When author Michelle Matthews came home from war, she thought returning alive meant the worst was over. She was mistaken; surviving life after war proved to be equally challenging. Matthews returned a changed person. In Re-entry, she narrates a poignant account of the war in Iraq, its tragic aftermath, and her courageous journey to heal emotionally.
Based on journal entries and e-mails sent before, during, and after her service in Iraq, this memoir provides a firsthand account of the trials and tribulations she experienced by her service and gives insight into her emotional journey. Upon her return, Matthews struggled with anxiety and depression and began overeating and abusing alcohol. She tells how she wrestled with thoughts of suicide as she found normal life overwhelming following the abnormal rhythm of war.
Re-entry shows that how, through counseling, physical and recreational therapy, journaling, meditating, exercising, and support from family and friends, Matthews found herself again.
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RE-ENTRYSURVIVING LIFE AFTER WAR
By Michelle Matthews
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Michelle Matthews
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBefore Iraq
I joined the military the first time in 1986. I went on active duty and served for three and a half years overseas in Germany, learning a great deal about the Cold War and World War II. To have been in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down is indescribable. But soon I wanted a different direction in life, so I left active duty, joined the United States Army Reserve in Colorado, was honorably discharged and went to college to complete my degree in psychology.
After I graduated a friend informed me about a career opportunity in the Reserves. I reenlisted in 2001 and became a commissioned officer to work in public affairs. Just two months later our country was attacked by terrorists on September 11th. The world was forever changed and I was ready to deploy and defend our nation.
Because I was a Reservist, I also had a full-time position as a case manager at the health department in St. Louis. My military commitment was supposed to be only one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, but it was never really like that. To become a commissioned officer, training is necessary that requires much more than just weekends. I struggled to fit it in with my other priorities: training for marathons and various races, an active family and social life, and of course looking for Mr. Right. I had my health; I was financially stable and I was truly happy. My life was a balance of ordinary and extraordinary—just the way I wanted it.
I was an enlisted soldier and was training at Fort Meade, Maryland in 2003 to be a videographer when my fellow soldiers and I watched the Iraq war unfold on television. We knew we were going to be part of the war effort. Some volunteered to go right away. Soldiers don't fight solely for a cause or for political ideologies: they fight for each other. As the weight of war was upon us, the camaraderie was amazing and uplifting.
But internally I thought, what have we gotten ourselves into? Are we really at war? The reality of war is death and destruction. The mission of serving and protecting our nation was weighted by a tremendous fear of death.
Perhaps I was in denial in the early stages: the 1991 Iraq war was short—less than a month, right? There will be others to go first before it's over. I probably won't have to deploy.
By the time I attended my Officer Basic Course in September of 2004 the U.S. was fighting in two wars. We were in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet I still believed that they would be over soon and that I would not be needed. I could not envision myself going to war. I met returning soldiers who talked about their lives in Iraq and I could not relate to them because, I believed I wasn't going to share their experience. Rather it was because I had no real concept of war.
In October 2004 I learned by email from my mentor and commander that I was going to be deployed. At first I did not tell anyone that we were tasked to go because I still clung to the thought that it wouldn't be me.
I was selected to attend training in March 2005 for Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The training included identifying IEDs by type, by terrain, how they were made, what parts were used and how they were employed and used against the U.S. military. Countless videos documented what they looked like, how they sounded and their aftermath. An IED brings death and injury to anyone caught in its path. Learning about the destruction caused by IEDs brings war—and its casualties—to life. Reality was closing in.
I was training at Fort McCoy when I met a man and began a relationship. It was fate as far as I was concerned. He was going to war; I was going to war, so it was exactly what I needed at the time. I felt the overwhelming need to be in a relationship—to love, to be loved. I thought that being in love would change my outlook on war, somehow make it better.
Going to war was my major concern during this time, but there was another issue lurking in the background. An issue that would cause many more problems during deployment training and in Iraq. The commander who emailed my deployment orders had feelings for me in the past. He had previously served as my assigned mentor and had indicated his desire to have a romantic relationship. I made it clear that I found his advances unprofessional and did not want a relationship with him. Eventually he took a full time Active-Guard Reserve position in another state, so the situation seemed to take care of itself. When I received the email from him I assumed that through time, distances and life his interests, would no longer be focused on me.
As deployment neared, this commander called and emailed frequently to discuss deployment and ideas about training. He began flying into St.
Louis and wanting to meet with me on the weekends. I felt uncomfortable, but ignored my reservations because he was maintaining professionalism.
