12. Everything Is A War
August 10, 2018 9 p.m.
How serving in a war zone sticks with you — and reappears many years later. Army veteran Vance Voyles shares how war comes back to him in his new work as a cop. Natalie Lovejoy talks about what it’s like to be a young military spouse, and finds connection to others through musical theatre.
Contributors: Vance Voyles, Natalie Lovejoy
Visit us at kpbs.org/incoming
Find more KPBS podcasts at kpbs.org/podcast
Justin Hudnall: From So Say We All and KPBS in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the public radio series that features true stories from American service members, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I'm your host, Justin Hudnall.
JH: Today's episode, "Everything is a War," focuses on stories about how serving in a war zone can stick to a person. Just like how the dust in the desert can get into every crevice of a person's boots and uniform and duffle bag, and underwear. So deeply that traces of it will still magically appear months and years after a service member returns home. War can behave similarly with a person's mind and personality, popping back up out of nowhere after drinking that one drink too many, or driving past that one pile of trash that looks perfect for hiding an IED under, or when all you want to do is sleep, but your brain has other plans for you. and it doesn't just impact service members, but the friends, and lovers, and family of those connected to them.
JH: We've drafted two voices to tell you stories on that front today. Musical theater composer and performer Natalie Lovejoy will join us in the second half to talk about her experience as a young military spouse and how she was able to tell her story and connect with others through musical theater.
JH: But first up, army veteran and now a police officer, Vance Voyles, is going to talk about how the war comes back for him and some of the calls he's responded to as a cop. But first, let me tell you a bit about Mr. Voyles. He is a seven-and-a-half-year veteran of the US Army where he specialized as an Arabic linguist. And then upon returning home, served over a decade and a half as a police officer, working sex crimes and homicide in central Florida before relocating. In the middle of all that, he also received his MFA in creative writing at the University of Central Florida. He's the perfect candidate to address a question we hear a lot about: whether veterans make good law enforcement. And we asked him that question, but also a lot more. Because he's a really interesting dude. And while being a cop is really important to a human being's identity, the uniform does not a person make. And I'm not about to explain that for him, so without further ado, please meet your storyteller for the next half hour, Mr. Vance Voyles.
Vance Voyles: Hello, my name is Vance Voyles, and the name of my story is "Lights Out."
The man squats low against the wall as a patrol car passes in the road behind him. Headlights grow long shadows of parked cars and tree trunks into the space where he sits hidden behind a dumpster. The stench of rotten banana peels, dead milk cartons, and day-old diapers surrounds him. He had expected more of a response and he smiles at his good fortune. He waits for the engine to turn off and the slam of a door before he steals a glance to see who they have sent to take him. He shakes his arms to loosen up and rolls his neck. This is what they trained him for. This is who he was now. Rock and roll.
When I first got the call, the dispatcher said the witnesses heard screaming and the sounds of breaking glass in the apartment below just before things went quiet. The address had no history of domestic violence. All they wanted was a check on well-being, but as I turned into the complex, the shadow of a big man sprints across the street to the dumpster where the tree line fills up the space between the highway and the apartments. I reach down and grab the hand mic to the radio and wait for a break in traffic.
"County, 120-Alpha going 97," I say. "Looks like a verbal, can I get a 44?"
"Copy, 120-Alpha," she says. The chatter of radio traffic follows, and two more units respond to head in my direction.
Watching the dumpster, I pull into a faded blue handicapped parking spot and turn off the engine. Then, in one swift move, I open the door, grab the heavy flashlight from its charger under the driver's seat, and step out into the night. Other than the slight breeze rustling the trees, there is no movement from the dumpster, or anywhere else. Three seconds. Five. I shut the driver's door and move towards the apartments.
