You Are About to Reach the Half-Million Mark

Ana Dorr exploring her fathers combat boots. Photo credit: Jackie Dorr

Ana Dorr exploring her fathers combat boots. Photo credit: Jackie Dorr

Today, Off the Base is dedicated to those loyal readers and dedicated contributors who have helped the blog close in on 500,000 page views. Considering our humble beginnings, it’s quite an accomplishment.

To celebrate and mark the moment, I want to share a few of my favorite entries and some of the most popular since October 2010.

I remember as if it was yesterday when the blog was created. I was sitting in the living room of military spouse, fellow journalist and mentor Liisa Hyvarinen Temple. She taught me everything I needed to know about Word Press and then I dove in.

Number One – So, I’ll start the top 5 list with Liisa’s entry – a perennial favorite: What I wish I had known about military retirement.

Number Two – Dorie Griggs, a military mom, generated such a following with her insights into being a Citadel parent that she eventually created her own blog. Here is one of her more popular entries: The Citadel: Unofficial Tips for Families of Incoming Knobs.

Number Three Fast forward five years, two kids and four deployments later!  I have slept alone more often than I have next to my love. That sentence comes from the first contribution by military spouse Jackie Dorr who is not only a gifted writer but excellent photographer. Several of the photos, including the baby exploring the combat boot at the head of this blog, were taken and shard by Jackie. She’s also become a fast and dear friend.

Number Four – I learned so much about the strength required to be a military parent from my colleague at WUSF, April Agle. Her son joined the Marines and was picked up for boot camp two weeks before his 18th birthday. April wrote several blog entries. Here’s what she shared after receiving her first letter from her son Jared at boot camp.

Number Five – A former WUSF intern, Alex Cook, is also a friend and Army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Alex has such a kind heart and beautiful photographic eye. He struggled to reconcile his experiences while deployed. He won that battle. He wrote several entries to help me and others understand the journey: PTSD: An Army Veteran Writes to Find Peace.

There are so many more people and experiences captured in the past four years. I want to thank all who have made Off the Base a success including the The Carter Center and the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism – you made this all possible. I am humbled and ready to reach the 1 million mark.

Bobbie O’Brien – the spouse of a veteran and daughter of a veteran.

 

 

 

 

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An Iraq War Vet: My Name Is on a Monument, Am I a Hero?

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

By Alex Cook, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

My name is on a monument that claims I’m a hero.

Cape Coral just dedicated a new Iraq War monument on Veteran’s Day.  I avoided the dedication ceremony, worried about just how publicly my heroism might be extolled, but snuck over with my girlfriend on a quiet Saturday afternoon to check it out.  The large stone star, emblazoned with the words “Iraq War Heroes” sits in the shadow of even larger monuments dedicated to the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  The top of the star is lined with dog tags bearing the names of local veterans from every service who deployed to Iraq.  I had to gently brush aside a rose someone had placed over the names to find mine.  And there I am, among the “heroes.”

How does it make me feel?

Honored: No matter what I feel about my military service, the merits of the war, or whether I was right or wrong to enlist, a group of people got together to say “thanks” and call me a hero.  They don’t know what I experienced over there.  They don’t need to.  The fact that I went is enough for them.

Hypocritical: Who am I to have my name emblazoned on a monument which dubs me a “hero?”  I didn’t have a combat job.  I don’t recall doing anything very heroic.  I faced a little danger, I did my job, and I couldn’t wait to get home.  I’ve spent way too much whining about it since.  So many others are more deserving of the title “hero” than I.

Alex's tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Alex’s tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Nostalgic:  I always knew I’d never miss my days as a soldier.  I can’t say I miss them, exactly, but fond memories managed to slip in here and there.  I got to know some amazing people.  I had some unique adventures.  I’m amazed that I can get a little misty-eyed thinking about GOOD times I had in the army.  But I can and do.

Hopeful: I remember how I felt when I first exited the army.  I thought everyone could tell I wasn’t a normal person, that I didn’t belong in civilian society.  I tried to suppress every emotion and memory from that time, trying to “start over.”  The past few years have seen slow progress as I struggled to accept and then embrace my past.  Now I can see my name on a monument of heroes and not be filled with rage and disgust.  I went to war for my country.  Not everyone can say that.  And if that’s something worth honoring, I’m ok with that.

