star-spangled.

I want to go to Fort McHenry, was what I said that afternoon, over beers, on my last day in America.

It seemed fitting. There we were, wandering around Baltimore, getting ready to deploy, and there was this perfectly fascinating National Monument, where our National Anthem was inspired and written within a measly 25 minutes.

If we’re going, we have to go now, I said, trying to be indifferent, trying not to totally lose my nerd shit over this seemly perfect opportunity. We’d have an hour, give or take, to explore if we left then, was what I told them, they who had already agreed to go with me. I was being unnecessarily persuasive, I knew, but couldn’t seem to stop.

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We jumped right into viewing the film when we got there, learning about the fort’s five-pointed star design, how it was built in 1798 and used continuously from then through WWI and then in WWII by the Coast Guard.

It was built to protect the Port of Baltimore, which it did. In 1814, Fort McHenry withstood 25 continuous hours of bombardment and still managed to bar the British from entering the Baltimore Harbor.

We learned that Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment from a nearby ship. Seeing the emergence of an oversized American flag on the morning after the bombardment, Key wrote the poem “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” later renamed as The Star-Spangled Banner,” and adopted as our national anthem.

At the end of the film the screen rose, the Anthem started to play and there in the distance was the flag.

There have been decisive moments of patriotism over the course of my 32 years and that moment, standing there, watching the flag, all of what was to come weighing on my mind, is one of them.

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We walked to the fort. Examined the cannons, some prison cells used during the Civil War, and were called to the flag pole. We learned that, in 1948, President Truman signed a Presidential Proclamation declaring that a flag would always fly over Fort McHenry. In the mornings and at night, they switch the flag, flying a historic flag over the site during visiting hours and  the 50-star flag we know today when the park is closed. Being there at the closing of the park, we were able to watch and participate in the flag exchange.

First, the 50-star flag goes up, then the historic flag comes down. There’s never a moment when there isn’t a flag flying there, but there are a few minutes, those in between minutes, when there are two flags flying over the fort.

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I took pictures as the boys helped catch the oversized historic flag and then helped fold it with the rest of the crowd.

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I never know what I’m going to experience when I visit a National Park. I continue to do it, continue to visit because it continues to be special and I am continuously rewarded with each new visit, each new park. They always remind me of the beauty, history and magnificence of our nation, of the reasons I’m proud, of the reasons I serve.

This visit was treasure. It could not have been timed better, could not have taken place on another day of my life when it meant as much to be as it did that day. It was the perfect transition, the perfect reminder of why.

to kuwait.

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We left Texas at the height of wildflower season. Every field we passed was splashed in color, covered in blues and pinks, yellows and reds. The flowers shoved themselves up through cracks in the sidewalks, along roadways, under trees and next to buildings. It was a dazzling array of color I didn’t fully appreciate until I got here, to Kuwait, to the desert.

We left in the middle of the night, because it’s the Army and the Army loves traveling under the cover of darkness, but also because our flight was out of Dallas, hours away from Fort Hood where we’d spent the last few weeks training. We were tired, bleary-eyed and hungry when we got to the airport, to the check-in line where we’d spend the next four hours.

First it was the luggage, the hundreds of pounds of stuff it takes to go far, far away and live there for a handful of months. Then it was the weather and the flight delays, the connections we’d miss and then repeated attempts to get us all on one plane and then several planes.

Hours later, hungry and tired, half of us left the check-in counter with tickets to flights that would get us in too late to Baltimore to catch our flight overseas. We didn’t have a plan, really, didn’t know when the next flight over would happen, we just figured we’d get to Baltimore and figure it out. We’re good at figuring it out, us Army types.

So we spent a bunch of unintended hours at the airport in Atlanta, eating, speculating and finally flying on to Baltimore.

It was past midnight when we got in. We gathered a few additional members of our wayward posse, made a spectacle of ourselves shoving, smashing and maneuvering our luggage into a too-small hotel shuttle and then, finally, bags unloaded at the hotel, all of us checked in, we wandered away to our rooms to find some sleep.

The next day we went back to the airport. We debated our options, made some calls and figured something out. We acquired tickets to Germany, which wasn’t Kuwait, but it was closer to Kuwait than Baltimore. We had a plan. The flight left late, so we went out for the day. We had lunch in the sun. I got a hair cut, bought a shirt.

Back at the airport later that night we were ready to go. Our bags were once again loaded on carts, we’d called our family and friends and said goodbye. It was time to go.

But then we weren’t allowed on the flight to Germany because of a paperwork issue.

