April 22, 2012 § 26 Comments
When the soldier arrives,
bleeding in the doorway,
can you recognize him as yourself
and let him in?
– From Yoga Heart, Lines on the Six Perfections, by Leza Lowitz
There is something so strange about walking around inside someone else’s house and trying to decide if you want to live there or not. We do this every two years, each time we move, and I am always unsettled by the experience of being a voyeur as well as what people tend to tell you while you are peering behind their shower curtains.
We have never lived on a military base. As a single officer, Scott could always get a much nicer place off-base than on, and when he married me, I had absolutely no desire to live on a military installation. I am embarrassed to admit this, but after years of protesting wars, of voting for Gore and Kerry and Obama, being married to a soldier feels a bit like going to the dark side. The fact that my yoga classes and my children’s organic yogurts are paid for by the same money that funds the war in Afghanistan is a little too messy for me. So I avoid these feelings by living off-base, by pretending that I am not really a Navy Wife.
When we went to North Carolina last week, we assumed we would live in town, but what surprised me was that in Jacksonville, there doesn’t seem to be an “off-base.” Camp Lejeune only has housing for 25 percent of the soldiers who work there, so most people live outside the base in homes that were put together too quickly or in the apartment complexes that surround the gate.
Amy* opens the door of the first house for rent on our list.”Come on in,” she says in her delicate southern drawl. Her tanned feet are bare and she is wearing a bohemian tunic and a dark skirt. She looks like a shorter and younger Julia Roberts, her thick hair twisted on top of her head. Her home is immaculate and candles are burning in the dining room. There are flowers in the space above the fireplace where a TV would go, and Amy tells us that her children don’t watch television. She shows us the granite countertops and the hardwood floors and the walk-in closets, but all I can think of is the neighborhood, which looks vaguely apocalyptic. Coldwell Banker started building the subdivision in the middle of a field but then abandoned it partway through, perhaps because they ran out of money. All the pine trees have been cut down, but there are still flags marking lots that have not been sold and most of the homes have For Sale signs in front of them.
Amy then leads us up to the bonus room, which takes up half of the second story and she tells us about her 15-year-old son, Max, what a great kid he is and how the two of them were alone for years while her husband was deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, she tells us about her six-year old daughter whose birth took place while her husband was deployed. She explains that her labor came on so quickly that when her friend came to pick up Max, she told Amy to get into the car too so she could take her to the hospital. When they were halfway there, her friend had to call 911 and the paramedics delivered Amy’s baby in the back of their EMS truck in the Wal-Mart parking lot. “You know,” Amy says, “The big one on the road into Jacksonville?” She laughs and smiles. “I kept asking for something for the pain. Just a Tylenol or something but they kept telling me it was too late.”
Her daughter runs into the house then and asks for a bag. “What will you be wanting that for?” Amy asks, laughing again.
“For my pet butterfly.” Emma says.
Amy hands Emma a plastic sandwich bag and rolls her eyes at us. “You know what it’s like,” she says to me and I smile.
A second later, Emma is back. “Mommy, I need a spoon!”
Amy hands her the spoon and asks her why she needs it.
“The butterfly is dead,” Emma says and Amy’s mouth forms a silent, “Oh.”
The second house we look at is next door which is awkward, but I have already spoken to Penelope on the phone and she is expecting us. We are greeted by an enormous yellow lab and then Penelope comes to the door and says hello. The dog barks at me and I jump. “Oh, he’s all talk,” she says looking down at the dog, who now has his hackles raised.
In Penelope’s house, the place above the fireplace does have a TV and Cartoon Network is blaring even though no one is watching. Penelope’s husband is in the kitchen. He’s still in his combat boots and his camouflage pants. He is staring at us with his arms folded in front of his chest, and he takes the big dog from Penelope and holds him by the collar. Even though it’s cool in the house, I am sweating. Penelope is wearing a pair of blue scrubs with a stain on the front and a photo ID badge, which says she works in the lab. They chose linoleum and carpet for their home instead of hardwood and granite and someone has left a blue duffel bag on top of the stove.
