Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Goodnight, Mr. Jefferson!"

Yesterday evening, after a quiet dinner in the historic area of downtown Charlottesville, VA known as “The Corner,” my friend and I strolled onto the University of Virginia campus to find a quiet spot and stargaze. One of the warmest nights so far this year, the moon low, the sky still clear, the opportunity to observe a number of early summer constellations was too powerful to resist.

The walk itself was quite pleasant, too. It’s been years since I’ve wandered the campus with any real purpose, but despite the changes, it came back fairly quickly. (Though at UVa, they traditionally refer to the campus as “the Grounds.”) It was ten years ago this spring that I trained with a platoon of Marine Corps ROTC cadets on “the Grounds.” Three days a week, rising at home before 4AM, I would drive, half awake, to meet for a 0430 or 0500 PT session with young men well-adjusted to the early hours and the intense physical training. As fit as I was at the time, I still felt like a wimp. Some of the runs exceeded seven miles.

There in the campus darkness, we’d run sprints, or run the steps of the amphitheater, or do exercises on the sidewalks until my hands shook and we’d take off on a run. As we walked the campus last night, the specific runs were starting to come back. “We ended the 3-miler right here. I came in nearly dead last at 18:34.” She politely listened to my shameless reminiscence.

After a time, we selected a spot in the center of the UVa Lawn, the large rectangular field that is surrounded by the historically oldest portion of the campus. Designed and built by Thomas Jefferson, occupied by Edgar Allen Poe and other famous, troubled students, it still houses students of superior academic and community achievement. They are supposed to be privileged to live in the same ramshackle rooms as did their predecessors over 200 years ago. Such a lofty honor requires hiking to showers and bathrooms every day, since no such amenities exist in the rooms. I would probably turn down the “honor.”

But the lawn is gorgeous, with ancient dorms on either side, the UVa Rotunda on one end and another old building on the other, so I laid the blanket in the center of the grass midway between the ends. As our eyes adjusted, I began to identify constellations. “See that one there?”


“That’s the Big Dipper.” As I started to explain how to find the Little Dipper, some rather disruptive screaming was heard (more than the usual drunken din to either side of us), and we were nearly run over by a naked man and two similarly naked women sprinting with him. Neither of us had remembered to consider that this is spring, the semester is almost over, and we’re lying in the dead center “lane” of the UVa Lawn – arguably the most famous campus streaking spot in the country. After a little surprised stumbling, the naked people veered clear of us (barely), and continued their desperate careen towards the far end of the Lawn. We had averted disaster. To my credit, my only remark had been, “DO NOT run into me.” The guy had nearly tripped with surprise, but managed to figure it out at the last minute.

According to tradition, a streaker will start on the steps on the UVa Rotunda, run the full length of the Lawn (about 300 meters), do a turn around the statue of Homer at the far end, return to the Rotunda steps, peek in the keyhole to the Thomas Jefferson statue within and recite, “Good night Mr. Jefferson!” They will then have the eternal honor of having streaked the famous Lawn, and accompanying shame of having made total asses of themselves. Cops, more concerned with containing the melee around the frat houses, rarely enforce the indecency laws. Frankly, they probably enjoy the occasional view.

As the naked people come jogging (much more slowly) back up the Lawn, my friend looks and me and quietly asks, “Ben, do you think we should move?”

“Nah. It’s a cold night. There won’t be many of them.” A dozen streakers later, I took her suggestion.

I suppose that some would have found it all terribly offensive and alarming, but in the low light of the backlit Rotunda, the speed and desperation of the runners, and finally our distinct lack of interest in seeing, it was more strange than anything else. As the numbers quickly mounted, so did the entertainment.

One would think that people experiencing the total vulnerability and illegality of running a large field naked would have selected a more “streaker friendly” location to run, but the Lawn is anything but. At three places, the gentle grade of the field terraces into a steep, three foot incline, a brick walkway at the bottom, and then another flat section. In bare feet and dew-filled grass, wipeouts are inevitable. Streakers, usually somewhat compromised with alcohol, have difficulties. Not only do they forget about the little hills, but they slip and then slide ONTO the bricks. It looked painful.

“Hmm. Those two look a little unstable.” It was five guys this time, and two looked like they’d been about their cups for too long. Sure enough, they hit the first hill hard and slid onto the brickwork. We could hear the skin coming off. But troopers in the face of adversity, they clamored to their feet amid their compatriots’ laughter and kept going.

A guy and a girl ran it this next time, stumbling hard, but not entirely falling. He regained his footing and tore off. The girl, nude but for FLIP FLOPS, stopped to remove her footwear and took off again at a jog. The runners’ paces varied widely. Though the males always tore off enthusiastically, a number were barely jogging by the time they passed us again. A few were walking. Partners and pairs rarely remained such, but the girls usually hung together.

Moved though our blanket may have been, we still were nearly run down a couple of times. As a herd of girls approached, I was told “don’t you dare say anything to them,” so I cradled my head with my hands, and prepared for impact. Instead, a shriek, a muttered apology, and they continued on.

“Ooh, you can tell he’s a runner. He’s pacing himself well. But his friend’s pretty heavy. He’ll be walking.” My friend’s analysis was correct. She was similarly correct about the next group of girls that tore past us. Most walked back in defeat.

