“I’m sorry, Anne-Marie,” you told me then.
“But sir, I don’t think you understand,” I countered, gripping the phone and scanning the notes I’d made in preparation for this call. “It’s not fun for me here. I’m working 16 hour days, six and a half days a week, sometimes 36 hours straight. But I’m contributing to the war effort. They need experience when the army corps changes over in December. You know they even take their hard drives, the new corps comes in with nothing. Here is where experience matters. I can be the continuity. You don’t need me back in Japan, you have other officers … .”
You let me list my points. I must have sounded like a whiney cadet, but you must have remembered what it was like to be young, to believe you could make a difference, to believe that you mattered, that you would save the world — or just a few lives, and that was enough — if you could just have your own way.
“This way you give other officers the chance to take your place,” you said. “Let others learn what you’ve learned. Let them get experience, too.”
“But sir ... !”
“I’m sorry, lieutenant. I can’t approve your request to extend your tour in Iraq.”
Discussion ended. I did not slam the receiver down. Even alone, in an office with the door closed, that would have seemed unprofessional. I placed the receiver back in its cradle and made fists instead, glaring at the wall in front of me. Dammit. Now what do I do?
In some ways I wish I’d never kept a journal. I wish I could only feel as much as I remember now, eight years on. The anger, the frustration, the rightness of leaving the Air Force and moving on. I wish I could not read and feel anew how hard it was back then to choose.
Last night was the first time since starting to get frustrated that I felt again how much I will miss it. The people, the job, the experience, even my little trailer that is home – will be hard no matter what.
These people raised me up and taught me so much, and the airmen responded to the officer I became. I will miss having Maxcy’s opinion and guidance at every step – but if I have absorbed 1/10th of what he tried to teach me, I will be doing alright. This is the first time I doubt my decision to put in paperwork ... . I think of the experience I had and the lessons I learned, and my heart sinks at the thought that I will not have a chance to make captain or colonel and apply officership guided by strong SNCOs.
A lot is broken. But a lot works, and bottom line is that we work together to get information to the people who risk their lives every day. This validates my service and this is what I signed on the dotted line to do. This right here, lead a group of people to do a mission that hopefully saves lives.
I could not go back, sir. I couldn’t return to the paperwork, the office, the exercises and inspections preparing for a war in the Pacific that wouldn’t come, even while people were dying in Iraq and I might, just might, be able to help that cause. In Iraq I knew what I was doing. I had people who cared, people who trained me, people who helped me succeed. In Iraq I had a home.
I missed it even before I left. I loved the leadership I learned in Iraq. I loved the senior enlisted men and women who taught me to trust them and to be a good officer. Maxcy and Bess, my army master sergeants, constant advisors with twenty years more experience than my measly two, but I outranked them by virtue of a college degree and a commission. And so they trained me, and I learned, and loved them. Gunny and Cheatham, my Marines, and Matt, my tattooed, cussing Aussie navy man, devoted, funny and kind. And Newt and Shu, my pit bulls, the women who protected me so I could do my job, who gave me, when I left, a tri-colored gold bracelet so I would always remember them, and the three of us together, making waves. I wear it almost every day, and every day I put it on I think of them.
Applying the lessons I learned from my enlisted non-commissioned officers would have made me a good senior officer one day; this they told me, this I knew. This I would miss most, not just outside Iraq, but outside the U.S. Air Force. They were the greatest teachers a young officer could hope for.
I’ve learned to go to them because they are the experts … . They know their stuff and I know their assessments will be spot on … . They are the ones getting this shit done, and if the higher ups would stop interfering, with their numbers and their briefing needs, we might actually have a chance to fight this war!
But in my journal from that time, I also wrote of hope, of excitement about possible futures, of plans for a new life, for grad school, travel, freedom. I looked forward to time spent with my friends and family while I still had the chance.
But there are other priorities, my mom and grandparents, family and friends, other dreams I have and want to pursue. Opportunities arise and I am taking this one, and I am not stressed about the future but rather looking forward to it.
I’ve served, and made an impact, and now my gut and my heart are telling me to make a change, and so what if the command doesn’t like it.
Go home, re-center, remember that family and friends are priority, take a trip around and visit them! Why not?! So excited at the thought of re-establishing connections.
