As a follow up to the “Crap and Craic” piece I wrote earlier this week, I’d like to add a few more thoughts I have about issues women vets face while deployed and when they return. I’d already been mulling it over and then yesterday I had a three hour long interview with Greta Privitera from Italian Vanity Fair and my mind was forced in that direction once more.
I mentioned it already, but I believe it needs emphasis: INTENSITY. Intensity, not just in interpersonal relationships or time usage, but in everything, intensity reigns supreme for combat vets. For those of us who were/are Marines, I think we get that. It’s what we signed up for – intensity, that is. But I think the deployed environment kicks it up another notch because it’s not just an intense training environment anymore, it’s intense life-or-death, what-I-do-really-matters, environment. Every emotion, every thought, every feeling is magnified. So when you function day-to-day with that pervasive intensity while you’re deployed, when you return home, it’s hard to flip that switch off. As I’ve said before, it’s not like I was literally out “in the shit” like some of my friends, so I know there are varying degrees of this emotion, but even as an “Intel Pogue” I experienced exaggerated highs and lows in my professional life which carried over into my personal life outside of the Corps when I returned home.
Now, the second point I want to bring up is one I did discuss with Helen on Monday but didn’t mention in my first blog post: ISOLATION. On my first deployment, I was the only female officer in my entire unit of about 200 people. There were three or four female Lance Corporals in the S-3 and S-4. Thus, I immediately faced a challenge when trying to establish my peer group within the unit. As a man, this would not be an issue – as a 2nd Lt, you would socialize with other Lt’s and Captains. However, as a female 2nd Lt, I was I told that hanging out with the one other Lt in my squadron was inappropriate. Why? Because he already had a bad rap, so if I was seen “traipsing” around with him (gasp! We went to chow together and ran together!) that I appeared unprofessional. (see previous blog entry) Therefore, I was told by the OpsO, “Plummer, if you want someone to hang out with, hang out with the female enlisted.” Really?! Ok, I’m not “really!?”ing this because I thought I was better than those girls and/or didn’t want to hang out with them. I was pissed because I was being told to fraternize! I just can’t imagine a male officer ever being told, “Hey man, go hang out with the E-dogs; that’s cool.” In fact, the male Lieutenant had explicitly gotten in trouble several times over in his previous two years with this unit for doing exactly that! Yet, there I was getting told I needed to chill with the LCpls. I chose otherwise.
Thus, for long stretches at a time, I had almost zero (comfortable) social network while I was deployed. Occasionally I made it over to mainside TQ and had lunch with a girlfriend or two living on that side of the base…and as the deployment went on, some of the “don’t hang out with the other (male) Lt” BS died down, but it never went away completely. Plus, all the other officers in the squadron were Captains or Majors and married, so they didn’t want to be seen chatting with a young, female Lt themselves. That’s not to say no one ever talked to me outside of work or that I never had any form of a social life, but it was often tinged with a little bit of unease because of the ever-present monster of perception. Take, for instance, my completely platonic relationship with my friend, Ken. People just couldn’t believe we weren’t sleeping together, but since we weren’t, and we were dear friends, we accepted that some people would assume there was more going on, but conducted ourselves as friends, and went on with our lives. But he wasn’t in my unit, so that helped me embody the “I don’t care, I know I’m behaving appropriately so I’m not going to let other people get to me” attitude. Within my unit, though, it was often very lonely.
On the second deployment, our flight doc was a female (read: Navy (not Marine)). When I heard the news, I was excited; when she showed up and we met in person, I was reluctant. She was a strange bird from the get-go, and it turned out my initial gut instinct about her was spot on. (more on that later) But in the hopes of salvaging some sort of female camaraderie during my second trip to Iraq, I tried to befriend her. Very long story short, that effort eventually petered out because, hey, I’m only human, and I can only stand so many socially awkward conversations in tight living quarters (we shared a room). One of the young enlisted Marines asked me one day, “How do you not kill yourself sharing a bedroom with her?” He laughed, I didn’t respond, but on the inside wanted to cry/laugh myself. It sucked. She wasn’t just social awkward, she was constantly angry and had an unpleasant disposition. It was ironic that I’d hoped for a female officer companion on my first tour and now that I had one, felt like life would’ve been better without her there.
…Which leads me to another topic: being friends with other female Marines. Ladies, let me know if I’m off-base here, but in general, you either love or hate other women. I think a lot of civilians, and even male Marines, assume that because we’re women we all love each other. It’s like assuming all immigrants from one country are buddies here in America just because they’re from the same foreign land. Yes, it could be a contributing factor to a bond…but it didn’t guarantee that bond. But, I think Marine women are like Marine men – there are good ones and there are bad ones, and I’ve met a bunch of both. The same way I don’t love every Marine there ever was or is just because I was a Marine, I don’t love every female Marine just because I’m a female. I hope to like or respect all Marines – woman or man – but the reality is that as much as we are all part of a brother/sisterhood, we’re still individuals and sometimes personalities just don’t mesh. Plus, sometimes there are bad people in good organizations; it doesn’t make everyone “good” just because they’re in it as it wouldn’t make everyone “bad” either because of a few bad apples in the bunch. Ok, I think you get the point 😉
Moving on…I always somewhat envied my girlfriends who were stationed at Camp Fallujah when they were in Iraq because they had buddies to hang out with who were socially/professionally acceptable buddies. They had chow together, ran together, watched movies together. We all had different experiences in the sandbox for various reasons, but in respect to this topic, I did feel like I had things a little harder. As I reflected in my deployment journals, I desperately missed girlfriends because spending time with women, quality women, could be a healthy way to recharge and rebalance which, heck, in Iraq, I was often in need of.
Well, I’m off to the chiro then to crank out some yoga before I pack for my big yoga Costa Rica trip (I leave in 18 hours!!!) so I’ve gotta do an abrupt ending here. Sorry. There are many more issues I could discuss, but this is good enough for now I think 😉 Thanks for reading my two cents today 🙂