To their credit, the seasoned streakers started passing intelligence to their associates, and the groups began to anticipate the slopes. Catastrophic wipeouts drastically reduced, which while fortunate for them, was a bit of a disappointment. Watching them fall was half the fun. Yet at the same time, I had no particular desire to use my EMT skills on a naked person lying in the cold grass and mumbling epithets. That’s a tough one to explain to people.

Two girls come walking back up the Lawn, breaking ranks to bypass our blanket. “Sorry guys. We didn’t see you there.” They kept strolling and chatting about classes.

“They’ve been the nicest naked people so far,” my friend remarked. I had to agree.

“Wait, hasn’t he run before? This has to be the third time!” We were both surprised as a large man ran by. He looked to be older than most of the other students.

“Yup!” We spoke too loudly. He gasped his reply and kept jogging.

Amid cheering crowds on the Rotunda steps and jeering drunks along the sidelines, the runners persisted; crowds of them. A sizeable percentage needed to drop a few pounds. It was entertaining to eavesdrop on their not-so-candid conversations as they passed. “Last time I ran this, I really busted my ass. It left a huge scar.” That guy ran more carefully this time. The diehards ran it in running shoes

“Ooh, she has nice hair.” My friend gestured to a darker skinned girl with long hair flowing as she ran. I hesitated to agree with her. I didn’t want to indicate I was looking too closely.

“She has nice hair too!”

“Um, that’s a dude.”


At least 100 runners later, the hour late, we folded up the blanket and prepared to walk back to the car. Another large group ran by us as we stood there. Grabbing my wallet from my pocket and flashing it like an ID, I ran towards the nearest – the heavyset man who was now running for a fourth time.



“Stop.” He looked bewildered, stared at my wallet (there was nothing to see), and suddenly felt very naked. His hands automatically migrated to his crotch.

“What? Why are you stopping me? What did I DO?!” I started to laugh uncontrollably.

“Nothing. Just giving you a heart attack. Keep going.”

“Oh.” He tore off with renewed energy.

“I just want to see ONE MORE bite it,” my friend remarked as we walked away. As we reached the end of the Lawn near the statue, her wish was granted. A particularly ambitious group had not only run down, but now was doing small laps around Homer’s statue. Sure enough, a couple sprawled flat in the grass. We both walked off laughing.

Whatever peace we may have otherwise enjoyed that evening had been irrevocably shattered when the first gaggle of nudes nearly ran us over. A profusion of naked people barreling past us and almost falling on us wasn’t terribly relaxing, but we still had fun. I’ve never seen this before – at least not numbers like these. Stargazing was relegated to the status of secondary interest. The self-shaming before us was more entertaining. And so was the falling.

We’re actually planning another follow-up outing. And we’ll be coming prepared. We’ll bring a camera with a high-powered flash (to preserve these memorable moments indefinitely) and a long rope. And there, lying atop our blanket on the sidelines, we’ll tie one end to a distant tree, and take turns yanking it taut when the streakers approach. After all, what could be more fun than watching well over 100 naked people run by? The answer: watching them all fall down, too. And then we’ll take their pictures. I’m seeing dollar signs…

For a virtual tour of the Lawn, click here (requires Flash).

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Friday, April 17, 2009

Writing Our History

*Retold with permission…

When Pam was attending high school in her native state of Texas in the late 1960s, she learned with some surprise that her neighbor’s son, Jim, across the street (a few years older than her), was now in the Army and deployed to Vietnam. “I didn’t know Jim that well,” she reminded me. “It wasn’t like we were bosom buddies, but I wanted to write to him anyway. They were a nice family.” Obtaining an address from his parents, she began writing him letters. Soon thereafter, she and her family moved elsewhere, but she continued writing.

The letters were never terribly complex or deep, Pam told me. She’d just tell him about school, or their move, goings on in town, interesting news items, life in general, or the normal day-to-day routine. She kept him in the loop with home. Occasionally she would receive a response from Jim saying where he was, how things were going well or not so well, and their losses and gains. As heart wrenching as his letters could be and as young as she was and still in high school, she continued writing to him. After a time, Jim began sharing some of her letters with others in his unit. They may not have known Pam, but it was nice to hear some good news from home – in the states where things were normal, peaceful, and routine. At Christmas she received a card signed by Jim’s whole unit. In a strange way which only troops can understand fully, she was family to them.

After about a year of back and forth correspondence with Jim, she received an abrupt and devastating letter informing her that he had been injured and evacuated. No forwarding address was provided. Graduating high school at about this time, not knowing his condition or status, she never heard from Jim again.

Well over twenty years later, while sorting through a pile of old mail in the attic one day and happening upon the stack of letters from Jim, she was reminded how, though it had diminished over the years, it still continually gnawed at her not knowing what ultimately came of Jim’s injury. “I didn’t even know if he was dead or not,” she admitted. In an effort to determine if he survived his injuries or even the war itself, she went so far as to visit the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC to search for his name. After running through the entire list of more than 58,000 servicemen, Pam could not find his anywhere. “I guess he didn’t die in the war, but I still didn’t know what happened to him.”

Despite being married with a family of her own, the uncertainty of Jim’s condition still bothered her routinely. She couldn’t simply drop it. After a few calls to various government agencies, she was told that while they would not relinquish an address, if she had mail she wished delivered, they would forward it to him. At long last, she determined he was alive. She sent the letter and waited eagerly for a response.

Sometime later, she received a phone call. It was Jim. He was alive, he was doing well, happily married and living life to the fullest back in the states. He personally thanked her for corresponding, apologized for losing contact with her, and revealed how immensely encouraging it was to hear from somebody back home, no matter how distant or little known. “It was good to know that somebody cared,” he told her.