Penelope tells me they have to move to San Diego and she looks as though she might cry. “I can’t find a place to rent there,” she says. “Every place I call has 100 people looking at it. Well, not really but you know what I mean.” I tell her about Carlsbad and Scripps Ranch and she nods. “We really want a place in Poway,” she says, “So I can sign my son up for football there. I hear the school is good.”
I nod and ask her if she’s been to San Diego before and she smiles. “Just once,” she says, “Right after Matt graduated. I drove out to Miramar to see him and then we drove back to Ohio together. I had just turned eighteen and all I cared about was being with him.” There is silence for a moment as a one-eyed tortoiseshell cat wanders into the room. Penelope tells me that she and her husband have been married for sixteen years now but it doesn’t feel that long. “We were going to retire in Jacksonville,” she says. “But then Matt called me from Afghanistan and said, ‘How do you feel about California?’ I thought he was joking. I said, ‘get out of here.'”
We tell them we’ll be in touch and we go outside to our car parked on the street. A man with a short, short haircut is driving an old Willys Jeep around the development. Because there are no trees, we can see him the entire way around and he waves to us.
Scott tells me that we can also live on base, that it might actually be nicer there and after he says that, it feels like someone is grabbing my stomach and squeezing it as hard as they can. We drove on base earlier that afternoon and it was nothing like the Navy bases we lived near in San Diego and Ventura. As we drove onto Camp Lejeune, a convoy of tanks was driving out. Marines with helmets and goggles were manning the guns and staring straight ahead. We had to stop at a cross walk while another group of soldiers ran across the street. One of them stepped out in front of our car, his feet wide apart and his hands clasped behind his back. He stared at us, expressionless until his group was safely on the other side.
That night, we meet one of Scott’s Marine friends for dinner. Jeff is a company captain in his early thirties and when Scott was stationed in Ventura, Jeff worked for him for a little while. In passing, Jeff mentions coming back from Afghanistan last August and I ask him what it’s like over there. “How do you go from fighting a war to this?” I ask, gesturing at the restaurant, which overlooks the water, and to the people who are eating fish tacos or sautéed grouper.
Jeff smiles as if I’ve said something funny. “The first time I came back from Iraq, I stayed drunk for 6 months.”
I ask him what happened after that, and he tells me that he heard Tony Robbins one day on a TED Talk and that changed him. “For my 30th birthday I went to Fiji to do Tony’s workshop.” He completed Tony’s workshops twice more, including once in Australia.
I tell Jeff that I have made Tony Robbins’ green soup before in my Vita Mix. Jeff nods. “Yeah, Healing Soup. During one workshop I did Tony’s cleanse for a week.”
“Did you walk on the hot coals?” I ask.
Jeff nods. “Three times,” he says. “I kept thinking cool moss. Cool moss.”
I ask him what he did the last time he was in Afghanistan and he tells me that he was in charge of about 250 men who were fighting there. I ask him if his soldiers are scared when they go out into battle and Jeff shakes his head. “They’ve been trained to kill for 7 months so it’s like we let them out of a cage. They want to fight. The trouble happens when they come back home. They don’t know how to not do that any more.” Jeff tells me that the perfect soldier is between 18 and 24 years old. “What was that Michael Moore movie called?” he asks and none of us remember. “Moore got some of it wrong. He filmed a kid in a tank in Iraq listening to “Fire Water Burn” as loud as it can go and shooting people like it was a bad thing. Well who else do you want defending you?”
Jeff tells us that sometimes, after they get back, he has to help soldiers stay out of trouble. “One guy,” he said, “It took 6 months before he stopped fighting in bars because they’re so used to that.” Jeff explains that the programs that try to help soldiers when they are home are more of a bureauocratic nightmare than a help. He tells us that he comes up with his own programs for helping his troops. “I try to find ways to set goals for them and motivate them. I try to help them move forward because they can’t go back.”
