For a long time, I did all I could to forget about having served in the U.S. Army. Although I physically survived my three-and-a-half-year-long enlistment, my mental health was, as they say, touch-and-go the whole time. The Army finally discharged me for injuries I accumulated in training, but I felt guilt-ridden that I hadn’t gone to “real” war. Every time the topic arose of my service, I hastened to add—apologetically—that I had not deployed.
I left my gloomy winter life in Berlin at the end of February 2020 for southern Texas to attend my first Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, a huge annual event that normally draws nearly 15,000 participants. As I flew above the Atlantic, cancellations were coming in thick due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
I still felt less nervous about the virus than what awaited me in Texas.
When I shed my Army combat uniform for the last time in 2007 and drove out of Fort Hood, where I had been stationed for two years during the height of the Iraq war, I did not know who I was. Without the structure of the uniform to hold the space where my fragile sense of self might have been, the vacuum was unavoidable. The “break you down to build you up” process that began in basic training had only been half completed. Many more phases of my identity search were to come, once I was free.
I tried on various uniforms—business suits, church robes, student’s sweats—and, eventually, joyfully donned freelancer jeans as the need for accoutrements and titles faded.
Thirteen years after my discharge, I felt ready to explore the option of identifying as a veteran in a public sphere like the AWP. I felt ready to slowly and gently peel back some of the layers of protection covering my memories to see what I would find.
A group of female veteran writers at the AWP welcomed me into a supportive community that I hadn’t known existed. These women spoke on several panels about their often-brutal experiences in the military—but said the competition for attention and fear of one another gradually ceded to a goal of mutual support. To discover that we had all suffered alongside each other, but that now, many years later, we were able to turn and see that we were also with each other was cathartic.
I expended so much energy in the Army trying to fit in and avoid standing out (always unsuccessfully). As a woman, I never knew if an noncommissioned officer was approaching me to correct a crooked beret or to ask for my number. I still have nightmares about not having the proper uniform.
The process of becoming a veteran—where you must stand up and claim your benefits and membership in the club—requires a 180-degree turn from the camouflaging-of-self trick I’d learned.
After the conference, I went on the obligatory stroll along San Antonio’s River Walk, where I had spent my mini honeymoon in July 2006 with my about-to-deploy then-husband. Sitting in the sun at a fork of the walk by the convention center and shopping mall, as hundreds of freshly graduated airmen walked past, I began my trip down memory lane.
The year of my honeymoon was one of the fullest of my life. Meeting and getting married within months, right before a deployment, seemed like a good idea at the time. I had already been assigned to the rear detachment because of my medical issues, so why not get pregnant and go for life and death simultaneously?
If only we had understood that both life and death were not within our control.
We had picked a name for the baby, sure it would be a girl. I sent a picture of the first ultrasound to my husband in Baghdad. But neither the pregnancy nor the marriage survived my husband’s year-long deployment to Iraq. Two words so close in sound and connected in experience, so different in result: miscarriage and marriage.
On the River Walk, a young busker in tattered clothing played guitar with a sign nearby that read, “Smile! You’re Alive!” As he began to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” his girlfriend joined in and so did I.
After leaving the River Walk, I drove from San Antonio north to Austin. The lowlands and desert climate slowly gave way to the Texas Hill Country where the wildflowers on the side of the road had just started to bloom. As I flew down the road, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, cattle grazing in large fields dotted with small cedars. Texas still seems like a caricature of itself to me. Back when I moved there in 2005, I soaked it all up, complete with cowboy boots, hats, and guns.
The first sign that the peeling back of layers might be less of a joyride than I expected was when I continued north an hour to Fort Hood. On the open highway, passing mobile-home lots, ranches, Baptist churches, wind turbines, car dealerships, dead skunks, and deer, I whooshed past—the speed limit of 75 seemed way too fast to me. As I approached this trauma zone, I found deeply rooted memories. My heart beat faster; my chest felt as if it were being crushed. I couldn’t seem to breathe freely as I got closer to the heart of Texas.
The panic-attack feeling grew as I drove up to the visitor center. I kept waiting for someone to yell at me, to deny me access, to tell me I was wrong and had failed at some bit of military protocol. I faced the vast machinery of the Big Army again, and it was not beneficent. My experience of the Army was from the period of stop-losses and extended deployments, and my marital bliss and plans for a family were casualties.
Instead, the people at the visitor center treated me like a civilian—like veteran royalty, showing me respect and admiration. I am special now, and, as a disabled veteran, I was granted three years of unrestricted access to the base with my shiny new veteran’s ID card.
But did I want it?