That was twenty years ago. Though they do not remain in contact, the matter is settled. Jim survived the war, he made it home, and Pam is finally at peace to know it. She still has the letters, too, and the Christmas card, and the knowledge that somebody found a few encouraging words so pivotal to maintaining troop morale. This is the stuff of stories; good ones and true ones.

Today, this nation is again at war. Close to 200,000 US servicemen and women are currently deployed in two distant combat zones, and they, like all other warriors and Americans far from home, would be deeply encouraged to know that somebody back here cares. We have been presented with an historical opportunity to write new stories just as powerful and meaningful as Pam and Jim’s. We have the opportunity to connect stranger and servicemember and walk away as patriots, warriors and friends. We have the ability to contribute a short chapter in the heartwarming tale of United States history. And it begins with only a letter.

To further simplify this process, the United States Post Office (USPS) offers special discounts and flat rate Priority Mail packages that can be obtained free of charge from the USPS. They will even pick them up from your home or place of business for free. Click here and here for more information on the USPS’s special offer.

Exhaustive lists of deployed servicemember addresses can be easily obtained from a wide array of troop support and Department of Defense websites, as well as from friends and neighbors across the country. As small a percentage of the population as they may be, there are troops everywhere, and even more so their families, who will gladly provide a means by which you may contact their loved ones.

If you have not done so, I highly encourage you to send a servicemember a letter, a package, and some good news from home. Years from now, it is my hope that attics across the country will be cluttered with pieces of individual national history. They comprise what makes this country great.

*For more writing about sending mail to troops, see also “Good People,” “Mail Woes.”

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, April 16, 2009

"Thanks, USA"

On April 7th 2009, the Department of Homeland Security, Office of Intelligence and Analysis (DHS/I&A) released an assessment to all state and local law enforcement agencies wherein they made a number of inflammatory, baseless remarks about threats returning veterans may pose to the peace and security of the country, and were even so bold as to link them to rightwing extremist groups within US borders. These false accusations have commanded modest media attention, but quickly mobilized veteran groups like the American Legion, VFW, and IAVA. Each is saying the same thing: “this is a false claim, odious, and extremely detrimental to the cause of veteran advocacy and reintegration.” I couldn’t agree more.

Though my mention of this a full nine days after it was first issued from its source, and three days after it first appeared in the media will appear terribly belated, I have been unimpressed with the articles covering it, personally insulted by the insinuations of the original report, and still feel compelled to contribute my thoughts on the subject.

For those unfamiliar with the precise statements, of the report itself, a .pdf version of the original document can be read by clicking here. In a nutshell, the report advises law enforcement agencies to remain vigilant and alert for veterans because, ”…the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.” And, at seven other places in this 10-page document, returning veterans are directly mentioned as posing a potential threat to the peace and safety of the United States.

Since this report was leaked to the media (and it was NOT meant to be, since it was categorized as Unclassified/For Official Use Only), DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has been appearing repeatedly on various networks to not only stand by the report’s assertions, but contradictorily claim that the report was not meant "to suggest that veterans as a whole are at risk of becoming violent extremists." Yet this DHS/I&A document has already directly implied just that.

The next mention of veterans in this report boldly claims, “[r]eturning veterans possess combat skills and experience that are attractive to rightwing extremists. DHS/I&A is concerned that rightwing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to boost their violent capabilities.” Should this be interpreted to state that having a skill makes one inherently more likely to use it? On the contrary, in conjunction to combat skills, servicemembers are also completely familiarized with and trained to act under orders, with the sanction of higher military (and ultimately civilian) authority, and to always conduct themselves in total compliance with the articles of the Geneva conventions, the current Rules of Engagement, and all applicable Escalation of Force doctrines. We aren’t ruthless fighters; we’re skilled, merciful surgeons.

An allegation that veterans are somehow more vulnerable to recruitment by rightwing extremists is not supported by any solid evidence, and the act of a single man (Timothy McVeigh) in no way indicates the sentiment of the rest of us. “The willingness of a small percentage of military personnel to join extremist, groups during the 1990s because they were disgruntled, disillusioned, or suffering from, the psychological effects of war is being replicated today.” Can this be verified? Can any evidence be offered to support these remarks about post-Desert Storm troops? The actions of a single man, though inarguably tragic, do not reflect the sentiment of well over one million Iraq and Afghanistan military veterans.

Again, does our combat skill (always learned in close conjunction with the laws and proper conduct of combat operations) somehow leave us more inclined to use such skills against the very country we took an OATH to protect? Veterans, as a whole, fought to PRESERVE free speech, not harm those with differing opinions. I challenge any legitimate research group to produce verifiable evidence that veterans suffering from the psychological effects of war are somehow more predisposed to “turn” on their own country. I would submit confidently that no such data exists.

Veterans, as a group, are not intellectually, philosophically, or morally vulnerable. If we were, our presence would be contributing to higher crime rates. Yet studies have roundly rejected the assertion that veterans are more inclined to violent crimes than civilian groups in the United States. A few propose that the rates for violent crimes (homicides) are actually LOWER than civilian figures (suggests John Hinderaker of Veterans have, like every other group, their fair share of fools, criminals and troubled. But the rates are no higher than those of their civilian counterparts. To suggest we constitute a greater contribution to crime rates than another group is blatantly false.