That spark is what I hold on to, because that is what has come to pass, and it has changed my life, and changed me.
Eight months after that phone call you spoke at my farewell, as I was leaving our station in Japan, leaving the Air Force, going home to Dallas, Texas. You brought up the phone call. You told the group gathered in our conference room about “significant emotional events.” You’d known, you said, that your decision to bring me back to Japan would likely push me out of the service altogether. I’d made that clear. I’d told you what it meant to me. You made the decision anyway. And from it, I made mine. I had no idea you’d remember that call so clearly. We’d barely had a handful of private conversations; how could I know you were paying such close attention?
May I explain? There was more in me, more I wanted from this life, no matter how much I treasured the lessons I’d learned, no matter how much I knew I’d be giving up. Can you understand this? That the Air Force — the military — is good for some people, even great, but that for others to spread their wings, they must first slip the bonds?
Knowing it was right didn’t make it easy. The day I signed my separation papers at Sheppard Air Force Base, the closest base to Dallas but still two hours away, I drove home, went into my room at my parents’ house, shut the door, and curled up in bed still wearing my combat boots and camouflage. The green-brown-black pattern must have looked funny against my childhood bedspread, white with pink bows and purple ribbons. I looked over at the bookshelves holding old physics textbooks and photographs from father-daughter dances in high school, pictures of friends, certificates from camp, stuffed animals. Childhood. From there I’d forge my new life, but I didn’t know it yet. It was May 15, 2007, and what I knew was that I was no longer an officer. I knew that once I took off my uniform, I would never put it on again in the service of my country. I slept in it.
I spent my first months on the outside casting about, attempting a business course here, working a retail job there. Feeling relieved that my efforts to straighten boxes on a shelf at The Container Store didn’t mean life or death consequences for anyone. I didn’t have a goal, didn’t know what I wanted to be.
I casted about for eight years, and when it was all over, when I ran out of steam on doing, and was left simply being, I came to realize that more than anything, I just want to be me. I want to do what comes naturally to me. I want to spend my effort where it fits, where it takes shape in harmony with my natural abilities. I have spent these eight years discovering what I can do best of all, what only I can do — not as a warm body in a chair, or a number in an Excel spreadsheet, but as me, my flesh and mind and heart, with my education and experience, my passion, my drive.
That’s why I left, and what I’m looking for. And it’s taken me all this time of trying, of school, work, travel, yoga and odd jobs, to discover what I’ve always known: that writing is my truest expression, my one necessity. It’s the way I think, the way I organize my life, the way I see the world. It’s the way I learn and breathe and experience joy and anguish. Writing is the only thing that will not let me go, no matter how I try to escape into something, anything, “easier.”
I had to leave to know this. I had to travel. I needed everything that brought me to this point, to come to realize that success is not what I thought it was. It’s not what the military champions; it’s not awards, rank, or praise. It comes from within. It comes from struggling to define myself amid mistakes and missteps, and still to hold my head high, shaping my soul for the work I alone am called to do, the life I alone am here to live. Success comes from believing that I am enough just as I am.
For a long time after leaving the Air Force I felt guilty that I hadn’t lived up to the Air Force core value of “Service Before Self.” That one had been instilled in me since I was a girl, a Girl Scout even. I’ve always felt that I was made to serve, and the military seemed an obvious way to do it. When I chose to leave, I thought that was the end of my service. I was afraid others would think I was selfish and small. I was ashamed to admit that I wanted to live my own life.
I’d been trained since birth to do what is right and to put others first. But I see now that what that meant changed for me. Before, it meant going where others said to go, doing what others said was right — my parents, my teachers, my trainers, my leaders, you.
In Iraq I learned to do what I thought was right. I learned it from people who weren’t assigned over me, but under me. They led from below, so I would learn by example, not by instruction. They taught me to back my people, not the bosses.
You may recall, sir, that one of my jobs in Iraq was to brief the commanding general. Sometimes he asked questions, sometimes he didn’t. I got good at it, prepared by my intelligence and explosive ordnance disposal teams, the enlisted troops who knew the data and the issues. One afternoon, after I’d delivered my speech into the microphone as I’d done every day since the first week I arrived in Baghdad, he asked one simple question: “Are you sure?”
