running, jumping, climbing trees

My favorite comedian, Eddie Izzard, likes to describe the military and its attractions as “running, jumping, climbing trees”. (Izzard is also frequently a cross-dresser, so he likes to describe his fantasy army as “running, jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup when you get up there.”) I’ve never actually considered a military career because I’m just too puny. But I’m not entirely immune to the allure of action. I studied gymnastics as a kid and, in my early twenties, I pursued stage combat for quite some time and even purchased a couple of swords. But I’ve mostly stood by and watched while those around me scaled high peaks, scuba dived, and beat the patootie out of each other in dojos.

And, you know, there’s the war-and-peace issue. To be brief, I hate hate hate that we have to send men and women into combat against other people. And, like most people I guess, I have deeply divided feelings about our recent and present military engagements. (How’s that for euphemism, huh?) But, as you may know from this blog, I’m also committed to supporting the efforts of those who serve in the military–especially after they come home and try to reintegrate into the community, often while dealing with combat-related injuries or illness. Specifically, throughout most of 2012 I’ve been involved volunteering with the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces group. And I’m researching and developing a production of Kate Wenner’s Make Sure It’s Me, a play about traumatic brain injury (TBI) in military service members, which will roll out as an event series in 2013.

As part of my research, I was invited to join the work of NH’s Military-Civilian Traumatic Brain Injury Collaborative, which works to connect veterans living with TBI to the services they need to rebuild their health and their lives. Many organizations and individuals pitch in on this work, including Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital, NH’s DHHS, Easter Seals, Brain Injury Association of NH, etc. On September 14th and 15th, the Collaborative held an extraordinary event in cooperation with the NH National Guard: the Military Orientation Training for Brain Injury Professionals (MOTBIP). As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, MOTBIP was created by Northeast Rehab neurologist Dr. James Whitlock. This was the second iteration of the event and, in spite of the name, it was targeted not only to brain injury specialists but to doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators who might come into contact with veterans at community-based emergency rooms or clinics as well as VA hospitals.

And there was one goofy theatre artist tagging along.

Here comes the hard part: I originally figured that I’d barely survive a grueling day of running, jumping, and climbing trees and then rush home to blog about it. But the world events of last week, which included horrific violence spurred in part by inflammatory material on the internet, have tempered my desire to “bring you into the action.” I feel enormously privileged to have spent the day (eleven whole hours, as it turned out) with members of the New Hampshire National Guard and with the civilian health care providers who were there to learn how to better serve their patients. I do not want to glorify or to diminish any of the facts I learned or the physical sensations I experienced (many of them uncomfortable). So, after much mulling, rather than giving you a description of the M4 I fired on the virtual range or the Convoy Simulation, here’s what I’d like to say about my long day in the sun at MOTBIP:

1. The members of the NHNG whom I met last Friday were all highly intelligent, capable, patient, respectful, kind, and tremendous team players. Each worked to take the focus off of himself and place it on his unit or on specific colleagues he admired. I wanted to take a few of these great folks with me to join my theatre company–I think tech week would go really smoothly with them around! (I only met one woman during the training and she was in an assistant’s role rather than presenting. Although many women do serve, I guess they are not primarily working with the weapons and transport systems we learned about at MOTBIP. Remember that the NG are the folks who care for us during natural and man-made disasters as well, but that work wasn’t the focus of this training.) When I commented on how well they communicated with each other, my squad leader quietly stated, “It’s easy when you know who the boss is.” Woven in and around this idea, and clearly heard in their vocal inflections, was the enormous care they take with each other. They really care about each other. I’m not naive to the darker possibilities of unit cohesion, but what I saw on Friday exactly personified the values of “loyalty” and “teamwork.” It moved me deeply. Made me kind of jealous, too!

