First Night


Dog tags resting against a military uniform
Arriving the first time in-country is a profound experience for every soldier. We’re leaping into it blind and we don’t know what we’re going to get.

Fear is something Private Carolyn Mendez can’t admit to. Yet, as she arrives in Saudi Arabia, for Desert Storm, deploying to war, it’s all she can think about. All she has is herself, and even that is scary.

A flash fiction military story available from your favorite booksellers

 

Devil Winds


Cover for Devil Lands showing a desert planet
Devil Winds $2.99

Abandoned by war, abandoned by death. Neyan is a soldier hanging on with only the goal of completing her mission: kill the enemy.

Now the enemy are mounting an attack on the kingdom, and she is the only one who stands between them and her people. Then she meets the enemy and she isn’t so sure of her mission any more.

Available from your favorite book sellers:

What the Heck is a Military Order


I’m working on a scene in the next book in my GALCOM series (the first is Crying Planet, coming out this month).  The main character is a civilian contractor recruited by the military because she can see ghosts.  So she is serving on this big spaceship, the only civilian there.

And the subject of orders comes up.  Most of everyone’s experience with orders is probably seeing Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation bark, “And that’s an order!” (or probably any movie with military officers), or soldiers answering “Yes, sir” like robots to a command they are told.

It is a such a different experience in the military from the civilian.  If I got a cold, I can call my boss and tell him I’m not coming in because I’m sick (and he would probably be happy that I wasn’t there to give it to him).  But when I was in the military, my only option was to go to Sick Call.  If the doctor, or more likely medic for a cold, said I was fine, he would tell me to return to duty.  If I was really sick, like with a virus, they might give me “quarters,” which are orders from a doctor that say “Stay in bed for 24 hours.”

But it does look strange to the civilian because they have the choice of deciding while the military does not.

It’s all in the military mission.  We train with the expectation of going to war.  That’s the daily life of the military.  War is where orders become very important.  Orders work hand in hand with the chain of command (that’s the officers) and the NCO Support Channel (that’s the sergeants).  They will be in communication with other companies and battalions to know what’s going on.  For example, they might know that artillery is going to be fired in a particular area and to keep soldiers out of that area.  Obviously, me as the lower enlisted, am not going to know anything about that.  Nor would I need to.

Because the leadership has this additional knowledge though, they are the ones who give us the orders.  And if something goes wrong, they are also the ones who will give us new orders.

War situations cannot ever have a too many chief problem.

It’s chaotic and stressful to start with, so it needs one unified voice,  and that’s how orders fit in.

Inauguration 2017

This morning, we have rain, and it will be turning into sleet and snow later in the day.  Kind of wimpy rain, considering what it’s supposed to turn into.  Anything ice strikes terror in Washington, DC. because we’re such a commuter town.

By the way, Wednesday it was 72 (no, that’s not a typo).  Any bets on what it will be like on January 20?

All the hotels are booked way out to Quantico at least, which is about 30 miles (and probably a 2 hour drive to downtown during rush hour). I was trying to help someone book a hotel, and nothing was available. I told her to start calling around because there might be cancellations, so hopefully she gets a room and not too far away.

New Things in Writing

This week, David Farland had three tips on writing on the senses, which is an advance level skill.  Part 3 talked around something I hadn’t thought about: Light.

Non-appeals. The worst kind of non-appeal occurs when you simply neglect to show us something. For example, let’s say that you start a story and your character goes outside his house. You as a writer might imagine that it is dark, but you’ve never told the reader that it is night time. So when your character gets mugged and can’t describe his attacker, the reader might be confused. (This happens quite often in stories. Always let us know what the light source is in every scene.)

So something new to play with in the story!

Desert Storm Started the Conversation about Women at War


When I went to a science fiction convention a few years ago, Janine Spendlove, who is active duty Marine, was telling a story about a discussion she had with a male officer. All the men are referred as Marines. All the women are referred to as female Marines.

Never as Marines.

It was a constant reminder that women were there, but we weren’t quite part of the organization — and this is a place where teamwork is drilled into our heads. The army could kind of ignore us and that we were different.

But when Desert Shield started the build up that would eventually become Desert Storm and a war with Iraq over Kuwait, suddenly people started noticing that there were women deploying. Whoops!

Forty thousand women deployed, the largest deployment of women to war at that point. I remember seeing a lot of news articles, mostly about mothers who were leaving their children behind.  Mother’s deploying!  Leaving children behind!  There was a lot of hand wringing about this.