I paused, sensing the colonel to my right leaning towards me. I knew he was about to tell me to hold back. I ignored him. I knew the answer. I spoke loudly into the microphone, “Yes, sir.”
The general waited a few seconds. In the silence I pictured him somewhere behind me, where he sat, raising his eyebrows and nodding. “Okay, then. Next.”
As the next briefing started, the colonel shook his head and whispered, “Wrong answer, Corley, too forceful. We’ll have to check again.” I leaned back, breathed out, and said nothing.
When I got back to the office, there were my troops smiling and laughing. Newt was shouting, “You were great, LT, we heard it over the transom, we went nuts! You backed us up!”
“Yeah, ma’am, you tell ’em!” Shu said. I knew I’d done what I was there to do — to protect my people, as they protected me. To stand up for them. To speak with confidence, when a cringing colonel would have me say we’ll go back and check again, sir. But I’d learned that when you trust your people, they don’t let you down. We were the experts; what could colonels and generals know so low down in the weeds? We were the ones staring at the numbers and the tactics every day. We knew our stuff. Even though the colonel made us stay late that night to check the numbers again, I went home to my trailer happy. I’d stood up. I’d spoken in my voice, with sureness. I knew for that one moment who I was.
I could not bury that feeling or leave it behind just so others could have their chance to learn what I had learned. So that the Air Force could keep to its spreadsheet that had assigned officers to my position four or five rotations out. Who knew what that would bring, which people would come dedicated, and which would bide their time till they could get back home to normal life? It was a crapshoot. So what if my desire to stay wasn’t fair to others. I knew that I was dedicated, I was sharp, I already knew the ropes. That seemed fair to the people whose lives were on the line.
That’s what it came down to: You wouldn’t let me stay in Iraq, and for the first time I rebelled against doing what someone else said I had to do for the good of others. I thought I knew best what I could do for the people who actually mattered — the ones in harm’s way, not the ones who’d come to replace me. Who chooses the ones we serve? For the first time my answer differed from yours, from what I’d been taught and told.
That opened the door for me to ask: Don’t I know what’s best for myself? I’m a smart, accomplished woman. I wanted to be able to trust myself. And the Air Force has no framework for one person to decide for herself where she will go next, how she will control her life, how she will shape and direct her actions. Fighting you was the first fight against a shell that others created for me, against decisions that others made for me. In opposing you and all I’d known from childhood — others’ notions of service, excellence, and integrity — I started thinking in terms of “me,” not “we.”
That is when I emerged. Out of family we, out of twinship we, out of Air Force and team we, out of service we, to me. Something in me did die over there in Iraq: my willingness to do what others told me to, simply because they told me to, and compelled me by law to listen and obey. The only choice I could make for my Self was to leave altogether.
I’ve done things since, sir, because others asked me to. I’ve felt obligated, and I’ve chaffed under the obligation, and I’ve fumed inside and done it. But yours was the last decision I abided by because I’d given an oath. That was the big one, when my idea of self and service clashed with the Air Force’s plans, channeled through you, and by that clash you severed my last ties to doing anything inauthentic because it was the law. Yes, I spoke my oath of service freely, yes I spoke it proudly, and I’m glad I served in uniform. But I knew it was time for me to go, time to fly, time to find out who I really was.
I did not need to be afraid. I knew enough even then to write in my journal:
My heart is first and foremost made to serve, and it will find service again.
It has. I still serve today. Not in uniform, not with a gun or a badge or a rank or a power point presentation, but I serve those I love and care about most. I serve family, helping out with illness and infirmity. I serve friends with deep listening, presence and advice. I still teach and lead-not fellow troops, but students in high school science classes and young women traveling overseas, opening their eyes to the greater world. And I serve as one equal among many in groups of women of all ages seeking community and awakening and healing through yoga and dance. I recognize now that in fact I live a life of greater service, because I do it as me, wholly, with an awareness of my priorities that I did not have then. I’m still serving, but I’ve chosen a new circle: the people I’m connected with by blood, friendship and love.