This report also ignorantly cites that “a prominent civil rights organization reported in 2006 that ‘large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.’” This claim, however, fails to give the source of the aforementioned information, fails to provide specifics about numbers, and also directly conflicts with other “prominent civil rights organizations” claims that the military unduly attracts a disproportionate number of minority recruits. So who are these white supremacists? The Hispanic infantrymen?

“These skills and knowledge have the potential to boost the capabilities of extremists—including lone wolves or small terrorist cells—to carry out violence.” Well, this is actually entirely correct. But does potential in any way imply willingness? Is a star batter with a baseball team more likely to use that bat to beat his opponents on or off the field? Is he now a threat? The assertion, again, is that veterans are a morally vulnerable group. I find it as unfounded as saying that a dog with big teeth must be more dangerous than a dog with smaller ones. It completely ignores the disposition of the animal, upbringing, personality, and characteristics of the breed. At any rate, troops are never trained to kill; they are trained to fight, to conduct combat operations, and that always in accordance with their orders. There is no arbitrary killing at all. That requires NO training. Just ask a criminal.

Some of the less overt suggestions contained within this report are that veterans, collectively, are threats to be monitored, and therefore a societal burden. While this claim is being fought tooth and nail by a number of veteran organizations, the seeds of doubt have already now been sown with law enforcement AND the public: we should be wary of our veterans, watch them carefully, and be hypersensitive to their behavior. As a veteran who has struggled with the reintegration process/feeling of being welcomed, and as a writer who frequently addresses the public’s reception of returning veterans, I find this a poisonous, counterproductive allegation to my own struggles to return to civilian society and help secure a smooth transition for others. Veterans have been unfairly lime lighted. Incidentally, the precise individual source of this missive remains unknown. The DHS has yet to reveal just who it is within their ranks equates veterans with a threat to domestic peace.

As a whole, this report serves to diminish the citizenry’s indebtedness to veterans, subscribes to fearmongering, invites skepticism, and effectively arrests our reintegration into society. It wastes the resources and time of law enforcement agencies that would be better served pursuing criminals, and instead paints veterans as suspect simply because they served their country. Just like the recent entertaining of a proposal for third part billing with the VA (see “A Matter of Import”), millions of veterans read this as a direct move by the leadership of this nation to abandon and betray us.

Veterans always anticipate some degree of skepticism and abuse from the public. They don’t understand, they’ve listened to the biased media source of their choosing, and frequently mistake veterans for the politicians making the policy decisions on how a war is prosecuted (see “We Needn’t a Parade”). Somewhat begrudgingly, these misplaced jabs are accepted. These people are exercising their right to free speech. We fought for that. But for the government of this nation to agree to and even PURVEY such misinformation is unbelievably wrong. In fact, it conveys a powerful message to us:

“We recruited you, you took an oath to us and this country, you served honorably, lost much, lost friends, and gained a lifetime of nightmares. We welcomed you home halfheartedly, made efforts to distance ourselves from our national responsibility to you, impeded your reintegration and recovery processes, confirmed the poisonous suspicion that you are forever different, failed to resolutely state that you have done well, implied your moral ambiguity despite your rigorous adherence to an honorable creed and your fellow countrymen, and now we believe you pose a threat to our national security.”

Thank you, United States Federal Government, for the warm welcome home.

*Since this writing, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has offered a remarkably unimpressive apology for offense taken to the claims made in the aforementioned report. In an on-air interview with Fox News, she stated, "To the extent veterans read it as an accusation ... an apology is owed… This was an assessment, not an accusation," Napolitano insists that the internal report was, "limited to extremists those who seek to commit violence within the United States. And all this was meant to do was to give law enforcement what we call 'situational awareness.'… The last thing I want to do is offend or castigate all veterans. To the contrary, let's meet and clear the air…”

The air, as far as I’m concerned, is hardly clear.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Into The System

In continuation of the reports on my sleep problem, I met today with my general practitioner who determined that I am, in fact, still alive. It was the first tier when reporting any sort of health issue to the VA. “How long was your tour overseas?”

“Which one?” I asked, and listed the duration of all three.

“Well, that’s DEFINITELY high stress.” Maybe. The last ended 23 months ago…

Based upon the pronouncement that I’m struggling with regular, restful sleep, I have been scheduled to participate in an overnight sleep study this weekend at the VA hospital in Richmond. Typically, a referral would take MUCH longer, but my doctor was somehow able to secure an almost immediate appointment with the sleep people. I’m actually interested in the whole process of being hooked up to electrodes, put on video and voice recorder, and told to go to sleep. I anticipate having no problems with it. 9PM Saturday to 7AM Sunday (which means I get kicked out of the place early morning, grumpy, and disinterested in driving a good hour to get home). What fun. But, such an examination stands to provide a lot of information, which may help with exact diagnoses, as well as effective treatment solutions. We will see. I continue to be amazed with the sharp memory of my doctor, who directly inquired if I was going to actually listen to her treatment suggestions, or ignore them like I always do. I assured her that I’d think about it.

In terms of medication (which is not my favorite subject, as we all now know), I have been prescribed a small dose of two drugs. The first is hilariously simple: 25mg of Benadryl – just enough to keep me drowsy and doped for up to 4-5 hours. The other (hydrocortyzine), acts in precisely the same manner, but has more lasting effects (perhaps as long as 6-7 hours). I may take whichever of the two I prefer, since they are relatively benign, small doses, and non habit-forming. I will be taking neither before Sunday, since I don’t wish to alter my physiology in the least before the sleep study on Saturday night. If I feel so inclined afterwards, I will try a hydrocortyzine and see what happens. If I should find my level of alertness or mental capacity reduced in the least, I will throw them all away.