Shards of glass sparkle in the breezeway under my flashlight's beam. From the smell of fresh phosphorus, someone has recently smashed the lightbulbs dotting the dark corridor. Before knocking, I stand silent with my ear to the door listening for some noise, anything. After three hard knocks, a girl rips open the door, crying. But when she sees me standing there in uniform, with a gun on my hip, and a star on my chest, she jumps back and wilts. Her eyes are puffy, and she holds a tissue over her mouth.
"Is everything ok in there?" I peer behind her to see if anyone else is inside.
"No, I mean, everything's ok now." She holds her arm straight against the door to hold it open. "He took off when I said I was calling the cops."
"Who is 'he'?"
"Jason. My fiancé."
"Mind if we talk inside, miss?"
"Erin," I repeat.
She nods and planks herself against the door to make room for me to pass.
"After you," I say, motioning her inside. "Do you think he'll be back soon?" I take one last look down the breezeway and follow her into the apartment.
The hallway of the apartment stands dark in contrast to the living room and the kitchen where every light is burning bright. Erin heads straight for the couch, exhausted but weary. She is sitting in the eye of a relationship hurricane, why somewhere outside, storm bands are gearing up for another run at her.
"He hasn't been the same since he got back. One minute, he's a sweetheart and the next minute, he's punching lights out with his bare hands. He won't talk about it, and I never know what's going on in his head."
Next to the couch, near the sliding glass door, a black metal shotgun leans heavy against the wall. I cross the living room to close the gap.
"Is this loaded?"
"It's his, so yes, probably."
"Do you mind?" Not waiting for an answer, I pick it up and pull back the slide. One in the chamber, and at least one more ready to go. Erin ignores me as I cup the ejection port and unload the shotgun. She folds her arms against her chest and stares at the ground.
"What did you mean when you said, 'Since he came back'? Is Jason in the military?"
"Marines," she says. "But not anymore."
Once the door shuts on his apartment, Jason moves from his position of cover and jogs over to the patrol car. He cups his hands against the glass. Remington shotgun locked in between the driver and passenger seats. Low light streams into the cab from the folded down screen of the laptop computer mounted to the center console. Taking the distance from the dumpster to the squad care, Jason estimates the deputy to be around six foot, 230. Smaller than he is. No pictures on the dash, nothing to show who the guy is.
He moves to the back window. Stickers placed on the cage; Superman, the Punisher, the Incredible Hulk, and then the one his is looking for, Tap Out.
"All the better," he mutters. "A challenge." Jason clenches his teeth together. Why doesn't she understand what he is doing? They didn't need the police to protect and serve, that's what he is there for. He rubs the side of his head and balls his hands into fists. The streetlights flood the parking lot and angry bees buzz inside his head. He is losing his night vision. A car door slams. Someone laughs. He needs to move, get cover. Jason looks around: to his apartment, the bushes, the dumpster, the stairwell.
"So, he's fine one minute, and nervous the next. Would you say that's right?" I ask.
"Would you say this happens more at night, or during the day?" I jot down her answers in the small pocket notebook. This address needs hazards for future deputies coming to this apartment.
"I don't know. I mean, I never thought about it like that. When he first got back, it only happened when he drank to much. So, I chalked it up to that, you know? Blowing off steam. But then it started happening more and more over nothing, like tonight." Erin's eyes are dry now, clear. Not like when she first opened the door.
"What happened tonight?"
She shrugs in confusion. "He ran a red light, like, for nothing. We were sitting there waiting for it to change. I think I was talking about us moving closer to my parents' house, or something else completely benign. And then he starts tapping the steering wheel and looking back and forth for cars. So, I'm like, 'Honey, what's wrong?' And all the sudden, he's in full freakout mode: 'This f*ckin' light! What the f*ck! This f*ckin' light!' By now he's banging the steering wheel. 'What the f*ck! What the f*ck!' And then he's squealing the tires through the light. I mean, thank God no one was coming." Erin's hands were furiously in front of her, telling the story in tandem. "You see what I mean? One minute, fine. The next minute, stone cold crazy!"
