections I’ve had since returning back to “society." First, I’d like to thank the many employees of our several sponsors, supporters, and the Sierra Club, as well as Nick Watson of Veterans Expeditions for making this happen. To world-class mountaineer, Conrad Anker, and award winning photographer, Jim Balog from Extreme Ice Survey, I am forever grateful to you both for your knowledge, wisdom, skills and camaraderie. It was truly an honor I can't adequately express.

One of my goals in joining the CRT for this trip was to learn and see as much as I could- from getting a better understanding of the science behind climate change and asking tough, challenging questions from the skeptic in me, to exploring a part of our home that I had never known existed (I thought Glacier National Park was in Alaska when I first heard about it!) and to seeing what discoveries I could make about myself and my place in this world. I didn't know what to expect but I was extremely grateful and had very much looked forward to the opportunity. In some ways, I knew that it would be a life changing experience. What I didn't know was how life affirming it would end up being.

From the very first days of starting American Women Veterans (AWV) in 2009, I believed that getting veterans together, away from their daily lives and amongst the perfection and unpredictability of nature, was a key to finding our way back to the lives we felt disconnected to. For some, it would be a journey we could take to find whatever we'd felt we lost. I sensed that we could discover new aspects of ourselves and in the safe space created by a small group of those who understood where we were coming from, we could maybe also find healing. I never could explain it, but I knew it to be true.

Remarkables, New Zealand
Photo: Chris Prudden
Before going to Montana I had one other mountain top experience in New Zealand this past April.  While sitting on Single Cone peak in the Remarkables in New Zealand, I'd had what I can only describe as a moment of perfect peace, or perhaps... a revelation. Watching small wisps of a cloud swirl around the ridge below me, I took in the expanse of the view. How do you describe heaven? I took a deep breath and tried to get in touch with what I was feeling. In that moment, I was truly in awe. Everything in the world below looked so vast and so out of reach. The mountains in the distance beckoned to be climbed so that they could, in turn, reveal their glories. If I ever thought that I could fly and wanted to... it was in that moment. 

But what of the "social" world? The town below looked so insignificant. And then a realization... "All that matters in this moment, here and now, is me and the rock I'm sitting on." I tried to recall my worries, the massive responsibility of growing AWV, my injured and raw heart, the overwhelming and oppressive monster of medical bills and debt, the uncertainty of my future - my purpose in this life. None of the thoughts that weighed so heavily on me hours before, evoked in me any sense of fear or anxiety as I sat on that peak. I could think about those things and not feel overcome by them - I was sitting above the clouds, looking down on the worries of my daily life and I knew that everything... absolutely everything, was going to be okay.

To test this new liberated feeling, I pushed myself to think of even more painful memories, remembering friends and family that I've lost. No pain. From that same place of peace, I knew that everything was and has been unfolding as it should. I felt closer to those I’ve lost, up there above the clouds. I could feel no sadness, just a sense of indescribable love. And I knew that I would be able to let go and move on.

As I packed for my trip to Glacier National Park, I wondered if I would I be able to find that place within again in Montana...

Remarkables, New Zealand
Photo: Chris Prudden

Monday, August 27, 2012

Climate Recon Team - From the Journal

These are excerpts from my journal written during the Climate Recon Team (CRT) expedition to Glacier National Park as well as reflections since returning back to "society." This experience would not have been possible without the employees of our many sponsors, supporters, as well as Stacy Bare of the Sierra Club's Mission Outdoors - Military Families and Veterans Initiative and Nick Watson of Veterans Expeditions. The CRT was made up of active military and veterans and led by world-class mountaineer Conrad Anker and award winning photographer, Jim Balog (Extreme Ice Survey.) I am, as always, forever grateful to all of you.

August 11, 2012

Just did my initial interview. It wasn't hard... but it wasn't easy. I tried not to break down but I still do - always.

There's so much I feel like people could hear and I want so much to share how important and valuable I think this experience is and is going to be. From Afghanistan, to gardening, to doing my physical training outdoors, to exploring New Zealand - nature is the one place that affords me a sense of peace.
After the interview, Stacy, Jim and the camera guys (Rob, Anjin and Matt) all thanked me. Jim walked with me as I was leaving and said he'd done a lot of speaking and research, for years, on the therapeutic nature of the outdoors to include studying many perspectives in the field. He said that he'd never heard anyone connect the outdoors to healing as eloquently as I had.