2. Military service members endure grueling hardship just walking around. A key component to the MOTBIP experience was to make us sweat a little through simulations of the physical challenges of even basic military tasks. So they issued us flak vests and helmets which we had to wear or carry throughout the day as we walked from one learning station to another, climbed into and out of military vehicles of various sorts, and felt the hot hours ticking by. Needless to say, there were no “petite” vests in the pile. Those of you who know me can envision me dwarfed in gear–even without the ceramic chest and back plates often worn when “in theatre,” and without the numerous added weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, tools, water, juggling balls, chainsaws, etc. that a typical service member carries, I began to ache and sweat within a minute of putting on the vest. The helmet was completely impossible for me–I’m not only puny, I get a headache at the drop of a hat. Or helmet, as I discovered. I was instantly reminded of something I learned back at the TBI conference in April–that service members often suffer long-term soft tissue and spinal issues from the weight they carry as part of their daily routine. Do we need a new campaign, I wonder? MASSAGE A VETERAN TODAY!

3. We are still sending tremendously bright, talented, hard-working people into combat situations RIGHT NOW, even though our direct involvement in Iraq has wound down and we are in the slow process of pulling out of Afghanistan. Most Guardsmen that I met on Friday had been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both), several of them had been deployed more than once, and the Blackhawk medevac team that we met deploys again in two weeks. To members of the military, this is obvious; they are warriors and they go to war. But I believe the American public needs to stand up and participate in a discussion about this: how many wars can we afford to be fighting? How many talented men and women do we want to put in harm’s way? How can we clarify and execute our policies around waging war, so that fewer of these precious people are lost?

4. War has always been dangerous and health care for warriors has always been expensive. The new war technologies, and the concurrent developments in combat medical care, have ampified this mathematics: while we may experience fewer deaths, more warriors are surviving to come home injured, often with multiple injuries (polytrauma) that involve damage to limbs and to the brain. Care for these veterans is complex, treatment of their injuries is still evolving, and our health care systems (both VA and civilian) are already overburdened. Even if we stopped combat operations this very minute, we would still find ourselves swamped by the wounded for years to come. Buckle up for a saddening, expensive ride. Again, don’t we need to discuss this?

5. I’m proud to be a citizen of the U.S. and humbled by the sacrifices of our military. But, as I said previously, I hate hate hate war and I’d love to see our military involvement reduced in coming years. What’s a person to do?

VOTE. Whatever your opinion, you have to participate in the process to be heard.

VOLUNTEER. There’s stuff to be done in our communities that transcends politics.

HAVE PATIENCE IN PUBLIC. The people around you may have any number of problems they are dealing with, including invisible brain injury. Take a breath and dial down the road rage. (The exception being for those who drive or walk while texting. They deserve your wrath. Go for it! No, just kidding. But please don’t text while driving or walking, okay?)

Enough of the soapbox. Thanks for listening! I will continue to think about how I can translate these experiences to the stage next year during MSIM.

I give thanks to the New Hampshire National Guard and to all who serve or have served in the military. Best wishes to you and your families.

 

 

Berlin Vet Center post update!

Hey, all! I had another sober but inspiring visit to Gorham, NH last week, to meet the North Country Veterans Committee at the Berlin Vet Center. Upon seeing Team Leader Jay Sprinkle again, I learned some more important details about the care veterans and their families receive through the Vet Center program. So I’ve updated my previous post about the Berlin Vet Center, and also added more pictures. I also learned that the hygiene kits donated by the Red Cross are already proving useful to homeless veterans up there, yippee! So stay tuned for updates about the work of the North Country Veterans Committee–and help spread the word about the services available at Vet Centers.

vets helping vets in Berlin, NH

Leslie unloading hygiene kits at the Berlin Vets Center.

POST UPDATED 9-12-12: As you know if you’ve followed my adventures studying traumatic brain injury in military service members, one theme that emerges again and again is the difficulty of trust between veterans and their civilian friends, family, co-workers, and even the care providers they encounter. Even at the VA., as former Sgt. Matthew Pennington has explained, civilian medical staff at VA hospitals may not seem to hear a service member properly, nor to understand the culture of self-reliance and loyalty to their unit that makes it so hard to ask for help.

