08/20/2014 07:08 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2014

How a Nature-Loving Peacenik Came to Love the Military


I was born in 1967. One of my first words was "yippie-mon," which was my toddler way of saying hippie. In pictures of me as a baby, my mom is wearing high white go-go boots and my dad is sporting a beard. Both from devout Irish Catholic families, their parenting was a mix of Catholic liberation theology and live-and-let-live philosophy.

I spent most of my time outdoors as a child. I sat perched in trees and read books, I lay beside a pond and wrote poems, I watched the stars and moon and wanted nothing more in my life than for the language of the universe to speak to me so I could write down what it was saying.

On an August Sunday morning at the age of 23, just a few days after the Gulf War started, I sat by myself on the steps of the state capitol in South Carolina where the Confederate flag still flew and instituted a one-woman protest against the war. Down the street I could see cars lining up for gas, people in a panic, and in my head I could see the bombs dropping. Lonely and isolated, I thought I was the only one who saw that this war was happening.

A film crew came up and asked me to move. They were doing a documentary about the Civil War and they wanted to film where I was sitting.

"I can't," I said. "I'm protesting."

They looked at each other and said, "Protesting what?"

"The war," I said quietly.

They walked around to the other side to shoot. Somewhere out there is a documentary of the Civil War with a back view of the South Carolina state capitol.

When 9/11 happened, I organized a women's vigil for peace. We were able to get permission to use the Memorial Park in the city, and amidst the many memorials to war, we read poems and sang songs and held hands in a circle. Some women came wearing red, white and blue and holding flags.

When the first bombs started dropping in Afghanistan, I was at the gym and a TV was tuned to CNN. A woman on a treadmill next to me looked at the images on the screen and said, "Yeah, go get 'em. Blow 'em to smithereens."

I looked at her and said, "They have children there, too, you know."

She stopped. Looked like I'd slapped her. Walked away and told another woman what I'd said. They stared at me like I was a terrorist. I was shaking. They scared me with their anger.

As the war went on, I joined tiny groups of people who stood silently on the street holding signs for peace while people either honked or flipped us the bird. I talked to my best friend who lived in San Francisco and she said hundreds of thousands of people were marching in the streets for peace there. "Here in South Carolina," I told her, "All you see are yellow ribbon magnets near the gas tanks of cars."

Fort Jackson, the Army's basic training center that graduates more than 40,000 soldiers a year, is located right next to the city where I live. You see the soldiers occasionally at the airport, or at the nearby Wal-mart stocking up on junk food, but mostly the 52,000-acre installation is segregated from the rest of the city, which is overrun by college students at the state university nine months of the year.

And then I met a woman in my neighborhood. Her daughters were younger than mine, but the three of them enjoyed playing together after school, and soon we were hanging out as moms do, talking about our lives, and sneaking in the intimate details between sippy cup refills before heading inside to make dinner.

Her husband was in the National Guard. He'd been deployed once to Iraq, and was up for another deployment soon. The first time was so hard, she told me, she went back to live with her family in the mid-west. She was still depressed by how he had changed. She was terrified of his leaving again.

It hit me: for all my peace and love, for all my protests and head shaking and condemnation, I had never really seen this woman or the thousands like her all over the country whose lives were being shredded like classified documents as they supported their husbands and tried to raise their children, mostly alone, mostly without support.

It's one thing to be against war and quite another thing to care.

So I did what I do: I started to write. What came out was a short story at first, about a woman named Vee waking before dawn to make her children's lunches during her husband's third deployment. I published the story in my column at Literary Mama, and the responses were good. So I kept going.

I read books like Kaboom and War and The Untold War and Greetings from Afghanistan: Send More Ammo. I devoured them. They made me think. They made me cry. And maybe most importantly, they made me laugh. And I kept writing about Vee and her husband, Sam -- about their lives, not mine.

The novel poured out of me every morning for months. I dreamed about it. I tasted the metal of gunpowder on my lips. I felt the grief in my belly.

And when I gave it to my friend's husband to read, he said that yes, it was like that. My friend never read it -- it was too hard, she said, to go back to that time now that he was home.