My grandmother recently asked me over smoked salmon and chardonnay if I ever still think about “those days.” A proper Southern lady, she doesn’t state problematic terms or issues outright. I learned early with her to keep conversations light and pleasant. But often now we go deeper. She is my grandmother, after all. She knows my heart, if not every detail of my life. She has lived through 91 years on this earth, and she has advice to give. So I paused, preparing to answer truthfully.
“Yes, I do,” I told her. “I actually cried a lot last night.”
Shedding tears over “those days” is now relatively rare for me. But two days earlier I’d gone through my box of military mementos, the last box in my effort to downsize and reduce clutter. I’d been dodging it for just that reason: to avoid opening the wounds, avoid re-reading the journals and notes to self, avoid handling the well-wishing cards and trinkets saved from a life lived worlds ago. But in trying to let go of the past, to make room for the future, I had to get through that final box.
The tears could have told me I’d not gotten over it yet. I know I have things left to process. I know I still need help. Meanwhile we move on. We fold it into life, and it surfaces, if left to itself, in unexpected tears and sudden rages, most often with those we love most, those who want to help and hold us, but we push them away, we won’t let them in.
“You recovered quickly, outwardly,” my grandmother continued at our dinner. She took another sip of wine, waiting for me to answer.
“Yes, that’s what it looked like,” I said.
From the outside, no one could tell over the years that there was anything wrong with me. Sure, I’d come home angry from Iraq and worn out from Japan. I’d snapped and cursed and only very slowly let go of the edge we all come home with from a war zone, whether we worked in an office or on the roads. But after I left the Air Force I seemed to bounce back into the world. I traveled with friends. I earned a master’s degree from MIT. I worked as a science journalist in Boston and New York. I won a Fulbright fellowship to Moscow. I interviewed astronauts and cosmonauts and worked my way into places I never dreamed, eight years ago, that I would go: from Mission Control Moscow, to Baikonur, Kazakhstan, to Sochi, Russia. I was on autopilot. “Achievement” was just what I did, what I’d always done, so on instinct I kept going.
I have never felt justified in showing that I grieved. I did not, after all, drive in convoys. I did not kill anyone or watch my best friends die beside me. I put coffins draped in flags on cargo planes, I marched to memorials for people whose names I knew, one with whom I’d argued the last time I saw him before he went out on the mission that killed him. But I was removed, in the palace in Baghdad, from all the things most people think of when they imagine or read about wartime trauma. What right did I have to suffer?
Still, it changes you, no matter whether you were sitting in an air-conditioned office or driving a truck or sitting up top as gunner. I’ve decided it’s time to stop apologizing for not killing, for not staring death in the face. Stop apologizing for feeling, even from an office. Stop apologizing for not being the people I read about in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Stop apologizing for being me, when she’s the only person I can be.
You might be surprised that I came back from Iraq not believing in the war, that I hated it even though I’d wanted to stay, because it was killing our soldiers, our men and women, our children, for no purpose to do with our freedom and our way of life in our own country. In an airport sometime later, after the Air Force, I watched two young men in uniform who couldn’t have been much older than 18 laughing and play-punching each other in line to check their gear — big black cases that I knew held M-16s, on top of big green duffel bags. Watching them, all I could think was, I wonder if they’ll be coming back alive. I hated that I had to wonder.
I didn’t know then how much my own experience would change my convictions. How I would come to believe that we have no business spreading freedom and democracy across the world, which has its own ways of being. I didn’t know that I would come to believe in a draft, which would mix the social classes and make it much harder for Congress and big business — which send so few of their own sons and daughters into the fighting ranks — to send the rest of us to war. Didn’t know that I’d come to believe we should stop maintaining such a large, bureaucratic standing army. Back then, I did not know how and where I would eventually focus my anger. I only knew that in Iraq I was finally doing something that mattered, making the difference I’d signed up to make, bringing people home alive.
In the end it wore me out. I came home from overseas with a smile so subdued in photographs that I’ve often thought as I look back that the days just before I left for Iraq were the last ones in my life when I felt truly happy and carefree. I’m more serious now than I remember being. I see earlier photos of laughter, parties, fun from the days before my war, and I wonder if I will ever feel that light again. I hope so. Surely I am not so grown up that all the days of fun are behind me. It must be the shadow that’s kept me quiet.