Following the meeting with my general practitioner came the more ambiguous (in purpose) meeting with a licensed clinical social worker (basically identical to the folks I spoke to yesterday). As best I can describe it, it is this person’s task to better screen a patient before he or she actually speaks with the psychologist. They may find we’re most honest with a social worker than a psychologist. They’re probably right.

It was here that I was asked a number of questions about my military service, medals and commendations, exposure to combat (which required correcting my record, which stated I’d never been in combat – wrong), people I have shot/killed, IED proximity, and any lingering nightmares about these things (I have none).

I was asked to discuss my childhood, abuse (which didn’t happen), any dysfunction to which I may have been exposed at a young age, sexual problems, relational problems, chemical abuse, the substance of my dreams, hobbies, career ambitions, financial stability, and a rather lengthy barrage of questions about my failed engagement. In fact, far more questions were asked about my engagement than about my entire military service. “How do you feel about it?” he would ask. I told him.

Perhaps the most puzzling question was this: “How would you describe your gender and orientation?”

Since he refused to just automatically write down “male,” I was forced to explain, slowly, that I am a straight, heterosexual male.”

“I see.” He checked the appropriate box. Had I the opportunity, I’d have taken a peek at the form, which probably looks more like a continuum than a checklist.

Most frustrating, he asked a number of questions about my gun ownership. First, I don’t wish to subscribe to any notion that my ownership of a firearm in any way heightens my likelihood to do something foolish with it. Statistics have repeatedly proven otherwise. Second, he failed to jot down that I am a former FIREARMS INSTRUCTOR, and preferred to ask me how many guns I own and if I ever carry them. Third, I am particularly sensitive to this question given the recent Department of Homeland Security report that wrongly warns law enforcement agencies that returning OIF/OEF veterans will serve as the skilled and dangerous new recruits to right wing extremist groups within the United States. Statistics, once again, have proven irrefutably that veterans are no more predisposed to violence than any other subculture in the country. We, like everybody else, have our bad apples. Statistically, it is NO MORE than anybody else. Reluctantly, I answered the gun questions. I know what he was thinking, and I didn’t like it.

“Well, we refer all mental health patients to the psychologist for pharmacological solutions.” Better put (though he did not say it), their shrink isn’t there to help; he’s there to medicate. My interest in seeing him diminished further. Yet now, having said the word “depression,” and because I am an OIF/OEF veteran, it is standard operating procedure to perform a post-deployment mental health screening. In fact, there’s no way out of it. Basically, if you went overseas, they want to check your head, all the MORE now after alerting the “dark side” of the VA (the behavior health people) to my presence. They no longer call it mental health. It sounds too mean, I guess.

The social worker then gave me his card and asked if I wished to meet regularly with him as part of an ongoing treatment plan (I did not). He did make the interesting remark that I’m already way ahead of the game here, since one of his first pieces of advice to people is to journal what’s going on in their heads. Cleary, I already do this. While I feel no particular need for his services at this time, I am encouraged that the VA has professionals equipped and standing by to meet regularly with veterans, to take their phone calls at odd hours of the day and night, and perhaps help them through particularly difficult times.

As I departed, he asked me to fill out a PTSD questionnaire, which concentrates around nightmares, paranoia, panic, irritability, and a general annoyance with people who are dumb. I am fairly confident that my responses to the dumb people questions will immediately peg me a “victim of PTSD.” The psychologist will have the final say on that, I suppose.

So, after about three hours in and out of appointments, chatting with frazzled receptionists, kindly nurses, a doctor, a social worker, and briefly with the psychologist, I have learned the following: very little. I have been given some pills, scheduled for a sleep study, and will CONSIDER taking a SINGLE pill after the sleep study (as needed). I will be deemed either normal or crazy by the psychologist on the 29th of April. Right now, my greatest hope lies in the findings of Saturday’s sleep study. Until that time, I will continue to be irritable, try to not throw or otherwise break my cell phone (which keeps ringing or vibrating), not “correct” the people behind me that are having a hollered conversation across the coffee shop dining area, and do my best to be friendly to the general public. At this point, the best course of action is to simply go home. I don’t want to talk to people; they’re dumb.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Walking Past The Guard

In keeping with a personal resolution to be at all times boldly honest and forthright in my writing, I intend to continue directly recounting my ongoing struggle with insufficient sleep, how it is affecting me, and what steps I am taking to rectify the problem. Naturally, when I take the risk of laying all my cards on the table, there is always the potential that the audience will find me immeasurably lacking or insufficient. In my case I may lose credibility, respect, and potentially the audience itself. Why, then, do I pursue this when there is little to be gained? The answer is easy: I have attempted to expose readers to the mind, the heart, and the differences that characterize a veteran as irrevocably changed, challenged, and for some immensely troubled.

