Military life killed my career, but new promises bring hope in 2018

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Photo courtesy of defense,gov

There is a seldom-opened drawer in our file cabinet that contains the only tangible evidence of my legal career. The musty hanging folders have labels such as  “Resumes,” “Licensing,” and “Writing Samples.” Even though none of these documents have been used since I had to stop working as a litigation attorney in the late 90s to move overseas with my Navy husband, I refuse to throw them away.

I tell myself that I need the files in case a career opportunity presents itself. But I know I’m really just keeping the yellowed pages stained with rust spots from ancient staples as proof that I once did more than make sandwiches and clean toilets.

Like many military spouses, moving every few years killed my career.

I eventually found work as a writer to accommodate our mobile military lifestyle. But frankly, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to adequately utilize the law degree that took three years and more than $90,000 in student loans to earn, and the Pennsylvania law license that required countless hours of bar exam studying to acquire. Although I’m proud of having put my earning potential aside so my husband could serve his country, I regret that military life often requires spouses to sacrifice good employment and educational opportunities.

The most recent Blue Star Military Family Lifestyle Survey shows that 47 percent of military spouses with children under 18 earn an income, while two-thirds of their civilian counterparts are employed. Of those military spouses who are employed, over half earn less than 20K and one-third earn less than 10K. Adding to employment challenges, two-thirds of military families report that finding childcare is a consistent problem.

The drastic draw-down of military forces, combined with increased optempo, has meant that active duty members deploy more often and for longer periods. Spouses are understandably worried about employment issues, the impact of military life on their children, and the cohesion of their families. Not surprisingly, the survey indicates that nearly a quarter of military spouses have been diagnosed with depression, a rate 50 percent higher than the national average.

But it was the following survey result that got the attention of the Department of Defense: For the third year in a row, military families are less likely to recommend military service to their children. With an all-volunteer force that comes primarily from military families, this is a major concern.

Which could be why the Pentagon is finally considering new policies for 2018. Robert Wilkie, a military brat and veteran, was recently appointed to the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, a position that has been neglected in recent years. In a December 27 interview with the Fayetteville Observer, Wilkie said that the Pentagon is considering allowing military families to stay put for longer than two or three years. He criticized the current system which makes constant movement a hallmark of military life, and recognized that it limits the careers of military spouses.

“It was built at a time when less than 10 percent of the military had families,” Wilkie said. “Today, 70 percent have families… If the families aren’t happy, the soldier walks.”

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”) aims to ease the burdens on military families. Signed December 12, NDAA promises the highest military pay raise since 2010, a rebate of up to $500 for military spouses who apply for new employment licenses after PCS moves, appointment of quality child care providers when needed, a new policy allowing military families to move before or after service members change duty stations to accommodate school and work schedules, and 20,300 more troops to ease deployment demands.

Sounds great, but when will this become policy? Trump may have signed the new $700 billion NDAA, but it won’t take effect until Congress passes an appropriation bill to fund it. In the meantime, as sequestration looms, the 2017 budget has been extended until January 19th.

The old resumes in my file cabinet may never see the light, but this week, I hope Congress will follow through on its promise to make life better for military spouses in the New Year.

Battling Millennial Military Brats Over Winter Break

what-college-students-do-over-winter-break-2-13382-1418969613-0_dblbig“You guys are SO loud,” our 19-year-old daughter whined, loping downstairs into the kitchen where my husband and I were chatting. Her hair was a rat’s nest. One sock was half off, the excess flapping with each step. She was wearing the sweater she’d had on the day before and had slept in.

The clock read twelve-thirty-five in the afternoon.

“I’m sorry, Anna, did we wake you?” I said with enough sarcasm to curl the wallpaper. She yawned and poured herself a cup of coffee, tsking when she realized the pot had gone cold. Anna stood with the refrigerator door open for what seemed like eons, before selecting eggs and the fresh avocado I had bought for taco night.

There was a half avocado beginning to brown on the edges but perfectly usable, sitting right beside the new one. But after a semester of college fashion design classes, sorority functions, and weekend tailgate parties, Anna felt fully entitled to our hospitality while on winter break. That included laundry service, use of a vehicle, gas money, free wifi, home-cooked meals, the right to steal our phone chargers, and apparently, fresh avocado for her breakfast… or lunch, as it were.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “We’ll survive without the avocado.”

