Blog Tour!

Often when I am supposed to be working I totally fuck around on the Internet instead. I am pretty sure this is why blogging was invented; people were supposed to be doing some shit – like laundry or taking care of their kids – but looking at stuff on the Internet was more interesting – so they decided to do their shit on the Internet. Now people blog (some people can actually make money doing it) – about how they’re not doing their laundry or they write ordered lists of all the things that make people bad parents.

Of course I’m making light of something that has evolved into a spectacular form of communication. The Internet has a way of equalizing voices that is completely impossible in mainstream media like TV and radio. It’s more accessible than ever, and pretty much anyone with access to a computer and an Internet connection can write down and publish their own version of the world (I’m doing it right now). But as with any other source of information, there are definitely voices that are broadcast louder than others (the same news and entertainment agencies that dominate television have a significant presence online as well – because money). That’s why I’m pretty excited about being nominated for this blog tour. I spend a large part of my free time absorbing the world through blogs, news stories, tumblr, twitter, facebook and op-eds (and yes, buzzfeed), and on and on and on. But I know that there are some amazing gems out there that I’ll never see, that hardly anyone will see. How does anyone ever find that stuff (or, should I say, our stuff)? (Yes I just called myself a gem. Yes I did.) Continue reading

*Trigger warning – Discussion About Trigger Warnings

Why trigger warnings may hurt more than they help.

You’ve probably seen it: the “*TW” (Trigger Warning) preceding articles and news stories in social media feeds and news sites. This warning frequently accompanies stories about rape, abuse, sexual harassment, stalking, or domestic violence – topics that could potentially trigger a physiological or emotional reaction in readers who have experienced similar situations.

I follow a lot of feminist organizations and blogs, and since feminism exists because specific categories of people experience physical and organizational violence, that’s what people write about. Subsequently, I see this warning (*TW) multiple times per day. Systemic oppression and sexual violence are huge obstacles in women reaching social and economic parity, and these issues are compounded by preexisting social inequities for people who aren’t white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and straight. Feminist issues are inextricably linked with issues of violence and oppression, and therefore the subject matter is frequently distressing.

It’s vital that we continue to address these issues in any way possible – in blogs, news articles, art installations, videos, protests, auctions, film, poetry, fiction, memoirs, etc. – but the haphazard (or, worse, universal) application of the term “Trigger Warning” does little for those we desire to help, and can actually be harmful/hurtful to the most vulnerable among us. Continue reading

Patriotism and the Blue Angels

“If you don’t like the Blue Angels, you don’t like America.” – A Facebook comment in response to a Seattle photographer’s misgivings regarding military demonstrations and recruitment tactics at Sea Fair.

After returning home from Iraq in 2004 I avoided crowded places. Concerts and festivals were out of the question – the throngs of people and loud noises kicked my fight/flight response into high gear. Sporting events and air shows were another no-go; flyovers from fighter jets after the national anthem once inspired in me a sense of awe and swelling patriotism – after my deployment, however, I was only reminded of war. The piercing roar of jet engines would cause my heart rate to skyrocket and a tightly coiled knot of anxiety and panic would gather at the base of my skull making every nerve ending in my body buzz.

But my post-deployment aversion to the fighter jet flyover wasn’t just rooted in the physiological response it provoked, but also in the underlying message: To be a patriot, one must love (and be in awe of) the Armed Forces.

The idea of the Blue Angels is, at its surface, a nice wholesome message of seemingly traditional Americana. Look at our technology! Look at our might! Look at the discipline and excellence of our Navy pilots!

And those pilots are tremendously skilled and disciplined – in operating equipment that is primarily designed to kill human beings.

Think about that.

Each time the Blue Angels (or any military fighter jets) fly in formation overhead, it is a demonstration of America’s capacity to kill. In connecting our feelings of patriotism with our admiration for the capabilities of the Department of Defense, we’re essentially conditioned to conflate one feeling with the other. And a major sporting event isn’t considered complete without a military fighter jet formation flyover to conclude our national anthem. Each time military fighter jets fly over the Super Bowl, the World Series, and thousands of other events across the country, it serves as a way to reinforce the connection between our national identity and our military supremacy.

