The sisterhood

This story on The Daily Beast today makes me so proud to be a milspouse — even prouder considering that my friends Alison Buckholz and Lori Volkman are quoted in it!

Conventional wisdom might have held that milspouses would be quick to condemn the alleged actions of SSG Robert Bales and likewise make us unsympathetic to the plight of his wife, Karilyn. But we’re not conventional, are we? Instead we’ve circled the wagons around a woman who is very much still one of our own. We’ve put ourselves in her shoes, done the “there but for the grace of God go I” thing and stepped up to let her know that, as bad as everything in her world is right now, she’s still one of us. And we’ve got her back.

My friend Lori, on her brilliant blog Witty Little Secret (if you’re not a regular reader of hers — and you should be — you may remember my guest blog on her site just before Christmas) wrote a beautiful open letter to Kari Bales a few days ago. Things have taken off since then, with milspouses the world over chiming in to let Kari know that she’s still in the sisterhood.

But really, why wouldn’t we be supportive? Kari Bales, like so many of us, has slogged through the loneliness, exhaustion and worry of deployment after endless deployment. Like so many of us, she’s gotten up each morning to change the diapers and wipe the snotty noses, maintaining peripheral awareness of the war that could change her world at any second. She’s probably sat alone in her house in the wee hours and wondered if the man she sent off to war will be the same man, psychologically speaking, she welcomes home, or if she’ll get to welcome him home at all. But where the rest of us got “yes” or “no” answers to all that pondering, Kari just gets a question mark, likely to be followed by many more months of question marks. She now finds herself in the unfathomable position of having to defend the man she loves, the father of her children, to an entire world that seems to want to see him condemned.

I. Cannot. Even. Imagine.

But I’m heartened that in this huge, virtual world, where most of us live too far from her to spin up the FRG and bring her casseroles and offers to babysit, we’re doing what we can to show support to our sister.

Chin up, Kari. It has to get better — someday.



Answering the “why?” of Robert Bales


The military is a microcosm of society — that’s something I’m fond of saying. If it exists in the culture at large, it also probably exists in the military. Though this is a “duh” statement for those of us who live inside the military community, it often comes as a surprise to those who, like me before I married a soldier, have had little exposure to people in uniform.  You can wear the uniform on active duty and have a full-time job that entails singing from concert stages, making ice sculptures, fixing air conditioners, studying practically every form of science or practicing law or medicine. There are even military graphic artists who do internships with Disney in order to learn more about drawing cartoons. For the military.

And so I think  it’s that microcosm condition that best explains the tragic “why?” of SSG Robert Bales. Bales is the soldier who is said to have massacred 16 Afghan civilians — nine of them children.  Anytime a tragedy like this occurs anywhere, humans are tempted into looking for explanations. We need to know what it was about this person — a fellow human — that made him do what we believe to be the unthinkable. We try to reason things out so that we will be reassured that the same potential is not in us or in the people around us. And so the rush to blame Bales’ actions on problems at home, on money problems, on alcohol, is so alluring. We can work down that checklist and say: “I don’t have that, so I must be okay.” But just as quickly as the explanations for Bales’ actions have appeared, so have the statements from people who know him who say that they never saw this same potential in him, either.

Likewise, it is easy — oh, is it ever easy and ever tempting — to place the blame on combat. Combat is awful. Combat is brutal. Long deployments leave people disjointed and unhinged, at least temporarily. These are facts. Moreover, the vast majority of the American population cannot relate to combat and may even feel a bit guilty that so few have borne such a heavy burden for so many, for so long. And so saying “we did this to him” (or “you did this to him” with a finger pointed towards our elected officials) is almost cathartic. But it doesn’t account for the many, many more troops who have deployed many more times than Bales and experienced even worse events during those deployments but have easily integrated back into society, or have returned for yet another combat tour without going on a shooting spree.

In my circle of friends I can readily name several soldiers who are certainly suffering from war-related traumas. Their lives have fallen apart and it’s easy to see how combat was, for them, the last straw. But I can also name many more soldiers who saw and did the exact same things and came home to mow their lawns, coach Little League, volunteer at church and start companies in their post-military lives. My husband is one of these guys. Over the years his war stories have trickled out and each time I learn of something else he saw or endured I am speechless, because I expect that I am someone who would come unhinged after having the same experience. He, however, is wired in a way that allows him to compartmentalize those experiences and set them aside; I am not. But there are many other situations where I excel and he does not, and you can’t tell by looking at either of us who would do better in a particular circumstance.