Thirty minutes later, there was a knock at the door. “Taylor and I are going for a walk on the beach. Should I take the dog?” Anna called from the front hall.

“That would be great,” I replied, relieved to scratch the task off my To-Do list. “Just remember to keep him on a leash,” I warned.

“Oh,” Anna reconsidered, “never mind then.” Without brushing her pillow-head out, she pulled on her thigh-high boots, grabbed the fluorescent orange camouflage hunting jacket she’d recently bought from a thrift store, and propped a pink pair of reflective sunglasses on the end of her nose.

I watched as she pranced off in the odd outfit, silently totaling up the tuition we were paying for her to pursue a degree in fashion.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “She’s artistic.”

Suddenly, I was startled by the presence of our 22-year-old son in the hall.

“Oh, Hayden, you’re up?” I said, genuinely surprised. While home on winter break from college, Hayden’s natural waking time was two in the afternoon and it was barely one-o-clock. “Why didn’t you come into the kitchen to chat with Dad and me?”

“I don’t know.”

Hayden was a few months shy of graduating from a major research institution with a degree in Computer Science. He was earning As and Bs in intensive courses such as Cryptography and Network Security, Linear Algebra, Graph Theory, Data Mathematics, and Parallel Programming. He had already accepted a job offer to be a Software Engineer after graduation, at a starting salary that took my husband over a decade to attain in the Navy.

But, invariably, Hayden answered almost every question we asked of him with, “I don’t know.”

“Pick your battles,” I thought. “He’ll talk to us some day.”

“Hayden, will you walk the dog please,” I requested.

In bare feet and pajama pants with bits of pillow fuzz in his beard, he sighed. “Well, I’m about to eat lunch.” Hayden did take the dog on a long walk, but not until he polished off the rest of the good deli meat and expensive cheese. In his pajama pants. At three in the afternoon.

As military brats, our kids know that their father’s 28 years of active duty service paved and paid the way for their college educations. They respect that I stayed home to manage our family. Having lived overseas, they know the importance of worldliness, adaptability, and lasting friendships. Living on a military family budget, they understand the value of a hard-earned dollar.

But ironically, our resilient military brats are also self-absorbed Millennials who were forced to move every few years. Self-absorbed Millennials who gave up friends, homes, and schools many times. Self-absorbed Millennials who are now away at college most of the year.

“Pick your battles,” I thought. It’s okay if they can finally take home for granted.

The Real Truth About New Year’s Eve

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During my youth, my best offer on many New Year’s Eves was babysitting.

My night included sampling the family’s leftover holiday treats and counting down with Dick Clark after the kids went to bed. Despite my pathetic circumstances, I held out hope that, as soon as my social standing improved, I’d have many fabulous, sparkling, whirlwind New Year’s Eve parties in my future.

Little did I know then, nibbling stale cookies and watching the ball drop on TV is about as good as it gets.

It took many years of dashed hopes for me to wise up, so let me spare those of you still blinded by visions of grandeur any further disappointment: New Year’s Eve is not all it’s cracked up to be.

When you’re young, you believe that New Year’s Eve is an exciting night of unknown possibilities. Will you attend a party? Pack into a nightclub? Hang with a wild group of friends? If single, you wonder who might show up. A crush? An ex? Or possibly a new prospect? Could old passions be rekindled? Would new romance be sparked?

You shop in advance for something with a little sparkle, something that might show some skin, something that you’d look good in if dancing breaks out. You want your hair to shine, your pulse points to smell perfumed, and your lips to look smooch-able.

You envision yourself mingling with fun, attractive people. The conversation flows with the bubbly. You throw your head back and laugh like they do in wine commercials. Your hair swishes and your bracelets jingle.

The night is filled the kind of music that compels you to spring to your feet. You swing your hair in loop-de-loops just for laughs. Droplets of sweat glisten on your neck as you and your friends jump in unison to the beat.