Red-White-Blue Deadly Patriots

So what? Isn’t military supremacy a part of our American heritage?

Yes, the US Military has been an integral part of US history (a history that was shamefully introduced with the genocide of Native Americans). But is employing the US war-making apparatus as central to our national identity actually a good thing? In the past we celebrated the return of our veterans from WWI and WWII and then helped them find their way back home with education and housing programs. As a nation, we began the work to right injustices that existed for people of color and women and those in poverty through numerous civil rights acts and social justice reforms. National protests brought our soldiers home from Vietnam. Our pride and heritage was centered on celebrating and bettering the lives of individual Americans.

Now the way we celebrate our country has morphed into a quasi-worship of the Armed Forces. “Support the troops” tropes have supplanted connections with actual veterans, and those Americans who question the value or need for increased defense budget allocations or preemptive military actions are in turn accused of lacking patriotism.

It’s a disturbing shift.

In much the same way US Military fighter jets have been incorporated into numerous American celebrations, at those same events the American flag is almost always carried out by service members or veterans, nameless and faceless in their uniformed number, merely a representation of the larger organization. Under the pretext of honoring veterans, the American flag is repeatedly associated with conflict and war. And at these events, are we really honoring the individuals who served? Do we learn about their favorite past times, their families, or their goals for the future? Almost always the answer is “no”. The Veteran or The Service Member is simply a placeholder meant to keep in the forefront of our minds the ever present connection between America and its fighting forces.

There are many other ways to celebrate the vast array of traditions and diversity in the United States without incorporating a demonstration of military power. Rather than watching nameless and faceless uniformed troops unfurl our colors at national sports events, imagine seeing elementary students or family members of the local team carry out our American flag. Perhaps instead of incorporating fighter jet flyovers after the national anthem, we could honor first-generation college graduates or recently naturalized American citizens.

While the US Military and American identity are connected historically, they aren’t inextricable. Celebrating our national heritage does not require that we also celebrate our ability to make war. Our national pride is not inseparable from our military might, and I argue that we will act as better Americans (and better plan for a peaceful future) if we do separate our national identity from our military capacity.

Pot, meet Kettle: The VA’s ridiculously hypocritical approach to treating PTSD

This conversation occurred during my last appointment at the VA Hospital:

Me: You guys should really start looking into cannabis for PTSD treatment. I haven’t had to adjust my prescribed meds since I started using it, and I haven’t had a drink in over a month [I used to drink ½ a bottle of wine a night]. I’m sleeping better and I’m able to manage my anxiety better than I was with the beta-blockers you prescribed. 

Doctor: Yeah… You see, there are so many issues with that-  marijuana might not work for everyone since people respond differently to it and have different reactions, plus there isn’t any conclusive evidence that it works, and it’s still illegal at the federal level.

Me: … Well, it works for me…

Doctor: … mmmhmmm… So, you were asking about what we would do if your current medication stopped being effective?

Me: Yeah… I haven’t had to adjust my medication since I started using cannabis but I am concerned about what would happen since I’ve already gone through all the different types of anti-depressants. In the past, I got to the point where my meds weren’t working anymore and I couldn’t increase the dose because I was already maxed out. Then I had to switch to a different type, and deal with all the gross side-effects that go with each medication… Now there aren’t any other medications left that I haven’t tried… 

Doctor: Well, there are options. Not all the medications work the same for everyone, and while most people will notice decreased effectiveness, some medications do stop working altogether for a few patients. So we can look at different combinations of the medications you’ve already tried to see if something else would work… I –

Me: Wait, did you just say that the anti-depressants don’t work the same for everyone?

Doctor: Yes, why?

Me: Well, then should you really be prescribing them? Since you don’t know how everyone will respond?

Doctor: uh… Oh, I see where you’re going with that. You have a really good point there.

Me: I know.


The short video below  is an excerpt from “The Botany of Desire” and talks about the science behind PTSD and cannabis treatment. One of the best lines from the video is this one: “It plays a critical role in a sometimes underappreciated mental function: Forgetting.”