Fort Hood is home to the Army III Corps, known as “America’s Hammer.” I had certainly been a nail back then. I had decided not to fight a medical discharge; I gave up on the warrior ethos. I still wonder about my decision. I had such conflicting desires back then: to have a family, to be a hard-core soldier.
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As I entered Fort Hood through the main gate, I drove past the III Corps headquarters, where I had once spotted our celebrity Commanding General Ray Odierno as I performed my paperwork-shuttling duties. Past the chapels, the hospital, and the clinics where I spent so much time. Physical therapy, MRIs, CAT scans, dental, mental health, and surgery. Grief, sadness, excitement, and remorse washed over me as I drove my rental, going exactly the speed limit. I stopped at the commissary and the post exchange, marveling at the cheap food and the newly designed uniforms.
The whole place felt empty compared to the height of the troop surge in Iraq in 2006 when the Army stop-lossed soldiers to try to keep the ranks full. Now, many buildings appeared closed, parking lots and decrepit-looking barracks desolate. I remember now how eager I was to move off post—or to get married—thinking it would save me from the drunken male soldiers who would literally pound on my barracks door at night.
Entering West Fort Hood, I noticed how young the soldiers guarding the gate seem. I could be their mother! I drove past the spot where my leadership pinned on my sergeant stripes while our unit served in Iraq, and it looked the same. The long line of one-story red brick buildings was nondescript as ever, belying the dramas that unfolded there. My first failed promotion board, after which I cried in shame in my car here in the parking lot. It was the same week as my rushed wedding, and I was sleep-deprived and ill-prepared.
I thought of my female squad leader, who harassed me during my brief pregnancy until I referred myself to the emergency mental health center. She had wanted to get pregnant, too, before our husbands were whisked off to the war. After playing the role of BFF and inviting me to her house to sham and nap instead of going to physical fitness training, and even coaching me through my second promotion board, her demeanor changed after I went to sick-call for bleeding, and we realized I was having a miscarriage.
That night at 2 a.m., I called 911, terrified when the bleeding got so heavy that I vomited as I tried to get to the car to take myself back to the hospital. The doctors who confirmed the miscarriage switched their language from “embryo” to “fetal tissue” as they described what awaited me. They made it sound so easy.
The next day I went back to the office to make sure there was nothing pressing to be done and then went home on sick leave—“quarters,” in military speak. My squad leader, my friend, called to lecture me about “military bearing” and the responsibility of being an noncommissioned officer, as if my job in rear detachment were more important than my grief.
The next week, as I returned to work, a young private offered his condolences: “It’s OK. You can just make another one.” Others were better in their expressions of compassion; my squad leader offered none.
Instead, she demanded to know my every move and my whereabouts at every moment. Her radical mood swings and viciousness perplex me to this day, but her marriage also did not survive our unit’s deployment.
The one person who had been my friend became my enemy, and I felt helpless and alone. People handle stress and power in different ways: Some revert to hammer mode—some become the nails.
On my return trip to the base, I found that the dining facility where my unit once ate breakfast stood empty. I saw the light blue guidon flutter outside my old company headquarters, indicating that the commander was still in the building. As soldiers came out to bring it down, I wanted to go closer and say, “Hey, I used to be stationed here.”
What I experienced in the Army crushed any ideas I might have had of belonging to a band of “brothers in arms.” Sisters didn’t have a place in that world; we were still trying to be “just one of the guys,” and competing for a few coveted roles. We didn’t trust each other and revealing any vulnerability could be disastrous.
I hope that, once the reality of women having access to the entire spectrum of jobs in the military trickles down into the force, soldiers can then focus more on good leadership and the mission, and less on who is worthy or not, who is the most “hard-core.” The proverbial titles of bitch, lesbian, or whore still remain, but if the Twittersphere is any indication, things are slowly improving.
After visiting Fort Hood and driving all over Killeen and Copperas Cove, I went for dinner at a local chain steakhouse, like I used to do. I met four soldiers at the bar, and we got into an animated discussion about current events and the military. They were reservists, at Fort Hood for training, and they called me ma’am, which made me laugh. After I told them I was in town on a nostalgia-research mission for my memoir, they asked to be included in my book. When I went to pay, the waitress said they’d taken care of the bill. We took a photo together and, despite our political differences, wished each other well.
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I decided that one day back at Fort Hood was more than enough. The memories there played like a movie I’d seen long ago. I needed time to integrate and reexamine them from the perspective of my current self.
I had come to Texas for some kind of closure to my Army days. I didn’t deploy to Iraq and felt guilty about that for a long time. The hierarchy-of-suffering game is insidious. I can’t question destiny, nor change the past, only my ability to forgive myself and others for what happened back then.