Army travel is neat. Really.

Germany being denied to us, we inquired about other destinations that might be open to us and lo, there was a flight to Qatar and it seemed that our paperwork – while barring us from Germany – would indeed allow us to fly to Qatar and that, most definitely, was closer to Kuwait that Baltimore or Germany.

So we left the airport again, playing another fantastic and rousing game of the Duffle Bag Drag, loading and unloading our shit onto hotel shuttles and the vehicles of some family members who had come up to see us off.

The next day – day three – we dropped our bags at the airport, rented a car, promptly got into a minor fender bender before we even left the rental car garage and then set off for Baltimore. We didn’t have a plan this time either, but we figured going to Baltimore was far superior to spending any more time at the airport.

Following our Baltimore adventures, which really were quite fantastic, we headed back, again, to the airport where we successfully checked into our flight to Qatar which was leaving very late and which, by the way, would be stopping for fuel in Germany and also in Kuwait, which we all found endlessly amusing.

We got to Germany early evening the next day, hauled our carry-on bags off the plane so they could refuel without all of us on board and were all corralled into an over-warm Air Force terminal and then, on day four of our travel adventure, it was announced that our plane had to stay in place for 24 hours. In Germany.

We were assured it was nothing mechanical, that the delay was purely because of paperwork.

We waited another hour and then a few hundred of us loaded up on a handful of buses and embarked on an 1.5 hour adventure through the German countryside, which really was quite lovely, until we arrived in Bitburg where we spent the night.

The next morning, we went to Trier for a bonus adventure, toured some mega-old ruins, got back just in time to board the bus back to the airport where we boarded a Kuwait-bound plane that we weren’t allowed to get off, but we did peer out the windows as the sun came up and wonder what it was like out there, in that place we soon hoped to be living.

When we got to Qatar, it was travel day number five or six.

We spent two full days there, in Qatar, mostly wandering around the housing area for transient military members like ourselves, playing a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit and drinking some novelty beers since you’re allowed three a day there and none in Kuwait so it seemed reasonable to take advantage of such an opportunity and  then we woke up on a Sunday, a full week after we’d left Texas, turned in our linens, got on maybe the 17th bus of the week-long adventure, waited around in another Air Force terminal for six or so more hours and finally, thankfully, miraculously got on a plane that took us to Kuwait.

That time I spent 26 hours in Guatemala.

I went to Guatemala for work, to visit some Soldiers we have down there flying helicopters and supporting a humanitarian mission. It was a quick trip, with us spending just 26 hours in Guatemala.

Someone asked me if it was worth and I said, FUCK YES, because really, when else am I going to get a free trip to Guatemala?!

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We flew down via learjet, making me feel like the fanciest of the fancy, and had just enough time the afternoon we arrived to wander around a market, buy some goods for ourselves and our families back home, and then, we did dinner.

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I hope you all know how I feel about food and that it’s not surprising when I tell you that getting to eat real food in Guatemala was maybe the part I was most excited about. I can’t really tell you what I ate, but I can tell you there was rice and bread and spices and GUACAMOLE and black beans that tasted delightfully sweet and Guatemalan beers and it was all real damn delicious.

We went back to the hotel after dinner and a handful of us went to the hotel bar for a nightcap and that’s where we discovered the most amazing music video channel of all time, which played a ridiculous and amazing array of music that I’m probably going to blog about separately, because it was that amazing and that magical and I may have spent entirely too much time recently creating a playlist based on what we dubbed CLASSICO, the best music video channel of all time, full of awesome, random and cheesy songs.

I went back to my room later, determined to find that channel, but it wasn’t there. We’ve related it to a UFO, saying it’s one of those things that was only in our lives briefly, that we can’t fully explain and that no one else will understand.

Failing on finding the famed music video channel, I tried to watch a whole fuckton of things in Spanish, including The Voice, some movie with Angelina Jolie I couldn’t identify, Spartacus, a lot of soccer, Harry Potter, some murder shit on the ID Channel, Sesame Street, that new karate kid shit with Will Smith’s son, some BMX competition thing and some weird public access-type show with muppets.

The next day, we went to see the Soldiers, who were about a 45 minute helicopter ride away from where we were staying, in Guatemala City. They’re on a tiny little Guatemalan Army training base.

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We toured their area, learned about all the neat things they’re doing and then we got back on our helicopter, did an aerial tour of some of the schools and clinics that are being built down there by U.S. Soldiers and Airmen, lunched once we got back to Guatemala City and then we boarded our learjet and headed home.