Maybe it’s me, but we were all soldiers, and there were some of us who were leaving children behind. The children are still affected, whether it’s a mother or a father. I left parents and grandparents behind, like some of my fellow single soldiers, and it affected them, too. War is one of those things where it has a huge reach and affects people who aren’t even there.

A former soldier on a blog post elsewhere said that the military treats men like they’re disposable. I think that’s true in a sense. The soldier is a tool, and as as long as the tool is working right, the military’s happy. Women, however, did not elevate up to the role of tool. It was, in a way, like someone had ordered them to use these tools, but they didn’t really want to. So we ended up being a tool when they wanted us to be one, and when they didn’t, we were, well, this group that no one quite knew what to do with.

Women couldn’t be in combat. Yet, we were going to combat. And, in the case of Desert Storm, two women were captured.

One of the issues of the law that “prevented” women from being in combat was that they could be side by side with the men, have the same risks, but not be able to earn any of the medals. In the army promotion system at the time (though I suspect it hasn’t changed much), it was done by a point system for your occupation. The points would have times where they would drop, and if you had enough points, you were promoted. The medals were worth so many points, so when the women were excluded from earning them, they ended up losing out on the promotion opportunities as well. The officer promotions are different, but those medals also count in important ways.

So that put the women in the position of being ordered to do what was needed like the men, but not getting the same opportunities. Desert Storm’s new face on war brought that out, and it continued to be a focus during the two wars that followed. It’s only now — 24 years later — that we’re starting to see opportunities for women open up.

The video that inspired this: http://video.pbs.org/video/2365247457/

Writing About Desert Storm: Red, White, and True Anthology


Cover for Red, White, andTrue
Cover for Red, White, and True

This month, my story “War Happens” comes out in the anthology Red, White, & True. I wrote the story for this back in 2012, and it went through something like four revisions. Considering the amount of revision I had to do, I was amazed it got accepted in the first place!

The original version was 1,500 words, and the final version was over 3,000. Part of it was that Tracy Crow kept saying to go deeper. That part was really hard for me. I hadn’t really written about the war like that before, and there are places I still don’t want to venture.

But I’d thought about writing about war. It’s like I wanted to purge myself of the poison of whatever war is. But I was still in the army at the time, and they wouldn’t have done too well if I’d wrote about the not so good sides of war. But fiction, I was safer. Put in a fantasy world, and it wasn’t real, except in the story.

That caused me to veer into quite dark territory in my fiction writing, and I was completely unaware of it. By dark, usually things were resolved for the main character, but not overall in the story. Like in a recent science fiction story that just got rejected again, the army decided to experiment with making soldiers cyborgs. One of the characters volunteered, and then couldn’t get out of it when things didn’t work the way she wanted. The army was disappointed with the volunteer rates and decided to order everyone to do it. The first sergeant gives all his soldiers an “out” before they’re forced to do this, and the main character is able to escape, but the army was still doing the experiment.

That’s a lot of the way I felt as a private. Mission first, private second to last, and woman soldier last. Because sometimes something would happen, and the results wouldn’t be right, and all you could do was accept it. In the last months before I transferred from Fort Lewis, we had a terrible platoon sergeant. She was so bad that it was going to be either the transfer or I would get out. In a job, you could quit and go somewhere else. In the army, you’re stuck.

And the first sergeant thought it was a big joke, that she really wasn’t that bad. So he didn’t do anything, and all of us suffered in frustration and anger. My own squad leader (who I was older than at that point) would come back from meetings with the platoon sergeant and take her anger out on me. Not cool. But she was in charge, and I really couldn’t say anything.

It wasn’t until all the sergeants got fed up and mutinied against the platoon sergeant that something was finally done. The sergeants had been plotting and documented everything, and the platoon sergeant was gone.

I think in my writing, I’d sort of been dancing around this darkness. But once I had to write “War Happens,” I dove right into it. The story was about a friendship that was destroyed by the war, and I wrote it in one sitting.

I remember when the first request came back for editing, I thought I knew the place she was talking about. I went in and fixed it, thought all was well. Then Tracy came back again and wanted more about the experience. At that time, I had just taken a workshop in writing where my strengths were analyzed (workshop was discontinued after three sessions, but is coming back in a different form). One of the things I found out was that I entirely left setting out of my stories. So this time, when the revisions were supposed to go deeper, I understand instantly what they were looking for and what the story wasn’t doing.

But it was so hard actually doing it. There was a part of me that didn’t want to wreck the original story and what I’d done with it. But there was another part of me that was dragged into kicking and screaming, because it was much safer for me not to go into that much detail. Details meant more of the experience — both to the reader, and to me, and I tapped into things that I’d forgotten, sometimes willingly.