And here are a couple more links discussing the efficacy of Cannabis in treating PTSD symptoms: *

*(Please note that research was published on the site)

Sad-face: Depression and Anxiety in Perspective

“Just snap out of it”

“At least you don’t have a ‘real’ disease”

“The medicine you’re taking is probably keeping you from getting better”

“You’re just using it as an excuse so you don’t have to work as hard as everyone else”

“Just another person with a ‘victim’ mentality”

“You didn’t even experience that much trauma, just get over it already”

“You should just smile and you’ll feel better”

It may be surprising to some people that all of these thoughts (and worse) come from my own autocannibalistic brain. Occasionally I read/hear disparaging statements about mental health issues from other sources, but the most damaging and destructive opinions are self-generated.

And the denial! I am constantly amazed that after 10 years of this shit I can still convince myself that nothing is wrong (while absolutely disintegrating mentally and withdrawing from any and all social contact).

Go ahead, ask me what’s wrong.

My answer: Nothing. Everything is great! (Raise eyebrows, keep eye contact, smile).

Lists seem to be a popular thing on the internet so I came up with one, and in order to make it more universally appealing I will work from the assumption that more than one person experiences the things I experience!* Plus I came up with a super catchy name for my list:

A list of things you might not know about depression and anxiety that your friend, partner, or family member may be dealing with on their own:

1. Depression is not “sadness.” Depression is all the negative emotions you can possibly imagine (sorrow, grief, anger, frustration, desolation, loneliness, incompetence, hopelessness, and despair) all morphed into a giant sucking void that drowns out all other thoughts and feelings and has an overall effect of creating an EMPTY shell of tired useless human husk.

This shit is no joke. When my husband asks me, “What’s wrong?” (so he can try to fix whatever is making me curl up in a ball on the floor) what can I say? “I am sad” doesn’t really convey the black hole of agonizing misery residing in the center of my chest.

Your brain literally feels like it doesn’t want to have anything to do with you, that no one wants anything to do with you, and why (really) WHY haven’t you driven off a bridge already? Continue reading

Stop holding your breath. Writing is breathing for your brain.

It’s a relatively recent development: I am obsessed with documenting stuff. I take thousands of pictures of random shit, and aside from the pictures of my kids hardly any of it is significant subject matter (think trees and clouds and more trees). I recently had to go through and make some tough decisions and cull/transfer a few hundred photos of vegetation and other random stuff after I filled up my 120 GB hard drive. It made me sad because I am like Gollum and hoard files, books, and music like treasure.

I have the same compulsion about writing and over the past few years I have squirreled away bits and pieces of poems, essays, the fledgling beginnings of a memoir (it’s gonna be a best seller, I just know it) (←haha), and even some fiction in various cloud storage accounts and hard drives. Fortunately text files take up virtually no space so I can keep amassing my collection of words without worrying too much about consolidating or streamlining. Unlike my photography obsession, the compulsion to write is less documentation and more exploration. I fixate on certain snapshots of conversations or events and look at those in the larger context of the world around me. When something hooks my attention I consciously place a bookmark in my brain so I can revisit it later. If I’m distracted or driving (or almost asleep) and I fail to purposefully remember (meaning, I forget to say to myself: Hey self, make sure you remember this so you can write it down later), I practically mourn those fleeting thoughts and ideas that pass through my consciousness, their perfect shape and essence disintegrated into fragments of nothing. I just know [xyz idea] would have made the best short story or poem but now I can’t remember a goddam thing…

Then there are those thoughts and moments that (whether I like it or not) stay stuck, fixed in my brain on a loop until I release them in composition. Until the words are out of my head I’m held hostage by my own brain, unable to fully focus on anything else. I had one pestering me this morning, a sharp, clear recollection from Christmas day:


Pre-dawn Christmas morning.

The sky was dark; the sun wouldn’t be up until 7 or so. Still foggy from sleep, I was dressing in the master bathroom and listening to the lilting tones of my children through the walls that separated me from the living room. The sound of their voices traveled uninterrupted but there was a fluffy quilt wrapped quality about their words making them incomprehensible. Most were questions, I assumed, because of the upturn at the end of their muffled phrases. Their father would answer in low gentle tones, occasionally interrupted by the higher voices. I paused and just listened for a minute to the waves of low and high tones like a beautiful song with no pattern.