I awkwardly thanked him for saying so because I'm sure had he not done so, I would have walked away feeling like an idiot and second guessing myself for every word that I'd said. He hugged me and told me not to - "It was perfect."

I had to come and write this down in my journal because I know that I'll forget it and I want to remember this moment.

Gotta get back to organizing my gear. Tomorrow we're heading up to Grinnell Glacier...

I remember feeling embarrassed even though I wasn't the only one in tears. The film crew gave heartfelt thanks, too and I walked away trying to regain my composure but hold on to the significance of that moment so I could process it. The reason it was so important to write down what Jim had said was because I would forget it in the moments following the interview. I don't retain compliments well, but I want to start being more gracious and appreciative of them. Compliments are...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neptunus Lex

When I'd get my heart broken and SWEAR I wasn't going to let that happen again, you'd say "Chérie... Love is the triumph of hope over experience."

If I started dating someone new your first response was a call for "**precise** coordinates."
"Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart." Marcus Aurelius
You never, not once, ever asked anything of me and ever so often, when you sensed I was going through a tough time, you'd always let me know you were there...

And I was such a terrible friend.

I told you to stay put in your box! I told you it was enough and although I understand more than I care to admit and know you'd have had it no other way, I can't help being so angry at you for leaving too soon.

In my heart, I can almost hear you interjecting here to remind me about a cat in a box... I don't want to smile right now.

We joked about the fact that "bloggers never read other blogger's blogs" but when my desire to write started drifting off, you tried to encourage me to keep going. But whatever was in me that kept me writing left. I never was really sure why and never wanted to think about it. Maybe it was the idea that in starting AWV and having to put myself out there publicly, "the real me" might let those who had come to expect so much of me down? All I know is that I no longer had the desire to write and I threw myself into working so hard that I didn't have to ever really think about the why.

Then on that night in March, I held a vigil by my computer and phone waiting to hear final confirmation that it was not you but some mistake... hoping against and fighting what my heart knew. Knowing that if it wasn't you, it still would have been someone else and feeling the guilt of that desperate hope. I opened up a dozen different tabs on the internet, looking for and reading every correspondence I could find. Reading them was like pouring rubbing alcohol on a raw wound - excruciatingly painful but necessary. I had nothing else I could do while waiting.

I had texted you at 0930 EST that morning, "Always be your best you. :) A "hope you have a happy day" text from Eve!" What time was it then, in the skies above Nevada? Did you see the text before you took off? It pains me to consider the irony.

And just the day before, you'd teased me about not having been invited to the Sea Services Women's Conference via Twitter, "@GenevieveChase So many women in uniform an I wasn't invited #notfair"

Gone? That just didn't seem possible... yet I could feel the weight of that truth.

When it was finally confirmed, I cried until I fell asleep. I cried for days. All these months later and I still cry too much. Not for you because I know you're free from these earth-bound emotions but for us - all of those who love you and for your family. I couldn't begin to comprehend their grief, undoubtedly so much greater than my own.

In the following days and weeks since, inexplicable things happened that I believe I cannot share here - but if what I feel is true, then I don't need to. It suffices to say that through a series of occurrences (were I to reveal them would surely prompt others to consider committing me) I happened across many bread crumbs you left me. And in the months since, I've felt this urging to write again despite my stubborn resistance to doing so.

When I asked you why you blogged several years ago, you responded with;
"I wanted to examine my own thoughts and experiences publicly, to expose them to criticism and scrutiny, to defend my point of view even as I learned to more fully appreciate other peoples' world view. . . . People are so very hard to know, but when you find someone that really is? Who has that fire inside of them? I want to know them . . . to know all that they are and think and feel and compare it to the world as I understand it. Mostly I keep that desire in check because people don't *want* to be known that well, they want to keep the private mask behind the public mask and never let you see their actual "face." I think we're afraid that in being "seen" we are also being "judged" and the introspective soul is always concerned that they might be judged severely, found wanting by others even as they find imperfections in themselves. We are terrified of being really, truly known.
But think how liberating it would be.