I found it odd that he always wanted to talk excessively to me about deployment and training. I was still dating the man I met in training at Fort McCoy and it became very clear that my commander was not happy with me having a relationship with another man. Once, while driving to a unit member's home to pick up equipment, he began asking me questions about my relationship and the seriousness of it.
"Why does it matter?" I asked.
"Because when we deploy you and I are going to be together all the time, like a married couple in love, so you might want to break up with him because he may not be able to handle our relationship."
I realized my discomfort was warranted. I made it clear once more that I didn't want a relationship with him, ever. Situations like this are painfully uncomfortable, and finding the easiest way out becomes the most viable solution. Mine was going to public affairs school—I wouldn't have to deal with it there, right? Never mind that he acted childish around me, singling me out in front of my peers. I would be living in Fort Meade, Maryland, nearer to my boyfriend. I focused on that.
While I was at Fort Meade my commander, who lived in New York, decided to come see me under the guise of introducing me to other unit members that were living in the New York area. He told me he was coming, but I told him that, due to my school commitments, I could not meet with them. He came to Fort Meade anyway, calling to say they were coming to pick me up for lunch. I felt uncomfortable being put in this position because he was my commander and I didn't want to appear uncooperative or anti-social to the new members of the unit.
While nothing happened at lunch that day, a few weeks later he came back unannounced. He called when he was almost to Fort Meade, leaving a voice mail that he was on post and coming to meet me. My friend Toni helped me get out of the area without running into him. Instead he talked to my instructors about my academic progress. He called several times and left numerous voice mail messages about meeting me for dinner. I couldn't answer my phone and avoided going home because friends and classmates warned me that a man claiming to be my commander was waiting in the hallway outside my door. Under normal circumstances addresses are not disclosed, but as my commander he could find me anywhere. I didn't go home until I received his voice mail that he was on his way back to New York.
My commander moved to St. Louis, my hometown. He continued calling and emailing constantly. He abused our relationship, beginning conversations talking about deployment, but quickly moving to talking about my relationship with my boyfriend. As my commander I was obligated to talk to him about work related issues, but didn't feel the need to disclose personal information about my boyfriend. Partly because of him, I decided to go to New Jersey and stay with my boyfriend after I graduated from public affairs school before returning to St. Louis.
Knowing I was in New Jersey, he requested that I go to his apartment in New York and pick up his mail to bring with me back to St. Louis. I objected, stating very clearly that I would not do that and he was abusing his authority. My boyfriend, also a military officer, was listening to the conversation and demanded to speak to my commander. He explained that my commander was being unprofessional and that he should leave me alone. That I was not interested in a relationship other than the one I was currently involved in. I don't know what was said on the other end, but my boyfriend told him to get his own mail and hung up the phone. The situation was infuriating, but since my boyfriend confronted him I thought he would back off.
I moved back home to St. Louis in July 2005 since my boyfriend was scheduled to deploy to Iraq in August. I was working at my unit and was relieved that my commander was acting professionally. I headed to El Paso, Texas to see my boyfriend who was deploying from there and he gave me a ring. The ring signified a future commitment of marriage.
When I returned to St. Louis with a ring on my finger my commander became angry and preached to me about how I should not get married before I deployed, because "my boyfriend would probably cheat on me or I would cheat on him." Then "I love you" slipped out of his mouth. I knew I had to do something more than just telling him to leave me alone. I went to my chain of command. I was called into an office of a full Colonel and he told me he would talk to him and let me know the outcome. There was a meeting held and my commander seemed to understand the potential problems this was causing and agreed to leave me alone. That "leave me alone" period lasted about a month.
Everything started again once we left St. Louis to attend mobilization training at Fort Riley. He harassed me every chance he could. He said inappropriate things to me and about me to other members of the unit. For example, when we first arrived to Fort Riley and were looking around the barracks to determine room assignments he said in front of other unit members, "oh no worries I have a big room, she can stay with me." I told him his comment was inappropriate. Everyone else just laughed.
One afternoon we were at the Central Issue Facility (CIF) getting new boots, uniforms and equipment. I was wearing my newly issued boots when he walked up to me, grabbed my foot and began talking in baby talk saying "how cute my little wittle foot was in the boots." The people around me just laughed, but I was humiliated. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. I called the Colonel who I originally talked to about this in St. Louis and he instructed me to file a formal complaint against him. I was so angry that I immediately went to my higher command and began the process.