This was the sound of my home. This was the sound of my family and they were happy. We are happy.

Even though this was not a bad memory to have hijacking my thoughts, after getting that little gem out of my head I felt all limber and comfortable in my brain – once I captured it “on paper” I could move on to other stuff – because the thing is – I just can’t focus on anything else when my mind is otherwise preoccupied drafting prose.

But unlike my beautiful Christmas memory in that paragraph up there, sometimes the memories and thoughts aren’t so nice. Before I realized I could write stuff down and feel better doing it, I spent years with bad memories and terrifying and angry thoughts, to the extent that I couldn’t even remember (or enjoy) the beautiful things anymore.

When I first started dealing with symptoms of what has since been diagnosed as post-traumatic stress, the social worker at the VA hospital recommended journaling. Journaling! I thought it was a giant crock of shit (yes, humble pie is very delicious). Four years ago I couldn’t even look at the silent horror show that was running in the background of my mind and relentlessly skirting the peripheral of my thoughts – so how the hell was I supposed to write about it?

But my anger became all-consuming. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, like I was drowning in rage and sorrow. I screamed at my children, I screamed at my husband. I collapsed on the bathroom floor more times than I can count, unable to do anything but muffle my racking sobs with my legs as I sat curled up against the wall. I started drinking to dull the sharp edge of my pain. It helped quell my anger for the most part but made the depression more pronounced. I would imagine all the different ways I could end this overwhelming sadness, envisioning just the slightest turn of the steering wheel to guide my car off the side of an overpass or into oncoming traffic. Or I’d picture a quiet end in my sleep, never thinking death but always seeing it and wishing for it.

I finally started to write my pain because there wasn’t anything else I could do. And it hurt so much. I thought I was making it worse at first, because bringing all the scary shit to the forefront seemed to be making my nightmares more intense, my startle reaction more pronounced. But then I started to re-read my own words and re-write so that it was more and more descriptive and narrative [rather than me vomiting my emotions into half-formed phrases], and I realized that I gained power over those memories when I typed them out on my screen. They loosened their hold on me and the vise in my chest began to ease. So I started writing more. I wrote stream of consciousness, I wrote poetry, I wrote short stories and essays. I incorporated all those bad memories into stories about my life, about the things I had witnessed and experienced, and what do you know? I started remembering the good stuff too. Buried in my anger and depression, those good memories began to seep into my writing – just a little bit at first, and then more so as I pushed forward – and slowly, steadily balanced out the anger and fear that had taken over my life.

Now it’s no longer simply catharsis. Writing is my primary mode of creative, emotional, and political expression. It’s how I connect with the world around me, and how I archive my experiences, both bad and good. It’s how my brain breathes.


Christmas in Iraq, 2003

We were relatively comfortable by December. We had a roof over our heads and cots cushioned with mini mattresses purchased through our local ice-man.* Next to my cot I had a few packages from my family that I was saving for Christmas morning. 


Yes I’m painting my toenails. And that’s a cast I acquired after some douchebag picked me up (without my consent) and then dropped me on my ankle after he realized I’m no 120 pound snowflake. Lamest. Story. Ever.

The daily grind, running operations in our little indoor ops corner, was bearable. Although punctuated by other platoon operations, illness, or injuries, we’d worked out a system in the squad that amounted to 8 hour shifts for each of us, leaving considerable “free time” to wallow in our holiday blues and chain-smoke like 3 packs a day… I think by that time we may have even had access to email. Conditions were much, much better than when we first arrived. 


I’m the goofy-looking one in the middle.