“What people don’t get,” he continues, “Is that when a Marine is in a company, for the first time in his life, he’s with a group of guys who won’t let him down. No matter what. Then he comes back from Afghanistan after a year and his girlfriend’s cheated on him and his buddies don’t show up and all he wants to do is go back to his company. But he can’t because the company doesn’t exist any more. It’s all different when he comes home.”
Later that night, back at the Swansboro Hampton Inn, where we are staying, I start to cry and I have trouble breathing. My heart starts to race and it feels like I have no skin so I climb into the bathtub, where things seem a little bit better. I stare up through the shower curtain at the stacked white towels and the extra rolls of toilet paper and then down at my left hand, where during graduation from my 200 hour yoga teacher training, another graduate wound a purple thread around my wrist and then tied it. We did this to symbolize something we wanted to bring into our lives, and when it was my turn, I said, “Faith.”
It occurs to me then that it is hypocritical of me to believe I am a spiritual person when everything is going my way, and then to shake my fist at the sky when things get scary. I wonder if maybe the reason I am sitting in a bathtub trying to breathe has less to do with living on a Marine base and more to do with the fact that I am now having to face the part of myself I have avoided since becoming a Navy Wife.
Before I had anything to do with the military, I went to an Ivy-League school and was cross-country captain. I met Scott when he was going to grad school at Stanford and for a while we lived in Palo Alto and spent too much money on Thai food on Saturday nights just because we could. For most of my life, I put all my faith in being special, which may just be another way of saying I think I am better than everyone else. Even my yoga teacher training was another exercise in being special, in becoming more spiritual. But it’s one thing to think we’re all one while chanting Om and wearing Lululemon and it’s another thing entirely to think I am one with the 18-year old soldier who is shooting the hajis and with the enemy who is shooting back, with the man in the combat boots and the dog who is all talk. Maybe I was sitting in a bathtub because I was having to face the part of me that doesn’t want to recognize the soldier as myself.
The next day I tell Scott I’m ready to check out some of the homes on base so we drive out to the end of Camp Lejeune by Bogue Sound. It’s mostly pine forest and salt water rivers. I think in North Carolina, they call it low country. “Wow,” Scott says, “This is nice.”
I have to agree. A bike path winds next to the road and the neighborhood has sidewalks. “This looks more off-base than off-base does,” I tell him.
We are visiting our friends Chris and Paige. Scott will be taking over Chris’s job as the officer in charge of construction on base and we drive through their neighborhood, which is quiet and faces the water. The homes are two-story Cape Cods with blue shutters and sunrooms on the side. When we arrive, Paige is outside under a tree, reading with her 7-year old son. After we say hello, she gives me a tour of their home with the refinished oak floors and the curving staircase that leads to the big bedrooms upstairs. She tells me that by living on-base, Scott won’t have to go through the traffic to get through the gate, which sometimes can take over an hour. “But it’s stressful here too,” she continues. “The Marines come back from Afghanistan and their lifestyle is a little bit different if you know what I mean.” As if on cue, a police car drives into her neighbor’s driveway and Paige sighs.
We go back downstairs and I follow Paige to the kitchen where she makes a smoothie for her son, Sam, and then leads me outside to the backyard. “Sam’s tutor’s husband was on the Osprey that went down in Morocco,” she says quietly so no one will hear. “You see a lot here. You see guys with service dogs because of their PTSD and then you see the men walking around without an arm or a leg and it hits you.”
I tell Paige a bit about what I have seen over the past couple of days and how sheltered I have been from the fighting and the training and the deployments over the past decade. I think of how I tried to pretend that I wasn’t a Navy Wife as if it were possible to repudiate a war. I told myself that I wasn’t responsible for the war because I never voted for it, but really I am culpable if only because I live in the United States, because I expect there to not be a sniper at the end of my street, and because when I flip the switch, I expect the light to turn on. I am responsible for the war because these expectations necessitate a military that is ruthless and unflinching. They necessitate a service that trains 18 to 24 year olds how to fight so that I don’t have to carry a gun.
In the neighbor’s driveway, the police car is still there. We stare at it for a moment and then Paige shakes her head. “The war is right here,” she says. “It’s right here.”
*Some names have been changed