So, is repeated exposure to combat to blame for what Robert Bales did? Perhaps, but only in part. If he had never been deployed, or perhaps had never been deployed four times, he might not have acted as he did, just as if I had never given birth I would have never suffered from postpartum depression and would probably never have known that I have in me the potential to get depressed. But combat exposure alone does not make someone capable of slaughtering innocent people, just as childbirth doesn’t make most women sad. Do some troops get PTSD after exposure to stressful situations? Absolutely. PTSD is real and combat is certainly stressful. But people also get PTSD after being in car wrecks on I-95 and yet no one views frequent interstate commuters as being damaged and capable of committing atrocities.

I worry more for our veterans because of the potential for society to view them as broken and dangerous than for their actual propensity to be broken and dangerous.

Please read that statement again. It is the most important thing I’ve written in this entire post.

I recently talked to a man who runs an organization that helps veterans find work after their military service is finished. He said that despite proven work skills and excellent educational backgrounds, many of our veterans are being passed over for jobs because employers worry that they are mentally damaged. Many employers are simply afraid to hire veterans — and I’m sure Bales’ actions have done nothing to assuage those fears. I think we may have come so far in getting help for troops who are experiencing PTSD (“experiencing” because it is not usually a lifelong affliction, btw) and war-related trauma that we have given the rest of society the mistaken impression that all troops have trouble adjusting to post-combat life. Most of them don’t. They might need maybe a month or two after a deployment to get used to living in the very different environment we have back here in the peaceful States, but they pretty much just phase right back into life in America.

The military is indeed a microcosm of society. We’ve got everything, good and bad, in the military community that the civilian world has. And just as there exists in society people who will resort to shooting sprees when the perfect storm of negative events take place in their lives — something we have seen with every massacre that has taken place inside our country — regular, nice, military people are capable of doing unthinkable things when they’re predisposed to do so and their buttons are pushed. It is tragic and unfortunate that this is what happened with Robert Bales.

Jubilee House


There haven’t been cameras on Langdon Street for a while now. The commotion there has died down, so much so that when TV cameras appeared again on Tuesday night, neighbors gathered around and asked what was going on. Back in July they didn’t have to gather or wonder. They knew what was happening — everybody knew —  that was when “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” built the Jubilee House, a beautiful 7,200 square feet home for Steps N’ Stages and it’s founder Barbara Marshall to replace the tiny, dilapidated house she had been using to provide housing for homeless female veterans.

(Full disclosure: I have been on the advisory board for Jubilee House since December, but I am NOT writing this as an advisory board member. I’m not even writing it with the knowledge or consent of Barbara Marshall or any of the other board members. I am writing this on because these views are mine alone. I speak only for myself.)

As a city, we were thrilled to have such a complimentary spotlight shown on one of our own and on a mission we were proud to claim, and many of us turned out to help and to watch as the magnificent Jubilee House was erected in just one week. Elected officials and community leaders were on hand to literally roll up their sleeves and help, mugging for the cameras, enjoying the favorable coverage and hanging around to meet First Lady Michelle Obama when she came to visit on “reveal day”. Absent in the literal build-up was Marshall herself. She had been whisked away to DisneyWorld for the duration of the construction. She wasn’t there to see the old house torn down or the exhaustive daily efforts being made, though she undoubtedly appreciates all that went into creating the house.

How surreal it must have been for her to come home. She literally had about a week to learn that her mission of housing homeless women was being expanded and going high-profile. Then she was handed the keys to the stunning new house and expected to make it happen.

So here’s the rub: For the last few days Marshall and Jubilee House have come under pretty intense media scrutiny, brought about initially because of two women who say they were turned away from the home. The part the two women left out of their stories, however,  is that they were turned away (one after having lived in the home for five months) because the home was not capable of providing housing for them. One of the women was only turned away after Marshall went to exhaustive lengths to not only secure the woman a home of her very own but to also throw the woman a baby shower, at which the woman received about $3,000 in gifts for her newborn child. Barbara Marshall, however, doesn’t want to defend herself by telling people these other details because, even after the woman has apparently turned on her, Marshall still wants to protect that woman. That’s just the kind of person Barbara Marshall is. She will probably be angry with me for sharing that information, in fact.