I have used myself as an example on several occasions recently, beginning with my broaching of the sleep subject in “Sweet Sleep,” and talking about “demons” in “Behind Closed Doors” (where I admitted to cleverly skirting a number of personal issues), and less direct allusions throughout a number of pieces. What started as a self-professed knowledge on a subject commenced a series of personal delves into my own wounds and dysfunction – beginning first with the admission that I actually HAVE any dysfunction. Before these writings, I was the guy with a little familiarity on the subject writing from the safety of not having seriously experienced it. I was the sane guy taking about the ones that weren’t quite so fortunate. Yet as I continually orbit around the subject, I come closer and closer to its core, which is that one room I’ve been afraid to enter. It’s another desert (in several ways), but I still need to go there. In short, to maintain the honesty which I feel so essential to any sort of personal recovery and also to people better understanding the issues, it’s time I climb off my high horse. I’m sure a number of people are finally saying, “well it’s about time…” Perhaps they’re right. I would challenge them to tread softly here, because my dignity lies somewhere at their feet.

Since writing about my struggles with a good night’s sleep, the matter has worsened considerably, leading most recently to my feeling that I never really have awakened, that I am perpetually ready for sleep, but never rested when I wake up. Naturally, my attitude, patience, and even ability to articulate simple ideas and concepts have suffered tremendously. I am no threat to myself or others, but this desperation for some rejuvenating, refreshing sleep has driven me to make an admission that I have been almost two years unwilling to make: maybe I should get some help.

Why wait this long? Because there’s still an enormous stigma associated with acknowledging any sort of psychological dysfunction. Because I don’t want to be considered crazy. Because any visits to a psychologist immediately terminates all opportunity for certain fields of work, confidence, and security clearances. It means suggesting that I have problems, which means exhibiting a weakness, vulnerability, and lack of “togetherness” that has required being driven into total desperation to even confront. “I’m not the screwed up one,” I like to say, “but I know a bunch of guys that are, and I’m sympathetic to their situation.” Truth is, I might be in that category, too. But I was a Marine once, and we don’t admit problems. We avoid them. We deal with them later (so we say). Perhaps that time is now.

To make a long story short, I called the VA clinic today to schedule a more immediate appointment to see the doctor than the one I had already scheduled two weeks away. I don’t know if I’ll still be sane after two more weeks of insufficient sleep. I might be mumbling in a sanitarium trying to sort reality from fantasy and nightmare. I’m already halfway there with my speech. I sound drunk sometimes.

After explaining that I already have an appointment two weeks away regarding an inability to get a good night’s rest, they informed me that they have no sooner dates unless a triage nurse deemed my situation more urgent. That required a telephone transfer to the Richmond regional office, where I answered at least five questions about the color of my urine, at least a dozen more about specific aches and pains, and then the pinnacle of undesirable questions: “Are you depressed?” I hate this one. I don’t want to answer it, but at the same time, I elect to be truthful, even though I’m annoyed that the nurse can’t even pronounce the word, “fatigue,” which to me seems simple. “Are you depressed?”

“Insofar as I’m tired, cranky, and frustrated that I can’t get any good sleep, yes.”

I could virtually hear every gear in the great governmental healthcare system grind to an abrupt halt. The nurse’s attitude shifted immediately from one of busied disinterest to “there, there” speech and very concerned. My response, I am certain, opened up a new window on her computer screen with even more frustrating inquiries. A few more questions about the color of my urine, the consistency of my stools, and the obligatory question about wanting to hurt myself and others (I do not), and she very gently tells me that if things get worse, call 911, and if I need to talk to somebody, call 1-800-273-TALK. I thank her and wait for the call-back on an appointment. Within ten minutes, my supposition that I had raised warning flags left and right was confirmed. My appointment is tomorrow. And the VA now knows I have psychological issues. Pandora’s box, as far as I’m concerned, has been thrown wide open…

As the receptionist scheduled the appointment on the phone with me, she typed in numbers and information and occasionally whispered unconsciously. “0415,” she said quietly. I’m immediately defensive.

“Is that the code number for my case?” I was thinking of how crazies in the military are either given a categorization of “section 8,” or “fourth floor.” Is that what I am to them? Crazy? Shit. This is why it took two years to get me to call them.

“No sir. That’s just the date of the appointment. We’re here for you.” More nice speech.


This isn’t a simple meeting with a general practitioner, however. I have that meeting first, wherein she will probably determine that, “yup; he’s got issues.” Then I get to see a social worker they have on staff, another dreaded experience. Never mind that just this morning I stood before a class of over TWENTY social workers and told them somewhat articulately about veterans issues and how a lot of guys have problems (but I really don’t). Actually SEEING a social worker one is a nightmare of mine. There goes the rest of my dignity. I’m sure those that know me are saying, once again, “It’s about time, you bozo. We’ve known it all along.”

And I don’t want pills, since they may change my personality. Maybe that’s my last holdout here. “Actually taking pills REALLY means you have a problem.” But more importantly, I don’t want to be unable to think clearly. The whole idea with sleeping is that I CAN think clearly again. I do quite well when I can think coherently. And I don’t want to be called a crazed, PTSD-ridden veteran. I just want to WRITE about them. It’s safe on my side of the fence. Vulnerable is not safe at all.

It’s like an onion, really, and it has a lot of layers. When I first started writing on the subject of the military, it was from within the ranks, very superficial, and pertained to tactical matters, deployments, and missing home. That may have been the first layer. After the military, there was missing it, and hating it at the same time, and not having peace with my own service. That probably propelled me a couple layers deeper. It was still easy to talk about. But then came more complex matters, like readjustment, depression (never mine), and PTSD and suicide rates (again, disconnected to my own thoughts on the subject). The medial layers had been penetrated.