Midnight comes unexpectedly, and everyone scrambles to turn down the music, fill glasses for toasting, and moisten lips for kissing. After counting down in unison, balloons are released, glitter infuses the air, and everyone embraces in joyous celebration of the beginning of another exciting new year…

That’s the impossible dream. But here’s the reality of many New Year’s Eves:

December 31st rolls around, and you prepare for a get-together between friends who had nothing better to do. Thanks to holiday spiral hams, cheese balls, cups of egg nog, breakfast casseroles and countless cookies, you abandon the form-fitting outfit you had planned. You opt, instead, for a roomy sweater and pants with a forgiving waistband.

You gather with friends, and after chit chat and cocktails, more holiday food appears. Despite swearing off overeating several days ago, you can’t resist filling your plate with meatballs, spinach dip and pecan tarts.

The host’s music list includes a sedative mix of classic rock. Although you all break out singing “Don’t stop believing!” when Journey comes on, and a friend does a sad pelvic gyration to “Roxanne,” dancing never really takes off. With a full belly, a toe tap is all you can muster.

Time passes, and someone muffles a yawn. You sneak a peak at your watch and are aghast.

“What time is it?” a friend asks.

“Quarter past eight,” you reply, and everyone glances nervously at each other. Four more hours to go.

You down another stiff drink while a friend relays excruciating details about her cat’s prolonged struggle with feline distemper. You pretend to check in with the kids on your phone when you’re really scrolling through Facebook. You hit the buffet again, just because it’s there.

Mercifully, a guest offers to shoot off some fireworks, and you are grateful for the half hour spent shivering in the driveway while watching him light fire to bottle rockets and roman candles.

Back inside, making it to midnight becomes a matter of survival. By the time the host turns the television on, it’s all you can do to chant, “… five, four, three, two, one — Happy New Year!” before heading for the door.

So before the ball drops this December 31st, drop your expectations. With a pre-party nap, an elastic waistband, and plenty of antacids, you might actually enjoy yourself.

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All I want for Christmas is the bottom bunk

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T’was the night before Christmas, and somewhere in the house, someone won’t be sleeping. But not on account of dancing sugar plums. It will be because of that damned cross bar under the pull-out sofa mattress, the acrid smell of a nephew’s pillows, the slow hiss of the flattening air mattress, or the frigid temperature in the basement rumpus room.

During the holidays, when we converge into one festive house to make merry, a game of musical beds is often played, and someone always turns up the loser.

I reached out to readers for their tales of undesirable holiday sleeping arrangements, and received a surprising deluge of detailed stories — as if they harbored resentment over being dealt the short end of the stick all those years, and this was their chance to blow the whistle on the injustice.

Suz, a military spouse, told of annual holiday get-togethers with three branches of her extended family. Eighteen people sleeping in a three-bedroom cabin meant that, after the adults claimed the beds and couches, the eleven kids were left to fight over two unheated spaces — the cement basement or the frigid uninsulated loft. “Every year we’d go back and forth about the merits of both places… And don’t even get me started on how 18 people shared two bathrooms!”

My sister-in-law, Cara, offered countless anecdotes about undesirable sleeping arrangements. Unmarried until recently, she said her circumstances ensured a lifetime of sleeping in odd places as the youngest of five kids and “as the ‘Token Single Lady.’”

As a child, visiting female cousins and friends were assigned to sleep with Cara in her frilly canopy bed, much to her delight. One morning after Gayle, a teenager, was relegated to Cara’s bed, Cara’s mom asked how she slept. “I slept fine,” Gayle reported, “until Cara wet the bed.”

Years later, Cara received her comeuppance when she was offered either of the twin beds in her nieces’ bedroom during a family get-together. “Aunt Cara,” her niece warned before bedtime, “I’d sleep on top of the covers if I were you, because my sister’s been wetting the bed  but is afraid to tell Mom. And the cat sleeps with me, so watch out for cat hair and crumbs.”

Greg, a retired military officer, told me of his family’s annual beach vacations at the Seaside Motel on the Jersey Shore, where he slept in a bed with his brother and sister. “It was a week without sleep as we would come home from the beach completely sun burnt and exhausted, only to climb into a bed of sand paper, owning to the fact that none of us knew how to wash the sand out of all the nooks and crannies.”

Another military spouse friend, Ann, told me she still feels guilty about the holiday when she pushed a mattress into a storage space behind the laundry room to make a place for her nephew. In the morning, she absent-mindedly threw in a load of laundry, not realizing that the dryer vent would turn the tiny space where her nephew slept into a sauna. He awoke in a pool of sweat and hit his head on the rafters trying to escape. The family now refers to the room as “The Sweat Box.”