When last I wrote for Off the Base, I described a PTSD treatment study that I took part in. I wrote my entries from my little brother’s old room in my parent’s house.  I was unemployed.  Some days I didn’t leave the bedroom, let alone the house.  I’d come a long way in coming to grips with my military service, but I still had a long way to go.

The monument is being covered replicated "dog tags" with the names of Iraq War veterans.

The monument is being covered replicated “dog tags” with the names of Iraq War veterans.

I’m writing this entry from the little place I share with my loving and supportive girlfriend, just a short bike ride from my full time TV news job.  I’m living a pretty good life.  I’m not defined by my time in the army, but it’s very much a part of me.  I’m not perfectly happy, but who is?  I have my dark days.  I get past them.  To my fellow vets, who may be struggling to come to grips with your service: keep moving forward while accepting and embracing what you’ve been a part of.  It’s not easy.  It gets easier.  Let people love you and don’t give up.  Keep living.

And if someone wants to put your name on a monument, go ahead and let them.  It’s pretty cool.

Alex Cook is a former intern with WUSF Public Media who now works for WINK in Ft. Myers, FL. Here’s a link to his experience as a veteran as told to his current employer http://www.winknews.com/Local-Florida/2013-07-17/Iraq-War-Memorial-breaks-ground-in-Cape-Coral#.Uou-YMSsiSo .

The new Iraq War monument is located at the Four Mile Cove Eco Park, Cape Coral, FL and is still taking the names of local Iraq War veterans. Details on how to add a name to the monument are available on the website: http://iraqwarmonumentcapecoralfl.com/.

Army Father, Son: He Commanded Men, I Hid a Puppy

Gen. Cox honors the Cook children at their father’s retirement ceremony. (Author Alex Cook on the left of the Cook kids)

“I did five years as an enlisted broadcaster.  He graduated West Point and did thirty as an officer and an engineer.  I hid a puppy in my office, he commanded men.  But we’re both veterans.  He’s told me how proud he is of me, but I haven’t told him.”

By ALEX COOK

Last weekend my dad retired from the army after 30 years of service.

I intended to write a blog entry about it, but I wasn’t quite able.

His ceremony was a big deal for everyone in my family: we’ve been there right along with him, jetting around the world to wherever the army sent him.  He honored us all at the ceremony, and even presented me with an American flag that had been passed through service members from each of branch of the military.  It was emotional.  I didn’t quite know how to feel.

I never felt particularly supportive of my dad as a kid.  I didn’t make moving easy.  I blamed him for ripping me away from my friends every few years. Now I cherish the fact that I spent my childhood seeing the world, but I fought every single move.

I never thought much about what he went through as an army officer.  I had no idea what his world was like.  To me, it was just his work.  Any time one of his friends asked if I’d follow in my dad’s footsteps, I indignantly cried that there was no way I would ever join.  He commanded a recruiting battalion when I was in high school, and the army recruiter assigned to my school took special care to hunt me down whenever he was around.  Once he snuck up on me in the bathroom, and I fled. I didn’t know what it meant to be in the army, but I knew it was a life I didn’t want.

Gen. Cox with Mrs. Cook and Col. Jud Cook at his retirement ceremony.

I enlisted when I was 18 years old.  I was a confused kid.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or how to do it.  I liked the idea of a crucible to become a man.  September 11th was still fresh, and I was in Texas.  Unlike many kids that decided to join the army, I felt like I knew what I was getting into.

I’d lived on military bases my whole life.  I ate Anthony’s Pizza at the PX and got pulled over by MPs for not wearing a helmet on my bike.  I spent a summer working in a support battalion’s financial management office.  Really though, I had no idea what it meant to be a soldier.  I enlisted as a broadcaster, imagining that I might just be one of the voices my family listened to on AFN in Germany.  Yes, we’d just started two wars but I figured the bad guys would be taken care of before I even got out of training.

Things didn’t work out that way.  I found myself in an infantry brigade, where I would deploy to each of the wars years after I thought they’d be over.  I learned what it was to be a soldier.  I discovered the world my dad had been a part of and excelled in my entire life.  When I went to war, I had the same thought every so often: thank God I don’t have a wife and kids.  I don’t know how the people that did managed it.  I don’t know how my dad did it.

Actually I do.  He was strong.  He was a professional.  He believed in what he did and he did it the best that he could.  I imagined him among the officers that I knew, picturing how he might deal with certain situations.  When I saw people fail to live up to the army values, I knew that he wouldn’t approve.  I realized how much of his personality at home came from the environment he spent all day in.