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And that was it.

The Giving Year: May – Team Rubicon // & my 10 year Army Anniversary

In the middle of May, just before going to Vegas for Bloggers in Sin City, I quietly celebrated the 10 year anniversary of my initial Army enlistment. I’ve spent a whole decade as a journalist for the Virginia National Guard, which seems like a crazy thing because I’m still alarmed that I’m old enough to have been anything for a decade that requires adulthood. I’m not sure how I got to the doorstep of 30 so quickly, or how it’s already been 10 years since scared 19-year-old me signed her life away to the Army. Life moves quickly sometimes, I guess.

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For some people, who know the super liberal me, it’s hard to rationalize my military service with my strongly held, mostly liberal, political convictions, but the thing I love about this country is that it’s founded on some absolutely incredible ideas. And that’s what matters to me. America loves freedom, and even though we’re sometimes not super great about implementing those freedoms for all citizens, we’re still all about the freedom and if you give us enough time we tend to come to our senses and realize that change won’t destroy our society and that evolution as a nation is a good thing.

So, I really love America. I love it enough to recognize its faults and still have faith that it will come to its senses and I love it enough that I’d die for it, because at the end of the day, I believe in this country. And that’s why I joined the military to begin, because I love this country and I believe it and because 9/11 absolutely broke my heart and because it sounded like a grand adventure, and it has been.

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Since I hit a military milestone this month, I wanted to donate to a military charity and I’ve picked Team Rubicon, recommended to me by the amazing Suebob, who I’ve had the good fortune to meet in real life. Team Rubicon “unites the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams,” which means military veterans get to use their military skills to help people in need, which sounds pretty awesome to me.

From Team Rubicon’s website:

Team Rubicon Saves Lives.

Since its creation in January 2010, TR has impacted thousands of lives – in Haiti, Chile, Burma, Pakistan, Sudan, and here at home, in Vermont, Maryland, Missouri, and Alabama.  TR reaches victims outside the scope of where traditional aid organizations venture; victims on the fringe.

Team Rubicon Engages Veterans.

Hundreds of US military veterans, many returning home after fighting ten years of war, find a renewed sense of purpose for their skills and experiences through TR.

Team Rubicon Sets Itself Apart In the Nonprofit World.

Is it a disaster relief organization? A veteran-focused enterprise?  The truth is it’s both. TR pioneered a new paradigm in disaster response while redefining the meaning of veteran reintegration into society.

Team Rubicon Pioneered the Concept of Veteran-Focused Disaster Response.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, in the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, TR’s military veterans realized a simple truth – natural disasters present many of the same problems that confront troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: unstable populations, limited resources, horrific sights, sounds and smells.  The skills cultivated on those same battlefields – emergency medicine, risk assessment and mitigation, teamwork and decisive leadership – are invaluable in disaster zones.

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For every month of 2013, I’m donating $100 to a different charity, and I’ve named it the Giving Year.

Previous months in the Giving Year:

January: Big Brothers, Big Sisters
February: Safe Harbor
March: Girls on the Run
April: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Adventures in traveling as a lady Soldier, dumb things people say to Soldiers & making an ass.

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So there I was, at the Richmond International Airport, getting ready to head down to Alabama for what felt like 187th time. I hand my military ID and my boarding pass to the TSA agent responsible for checking those sorts of things. I wasn’t flying in any sort of military capacity, but showing my military ID is a force of habit as I’m asked to show it more times than I’m asked to show my driver’s license and flashing it at the airport has resulted in a handful of nice comments and a few waived luggage fees and I’m a creature of habit who likes saving $25.

The TSA guy, a noted loon, looks at my ID, looks up at me and then looks back at my ID again, smirks a little and asks me about “all that paperwork.” I smile incoherently, not really understanding what the fuck dude-man is implying, and then he says something like, “Yeah, all that paperwork will be waiting for you when you get back, you know?” I smile and nod, mostly ignoring him as I scan the security lines and plot my security checkpoint maneuvers. He hands me back my ID and boarding pass and I walk away confused momentarily before realizing just what he was inferring and assuming about me and my military service. And then it hit me: based on my status as a military member and my status as a female, he assumed that surely my job MUST me paperwork-based since little ladies like me couldn’t possibly handle anything outside the safety and comfort of an office, where the largest threat waged against us is that of the paper cut.