I harbor my own resentment over the night before my wedding, when my parents made me (aka, the Insignificant Little Sister) sleep on the musty couch in the basement because my older brother (aka, the Golden Boy) was given my bedroom.

However, this is the season to appreciate the blessings in our life. So, instead of seething over that brown and gold couch, I’ll remember those less fortunate.

The military men and women serving overseas will lie on cots, in barracks, and in cramped quarters aboard ships and submarines tonight, with visions of loved ones in their heads. They won’t have the luxury of sleeping on an air mattress in playroom or on a roll away cot in the hallway with their family near by. This Christmas, let’s be grateful to the deployed troops, for volunteering to serve so the rest of us can be home for the holidays.

Do you see what I see?

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I’m grateful that our last tour in the Navy landed us in New England, where the scenery looks like a Currier and Ives dinner plate come to life. I love the frosty chill in the December air, the smell of cut timber and pine boughs, the feel of warm woolen mittens. Here, holiday spirit finds me, draws me in, and captures me. And I gladly surrender.

But it hasn’t always been this easy. For most military families like ours, frequent moves are an unavoidable part of life. And at some point, Uncle Sam stations you somewhere that looks and feels completely foreign. Since holidays are all about tradition, the absence of those traditions can leave you longing for the holidays you grew up with back home.

I was raised in an idyllic small town in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, where Christmas was traditional, classic, just like in the movies. Finding holiday spirit was as easy as waking up in my twin bed with the Kliban Cat sheets, scratching a peephole out of the intricate frost that had formed on the window overnight, and staring out at the winter wonderland right outside.

With dissolved candy canes coursing through my veins, I’d grab the parka handed down from my brother and head for the hill behind our house. The kids in our neighborhood would ruthlessly pelt each other with snowballs, eat gritty icicles broken off the gutters, and sled down the hill until our numbed cheeks couldn’t feel our running noses.

With a warm sludge of hot cocoa and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in my belly, I’d thaw before a roaring fire, staring up at the screw-in lights on our tree. There was one bulb in particular, a transparent magenta one, which seemed to emit pure, saturated hot pink splendor, infinitely refracted by sparkling silver tinsel. I was hypnotized by its magical brilliance, and spilled over with anticipation and awe.

Four decades later, I was sitting in a North Florida Starbucks in mid-December, feeling the blues.

Our family was stationed at Naval Station Mayport, and despite the fact that the Starbucks manager insisted on setting the central air at a frigid sixty-odd degrees and I was surrounded by trendy holiday decor, it just didn’t feel like Christmas to me. 

After I got my vente latte’s worth of free Wi-Fi, I moped out into the sub-tropical 75-degree Florida winter and headed for my minivan. I didn’t have to put on a coat, or scrape any ice off my windshield. I drove back to our base house on roads clear of salt and ash. At home, I opened the windows to let in the ocean breeze. After walking the dog on the white sand beach that ran along the east side of our housing area, I slumped into a lawn chair in our palm-tree-studded back yard.

“Woe is me,” I thought, and as I worked on my tan, I wallowed shamelessly in self-pity.

Later that week, I was back at Starbucks again. As I sat in the trendy coffee shop buzzing with flip-flop-festooned and Ray-Ban-bedecked Floridians, I wondered how they could stand it.

Suddenly, I heard the ring of the cash register and realized that it reminded me of jingle bells. I took notice of the lovely cranberry red hue of the Florida Seminoles t-shirt worn by the man sitting next to me. I sipped my latte, and detected a hint of cinnamon. And then, I looked up at the trendy pendant light hanging overhead, and was drawn in by the pure, saturated blue of its glowing cobalt shade. I was mesmerized.

“Merry Christmas,” the man in the cranberry Seminoles shirt uttered as he got up from our shared table to leave, snapping me out of my hypnotic gaze. In that moment, I realized that holiday spirit comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, locations and climates, but I had been too clouded by my own narrow expectations to see it.

“Merry Christmas to you, too!” I eagerly replied to the festive gentleman, relieved that I had finally seen the light.