Our 3-person squad was attached to a 2nd Brigade support battalion in Mosul. I want to say we got there in May but my memories are patchy so it could have been late April. I do remember we were in this weird limbo status between our assigned location with the support battalion and our attachment to Bravo Company which was located elsewhere in the city.**

We had established our “home” in one of the many courtyard complexes scattered throughout the partially blown-up Iraqi military compound. It was a low U-shaped building with 2 or 3 individual rooms (with entrances facing the interior courtyard) on each of the three sides. All the windows were shattered, some of the shards still jutting out from the frames, the rest of the glass was in piles inside and outside the building. A theater (or what I assumed was a theater) across the street offered a possible explanation for the broken windows; the blackened front entrance, debris scattered outward, and more damage visible at the top of the structure indicated a recent explosion or fire (my guess was it got blown the fuck up – sort of, since it was still standing). At our courtyard building all the doors were also missing, but here they were ripped off their hinges, and the rooms on the opposite side of the courtyard were littered with spent munitions casings and rocket tubes, some possibly Russian (Soviet era?) We left those rooms undisturbed after we heard that some of the rounds might still be live but unstable and, more alarming, potentially depleted uranium rounds.


That’s shit burning in the background. Some of it is mine.

The engineers dug a huge pit in the middle of the courtyard so we could burn our garbage, and over the next 8 months we worked with the local Iraqis to make additional improvements to our site. After a few months we scored 2 gravity-fed flushing toilets to replace the seat-less chair and plastic bag system we were using before (we no longer had to burn our shit in an oil drum! Very awesome).

We also got a gravity-fed shower to go with the toilets, and it was the most amazing day ever.*** I’m pretty sure I got some 1.5 degree burns from attempting showers in the late summer afternoons after the sun had been heating the water in the tank to near boiling temperatures – morning time was better, not so risky. We also had the broken windows replaced by a local glazier and he used weird squishy caulk that never stopped being squishy (if those windows are still there, my thumbnail marks in the squishy window caulk are probably still there too, unless they’ve been squished and replaced by the thumbnail marks of other morose soldiers over the last ten years), And finally, we worked with a local electrician to have a power outlet installed so we could bring our equipment inside rather than keeping our vehicle constantly running.

So it wasn’t awful (by shitty-Iraq standards) – we were pretty lucky with our set-up. There were still soldiers living outside with no toilets – not even seat-less chairs, and there were others living in crowded tents with no access to their own awesome ice-man.

But overall, it still really sucked. There were still explosions from mortars and IEDs, still people getting shot, still people shooting at us, still stupid Army politics and bullshit sexism, groping, and fear of getting raped by our own people. In short, we were still in a combat zone and we still weren’t entirely sure when we would get to go home. During that pretty abysmal and lonely holiday season (by most non-shitty-Iraq standards), I received a letter from a wonderful woman who wanted to sponsor me for Christmas. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I was shocked at how amazing it made me feel to read kind words from this stranger and know that she and her family were using their time and money to do something special for someone they didn’t even know. I was surprised when I felt tears well up in my eyes; I hadn’t even realized how much I needed this beautiful and generous gift.

They sent me cards and photos. Her kids drew little pictures for me and they sent a stocking stuffed with amazing things like candy and lotion and fun little Christmas toys. I felt connected to home through them. I hung the stocking over my M-249 rifle on the dirty, pitted wall next to my Kevlar helmet and vest.

On Christmas day I woke up feeling sort of empty and flat. I opened my packages in the morning and we had turkey for lunch at the chow hall. Later that evening I re-read all my cards and letters, and maybe it was because I didn’t know this family so I couldn’t miss them but when I read their letters, the yearning to be home wasn’t a sharp stabbing pain, it was more of a dull ache, and I felt included and recognized and valued without the overwhelming wave of sorrow that seemed to always accompany letters from my family.

I heard a story on NPR the other day about melancholy Christmas songs and it made so much sense. Many of the mournful tunes like “I’ll be home for Christmas” and “Blue Christmas” were written during WWII, when war was all encompassing and it was probably pretty difficult to be festive when you missed your loved ones.  Although it was written later, “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas always evokes for me that same feeling of thankfulness and acceptance, lined with the homesickness and sadness that I experienced in Iraq.


* The ice-man’s name was Mahmoud, and he started out bringing us huge blocks of ice in the summer but soon he was procuring all sorts of stuff for us, including the mattresses and delicious homemade baba ghanoush.

** Additionally, because our platoon was actually part of Delta Company back in Fort Campbell, KY, the leadership at Bravo Company weren’t exactly throwing their arms open to welcome us. So when we were at the support battalion location we were on our own, isolated organizationally from the rest of the soldiers around us, and when we were at B Co headquarters there was a strong feeling that we didn’t belong there either.

*** Before the most amazing day ever, we were fortunate to have a field shower maintained by the support battalion. The field shower, set up shortly after we arrived in Mosul, was a vast improvement over our previous “facilities” (someone else holding up a poncho while you dump water over your head from a plastic water bottle) but as the weather warmed, venturing into the steamy, jungle-like atmosphere of the dark green shower tent became an effort in futility. I’m pretty sure I was sweating while I was taking a shower, and it continued as I attempted to towel off, resulting in a sweat-drenched Stephanie stumbling out of the dark oppressive heat of the tent into the blinding oppressive heat of the day, Was I cleaner? Yes. Did I feel clean? Meh.

The VA improves the backlog, now under scrutiny for budget quagmire

So, back in the day (towards the beginning of 2013) the VA was catching a bunch of flack for a backlog in veterans claims (a backlog they were already scrambling to correct), and now this: NBC: Billions wasted on fruitless bid to create paperless vet health records

(For a detailed look at the history of the disability claims backlog, read this article by Brandon Friedman, or this one by Kayla Williams- Both are veterans of the Iraq War and each provides a nuanced and objective overview without all the political posturing (feigned outrage) found in many other stories.)

But we’re not talking about the backlog anymore. (And neither is the news since things are actually getting better.) Now there’s a new scandal at the VA: They’re wasting our money.

I read the NBC article a few days ago. The numbers they quoted were troubling, and while I have a cursory understanding of data migration and integration between systems, I know it’s not easy- AND when we’re talking about organizations as large as THE MILITARY and THE VA, we’re not talking about small amounts of data.

The overview is this:

In 2008, the VA and DOD were tasked to create a single electronic health records management system as required by the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008.

It didn’t work.

But before they both admitted it wasn’t going to work, the VA had already started working on a different plan (as early as July 2011). So, they (we) were still paying for PLAN A (officially abandoned in February 2013) while the VA was also working on PLAN B. The cost to tax payers was over 1.3 billion dollars.

I wanted to get more information, so in keeping with my excellent research methods I asked my Facebook friends (I have very smart Facebook friends).

One of them works at the VA and very succinctly said this:

Essentially DOD doesn’t want to play. They use an arbitrary old outdated system and they don’t want to switch over to something lighter and more functional that would be able to communicate with VA seamlessly. They say it would be too expensive. VA’s point is why would we switch to your system that doesn’t work, isn’t interoperable with anyone and doesn’t have the info in it we need to use?

Th[is] article essentially says VA wants DOD to use the free system that the government already owns and is already in use for over a million patients but DOD wants to spend money on things with bells, whistles and fancy buttons.

I think VA’s point has been “Hey, look our system isn’t perfect but it is a start. Let’s get on the same system so that down the road we both know what we will need for the new system and can get one that works for both of us.”

And he’s right. The DOD submitted a Request for Information in February 2013 to explore different electronic health record management systems in the private sector,  and the VA replied with a draft proposal outlining the benefits of using the already existing VA records management system.

Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone who currently works for DOD, so I couldn’t get a direct response from my sources over at Facebook. However, in the same article mentioned by my VA contact, the DOD’s deputy chief management officer Beth McGrath indicated that they were looking at the VA system as well as researching other commercial health record management system options.

The commercial health IT space has made tremendous leaps in terms of modernization over the years. We want to ensure that we’re assessing all the capabilities the commercial market brings” – Beth McGrathIn

1.3 billion dollars. And thus far, the only excuse I’ve been able to find as to why it took as long as it did to discontinue funding the already abandoned PLAN A: For a while there, they weren’t quite sure PLAN A was abandoned; both organizations were focusing on what they called “quick wins” while also working toward the aforementioned single-platform goal. Two years later, they ditched PLAN A forever.

“It takes time to turn an aircraft carrier,” Former director of  the Interagency Program Office, Debbie Filippi (ret. 2011)

Thanks for that, Captain Obvious of The Slowest Aircraft Carrier EVER.