"Was he drinking tonight?" I ask, regretting it instantly.
"You're not listening! This is not about him drinking. Sure, we had some beers with dinner, but this sh*t is happening all the time." Erin's shoulders collapse, and she starts crying again. "I love him so much. What the f*ck am I supposed to do?"
I want to reach out to her, rest a hand on her shoulder. Tell her that it's going to be ok, even if that is a lie. Better yet, I want to send her to some border town in Iraq, or Afghanistan, and make her walk point to show her what the rest of the world is drowning out with Facebook and Twitter. I want to show her what she's missing. Jason. Both versions of him: the man he used to be, and the man he's afraid to tell her about. But I have a job to do.
"And you said he never hit you, right? At least not tonight?"
Erin slumps back on the couch. "No," she says. "Not yet."
At least she has that going for her. Knowledge of the possibility.
"I'm going to go outside and see if I can find him."
"Are there any other guns in the house, besides that one?" I point at the unload shotgun. "Or on him, for that matter?"
"No," she says.
I pick up the shotgun on my way out, tuck it under the crook of my left arm, and pocket the rounds in my shirt pocket.
"I'm going to go ahead and take this with me, for safe keeping. He'll be able to get it back from me tomorrow."
"He's not going to be happy about that."
"Oh, I'm sure he's going to be pissed. But like I said, it's only temporary. Just until we can figure out what's going on with him tonight, ok?"
Erin nods, resigned to the reality of her situation.
"And I'm going to get you started on a statement, just to document tonight and his state of mind."
"Are you going to help me at all? Or just write stuff down?"
I want to shake her awake. Tell her that this is bigger than her relationship with Jason. That without the proper help, her boyfriend is a time bomb ready to explode. Instead, I smile sympathetically at her.
"I'm going to try to help. And writing it all down is how I get the ball rolling."
White dots blink in my eyes as I step outside the door or Erin's apartment. The sound of traffic hums in the distance. He's got to be close by, and it's only crazy if it doesn't work.
"Jason?" I call out into the dark. "Can you hear me?"
Nothing. I reach up and rub the crazy, built up adrenaline out of my neck and move towards my car in the parking lot, where my backup should be pulling in.
"Looks like you got something that don't belong to you, boot," Jason says from the breezeway behind me.
I turn to see him. His eyes light up. His fists are mini anvils at his sides.
"Oh yeah," he says, his jaw set in stone, breathing heavily through his nose. "Rookie mistake if I ever saw one."
"Hold on a second, brother. We're on the same side."
Jason laughs, and a stream of saliva falls from his mouth.
"You're not my f*cking brother," he almost whispers. "And I don't know what side you're talking about."
His chest rises and falls, oblivious to the two deputies who have stepped into the breezeway behind him. My brothers, who have him in handcuffs before he knows what has happened.
Perhaps he got lost in the sound of buzzing in his ears, or the pixies of street lights flitting around his head, when he remembered the shotgun heavy in his hands. So cold, even though he knows the warmth of fire from long days of fighting. Or how he beat back the dust of a thousand sand storms, his vehicles and buddies broke down, or blown to bits right in front of his eyes. All for the promise of a lie. Erin's faithful understanding. Perhaps everything became clear to him: the enemy is everywhere and nowhere. And in all parts in between.
As I guide him back to the backseat of my patrol car, his hands cuffed behind his back, Jason's eyes turned into glass. The radio squawked. And I tell dispatch I'm heading to Lakeside Alternatives. The doctors can help him better than I can.
Then Jason mumbles under his breath from the backseat.
"No," I tell him. "Even if you hadn't come back tonight, we were going to come looking for you. You need help, man." I gesture to the other deputies driving away. "We just want to help."
"You don't get it," Jason says as he flops his head toward the window, and the amber glow of streetlights. "The stars are all gone. I should have never come back."