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‘N is for Never Forget’: No ordinary kids’ book

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If there’s one thing Nancy Polette has learned in her 80-something years, it’s how to educate children through reading. In her lifetime, she tackled the task from every angle. As a teacher, she has motivated her students to read. As a librarian, she provided resources for learning through books. As a conference speaker and college professor, she taught other teachers the techniques she employed successfully.

But it was as a writer that Polette made her indelible mark on children’s education. As the author of more than 170 books, she developed a knack for detailed research and captivating writing. This skill shines in her most recent middle-grade non-fiction book, N is for Never Forget, released December 7, Pearl Harbor Day.

I recently sat down to read Polette’s new work, which is a picture book that follows the alphabet from A to Z, each letter referencing an aspect of the history of American prisoners of war and missing in action. I expected an alphabet book to be juvenile. I expected to see simple illustrations in bright colors. I expected that I would not learn anything new.

I was wrong.

N is for Never Forget is so packed with riveting real-life stories, fascinating facts about POWs and MIAs, and unique art and illustrations, I found myself lost in its pages.

From the dedication page — which features a digital rendering of the 1943 telegram illustrator Paul Dillon’s mother received informing her that her husband, Paul’s father, was missing in action — to the alphabetized stories of lost soldiers and sailors, I was riveted.

With each letter, I learned something new, from D for the devotion of the Angels of Bataan in WWII, to J for justice sought by the international courts for war crimes, to O for Operation Homecoming which brought Vietnam POWs home from Hanoi prison camps, to T for the Tap Code used by Vietnam War prisoners to communicate through walls, to Z for Army Air Forces bombardier Louis Zampernini who survived a plane crash and 47 days in a life raft before being held in a Japanese prison camp for two years.

For a moment, I almost forgot that this book was for kids. But Nancy Polette knows how important it is to hook readers with extraordinary stories when they are at the key ages of nine, ten and eleven. She says, children that age need “something to chew on,” and intense reading will give them much to think about.

“[I]f kids don’t become passionate about reading, they won’t be as well-educated as they should be,” she said in a 2012 booksmakeadifference.com article, noting that it is important to inspire them to read avidly in 4th, 5th and 6th grades because middle school might be too late.

The illustrations in N is for Never Forget do their part to grab readers. Each is a digital painting created by Paul Dillon from surviving artwork and historical photographs of the actual events described. Some of the paintings are purely illustrative, while other like the cover page showing a line of men in a snowy prison camp, are hauntingly thought-provoking.

N is for Never Forget is available through Elva Resa Publishing for $16.95 at www.elvaresa.com/book/never-forget/. Nancy Polette lives in O’Fallon, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

Five bucks can still buy holiday joy

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Every year, there it was. As right as rain. Pop’s gift for me, propped among the branches of our Christmas tree. Always the same rectangular envelope crafted from heavy paper with dainty red curlicues printed on the corners. It reflected the brilliant glow of our incandescent Christmas bulbs in red, green, orange, blue and gold.

After all the boxes were opened, I’d pluck it from between my family’s eclectic collection of ornaments — silvered balls, yarn and popsicle stick creations, glittery musical instruments, and feathered birds. I’d fish it from the tangle of tinsel, careful to not touch the hot lights. I’d slide a finger under the envelope’s sturdy flap, bend it back until I could see Abraham Lincoln’s waxy portrait staring at me through the little oval window. And I would smile.

Pop never forgot to give each one of his four grandchildren five dollars for Christmas. It was something we all counted on, looked forward to, and trusted, from before I can remember, until he couldn’t remember due to old age and dementia.

The complete lack of surprise was part of the gift’s charm. The envelope always held five bucks. Nothing more, nothing less. The fun was in deciding how to spend it each year.

In the 70s and 80s, I used Pop’s annual gifts to finance a myriad of typical childhood indulgences. When I was small, it might have been one of those shrink-wrapped dress up sets that included a tiara, plastic high heels, elbow-length gloves and a parasol. Later, maybe a Magic 8 Ball. A movie ticket to see Escape to Witch Mountain. A Bonnie Bell lipgloss and some frosted purple eyeshadow. A Squeeze cassette tape. A pair of rainbow suspenders. A new curling iron. Shared chimichangas and fried ice cream with my high school friends at ChiChi’s Restaurant.

