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.