It is our imperfections, and our attempts to either fix them or render them harmless that define who we are as truly self-aware human beings."

- USN Captain Carrol "Lex" Lefon, 1961-2012
But you were right, as you so often were (if only admitting it would make me feel better), "It is our imperfections, and our attempts to either fix them or render them harmless that define who we are as truly self-aware human beings." And I don't know yet, how liberating that will be but I'm finally realizing that I want to find out. Because I simply can't stay here in this silence, anymore.

But you knew, more than I, that I couldn't hide for long, didn't you? It's the Writer's Curse, isn't it? 

Words liberate our souls...

Your legacy lives on in your family and in all of us who had the honor of knowing and loving you. 

"Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever." - Daniel 12:3

Thank you for your "unbearable lightness," Lex. I will do my best.
Fair winds and following seas... my dear friend. I suspect you're soaring the heavens... 
Army Girl 


Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Questions for My Country's Leaders - from a Citizen, Veteran, Advocate and Soldier.

When I joined the military in 2003, I was full of a sense of urgency and a great deal of idealism. The granddaughter of a survivor of the Korean War, I felt a sense of pride and duty to serve my country in a time of war and I had this dream that one day, young women in Afghanistan would have the opportunities and hope that I had grown up with - something my grandmother could never have conceived of for herself or her daughters but that my sisters and I would realize.

I deployed in 2006 and learned a lot. Despite the disappointments and the seemingly overwhelming onslaught of dream crushing events, I found flowers growing in mine fields - literally and figuratively. There, amidst the fear, oppression, death and decades of destruction that have been the daily reality the women and children of Afghanistan, I still found reason to hope.

Today, over eight years after my initial enlistment, I am finally facing the reality that I have become... disenchanted?

As I consider what it means to deploy to Afghanistan again, I'm wrought with frustration, guilt and a lack of clarity of purpose. When I consider what we're doing and how we're going about achieving this new and unclear end-state, I arrive at countless questions.

In 2009, when I testified on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about my experiences in Afghanistan, I had many answers... answers that I'd known previously but had only been given the opportunity to Monday morning quarterback. Answers that I'd given no voice to because I felt inadequate due to lack of age and ignorant by lack of formal education, even. Surely, the people who were making the decisions to send us off to war were far more informed than I... Of course they knew and had studied the history of Afghanistan, our history with Afghanistan, and the culture of the people of Afghanistan. Most certainly, there was no way they'd learn anything new from this humble and lowly Staff Sergeant...

But my observations of all that's transpired in the wake of my previous deployment and of what's occurring in 2012 in Afghanistan have led me to believe that we either do not know what we're doing, do not care, or can do nothing to change it. Our only options then and now are to stay in Afghanistan and continue in the hopes that eventually we'll reach a turning point or to leave - immediately.

Projecting a draw down was, in this humble servant's opinion, the most dangerous and costly (of American and Afghan lives) decision that our leaders have made. Whether it was made to appease those opposed to the war on the left side of the aisle or for some other reason, it was the wrong decision.

I watched from my seat in the MSNBC studio, as the President spoke from the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, about the troop surge into Afghanistan. I felt, at once, that we and the Afghan people would finally know hope for the future of their country. And in the same speech, my heart sank as I heard him state that we'd be looking at a pull out of troops by 2014. I knew then and I'm ever more convinced that making a public statement about the draw down of troops in Afghanistan was the point at which we started to "lose" the "war" against the Taliban. I hoped and even argued that this was a statement made for political survivability reasons. I believed President Obama when he said that we'd evaluate the situation in 2014... the media took this statement in a different context - that we'd pull out by 2014.

As Brian Williams appeared on my camera, I hoped he would ask me what I felt about the troop surge, or perhaps that he'd ask for my opinion about the best way ahead for the US in Afghanistan. Instead, he asked me what I thought the troops in Afghanistan were thinking about the President's speech. I couldn't speak for anyone else and certainly not for my brothers and sisters who were down range and missing the holidays with their families. I half halfheartedly replied something along those lines.

I don't presume to know everything, be a highly educated person or any kind of expert on our policies and positions in Afghanistan. When I say that I "know," I am pulling from personal experiences, my instincts and what I've learned about human nature.