It didn’t matter that Pop’s five dollar bill didn’t go very far, never increased for inflation, and wasn’t picked out at a store just for me. Regardless of its plainness, Pop’s gift was a reliable communication of his love.

On his modest income, Pop, a widower, would have had to put forth considerable effort to send gifts to his grandchildren. After an economical lunch of fried baloney and Veg-All, he would have put on his signature bow tie and a newsboy cap, to make the trip to his local bank. After flirting with the tellers, he would have withdrawn a wad of crisp five dollar bills. With a wink and a wave, he would have driven his big sedan to the stationary story to buy the special envelopes with the little oval windows. At home, he would have stuffed one for each of my cousins, my brother, and me.

Decades later, as Pop lies alongside my grandmother in a cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky, holiday gift giving has undergone a dramatic transformation.

Nowadays, gift lists are long and require subsets, contingencies, and sometimes, spreadsheets. We buy for everyone from Aunt Millie to the school janitor. We troll the internet in search of discounts, coupon codes, and free shipping. We browse for just the right gift until our eyes cross and our fingers bleed. When online shopping fails us, we are swept into the swirling sea of retail consumerism at malls and superstores. We read the fine print of the sales flyers. We elbow our fellow shoppers to grab the best bargains. We stand in infuriating check out lines, only to be told by the irritated salesperson that the “buy-one-get-one-half-off deal only applies to last season’s merchandise.”

And when the holiday rolls around, these gifts that were acquired under extreme duress are given, appreciated briefly, then soon forgotten, their meaning lost in the gift-giving frenzy.

Pop had it right. Ironically, his annual present stood out among the heaps of boxes under our tree, because it was simple, given without fanfare, glitter or bows. To me, that envelope contained not only Abraham Lincoln, but also, dreams and possibilities. The cost to Pop was only five dollars, but the value of his gift of dependable love was always priceless to me.

Black Friday flunkies, we’re not alone

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As much as I’d like to think that Black Friday is a greedy retail industry conspiracy to fleece gullible consumers out of their hard-earned cash, I can’t deny the fact that it offers shoppers really good deals.

In fact, Black Friday has become so popular — last year, over one million shoppers braved the crowds to get average in-store “doorbuster” discounts of 37 percent — that similar retail events have cropped up such as Singles Day, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, Green Monday, and Super Saturday. It seems like every retailer is grabbing for a chunk of the $1.05 trillion in sales predicted for the 2017 holiday shopping season.

As trendy as these retail events are, I’ve never been motivated to shop so soon after Thanksgiving. I’m too busy trying to get the burnt bits off of the bottom of the roasting pan to care. Besides, the puzzle isn’t done, there are more football games to watch, and I promised everyone I’d make tetrazzini with the leftover turkey.

I prefer to wait a couple more weeks to start shopping in earnest, just long enough for abject panic to set in. Why get everything purchased, packaged and shipped, when I could pay top dollar after the competition slows down, then stand in line for an hour at the post office only to be told that my package will arrive too late for Christmas?

Perhaps I’m a Black Friday flunky because of my upbringing. I grew up in a small town where the only shopping done on Black Friday was for pork products and beer. This is because the day after Thanksgiving was when men and boys left to go hunting. Every year, my father and a dozen of his friends ensconced themselves in fluorescent orange and headed out to our hunting camp — a small cinderblock cabin on a wooded pond in rural Western Pennsylvania. Everyone in those parts had school and work off on Monday and Tuesday for deer hunting season, so for five days, they tracked deer, ate like kings, watched football and played poker.

Even though I was left at home with my mother, she wasn’t much for shopping for the latest trends. I was encouraged to wear thick yarn hair ribbons, saddle shoes, and polyester dresses with white cardigan sweaters until I was in the seventh grade. By adolescence, any burgeoning fashion sense that I was developing had withered and died, apparently asphyxiated by those stifling cardigan sweaters. I had to master the basics if I was going to survive high school, so I armed myself with simple color matching skills, lots of denim, and a pair of brown shoes. My most fashion-forward outfit was an orange wool sweater, a knee-length denim skirt, matching orange knee socks, and those brown shoes. That was as good as it was gonna get.