The deadline was tighter, too. I dropped everything else and worked on only it for an entire I think. It was exhausting writing it, and I was never more grateful to look at it and realize I was done. Then I noticed it had doubled in size!

It had also changed quite drastically (I’m an organic writer, so this is common when I write). So that little devil popped onto my shoulder and suggested that I might have changed it too much, because it was still like the original and not like the original. I plopped into an email, pretended like my head wasn’t screaming “You screwed it up!” and sent it. Everyone was happy with it. Only minor edits to clean stuff up after that.

Earlier this year, I had a review done of my writing, which is different from a critique. I’d had one done before, but this time, everyone told me I was writing really dark. I knew instantly that goes back to being in Desert Storm. I’m now now working on shifting my writing to be lighter and happier.

War has a very curious legacy.

Book Information:

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present

Edited and with an introduction by Tracy Crow

Available from Amazon

Follow on Facebook

Even as we celebrate the return of our military from wars in the Middle East, we are becoming increasingly aware of the struggles that await veterans on the home front. Red, White, and True offers readers a collection of voices that reflect the experiences of those touched by war—from the children of veterans who encounter them in their fathers’ recollections of past wars to the young men and women who fought in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The diversity of perspectives collected in this volume validates the experiences of our veterans and their families, describing their shared struggles and triumphs while honoring the fact that each person’s military experience is different.

Leila Levinson’s powerful essay recounts her father’s experience freeing a POW camp during World War II. Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder provides a chilling account of being a new second lieutenant in Vietnam. Army combat veteran Brooke King recounts the anguish of raising her young children by day while trying to distinguish between her horrific memories of IED explosions in Baghdad and terrifying dreams by night.

These individual stories of pain and struggle, along with twenty-nine others, illustrate the inescapable damage that war rends in the fabric of society and celebrate our dauntless attempts to repair these holes with compassion and courage.

Army versus Cat: Who Wins?


This is a pretty cute video of a paper soldier army versus a ginger cat.

 

Reflections on Desert Storm


It’s hard to believe now that the war I went to was 25 years ago this year. So I thought I’d do a blog series more or less over the time frame of the war (I’m a little early).  It’ll be about what I remember about getting ready to deploy, and the war itself.

In early 1990, just a few months after I’d gotten settled into my new company at Fort Lewis, Washington, I got orders that I would be transferring to Germany (called a PCS, which stands for Personnel Change of Station). No! I’d just gotten here. I didn’t want to leave, and I hoped it would be changed.

Sometimes wishes are not a good thing …

August 2, 1990

According to Frontline, “In the early hours of August 2, 1990, more than 100,000 Iraqi troops moved tanks, helicopters and trucks across the border into Kuwait. Iraq maintained the world’s fourth–largest military and had mobilized an overwhelming invading force. Within an hour, they reached Kuwait City, and by daybreak, Iraqi tanks were attacking Dasman Palace, the royal residence.”

I can’t say if I saw it on the news on that day, but by the next day, we all knew it. I read the then Tacoma Morning News Tribune (they later dropped the Tacoma from the name) and USA Today, and the invasion was all over the news.

August 7, 1990

On August 7, 1990, President Bush gave the military operation a name: Operation Desert Shield.  Naming things is never a good sign.

Soldiers from the elite divisions headed to Saudi Arabia, so this sent a collective chill through my company.  We were a transportation company, with M915 tractor trailers.  If war started, we would be needed.  But what we knew, and what we would know would come from what we read in the newspaper and saw on TV.

It was a reality that no one thought about, except maybe two people in our company, who were both Vietnam veterans. We all enlisted, but we never actually thought we would deploy to a war. So we were all vaguely uneasy and ignoring it at the same time.

Because, really, there was no point in worrying about when we didn’t know what was going to happen. One of the things I told myself every time worry surged was the President Bush would resolve the situation. It didn’t help much, but it was all I could do.

None of us really talked about it at first, as if talking about it would make it come true. My platoon sergeant commented at one point that he’d been on a plane deploying somewhere, and while they were in midair, it was called off. They turned around and came back.

Yeah, I could deal with that. I added everything to my mental portfolio of hope. But even that didn’t help much.

Our first sergeant told us all PCS orders had been canceled. No Germany. Stop-loss was also activated. That meant anyone close to getting out of the Army was going to be involuntarily extended. This was getting serious.

Story a Week: Week 5


Actually, it probably should be a project a week, since this week ended up being a poem.  I used to write poetry when I was kid, and it was kind of fun.  But somewhere along the way, I stopped because I wasn’t very good with rhyme or rhythm, and I never returned to it.