With that said, I studied Pashto and the culture of Afghanistan for 10 months prior to my 11-month deployment there in 2006 and when I returned from my tour, I spent my several idle hours at my defense contracting job reading cable upon cable, report after report and hundreds of analytical papers both for and not for public consumption. Following that job, I moved on to work as an analyst with a focus on countering the Improvised Explosive Device threats in Afghanistan. After that, I worked on the team charged with standing up, implementing and facilitating the largest counter-IED contract in the US Army (for which our team was recognized internationally by our employer, the 3rd largest defense contractor in the world).

Having been blown up by a car packed with explosives, I found this work (at least for a while) to be personally important. It was a way for me to continue the fight from home, supporting our troops from afar and dedicating myself to the fight, even if I was unable to be active directly. And many times, I have attempted to deploy back to Afghanistan, with each of those opportunities having fallen through. I have said many times, "Afghanistan gets in your blood."

During all of those jobs, I became almost fatally aware of my own issues with post-traumatic stress. I hit "rock bottom" and discovered a new passion (some would say it was an obsession but I would say it was an addiction) for veterans' advocacy. It was and has been a very personal war, waged by me and many others returning home, each in our own ways. As I move ever so fully into my purpose and get closer to realizing my dream of helping my fellow veterans as they return from war and transition out of military service, I am becoming ever more painfully aware that I am becoming less a Soldier and more and more an advocate. I am unclear how to reconcile this as this is new territory for me. I am proud of my service. I love my country. I am ever-more patriotic... if that's even possible. But I cannot reconcile in my mind - the why. If we are pulling out of Afghanistan, what and why are we still there today? Why wait? What are we waiting for? How many more Americans and NATO troops will die while we attempt to stick to our timeline for withdrawal?

New Zealand is pulling out its troops. Do they know something, are admitting something, we're not?

I know that my questions will go unanswered. It's not for the Soldier to ask why... it is for us to follow orders. But as a Citizen, I will ask my questions...

1. Why are we continuing to deploy American Soldiers and Marines to a war to support an unstable and yet-unprepared military in which we have already proclaimed that we will abandon them on a timeline? In the US Army, we have a common saying - "Train to standard, not to time." This means, we set a standard - an achievable and measurable goal and we train to that standard whether it takes us the allotted/estimated time or not. If we finish early, we go home. If we go beyond our time limit, we stay later.

2. Why hasn't anyone publicly projected that "Insider Threats" would become more prevalent and worked to mitigate that risk in a more strategic application/way that would ensure little to no loss of American lives? Is it plausible that with all of our intelligence capabilities and analysts that we would miss the concept that telling friendly Afghans that we're going to leave them to their own devices against their enemy when they are ill-prepared to defend themselves would force them to consider joining the other side for their own survival and that these "blue on green" attacks are possibly, even probably, a way for them to prove their changed loyalty as they switch to the side they have perceived to "win"? Have we failed, after a decade of war, to understand the culture of a people who are just trying to survive from day to day?

3. What is our desired end state in and for Afghanistan? What is the US Government's? The US military's? The US people's? Were we ever clear on this?

4. What will happen to our veterans and families - those who fought this war with no tangible or definitive end state? Why are we continuing to generate more of us and how/what are the government's plans to down-size the military responsibly so that we don't continue to overload the already inefficient and inadequate processes, facilities, institutions and organizations that are attempting to deal with our issues?

This time, when we deploy - I will go because my friends are going, because my sister is going, and because I've been ordered to. I will try in earnest to not lose hope that in some way, I can help make a positive impact and that by risking my life and my friends and family risking theirs, we will contribute to some amount of progress for humanity. I will try, with everything I am, to find reason, justification and conviction that my service, and possibly sacrificing my life, is for the good of our country and the Afghan people... but right now, in this moment and for the first time since I took the Oath in 2003, I am unclear as to whether or not I can deploy to Afghanistan for any other reasons than I have been ordered to and my friends/family are going.

"I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God"

I have not waivered in my conviction and dedication to supporting and defending "the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..." I will obey the orders to which I am and have committed but I no longer understand why we're doing what we're doing.

Maybe, in the coming weeks and months, I'll find answers...