After marriage, I was still the last one to clue in to the latest trends among my peer group. In the 90s, while the other navy wives were toasting pine nuts, wearing distressed jeans, painting their walls “Claret,” and listening to Alanis Morrissette, I was obliviously content in my shoulder-pad-reinforced sweater, drinking a Zima in my Williamsburg blue kitchen with the duck toaster caddy.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep up with trends. Just when I thought I’d discovered the latest craze, it was already on a clearance rack at Big Lots or on the buffet at Golden Corral.

But there is good news for unsavvy shoppers like me. Apparently, the numbers are on our side. According to PwC market research, shoppers are becoming disenchanted with Black Friday. Only 35 percent plan to shop the day after Thanksgiving, down from 51 percent in 2016 and 59 percent in 2015. Eighty-one percent of consumers feel that holiday shopping is stressful, and 45 percent mark Black Friday as the most nerve-racking time to shop. So this year, the largest group of consumers plan to do their holiday buying during the second week of December to avoid the Thanksgiving week rush altogether.

I guess, after all those years of being a Black Friday flunky, I’m finally a trend setter after all.

New treatment for ‘Invisible Wounds of War’ gives families hope

In my 24 years as a Navy wife, I never lost sleep worrying that my husband had been injured in combat. Due to the nature of his job, he was mostly shielded from danger, and thus, his service to his country did not come with a huge price tag.

We were lucky.

Many of the 2.7 million post-9/11 veterans are not so fortunate. Over 540,000 have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and another 260,000 have Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). However, these “invisible wounds of war” are often hidden from the veterans themselves, so it is believed that the figures on PTSD are actually much higher.

The afflicted cannot cope with the resulting emotions, anxiety, and depression. Relationships are ruined. Substances are abused. Warriors self-destruct. With a veteran suicide rate of 20 per day, the stark reality of the sacrifices paid by our service members is truly alarming.

I am embarrassed by our military family’s oblivion, when many are struggling. So, when my neighbor — who works for a Boston-based clinical treatment facility for veterans with PTSD and TBI — offered to show me his workplace, I jumped at the chance.

Home Base is a veteran and family care program founded in 2009 by the Boston Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital. It is one of four such facilities at academic medical centers — the others are Rush in Chicago, Emory in Atlanta, and UCLA in Los Angeles.

They offer both outpatient treatment, as well as inpatient Intensive Clinical Programs (ICPs) funded by Wounded Warrior Project. Home Base’s ICP involves two weeks of residential treatment at no cost to veterans. Ten injured warriors at a time enter ICP as a “cohort.” Since the pilot program in 2015, twenty-seven cohorts have gone through ICP with promising results, according to Home Base’s CEO, Brigadier General Jack Hammond (Ret.).

The cohorts attend individual and group therapies, exposure or cognitive processing therapies, wellness activities, and coping skills training. They get one year’s worth of therapy in 14 days.

In art therapy, veterans create masks. On the outside, they show what the world sees. Here, camouflage.

Inside the mask, veterans draw what they try to hide. Here, fear, anxiety, stress, sadness, hatred.

I visited on day 15 — Graduation Day.

I was taken to a small, quiet space that had been neatly lined with folding chairs. A table held yellow flowers, challenge coins, and graduation certificates.

From the back, I watched the cohort file into the front row. Clinicians, staff, and a few of the veterans’ family members took the seats behind.

In ICP, veterans can invite one family member to attend the program for two days during the second week to receive coping skills training and attend group therapy. It’s an integral part of recovery, according to General Hammond. “The family members have been injured by virtue of their own stress of having a loved one so far away, or by the service member coming home and disrupting the family ecosystem. In either case, you can’t just treat the veteran, you have to heal the entire ecosystem,” he said.

Members of each cohort are given symbolic tokens of their accomplishment. Here, a custom-made Home Base challenge coin and a biker's guardian bell.

Members of each cohort are given symbolic tokens to commemorate their finishing the intensive course of treatment. Here, a custom-made Home Base challenge coin and a biker’s guardian bell.

After heartfelt speeches from clinicians and staff, members of the cohort stood to speak to the group one final time.

A gruff warrior with a salt and pepper beard could only squeak out, “Thank you,” before being seized by emotion.

A woman veteran who they referred to as their “den mother,” showed her appreciation for the simplicity of the process. “Here, you wake up, you set your soul free, then you go to sleep. You get up the next day, and do it all over again.”