And so then I got pissed. I got pissed at myself for not realizing sooner what he implying. I got pissed because I didn’t have some snark-tastic comeback at the ready to throw in his face. I got pissed that this dude, WHO DOESN’T KNOW ME, would assume my role in the military is that of a paper pusher, simply because I’ve got lady bits. I was pissed because the announcement that women will soon be filling combat roles JUST HAPPENED and it pissed me off because I know about the incredible things female military members are doing both here at home and in combat zones, things that are far and away from the safety and sanctity of an office. I know about women in uniform working on female engagement teams that aim to make connections and build trust with the women of Afghanistan. I know and have interviewed one of the most decorated female Soldiers in the U.S. Army, who actions as a gunner on a day in 2006 saved the lives of her fellow Soldiers. Women do more than push papers and every single one of is a Soldier first, whether we work as a medic, a truck driver, an admin specialist, or a gunner. We all crawl through the mud in basic training and we all learn basic Soldiering skills.

As for me? I write stories, which, okay, does sometimes involve paper, but in writing those stories I get to see some really cool shit. I’ve fired a howitzer, flown around in Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, hung with infantry Soldiers during intense training exercises and rappelled down a few walls. My primary mission isn’t pushing papers. It’s doing shit.

As I sat scowling at my gate waiting to board and raising eyebrows at the horde of people pushing every closer to the gate even though they were probably assigned to zones 7, 8 and 46, I started thinking about other strange, stupid and occasionally offensive things presumably well-meaning citizens have said to me as I’ve gone about my business as a woman in the military:

  • Back in 2008, I attended a breakfast held to educate a handful of Virginia state delegates and senators on the Virginia National Guard, and after I had spoken briefly about the benefits of tuition assistance an elected official looked at me sideways and asked, in all seriousness, if they let “pretty little girls” like me go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I still count it as a major accomplishment that I didn’t fly across the table and smack some sense into the man who clearly had lost his grip on reality.
  • I’ve been asked on countless occasions, usually at gas stations or restaurants, if I’ve “just gotten back” or if I’m “heading over soon.” I understand that these people are trying to be nice and that yes, in the decade since the war began in Iraq, we’ve been sending our military members on deployments pretty frequently, but sometimes we’re just doing our jobs. Yes, there are those of us who are in constant state of just returning or just leaving, but there are a whole bunch of us who are just doing the jobs we’re assigned to do here at home and the reality is most of us haven’t just returned from a combat zone last Tuesday and most of us aren’t preparing to say farewell to our families in the next 24 hours.
  • The day after last year’s presidential election, I stopped by a gas station to grab breakfast and some tea and a guy walked up to me, shook my hand and said he was sorry that America had failed me and that he was ashamed of what our country had become. I didn’t tell him I voted for President Obama, mostly because I didn’t want to start a riot at my local Wawa.
  • My fellow Soldiers can also be pretty awful from time to time. I keep my politics to myself at work because work is for work, not for political ferocity and yet it never fails during times of high politicking, especially around election time, that some fellow Soldier will rattle off about how the “commie liberals” are ruining America, erroneously assuming that military service is automatically coexistent with conservative and republican leanings, which never fails to annoy the shit out of me, because really, I would never rattle off my political beliefs in the workplace, so why the fuck are they? Also, it doesn’t matter what dude sits in the Oval Office – if you’re in the military, he’s your boss. Simple as that. And it’s bad form to go around trash talking your boss.
  • I try not to travel in uniform, but when I do, someone almost always asks me where I’m heading and they almost always seem disappointed when I say “Virginia,” instead of some far away combat zone. The thing is, sometimes Soldiers fly in uniform for non-deployment-related reasons. And sometimes we fly in uniform solely in the hope that we’ll be upgraded to first class.

All the crazy comments aside, I will say that my favorite thing is when someone sees me in uniform and throws me a simple greeting, along with my rank, a sure indicator that they’ve served as well. I’ll never, ever complain if you stop me to say thanks for my service, even if I never know how to respond. I’ll never hesitate to shake the hand of someone who has a brother, mother or friend “over there right now” or a son, cousin or niece “planning to join as soon as she can.” I don’t mind chatting with the clerk at Wawa for 6 minutes about her daughter’s plans to join the Army and I’ll gladly listen to the Vietnam vet at Target for 10 minutes while he shares his stories and compares the ages he made rank with mine.  I’ll even smile at kids who stare, bug-eyed, from shopping carts at me in my uniform, seeming to wonder what sort of space alien I must me. I honestly enjoy nearly every interaction I have with people, except the ones that are rife with assumptions.

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