Yet as I have spoken directly with more veterans who have been blown up, suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), been diagnosed with PTSD and chronic depression, I have also read at length on the subject, specifically for the causes of service-related PTSD and depression. While uncomfortable to write about at times, I have pierced ever deeper layers. I have gone to great lengths to circumvent my own struggles with these subjects. It requires more vulnerability than I am willing (and at times able) to muster.

So now enter the trouble with sleeping, which is an ongoing issue that has only worsened over the past few years and recently landed me in a place where I am unable to rest, reluctant to rise, and self-loathe if I must resort to taking naps to get through the day. It reinforces the self-held belief that my name and situation may be synonymous with fail. It’s ugly; and I don’t want to touch it. But desperation is quickly carrying me here, where I must make the halfhearted admission that despite the stigma, despite the bridge-burning associated with it, and despite the potential for great loss of countenance before others and even myself, I need to go there nevertheless.

This last cling to dignity (pride) is the demon guarding the door that I speak of in “Behind Closed Doors.” What lies within still intimidates me, and I still only enter with great trepidation, but, like the other desert I am inexplicably drawn to, this one beckons me powerfully. Yet I must enter. Therein lies the little dark mass I’ve carefully avoided for quite some time.

What is to be gained by speaking about it? Potentially several things, foremost among them that other men and women who need help will recognize that it’s available, that if somebody who nearly two years after his service can still come to the realization that things are amiss (despite a loving family, a strong faith, and a great network of friends), perhaps they, too, will be emboldened to seek help (if they need it). After all, I, having made a pronouncement of needing assistance, am in no place to judge them. I am in the same boat. I will have gone there already, and perhaps can now go there with them, too.

Finally, as much as it may sound like self-stroking, there is something honorable about honesty, even when it places one in the discomfort of total vulnerability. This will not kill me, I know. It will help me. As I mentioned before, I don’t want to hurt myself or others, I want to find healing. I don’t want to survive, I want to live, and more abundantly. Just as significant, there is a story to tell, and this is a critical component of it. As listeners, and friends, and family and anonymous readers, I want to tell it to you. It’s my story, and I’m bringing you with me; thus you become part of the story. And just as much as you go with me, God also goes with me, and He’s in that dark room and desert, too. And it is His attendance, and to a lesser degree yours (but still infinitely important), that will make all the difference.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Algae Guy

There are a probably a number of teaching methods for hammering ideas and nomenclature into the heads of young people, from rapping knuckles with rulers to discussing how a number feels about being divided by seventeen, but none were so memorable to me as a professor using himself as an object lesson. To say the least, it was unexpected.

To quickly dispel any concerns of prurience, the object lesson pertained to flower parts, not human anatomy, which is why my first week of Plant Biology found me sitting in a class in front of a man-sized flower – or better put, a man dressed all in green, complete with green stocking shoved over his face, a necklace of sepals, and a “crown” of petals, anthers, ovaries and stamens atop his head. Half the class was truly alarmed. We, the better half, attempted to check our laughter.

Dr. Porter’s arrivals were always somewhat strange, since one vacillated between intense curiosity over what he’d do next and concern that he’d fall and hurt himself. His cane seemed to be more hindrance than help, at least when he negotiated doors and stairs. It would catch in the swinging doors, or he’d drop it, or he’d crash it into something, all the while holding a terribly large stack of papers or objects to distribute through the class. We prayed he wouldn’t fall.

How he was assigned to teach an undergraduate plant biology course was beyond me, since his area of expertise was actually the study of algae, officially termed algology or phycology. After over thirty years of dangling over the bows of ships in every ocean of the world, “kelp hunting” and sampling, diving and retrieving, such a lowly course must have bored him. Perhaps he was returning to simpler teaching, since at 72 years old, he was only a year away from retirement. Regardless of the motive or explanation, he taught botany quite well. He illustrated the importance of identifying plants with the story of a time in the Boy Scouts that found him and a friend sitting in a bed of poison ivy, eating it with much merriment. He remained merry, but his friend did not (and remained hospitalized for quite some time). It was important to know plants, he insisted.

Knock-kneed and wobbly without his cane, he would nevertheless park it at the podium and stump repeatedly back and forth, hobbling over to write on the blackboard, fight with light switches, or pass out assignments. On the particular morning he struggled through the door wearing his flower parts, he rapped his head repeatedly with the cane to point out the sex parts of the flower. I hardly remember their names now, but I do remember that particular class.

Nor did he ever stop talking, either, in a voice that reminded me of a cross between Jim Purdue (the chicken guy) and Tom Bodett (the Motel 6 guy). I can’t think of another way to describe it besides friendly and enthusiastic. Since we never knew what he’d say next, we’d always listen. After years at sea, he’d collected more tales than our young minds could possibly imagine. A few pictures in his office showed a shirtless young guy holding up a giant kelp the way a fisherman might display his catch of blue marlin or dolphin. It all left you curious.

A year later, I found myself sitting in his writing-intensive, graduate-level algology course wondering if I’d made a big mistake. With thirteen students, I couldn’t miss a class. I’d be easily noticed. We had weekly reports due on little phycological processes, like reproductive cycles, drawing things, or full-length papers elaborating about how algae was important to everybody and everything. It was only his enthusiasm for the subject that kept our heads above the water (no pun intended).