Then I wrote one last week while I was on the train, and it was kind of fun.  This week, I was planning to write flash fiction, also literary, but I ran across an anthology call for non-fiction and poetry on Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers mailing list.  It pays pretty well and would be a professional publication.

But the subject was so specific that if I wrote a non-fiction piece for it, I might not be able to find another home for it if it gets rejected.  Whenever I do something for an anthology call theme, I always add a secondary theme to help it be more marketable.

A second issue that cropped up though was that while I would probably be the only person writing from this particular perspective, I wasn’t quite feeling like I could tell a story about the topic.  It was more about the emotions.

So enter a poem.

Goal:

  1. Try writing poetry.
  2. Don’t use any standard colors associated with the topic.

I also got a book from the library called Writing Poetry From the Inside Out, which turned out to be an interesting resource.  It has word groupings in the back for poetry inspiration, and I may steal them for stories.

What was it like coming home from war?


This last week, I had two different people ask me about what it was like coming home from war. One was email someone sent me for a college paper, no doubt due to my participation in the A to Z Challenge. She wanted to know what it was like with family members. The other was my podiatrist, who has done consulting work on soldiers. He was more curious about how it was different from being over there.

Being at war in Desert Shield/Desert Storm

First up, I was in Saudi Arabia from the end of October, 1990 to early March, 1991. I received a Red Cross message for my mother and went home on emergency leave within days of the war ending. So I was there only about five months and some change.

I did not see any combat. I did not see any dead bodies. I was close enough to hear the artillery when the ground war started. I also was, at one point, near a Patriot Missile Battery, and scuds were shot in our general direction.

But that’s hindsight, and almost 24 years of time to think about it. Being a soldier is very isolating because we only had this small world around us. We didn’t know what was happening, except right where we were.

That made things worse.

We didn’t know where the Enemy was, only that the Enemy was out there somewhere. We expected the Enemy to come over the horizon and attack us.

Small Things that Turned into Nightmares

1) Ominous click in the silence. While we were at the research center, which was 70 miles from where the ground war would start, we built a defensive position on a water tower. My squad leader was walking out to the tower, and he didn’t hear the guard say, “Halt.”

But he did hear an ominous click of a M16 charging handle being released. You pull back the charging handle to load a bullet into the chamber.

He stopped dead right where he was, just going to ice. You don’t know how a soldier will react under stress, and things can happen real fast. Nothing did, thankfully!

2) Gunfire in the camp. I was in the women’s tent when I heard three barks of sounds that sounded like backfires. Next thing I know there’s a flurry of activity, and the officers are in a panic. Someone is shooting at us.

No, they weren’t. It was a truck backfiring.

Big Things that became routine

The first time the scuds came in, we were into our gas masks and hid in fox holes until we got the “all clear” signal. After that, the scud attacks multipled, and we were getting them every few nights. It was quite shocking that we were sleeping through it!

Other things that we did:

  • Burn our envelopes to keep terrorists from getting our family’s addresses (and if you want to understand how paranoid this made me, read my A to Z post The day I got a Red Cross message during Desert Storm
  • Watch for terrorists trying to get into our convoys.
  • Didn’t salute our company commander because he didn’t want to get shot. The battalion commander did require saluting for himself.

All these things gave us an overdose of paranoia that grew as we marched towards January 16, 1991, when Desert Shield became Desert Storm and the war started. We didn’t know where trouble would come from, but we expected it. Maybe that’s why so many of the little things became nightmares. Because we were trying to anticipate what the trouble would be.

Coming home from Desert Storm

I received a Red Cross message and came home from Saudi Arabia on ten days of emergency leave. New of my mother dying left me feeling like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this video:

I landed in one of the Carolinas and was kind of wandering around in a daze at the airport while I waited for a flight. I just didn’t know what to think, or really what to do with myself. The war had been a constant go of high energy, and suddenly I’d been switched to slow.

I actually don’t remember arriving at the airport in Los Angeles, or coming home. It was like everything was unreal because people aren’t suppose to die like this. I wanted to lie to myself like I lied to myself before I got deployed, and yet, I knew it wasn’t to be.

I remember being shocked to see my basic training photo on the wall opposite my mother’s spot in the bedroom, with a yellow ribbon on the corner.  That was me, with a yellow ribbon.

My brother drove me around the Los Angeles area showing me the flags and the yellow ribbons everywhere. It was strange because I felt disconnected from everything. I wasn’t here, and I wasn’t there; I was in sort of a Twilight Zone of unreality.  Any moment I expected Rod Serling to step out.

I wasn’t there when my mother died a few days later. We didn’t have a funeral. My father believes like the Klingons do: Once the person is gone, the body is only an empty shell. He had her cremated and scattered her ashes at sea.  She’d died before her parents did.

After my leave was up, I was ready to go back. It seemed like the only sure thing that I knew at that moment. I also think that was part of the andrenlin rush that people sometimes talk about. But that faded when the army sent me back to Fort Lewis, Washington.

Returning to Fort Lewis

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I came home angry. It wasn’t the anger like you normally experience, and maybe that’s how it hid from me or got attributed to other things. I wasn’t even aware of it until I did a review of the book Redeployment, which was written by a veteran only recently out of the current war. His stories had an undercurrent of anger that I doubt the author Philip Clay is aware of.

Most anger has a specific focus. You’re mad at your parents, your spouse, you job. Something happens that sets it off, and it goes away in a certain amount of time, or sometimes it becomes more with time, like outstanding feuds. But you know you’re angry and you generally know why.

The first instance of this anger turned up maybe a month or two after I returned. My unit had not yet returned, so I was part of the rear detachment, which was run by a sergeant who was on the scatterbrained side. By now, there were new soldiers who’d transferred to the unit and soldiers who had returned from, so there was easily ten people.

I was the only one he tagged to go and do stuff. Run down to the gym and go find Private Smith. Do this, do that. Everyone is sitting around lounging, and I was the one chasing down everything. In a different time, I doubted it would bother me, or at least to the extent that it did. My anger was way out of proportion. It was over 20 years later that I took a SDI class at work that showed my patterns for getting angry. Where other people might blow up in a very visual way and have it burn out, mine will build for a very long time while I search for alternatives to resolve the situation.

That meant it had started in Desert Storm.

To the sergeant’s credit, he couldn’t tell I was angry. The soldier training kept me from voicing anything and just taking the work. But I also have a pokerface when it comes to anger. No one can tell. I didn’t understand this until I had that class years later. Maybe voicing my issues would have helped, but somehow I don’t think it would have satisfied the anger. I think some instinct understood that it was out of proportion for what was happening.

So one day, I went down to my office in the basement, which was really private, and got a pad of paperwork and wrote pages and pages of how I angry I was. It was just so I wasn’t going to do something stupid. But, for some reason, I shoved it in a drawer, where I thought it would be safe.

The sergeant found it. He was mortified. I was mortified. He did stop “Hey, You!” ing me.

I think this is one of the challenges for the soldiers coming back. War is powerful force of nature. It pulls out things from us that we don’t expect or even understand. No one tells to expect anger like this, or that you might be most vulnerable in the months following where it pops up in seemingly unrelated things.

The above wasn’t only time it surfaced, but, perhaps because it was so close following my return, it was the worst. Twenty-four years later — has it really been that long? — I still don’t understand why I was anger or where it came from.

Except that it was a part of war.

Yes, it takes 20 years to talk about war


I had the occasion recently to review the book Redeployment, by Philip Clay.  He’s an Iraq War veteran, out about five years, and he wrote a series of short stories.  The first thing I picked up was an undercurrent of anger in the stories.

And I remembered that anger, because I’d had it, too, in the years after I got back from Desert Storm. It wasn’t like the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I didn’t see any direct combat, though I was entirely too near the Patriot missile battery and the front line. Plus, there was the constant fear that Iraq would launch poison gas. It was utter boredom day in and day out, and yet, utter fear because we didn’t know what would happen.

I don’t know … maybe it was different for the World War II vet because they came back on boat. The trip lasted for several weeks or a month and they had time to decompress. I flew back on emergency leave for ten days and was back to work. It was supposed to be business as usual, and yet how could it be?

I couldn’t tell you why I was angry. I couldn’t really point at a specific incident that was the source behind the anger. It was simply there. Maybe it’s because the experience of war is so profound and so unlike anything else that it boils itself into anger. I don’t know.

As a writer, I wanted to get it out and put it on paper, but I couldn’t write about the experience of war in non-fiction (a big no-no while I was in the army), and I couldn’t make the words work for fiction. I revisited it periodically over the years, pondering at first a non-fiction book and later a novel, but I never got past the first few chapters. Every time I tried, I de-evolved back into that anger, and angry writing isn’t fun. the other problem I had was that I was writing about the specific experiences that happened to me, rather than characters who were in the military or were veterans.

It’s only been in the last few years that my brain seems to have rewired itself enough that I see the things that happened to me in a different way.   But for some people, even that isn’t enough time.  War is an experience unlike anything else.

My final Challenge post will be “A to Z Challenge Posts” so tune in, same military channel, same military time tomorrow.