Email home September 18, 2005
I am not sure I can endure this anymore. His constant harassment is so out of control. I have tried to talk to him and I am trying to maintain my professionalism; it just doesn't seem to make a difference.
The process to file a formal sexual harassment complaint is scary and difficult. Once the complaint is filed everyone in unit becomes subject to interviews and it is no longer a secret. Filing the complaint against my commander divided the unit. My commander was well liked and personal friends with most of the unit, and had hand-selected several of them to deploy with the unit. They were friends outside of work—there were few professional boundaries between him and some of the enlisted members of the unit.
Email home September 28, 2005
You may have already heard I filed a sexual harassment case against my commander and I am waiting for the investigation to start and the outcome. I am hoping to be home sooner than I think or maybe get sent to another unit. Say prayers. We will know what happens in about two weeks.
Life got even more complicated after I filed the complaint. As a leader in a unit that was getting ready to deploy, I didn't need to be undermined or disrespected. But it had already happened and it continued to happen, despitemyfocusonmaintainingprofessionalbehaviorduringfinaltraining to go to Iraq. There were several incidents when I would be conducting a briefing or training and snide remarks were made by unit members that were aligned with him. My commander was present when this occurred and allowed it to happen. I tried to correct the situation by asking my commander to restore discipline and order within in the unit. He ignored my requests. I was completely undermined as a leader. The unit was out of control, lacked discipline and we were not working as a team. I was alone in this fight, without the support in my unit or my higher command.
Email home September 29, 2005
It is all started now and things have gotten worse, couldn't believe that it could, but it has. Wish me luck, say prayers and know that I will try to remain strong. Harassed by him, harassed by unit members, doesn't feel like a good thing to be going on before I deploy to war. Love and miss you madly.
During the investigation I was still assigned to the unit because the procedure requires the individual who makes the complaint remain in the unit (so it does not look like the person is being punished by being removed). In normal situations this process may be beneficial but since we were deploying to war and were at a mobilization training site, I had to work and live with unit members 24/7 without any relief. I was with people who truly didn't believe anything was wrong with his behavior. Some didn't believe me or thought I was "crazy." Some thought I was claiming sexual harassment to get out of deployment. Rumors, innuendos and gossip ran rampant. I was told not to discuss the case and followed these guidelines, but my commander and unit members discussed the case openly. I was an outcast.
My support came from my family and friends at home and an officer from another unit, Greg, who befriended me at the training site. I would call my family and friends every chance I could to talk about what was happening and to give them the latest updates on the investigation. By day twelve of the investigation I was at my breaking point. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and tired of being re-victimized over and over again by my unit members. I called my father to talk to him about what was happening and he became so angry that he wanted to call his congressman. I told him that I had two more days until the outcome and if it went past the time, he could make the call.
The investigation lasted fourteen days and it was the longest two weeks of my life. I went to my higher command to request a transfer to another unit while the investigation was going on because I could no longer be subjected to the constant harassment. It was very clear to me that whatever the outcome of the investigation, I was going to war with this unit. Not just to an annual training or a weekend drill, but to war which required unit cohesion and trust.
When the investigation was completed he was relieved of his command and recommended for an Article 15 (a form of reprimand pursuant to the Uniform Code of Military Justice). On the day he was relieved my unit was attending combat lifesaving training and I received a phone call informing me of the outcome of the investigation. When our training was over the unit marched back to the barracks to find the commander loading his bags into a van. Unit members rushed to him and began asking him questions. I could see that they were angry and physically upset because some of them were crying and I heard someone yell "this is bullshit."
After he drove away the unit went to the barracks common room. Some members were so angry they began to throw furniture around. I immediately went to headquarters and told them what was happening and a meeting was called that required the whole unit to attend. The commander from a higher headquarters briefed the unit on the outcome of the investigation and explained what happened, why it happened and what we as unit will and will not do. The Colonel laid out our new chain of command, told unit members if they had a problem with this decision that they needed to address her, and commanded us to "get back to training and stop the childish antics" before she walked out.
The next day I had to appear before the Colonel for her to read me the final results of the investigation and her punitive recommendations for his sexually harassing me. The investigation revealed that he called my cell phone approximately 250 times in a 45-day period and also called my mother's house more than 100 times. I learned that there were other witnesses outside of my unit that verified his harassment of me. I was so relieved that the system worked for me and that my complaints were validated.
Excerpted from RE-ENTRY by Michelle Matthews Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Matthews. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Kuwait: Welcome to War....................21
Kuwait: Part Two....................65