But I know the shadow is fading. I’m starting to believe I can let go. This quiet angst has been the foundation of my existence since I came home, throughout these eight years, even when I didn’t know it, when I thought I was doing fine. Letting go means I must find new footing for my life and reason and emotion, but that one’s easy, now. It can be writing. It can be reading. It can be the path I’m walking of feminine awakening and art and soul. It can be learning, questing after truth and asking how to live a good life. These are questions I never gave up, just put aside for a while. Let these be the source of my work and my thoughts and my contentment and my confidence, with the Air Force core values still in me, on my terms: integrity first, to myself being true; service to those I freely choose to serve; excellence in all I do, that is worth doing — and even a dash of acceptance for work that is not excellent, but that helps me to get better and to grow.
Iraq and the Air Force will always be a part of what shaped me. But there is so much more ahead of me and in me. I am happy now. Not with the reckless abandon and carefree-ness of my young 20s, but with the quiet, waking consciousness of true adulthood. I think a lot, I sometimes tend toward darkness, but I still laugh. I’m still growing, I’m not settled down, and I don’t yet need to be. I’m ready to make space for more. And I’m ready, sir, to let go of the story I’ve been telling for years.
I’ve answered the question of why and how I left the Air Force more times than I can remember. It goes about like this: “Well, there I was in Iraq, and I really wanted to stay, because I believed I could make a difference there, and not back at my home base. But my commander wouldn’t let me, so in the end I chose to get out, to move on, to do other things with my life.” Et cetera.
In that version of the story, you have always been the token bad guy; because of you, I had to leave. It’s never occurred to me to tell it any differently.
Then one morning I stood outside my apartment on my small balcony, cup of tea in hand, enjoying the refreshing cool air already rare in March, in Dallas. I listened to the birds chirping in the tree next to me, I smiled up at the sun and closed my eyes, basking in a life of peace and calm, a writing life. I’d just started a writing class that asked us to evaluate major shifts in our life’s journey, so I was reflecting on the choices that had led me, finally, to a place I wanted to be.
Suddenly a new thought dawned on me. I opened my eyes and looked down into my tea mug, shaking my head, starting to grin. “Well, I’ll be damned.” My heart lifted, shifted gears, and a phone call from eight years ago clicked into place.
“He didn’t ruin my career,” I said out loud to the birds and the tree and the tea and the sun. “He made it. He did me a favor when he didn’t let me stay.”
I smiled in awe at the beauty of the thought, the full circle of these years. How could I not have seen it? Always, always it has been: Well they made me come back, so I got out. Always it’s been negative. Always it’s been “your fault.” All the while I never saw the link, never saw that because of that action and reaction, my life became far richer, more meaningful, more true, more me. On the balcony I thought, with gratitude, “He saved my life.”
But I had to take it one step further. This realization still gave you the power, still credited you for a decision that changed and yes, saved me. It is true that by bringing me home you saved me from the rockets and the mortars and the reports and the fight. And you saved me by presenting the unpalatable option that got me out, that got me moving in a new direction, creating a better life. More vital still, however, by being the commander whose decision I could not stomach, you saved me from a life determined by others’ decisions. It was my choice in the end, not yours. I put in paperwork. I chose to leave. It is not your fault or your burden. I bear that responsibility now.
I am grown from the wide-eyed, gung-ho girl who showed up in Iraq in June, anticipating adventure. From the hardened woman of August, defending her troops like a tiger to the senior officers, strong and competent, doing her job, talking back when orders didn’t make sense, performing at the peak of her power. And from the crone who returned in December, angry, short-tempered and numb, weary with the struggle against incompetence, swearing every other word, and only 26 years old. I am strong and powerful, now, built piece by piece from all that shaped me, forged from my passionate belief in my own individual self.
And I know now, sir, that I am built from you, and in response to you. I am grateful to you for saying no. I could not have gotten here without you. I would not have become the person I am now without you to struggle against, and you to bring me home. I am listening to my values now, to my body and my heart. I am changing my ideas about what work looks like, ensuring that work I do is work I want and choose to do, so I may bring my best self to it. I am finding my voice of awareness and feminine power and inconvenient woman-ness and grace. That is how I am serving the world. That is how I am making a difference. That is how I am.