A quiet veteran stood with his PTSD assistance dog and admitted that his treatment might be too late to save his marriage. “But that’s okay. It’s reality, and now I have other people I can reach out to. I have friends. I’ll be okay.”

The jokester of the group surprised everyone with this frank confession: “When I came here, I thought this was it. I had a gun to my head. But I’m leaving here with hope for my future. You literally saved my life.”

General Hammond encourages other warriors to consider treatment. “I like to tell veterans, you are not alone, every one of us has gone through these challenges, me included. The key is to get care, start the process. We can give you hope for a better life.”

Veterans and their families can get more information at www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/warrior-care-network or at www.homebase.org/ICP.

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The Hare, the Tortoise, and the Hairy Retiree

My husband, Francis, poised for action at the starting line.

My husband, Francis, poised for action at the starting line.

Let’s face it — nothing packs on the pounds like getting out of the military.

After years of being weighed, measured, poked and prodded by Uncle Sam in the name of combat readiness, newly-separated service men and women are abruptly set free from fitness standards. They swap uniforms for stretchy civilian clothes, embrace hair growth, and eat without fear that a side of fries will jeopardize their careers.

My husband, Francis, has been thoroughly enjoying this freedom for almost a year now, so it was no surprise when he recently announced, “I’ve signed us up for the Pell Bridge Run so I can get back into shape.”

Most people enter races after they’ve gotten fit, but not Francis. He subscribes to the theory that committing himself to a race that is well beyond his physical capabilities will shock his self-discipline back to life. He has huffed, puffed and chaffed through triathlons, bike races and full marathons with hardly any training. While these events temporarily boosted Francis’ self-esteem, his motivation was always short-lived.

At least the Pell Bridge Run was only four miles, and included racers of all fitness levels. He had signed me up too, and I liked the thought that we might embark on an exercise routine together.

On the morning of the race, we huddled in the dim chill near the free coffee tent, eyeing our competition. There were runners wearing moisture-wicking spandex and state-of-the-art gel soles. They obsessively stretched their hip flexors, checked the split timers on their sports watches, and breathed in through the nose and out through the mouth.

“C’mon honey,” Francis called as I exited a Porta-potty, “time to line up!”

We scanned the mass of people behind the starting gate, organized in groups by speed.

“Seven minute mile… Nope. Eight minute mile… Nope. Nine minute mile… Nope,” Francis said.

“There it is!” I exclaimed. “The twelve minute mile sign is back there!”

There they were. People wearing t-shirts emblazoned with, “Bacon is meat candy.” People with vapes dangling from their necks. People who haven’t stretched since the Ford administration. People so in tune with their physical limitations, they wore khakis and loafers.

Finally, we had found our people.

Francis, who wore his track pants cinched up too high, decided to stretch. Like a Broadway actor, he made a dramatic production of bending at the waist, reaching his hands past his shins toward his quadruple E feet. His knees buckled, and I heard a grunt. His fingers had stopped cold, six inches above his laces.

“Nice effort, honey,” I chuckled.

Our plan was to walk the first two miles uphill to the top of the bridge, but as we passed the starting line, we broke into an adrenaline-fueled trot. By the time we jogged up the first expanse of bridge, we had already run a mile and didn’t feel like stopping. The crisp fall air, the sun rising over the bay, and the excitement of the crowd carried us effortlessly along.

Propelled by camaraderie with our fellow racers, we kept going, even as a twinge of nausea set in and sweat began to pour. “Do you want to walk a bit?” I puffed to Francis, whose breathing had become alarmingly labored.

“No,” he sputtered, “let’s … get … to the top.”

We may have been wheezing and stumbling, but we made it to the apex of the bridge that morning, 215 feet above the sparkling bay. The pride in our accomplishment kept us running, albeit slowly.

In fact, a four-year-old in pigtails whizzed by us, squealing, “Step on a crack, break your mamma’s back!” But we were not deterred. Even as we passed by the cemetery on the last stretch to the finish line, we didn’t let the morbid reminder of our mortality stop us.

Instinctively, we knew this four mile run was a metaphor for the progression of our lives, and we were determined to keep going, up and down, slowly and steadily. And as we crossed the finish line, we were reminded that the challenges we’d faced along the way were what made life’s rewards so sweet.

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