Through my time in the army, I finally started to understand my dad.

And now that we lived in the same world, we could relate to each other in a way we never had.

I did five years as an enlisted broadcaster.  He graduated West Point and did thirty as an officer and an engineer.  I hid a puppy in my office, he commanded men.  But we’re both veterans.  He’s told me how proud he is of me, but I haven’t told him.

Of course I’m proud.  I’ll keep the flag he presented me on the day of his retirement forever.  There’s one thing I’ll never regret about my time in the army: it helped me understand him, and it brought us a little closer.

Congratulations on your retirement, Dad.  I love you.  I only have one last thing to say: I’ll never say it again, but I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

Hooah.

Alex Cook’s previous blog posts:

PTSD Accelerated Resolution Therapy

Writing Helps Veteran Find Peace

PTSD, an Army Veteran and Accelerated Resolution Therapy

Alex Cook did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

By Alex Cook

Accelerated Resolution Therapy: it involves moving your eyes back and forth (which stimulates both sides of your brain) while envisioning a traumatic memory, and resolving that memory so that it no longer bothers you.

I was pretty nervous about the idea of a psychiatrist tinkering around with my memories; even the ones that trouble me make who I am, and I wasn’t going to give any of them up.  I also worried that I wouldn’t be a good candidate for the study: I imagined it would work best on someone who is troubled by a specific instant that they can’t get over, and I worried that my wartime experiences wouldn’t make the grade.

I still called, though, and was given an appointment the following Monday.

They had to find out if I was right for the study by asking me questions about my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I expressed my concern that I don’t have flashbacks to a specific moment where I feared for my life.

I was just a camera guy, a broadcaster in an infantry brigade’s public affairs office, who rarely saw combat.  I saw plenty of what comes after, though.  The camera guy went to every memorial ceremony every time someone died, which was often.

Alex Cook in Afghanistan.

I’d fly or convoy out to the small chapels or hangars or gravel pits where the men who fought alongside the dead gathered to mourn their fallen brothers.  I listened to officers’ speeches about heroism, and the guys who’d just seen their buddy die in horrific circumstances struggle to honor their memory through uncontrollable sobs.  I rarely had time to edit a ceremony and burn copies for the unit and the dead soldiers’ family before I was called to another one.

I guess I did about 70 between my two deployments.  Sometimes they’d honor two or three guys that died in the same incident.  It was a mundane part of my life for a year, then another year.  I have lots of feelings about it.

They said I was a good candidate for the ART study.  I filled out a packet, assigning number scores to my emotions and describing some of my difficulties.  They gave me $50 for it and scheduled my first session a few days later.

The first thing you do in ART therapy is assess what is physically going on with your body and try to relax it while following the therapist’s hand back and forth with your eyes.  You do it as much as you need to, willing yourself to stop sweating, loosen your jaw, unclench your fists, or whatever your physical response to your memories might be.

I described a specific memorial ceremony, which I wrote about for this blog last year, and found it extremely difficult to relax my throat and jaw. I realized that they are perpetually clenched.  I have lots of feelings about the dead soldiers, but the strongest was apparently anger.  This surprised me a little bit.

I envisioned the memory several times, willing my body to get over it in between reliving it in my head.  The therapist sent me back in several times, with instructions to change things to make myself feel better.  I imagined the dead soldier as he was when I met him, catching me when my knees buckled the moment I realized that I was at his memorial ceremony.  I imagined him telling me that it was OK, that he’d died for what he believed in, even if it wasn’t what I believed.

It wasn’t my job to decide if his death had meaning.  I imagined him telling me that the last thing he would have wanted his death to cause was more pain in the life of one of his fellow soldiers.  I tried not to cry in front of the therapist, and I loosened my jaw.

I still remember what happened, but I’ve changed how I feel about it.

I picture this soldier, once a symbol of a good man suffering a meaningless death, as sort of a kindly big brother figure.  I smile sadly when I think about him, instead of grinding my teeth at the injustice.  Since the ART session, I’ve been able to talk to people more openly about how my experiences make me feel, instead of just bottling them up.  I’ll never forget what happened, but now I can live with it.

Which is what ART is all about.  I recommend trying it. Information is available HERE or by calling (813) 974-9310

Check it out.  Call them.  Give it a shot.

E-mail me if you want to.  operationfindingfreedom@gmail.com

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