JH: We're back with our guest, the writer, army veteran, and police officer Vance Voyles, discussing his writing, and the transition he experienced trading one uniform for another. Alright, so why don't you start us off by walking us through your reasons for joining.
VV: [laughs] You know, I had just graduated high school and if you had told me during my senior year, that a year later I’d be in the military, I would have said, "You're crazy." It was not even anywhere on my horizon. I went to one semester of college at a community college, I was working midnights and I realized that this is not what I want to do either. So, I went to all of the recruiters, and tried to get the best deal that I could. I ended up going in the army to learn Arabic, because they were going to pay for college later. I figured, later would probably be better for me than now. I got to spend the first two years in relative comfort, in Monterey, California. Then in Washington, DC. Then, boom, Gulf War. That's where I went after that.
JH: Can you talk to us a little bit about your experience returning home and what it was like to transition out?
VV: You know the funny thing about it is, I'm a police officer but I have degrees in writing, because what else do you do with degrees in writing? [laughs] One of my tenants, when I left the military, I was telling him a story about something that happened when I was in Monterey. It was just a weekend getaway that went all wrong. He was laughing really hard about it and said that he'd never heard anybody tell a story the way that I had. So I was like, I'll take a writing class and see how that goes. And the funny thing was, I wrote a story called "Behind the Walls" about this incident that happened while I was in the Gulf War. This young girl, her brother had picked up this flare bomb kind of thing, I don't know what it was. All I know is when he picked it up, it went off, it burned his leg, her legs and his legs. So they came to me and some other people I was with. That story, when I was in class, I was 26 when I got out of the military and everybody at college was 18. I didn't even know how to talk to them, didn't have anything in common with them, but this story, when they read it, they were like, "Wow, that's really cool." And it got a conversation going. I was like, "This is really cool. I'm going to do more of this." So, that's what I ended up doing.
JH: Prior to your discovering writing's way to kind of bridge that gap between your classmates and yourself, did you really feel, having lived a different life than your peers when you came back at 27?
VV: Yeah, you know, [sighs] I know it's worse now. It's so much worse now because of Afghanistan and Iraq. I was fortunate. The Gulf War was tame compared to what the soldiers coming back now are doing and dealing with. I remember coming back, and I spent the four months there, then I went back later on for another six-month tour, and I got back and the nervous energy. You know, when I saw my parents, I lost it all right there. And my buddy said, "Would you go back?" And I said, "If I can guarantee that I won't get killed? I had a great time." Because you got to see different things, and different people, different cultures, and experience what life is like everywhere, as opposed to just here in the states where things are really really good. Even when they're not. Even when they're bad, they're still better than what it could be. I think the issue was for me, I was living in the real world where these people here were all living in their purple sky world where everything was sunshine and roses. And I'm like, that's not life. It's hard to be gritty at 25 in college.
JH: Would you call that kind of experiencing the real and kind of encountering people who hadn't?
VV: Yeah, I mean, that's honestly one of the reasons why I went into law enforcement afterwards. My father was a police officer, but I didn't think, again, nothing that it would have, I never would have said, "I'm going to do that for the rest of my life." But I missed the camaraderie of people that lived in what I considered the real world, which is not that pretty sometimes. When you're in the military and you're fighting, or you're just dealing with the military in general, it's such a different landscape. You know the calling in sick. If you don't want to go to work that day, you just pick up the phone and call in sick. But no, that's not the way it works. You gotta go to the hospital and they may or may not let you call in sick that day. You can get in trouble for getting a sunburn, because you damaged government property. I mean, that's a different kind of world. You're not your own person, but you're part of something bigger. Which I like being part of something bigger. That's why I do what I do.
JH: Do you ever have a moment, and I ask this mostly because it's not a rational perception, the military is so perceived as being one kind of block thing and I think that also applies to law enforcement. It's one of those job titles that can kind of become superimposed over your identity.
VV: Oh, yeah.