One would think that a man restricted to use of a cane would be uninterested in outdoor activities, which left us all the more bewildered and surprised when he announced we had a field trip one week which entailed driving around to a number of local ponds and streams to poke about in the muck for a sample of something he could indentify from the car but we had to examine under a microscope. We always walked closely in case he fell and needed assistance. If memory serves me correctly, WE were the ones that fell. He moved quickly. Perhaps his cane emboldened him.

But this was a man who did more than teach students. He invited us into his home, ate and visited with us, and introduced his wife, who much like Mr. Sellers’ wife seemed to tolerate his silliness quite amiably. It was the enthusiasm of a previous class of graduate students that led to an ambitious lot of them sneaking ethanol into a Va Tech football game, hidden in test tubes in their socks. Sometime later, Dr. Porter’s students politely led a hollering and disagreeable older man with the cane out of the stadium – whereupon he began to beat the governor’s limousine with the same cane. They were forced to lead him still further. He remains proud of his adventure, but more wary of the effects of ethanol.

Much like Mr. Sellers, Dr. Porter’s attempts to foster in us an innate curiosity on a subject met with only limited success. What they taught, and for the sake of their course, they taught quite well. But a decade later, what we all remember is the character that conveyed the information. The man with slight tremors and a cane who spent more time pointing and poking at things with it than using it to support his movements. The day he scared the faculty by dressing as a flower, and the students that politely hauled him away when he’d had enough of his “test tubes.” The man who enjoyed eating algae, perhaps a holdover from his days of munching on poison ivy in the Boy Scouts. If nothing else, however, we all wish to remember two things: First, the teacher who made us laugh and enjoy an otherwise obscure, difficult subject, and second, what pond scum NOT to eat when we next find ourselves outside.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, April 12, 2009

I Won't Go Back

Outside, the reluctant spring sun warms the crowded parking lot and car interiors, and radiates off the grass in the nearby field. Walkers stroll on the river trail, leading dogs, celebrating Easter with infrequently seen relatives. Spring, at long last, is here. I presume the veterans bar would be similarly busy, lively, and energetic. The season is contagious; and I like it.

But the interior was different. Every last window is shut, every shade drawn and every blind closed tightly. It reeks of smoke, and save for the occasional guffaws coming from a table of men more than a quarter century my senior, there is little sound. Overhead the fans stir the smoke of every other man’s cigarette, and that of the bartender, and the cook. At the electronic poker machines in the corner, two older men set their ashtrays atop the devices and alternate between long drags and listless button pushing. I order my diet Coke and sit there. Nobody talks to me.

Three opened Cokes also sit before me on the bar, along with a half full handle of whiskey. A sticker on the neck announces its owner: Melvin. He pushes back his chair behind me, leans around me at the bar, pours a bit, cuts it with the Coke, and returns to the poker game behind me. More guffaws. From the other game in the back room, a small man stumps up and doesn’t stop until he’s behind the bar itself. He asks for a beer, a pack of crackers, and chips for himself. They’d sent him to get provisions. Juggling the stores and a smoldering cigarette, he tells the bartender what item goes on whose tab and wanders back to the game.

In the TV in the corner, a dozen golf announcers quietly chatter about the complexities of this particular green or that sand trap, and Tiger Woods is playing horribly. Those images fuel the conversations around me. Nobody speaks to me still. Those that do speak never get much beyond the imagery of the TV and the local weather. On the far wall hangs the POW/MIA flag. “You are not forgotten.” I’m not so sure.

There are old people here, and old wars, and old veteran hats, and flags hang everywhere covered in a layer of dust, and more handicapped parking spaces outside than a major store. Those who aren’t in poor shape seem to be working hard to get that way. Melvin walks up. “I’m done Sharon.” He slides the whiskey handle back towards her and slumps hard into his seat again.

There was youth here once, when the war was fresh in everybody’s mind and they were heroes or hated and the trauma had arrested any further maturity. They were all in it together. They could all talk about it a little and drink about it even more. But it was okay to talk about it back then. They were brothers. Now they’re just drinking buddies. I used to worry that they’d read this if I wrote about it, but I know now that none of them ever will. It’s not what they do. They watch the TV and play the poker machine or gamble in the back, or fiddle with the jukebox, or talk about the weather. They want to read about our war no more than they want to talk about their own. Those dreams died long ago. They medicated them. This bar isn’t full of war heroes. It’s full of those still bleeding from the war.

It was the jobs and responsibilities, and the conviction that nobody really cares anyway. There was purpose once, and it was grand and patriotic, and now there’s the house you grew up in and friends who don’t know you anymore and the purpose vanishes like sand sprinkled into a stiff wind. “It’s over now,” they admit. “The best, the worst, the most memorable and the most beautiful…it’s already behind us. We’ll rally still, but in unified defeat. We’ll never talk about it though. We toast and drink and toast again, and stagger home late. We’ll be back tomorrow at 2PM when the grill opens.”

“I’m a professional drunk,” announced the commander to me one day, and I lost all interest in talking to him. There’s one flag missing here, and one that I think should hang about all the others: the white flag of surrender. Life has left this building, and the souls of those within it. Maybe they grew tired. God help me if I end up like this.

In my heart, I see in the hand of every man a shovel, and they are laboring hard. Having buried friends and brothers and comrades and then dreams and ambitions, they have begun to dig their own plots now. If I abide here, I will start digging soon. I pay for my Coke and leave. Outside, the sun is still gorgeous and my clothes reek of stale smoke. This is not a safe place; it is a dead place. I’ve just departed a funeral.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved