(An updated, better edited version of this post can be read here. Below, you will find the unedited version I wrote immediately after the event.)
I could hear the rain brushing the screens of the windows by my bed as the clock radio began squawking at me at four in the morning. I lingered under the covers as a fuzzy version of NPR and the muffled precipitation seemed to converse with one another. Then, I rolled over, turned on the lamp, a dim light crawled out from under the lampshade to fill my half of the room, and I got out of bed.
“This is going to be a long day,” I thought. I put on a bright blue dress and red scarf, knowing I would not blend in with the black, gray, and beige crowd that populated the city for which I was destined. Despite the meager amount of sleep on which I functioned, I felt surprisingly alert, and although fully aware of the intensity soon to envelope me, I felt upbeat. Pete drove me to the airport, and within minutes I was checked in and at Gate 24B with a Starbucks paper cup in hand, filled with sweet, hot liquid. It was a short flight to Washington DC from Columbus Ohio. Instead of napping, I decided I would read to pass the time. I had just finished The Celestine Prophecy at about 11pm the night before. It was the second time I read that book, with the first time being nearly 10 years ago but its effect on me just as powerful (and a perfectly timed reminder to try to keep my energy level lifted/positive as I began a challenging day). Since it was time to start a new book, I began reading Angela’s Ashes (a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time) on the one hour flight to our nation’s capital.
About 60 pages into the Irish memoir, my plane touched down on a sunny Reagan National Airport runway. I always enjoy the approach to DCA. I look out the window like a little kid, enthralled with the Lego-land world below. Tracing the Potomac, I can easily site the historical landmarks of DC to my left and my old stomping grounds of Northern Virginia to my right, and directly below the belly of the aircraft snakes the paved path which borders the river and on which I’ve logged so many miles over the years. Every time I fly into DC, I have to consciously recall whether I am arriving for a visit or returning home because I’ve done both so many times that I often get mixed up as to what exactly my resident status is. I catch myself thinking through exactly this dilemma and smile as my internal voice reminds me, “You are not catching a cab south to Shirlington; get off the plane and catch the metro north, into the city.”
It was a logistical piece of pie as I deplaned with carry-on in tow, bought a metro ticket and jumped on the yellow line toward Gallery Place/China town and switched to the red line. My destination was between two stops, and I decided to get off at Union Station instead of Judiciary Square because I always find that walking through the luxurious marble foyer imbibes me with a rich respect for the city. I made a mistake, though, and got off the train in the wrong direction, exiting through some strange back/side door that I never knew existed before and did not get the scenic route I had hoped for. “Oh well,” I thought. “It’s nice outside so no biggie,” and I soaked in my surroundings during the five block walk to the Washington Court Hotel, site of Truth and Justice: The 2012 Summit on Military Sexual Violence organized by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN).
The keynote speaker of the event was Mary Lauterbach whose daughter was murdered at Camp Lejeune in 2007. The distinguished guests who were presented awards by Anu Bhagwati, founder of SWAN, were Senator John Kerry, Senator Susan Collins, Representative Niki Tsongas, Representative Mike Turner, Sharon La’Tise Morrison, and Susan Avila-Smith. I was impressed by the class with which these people spoke on a sensitive subject and the grace with which they accepted their awards. Additionally, the event included two panels, one with veteran service members who survived sexual trauma and another of legal professionals who discussed the current laws and how to get them changed. The featured speakers included: Lawrence Korb, Representative Chellie Pingree, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Representative Bruce Braley (self-ascribed “Pissed-Off Congressman”). I found what Susan Park, a staff attorney in the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, had to say about Title 7 enlightening; from my understanding of it, application of Title 7 principles to military law would be beneficial. I also respected how Elizabeth Hillman, a USAF veteran and professor of law at UC Hastings College of Law, handled the situation when some members of the audience became irate with a retired (male) Army General on the panel. I definitely understand the anger, frustrating, and pain, but felt the outbursts were disrespectful and unwarranted. What was the point in yelling at an elderly man who could not enact any change even if he wanted to? Unfortunately, the truth of the message can get lost among angry words, and we do ourselves a disservice – right, wrong, or otherwise – when lose we our bearing in that type of setting. I was happy to see, though, how the SWAN moderator adeptly handled the crowd, and restored calm to the room.
After about six hours of meeting others, listening to panelists, doing a brief interview with FOX News, and witnessing awards ceremonies, we were served lunch, given cursory instruction on how best to approach our Senators and Representatives, then set lose to “attack the Hill.” ;-p The weather had shifted since the morning, and our pack of swanlings were caught in the rain during our walk from Hotel to Hill, but did not let it deter us from taking a smiling group photo in front of the Capitol building right after which I finally got to meet the amazing Anu Bhagwati in person. I introduced myself and she actually said she knew who I was! I was shocked and honored when, after we embraced and I thanked her for the positive difference she has made and the tireless work she has accomplished, she thanked me. That really made my day to meet such a distinguished woman. I stood anchored to the wet grass for a moment, fully appreciating exactly where I was, before our crowd scattered into mini-groups, organized by state, to descend upon our elected officials.