So the Vet Center program is a life-saver for many veterans–if they are lucky enough to discover a Center nearby. There, combat theatre veterans and their families can receive counseling from highly educated medical health professionals, including Clinical Social Workers, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors–many of whom are veterans themselves. Vet Center counselors also provide resource referrals for other issues (medical, legal, financial) that may be hampering veterans’ readjustment to civilian life after deployment. They help veterans to access such VA services as medical care, disability benefits, educational benefits, and employment resources. Vet Center counselors are trained to help with bereavement, marriage and family counseling, military sexual trauma (MST), as well as to screen for and address PTSD and TBI.

An important trust-builder at the Vet Centers: they work in collaboration with the VA Medical Centers, but they are not directly related to then. Vet Center records are separate from VA Medical records and are held in the strictest of confidentiality. Vet Center records may only be released if the veteran requests it. This is an extremely important point, as many service members may not come in for needed counseling if they think that their mental health records might be seen by their military supervisors and could adversely affect their careers (and future benefits). So active duty service members do not need to fear that seeking help from the Vet Center will compromise their job.

Unfortunately, many veterans and active duty military still don’t know that Vet Centers exist. And there are not many of them–only 300 in the nation. But the funding for Vet Centers has grown substantially in the past few years as the DOD and the military leadership grapple with the needs of veterans from the GWOT era. By the way, GWOT stands for “Global War on  Terror”; specific campaigns within GWOT include OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, or the Afghanistan war) and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). So I’ll sometimes hear people reference OEF/OIF veterans as a way of referencing the most recent wave of combat veterans. Others refer to “post-9/11” veterans. In any case, this program is small but growing, and they need to help spread the word about the great resources vets can find through the Centers.

I had been hearing about this great program for awhile, but I still hadn’t visited a Vet Center myself, until an opportunity arose: as part of my Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteer work, I was asked to deliver 60 hygiene kits for the homeless to the Berlin Vet Center in the North Country of NH. In spite of its name, the center is actually located in Gorham, right over the border from Berlin. ROAD TRIP!!!

My co-volunteer Karen Morse and I pulled on our red SAF polos, picked up the Red Cross van in Portsmouth and headed to 515 Main Street in Gorham. There was a brief moment of sadness because we had been promised access to the coveted NH Red Cross Hummer for the journey, but it wasn’t available. Karen was more gung ho about the Hummer idea than I–she’s an Air Force veteran herself and extremely athletic, so she was ready to conquer the big beast and tame it to our needs for the long drive. I was intrigued, too, but the drive is 2.5 hours each way, and I was bracing myself for a noisy slog. As it turned out, we got the van instead, and the only excessive noise generated was by the two of us in the kind of epic, wide-ranging, female-inflected road trip conversation that good movies are built upon. We talked a lot about issues facing veterans, but we also had a great digression around our favorite youtube clips. We both heartily recommend Christian the Lion!

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Wendy Mayerson

So, Karen and I had a gabby, uneventful journey to Gorham, where we were greeted at the Vet Center by Jay Sprinkle, Team Leader, and Wendy Mayerson, Office Manager. Both are kind, warm people who clearly create a welcoming environment for the veterans in need who visit the Berlin Vet Center. We did not meet the other staff on this visit, but we did learn that more than half of the staff are veterans. Again, this is a key aspect to the approach of the Vet Centers: vet-to-vet support.

Karen Morse and Jay Sprinkle

After saying hello, we brought in the two big boxes of hygiene kits. We discussed with Jay the difficulties of reaching out to the homeless vets in the North Country, and then we did some picture-taking for Red Cross posterity of us presenting the kits in front of the Vet Center sign.

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Karen Morse

After the picture-taking, Jay gave us a tour of the facility and some history and core characteristics of the Vet Center program: we learned that it was first started by Vietnam vets who supported each other through informal “rap sessions”. The vet-to-vet format was successful but more professional clinical help was needed, so the Centers developed a formal relationship to the VA which began in 1979. The Vet Center program is, in fact, one extremely successful unit of 5 that now comprise the VA. We also learned that it is primarily a mental health counseling facility, but that they also serve as a resource referral when vets or their families have other needs. The eligibility requirement is that the veteran must have served in a theatre of combat in some capacity (even if you never experienced direct combat–please don’t feel that you must have been shot at to be eligible for support at the Vet Center!). Spouses and children of combat theatre vets are also eligible for services and do comprise a good percentage of the clients presently served in the North Country. The Berlin Vet Center works closely with the White River Junction VA Hospital over the border in Vermont, and even has webcam video conferencing for consultations with mental health staff there in cases where driving to WRJ isn’t feasible.