Now Barbara Marshall is being further scrutinized because she bought two more very low cost homes with the intention of using the homes to house homeless female veterans. Apparently there are some in our community who think this was a bad idea. I disagree. But lost in the criticism is the fact that Marshall bought those homes so that she could provide housing for the women veterans who could not live in Jubilee House. Marshall didn’t want to ever have to turn anyone back out on the street, like she’d had to do with the other woman who complained to the newspaper. That woman’s behavioral health condition (which was reported already in the newspaper) made it unsafe for her live in a house that was primarily designed to house homeless mothers and their children. If Marshall had allowed her to stay in Jubilee House, mothers and their children might have had to be turned away out of safety concerns. But turning that woman away broke Marshall’s heart, and so she started looking for ways to accommodate ALL the female veterans who might come knocking, regardless of their conditions or situations. Should she have waited until all of Jubilee House’s ducks were in a row? Perhaps. But that would have meant turning away more of those who were most in need. Likewise, Jubilee House is only supposed to provide housing for 90 days. The goal is to transition these veterans back to independence, not to house them forever. So Barbara also wanted to have a home where women who weren’t quite ready to be on their own after 90 days could gradually assume more independence.

But you haven’t heard those explanations in the media accounts, have you? In fact, you’ve probably gotten the impression that Barbara Marshall is living the high life in the big house on Langdon Street. In reality, Barbara Marshall doesn’t even live there. She has her own house elsewhere in the county, one she pays taxes on and also pays all the maintenance expenses for, just as she pays for  the maintenance and utilities at Jubilee House.

And yet the negative drumbeat continues. Barbara Marshall did this wrong, Barbara Marshall did that wrong. She should have long ago secured a license that would allow her to accept donations, she should have thought of all of these contingencies, the list goes on and on. How easy it is for us to expect someone else to have done these things that most of us probably didn’t know about before, either. In fact, quick show of hands: Who reading this knew you had to have a license to accept donations? Who knew that the utility bill in a 7,200 square feet house would often top $1,000 a month? Who knew that the insurance carrier would drop the home for housing “high risk” individuals and a new policy would have to be secured at nearly five times the cost of the old one?

These are all things that people learn as they go. Most of us wouldn’t start any endeavor with the intent of making it as high-profile as possible from the get-go. Instead, we’d start small, knowing that we’d need to learn as we went, which is what Barbara Marshall was in the process of doing when she was blessed with surprise gift of Jubilee House. And who among us would show up, get handed a set of keys and be immediately expected to know all of the tedious laws that regulate not-for-profit organizations? And yet that’s exactly what happened to Barbara Marshall. She’s been in charge of this large mission since July 21 — just seven months, just over 200 days. And yet it seems she is expected to be running the place like she’s been doing it for years. Which of our elected officials have their jobs down perfectly after just seven months? Actually, I doubt any of us become masters of our occupations in such a short amount of time, and we have the benefit of staffs and co-workers to help us. Jubilee House has no full-time paid staff, Marshall herself does not draw a salary, and the people who have been paid for work they’ve performed at Jubilee House have been paid out of Marshall’s own pocket.

Curiously absent during all this criticism of Barbara Marshall, however, is criticism for the elected officials and community leaders who had infinitely more knowledge of these regulations than she did, were on hand during that week of construction and were only too happy to be seen on camera on Langdon Street, but did not make efforts to help Marshall comply with some of these rules, or even to insure that Marshall knew about all the rules. If there’s blame being passed around, I believe those who also benefited from the positive publicity deserve a share of it, as well.

Barbara Marshall is immensely grateful for that beautiful house and for all the sweat and donations that members of this community put into it. She is honored to have been entrusted with such a gift. But if she is guilty of anything, it’s of not knowing what she didn’t know and — like so many of us in the military community — of not knowing when to ask others for help, nor whom to ask. In fact, she reminds me of myself during my husband’s deployments, when I’ve worn myself into the ground trying to get it all done only to hear others tell me later, “I would have helped if I’d known that you needed anything.”

Well, that would have been nice to know then.

In the end, the fact that is known by all who have worked with Barbara Marshall or benefited from her efforts is that she never asked for nor expected the glory and attention that have come with being the steward of Jubilee House. She started this mission in a crumbling house on Langdon Street with the little bit of spare money she had because she didn’t want to see any women who had served our country living on the streets. That’s still her heart and still her mission and those who are now eager to criticize the way she’s gone about performing that mission should, once again, roll up their sleeves and help — especially now that the cameras are gone.