I tried to get an agent for the novel and failed. I'd almost decided to leave it under the proverbial mattress when I met another woman, Melissa Seligman. Her husband was stationed at Fort Jackson and she had published a memoir, The Day After He Left for Iraq, about her time as a new mother during his previous deployments. She had also founded a group called Her War, Her Voice, after receiving an outpouring of emails from women who'd read her book and needed support and a place to write about their lives.

We met for lunch at a Chinese restaurant half way between my house and post. It was a cloudy November day outside, but as we talked it was as if the sun shone between us. I told her how I'd called people at the VA and Fort Jackson, wanting to lead writing groups for spouses, and gotten the runaround -- phones ringing with no voicemail, or someone referring me to a number that didn't work, or -- the one time I spoke to a person who was actually listening to what I was offering and not suspiciously treating me like a journalist -- I was told, "There's not a category for that here."

Melissa nodded. "Yes, that's what it's like when you try to reach out to get help."

She went on to tell me about the years her husband was deployed and how writing got her through what was a very dark time. "Even though I wrote the book, I still don't have words for so much of it. And my dad was a Vietnam Vet, and I am still trying to find the words for that."

I nodded. As a scholar of trauma and writing, I knew about the way silence worked from the inside for a survivor -- as a way of coping when there are no witnesses to what had happened. I told her about this, and I explained that while most people view trauma at an individual level, in my book, We Heal from Memory, I'd shown how large, historical, collective trauma affects everyone, not just those directly involved.

"Collective trauma," she said, as if I'd opened a door for her.

We talked about my doing a series of writing workshops for Her War, Her Voice at Fort Jackson in the coming year. (There was a category for that, after all; the people on the phone just hadn't known it.)

Before we left, we exchanged books -- she gave me her memoir and I gave her my book of poetry about marriage and mothering. I also asked her if I could email her my novel to read. She was skeptical.

I was a civilian, she said. "And there's a line there that you don't cross."

She called me a few days later after having read the novel and said, "You crossed that line. How did you do it? It's amazing. You can be the bridge between the civilian and military worlds. I'm so excited about the work we can do together!"

I was scared. Would there be repercussions for crossing that line? Could I be the bridge? Could I really help?

The night before I was scheduled to teach my first writing workshop for Her War, Her Voice, I had a nightmare in which a military family came to me for help one night on the bank of a river. "I'll try," I said, and we parted ways. Later that night, the woman called me and said her husband had hung himself. I woke terrified.

I emailed a wise woman I know who I thought might have a way for me to make sense of the dream. She emailed me back one word: "Compassion."

I took that word and ran with it. I brought compassion to the women in the writing workshop that night; I allowed them to feel compassion for themselves through their writing; and as the year went by and I continued to lead writing groups for spouses, Melissa told me there could be a bigger platform for me through Courage Beyond at Centerstone that was in the process of taking Her War, Her Voice under its wing.

When someone takes you under wing, you can find the space to learn to fly. I've just started teaching my third free, online class in Mindful Mothering for Courage Beyond; I've begun teaching online classes on Trauma and Writing for Courage Beyond counselors; and I lead a weekly online group that practices mindfulness and writing as a way of healing for vets and active duty service members and their families. It's called A Courageous Mind.

And I've come to love the military people I know. I love their sense of purpose and duty and service. I love that many of them entered military life as a way of finding discipline and structure and honor after what were often chaotic early family lives. I love the way they show up on time. I love the way they respond right away when asked for help. I love that the spouses did not marry the military but married a person they loved, and the military has become a part of that marriage commitment for them. I love their persistence in the face of disability claims and paperwork conundrums and medical debacles. I love that they love our country and express that love through a sense of loyalty and integrity.

They need our love -- love from those of us on the civilian side of the line. Not just through yellow ribbon car magnets or slogans of "Thank you for your service." They need something deeper. Now that so many of them are coming home, they need a larger home to return to as they rebuild their own.

They need a nation of compassion -- the soil in which to plant the seeds of their own compassion for themselves. As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches, let's do more than wave flags and watch the towers fall over and over on video. Let's be the riverbank on which they can begin to witness to collective trauma, and together, we can all finally begin to heal.