The Center is petite but lovingly furnished and quite inviting. There are comfortable chairs in every space, homey touches to the decor, and rooms for both one-on-one counseling and group activities. There’s even a backyard patio with a gas grille where veterans can informally hang out or attend barbecues or other activities hosted by the Vet Center. Local veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW sometimes partner with the Vet Center in such efforts; the Center also hosts meetings of the North Country Veterans Committee, which I’ll write about in another post. Suffice it to say, this is an important community hub for veterans and those who provide care for them.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were ushered into a storage area where Jay gave us some Berlin Vet Center outreach items: t-shirts and baseball caps for us to wear during our future outings across the state to help spread the word about the Gorham location and Vet Centers in general. Many veterans, even those from WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, have gone years without knowing that the Vet Center program exists. So Karen and I will proudly wear our Vet Center togs and explain to anyone who asks about the services available in Gorham (and at the Manchester Vet Center, which is the other location in NH).

Then we had an equally trouble-free ride home. I may have worn out Karen’s ears a little during our epic conversation! But it was a lovely day, a huge learning experience, and a great way to give a little back to those who have served.

So, if you have a loved one who is a veteran in need of some support, tell them about the Vet Center program. No matter when he or she served, from the revered WWII veterans still among us to our current heroes, all veterans can find a listening ear and real help to heal at the Vet Centers.

 

 

learning to give

I grew up with an A-plus volunteer for a mother. Mom began her long career fundraising for Public Broadcast as a volunteer, and then as a volunteer coordinator, before moving up the ladder in Development. Aside from Public Broadcast, she’s been fighting the good fight as long as I’ve known her–for women’s reproductive rights, for peace, and in support of reasonable voices in our government. Once I stopped worrying about whether she’d let me buy a miniskirt at the mall, I realized that my Mom was an amazing individual and that I wanted to serve the community as she always has. Through Mom, I volunteered to support our local PBS stations, generally in the television studio during membership drives, for many years. But it’s taken me awhile to learn what I really have to give and how to do that–especially because I don’t belong to a synagogue or church, which I think is how many people discover the volunteer opportunities that light them up.

My father served as an Air Force flight surgeon during the Vietnam War, a fact that led to my being born on Warner Robins AFB in Perry, GA. His tour didn’t go terribly well for him, and military service did not feature prominently in our family. I was one of those pacifist, liberal arts kids who was both horrified and fascinated by American military culture. I’ve only had rare contact with those who serve. But, as a lasting effect of my father’s Vietnam experience, I’ve remained concerned about military families. When our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan began, and my own students started to consider military service, I decided to support those who serve. I do not support the war–any war. I don’t know another answer to our socio-political woes, but I feel strongly that armed conflict, by definition, isn’t constructive. But the fact remains that, until we find another way to manage our global affairs and abolish war, a small number of Americans will put their lives and the security of their families in danger every day in order to protect the majority of us (who are often at the mall, wondering if we are getting too old now for this season’s miniskirt).

I started supporting the troops by sending packages and letters to service members I “adopted.” I had an extraordinary correspondence with “my” first soldier, who was working transport in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. In extremely polite language, Darrell explained that he was on his fourth deployment in seven years, had two young children at home–and he was from Georgia! That connection to my past gave us a point of conversation and the stories continued through several letters. Darrell loved Little Debbie snack cakes and 80s music and he hated camel spiders (which I Googled with horror). He hoped he’d be able to wind up his military career after this last, highly stressful deployment. His last letter to me was full of what my dad called “double-digit jitters”–just a few days from going home, he was worried about the crowded conditions and frayed nerves as his unit trained their replacements. He asked me to please keep supporting the troops because it made a huge difference to know their sacrifice was recognized.

I don’t know if he made it home alright. I have decided not to cyberstalk him. I think of him and his wife and children often.

After supporting several soldiers in this way (and one “airman” named Pam), I decided to get more involved locally. Unsure how to make this happen, I discussed it with my friend Johanna, who turns out to be an A-plus-PLUS volunteer! Ever practical, she said to me, “Come give blood. I do it every eight weeks.”

Gentle Reader, I learned that I have tiny veins and slow-moving sludge for blood. But I’m persisting! As my involvement as a blood donor unfolded, I discovered some things about the American Red Cross I hadn’t realized:

  • The Red Cross is not funded by the government, but it does have a Congressional mandate to support both civilians and members of the military in times of war or during natural disasters.
  • The Geneva Conventions were proposed by Henry Dunant in 1862 as a means to allow a neutral aid society to bring medical and humanitarian aid into war zones–thus, the Red Cross and a series of treaties in support of its goals were all created in Geneva.
  • Women (like American Red Cross proponent Clara Barton) have played significant roles in the development of the Red Cross. And Dr. Charles Drew, whose work on blood collection, storage and transfusion during World War II led to the development of the Red Cross blood bank program, was African American. This organization has embodied diversity from its very inception!

Most pertinent to my quest for “something to do,” I learned that part of the Red Cross’s job in supporting military families is to manage emergency communications. When a service member needs to know that a family member has died or been injured–or, happily, when a baby is born–their family calls the Red Cross to initiate the emergency message. A mostly-volunteer staff handles these communications, helping service members to stay connected to their families during these life-changing moments.

Ahh! Something I could do! So, what did my Mom say when I told her about the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces program?

“Yes, I used to do that, while your Dad was in Vietnam. I loved it when the babies were born and you got to pass that message along.”

I hadn’t known that, or I’d forgotten it! But here was another connection from past to future, waiting to be made. So I pursued my training to serve in the SAF as a volunteer caseworker.

Yesterday, I made my first phone call on an SAF case. It was a brief call to follow up on a mother’s request that her son come home to attend his father’s funeral. I talked to the mother. The message had gone through without a hitch and her son was already home. I expressed my condolences on the loss and asked if the Red Cross could do any more for her family at this time. She said no. She said thank you. I said goodbye.

For me, right now, part of my service will be a series of brief calls to say “hello” and “can we help you further” and “goodbye” to the families of those in the military. I didn’t realize that “service” could be so tiny it could fit into a few words.

Or that something so tiny as this could feel so important.

For more information on the Red Cross’s many volunteer opportunities, visit http://www.redcross.org/en/volunteer .

I’ve arrived!

Hello, everybody! As you may know, there was until lately another version of lesliepasternack.com. It was a poor, raggedy site that I insisted on building the hard way. I had arbitrarily selected software I couldn’t understand, and I declined to seek training or sustained advice from one of the many kind gurus in my life. Periodically, I threw the user’s manual at the wall, gently, and that did relieve some stress, but it didn’t improve the site. (Plus, I have pretty paint on the walls now, so I can’t risk a repeat of that technique.)

I did have some better luck over the years with two iterations of buffoonworks.com, thanks to a dear bear of a man named Gary, who first set it up and designed it for me. Thanks, Gary! You rock! That site is still there, for now; presently it documents my directing work in 2011 on Mike Kimball’s Best Enemies. (Great cast! Great show! Great audiences!)

But I thought it was time to put my friends and family out of the misery that was lesliepasternack.com, by dragging it into the WordPress era.

So, here I am! I’m happy to say that I’m quite busy making two large theatre projects with my colleague Stephanie Nugent of ACT ONE, so I’m not sure how long it will take me to bring lp.com up to the standards of my online heroes (Shreve Stockton at The Daily Coyote is an important one). But I’ll have lots to talk about as my work with Stephanie unfolds, so please hang with me.

In the meantime, some topics I’ll be addressing in 2012:

Traumatic brain injury (TBI), military-civilian relations, the nature of tragedy, Red Cross volunteer programs, the importance of blood, surface and depth, clean rooms, and the ongoing magic of dogs. . .