JH: Do you ever feel resentful of that? Do you ever feel locked into these, because you've got two of them now under your belt? You've got soldier. You've got police officer.
VV: You know I, I can't even escape it. You can't see me, but I look like somebody who is in that line of work. I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken one time and the guy was like, "Are you a cop, fire fighter, or a wrestler?" And I was like, "Just give me my food."
VV: You know, so this world, I do feel a part, but I've got several different lives: I've got the writer life, I've got the cop life, then I've got the church life. So, my Facebook feed is a huge fight, a battle between the left and right side of politics. I want to help, but I also realize that life is the way life is and sometimes things that we don't want to believe are true, are true. I just try to make the best of both worlds, if that makes sense.
JH: Sure, and I definitely can see you'd have some lively cross-dialog in your Facebook feed.
VV: Oh, yeah. It's like Skittles had a fight with gun owners. I just want everybody to be happy, that's all.
JH: Alright. There's a moment in your story, "Lights Out" that I wanted to ask you about. It's the moment when you're encountering this guy's girlfriend and he's coming out. What was the moment you realized what was happening, and what did you draw on from your experience prior? What did it remind you of that you had that moment of recognition?
VV: I don't want to stereo type the military, because I don't drink anyway. Because of my experience, I just don't drink anyway, but there's a lot of drinking that goes on in barracks to blow off steam, to try to escape the reality that you're living in at the moment. And so, even though he wasn't drinking that night, it's that kind of bravado that goes with having too much to drink. All day long you're supposed to hold in what you're not supposed to be talking about and not supposed to be thinking. And then when people get some alcohol in them, they're just like, "Heeeey!" And they just tell everybody everything. Some people are happy drunk. Some people are mean drunks. This guy would've been what I'd consider a scary, like he gets quiet kind of drunk. Even though he wasn't drunk, he was that quiet, menacing, "I'm going to screw things up for you right now, because I can, and because I don't know what else to do. Because that's what I've been doing for the past year. Every day surviving, and right now you're my obstacle. He was a big dude. And I'm a big guy, like I said in the story, I'm six foot, 230, and I work out so that I can combat whatever I need to combat. But he was a big guy, the little beads of sweat on his forehead, and his fists the way they were.
VV: Thank goodness those guys showed up when they did, because, you know, it would have been a fight. And it would not have been good. I was just glad that they were there to help, and that nothing bad happened to him. Because, that's the other thing with being in law enforcement, is most of us, well, all of us now, it wasn't that way before, we're all CIT trained, which is Crisis Intervention Team training, which is to deal with people in crisis. Normally, in the old days, this guy would just get thumped over the head, thrown in jail and told to cool off. Arrested. Whereas, that could've happened that night. If it had gone any farther, he could've gotten in a fight with me. They it'd be battery on law enforcement officer. Then he'd get this record for being somebody that he's probably not, because he's dealing with something else. And that's the important part of CIT in law enforcement, is that we recognize that these aren't perpetrators, more as clients of mental health. And getting him help is the better avenue than getting him a record in jail.
JH: there are so many members of the military community who transition into law enforcement and I wanted to ask you about what you think the strengths and potential vulnerabilities are for making that transition.
VV: the strengths are the training. Even the right mental health, if there was any issue with them coming back from the war if they got counseling or they talk about it. Because that's the great thing about being in the military, or being in law enforcement, you talk to your brothers and sisters, you talk to these people every day. There's nothing that you don't share. But if you're the kind of person that doesn't share, and keeps it all inside, that's the kind of person that I'm scared to go into law enforcement. Because, if they don't talk about it, then they're not open about it, they're not dealing with it. Talking about it, this is one of the reasons that I think that this book that's coming out with you guys is great. Where veterans are writing about the situations that happened, because they're getting it out there. So that it's not this taboo subject that people are like, "Oooo." Because, you know, I go to a party, if I go to a party, "Ooo, that's the cop, or that's the guy in the military." That's what they focus on, and you become bigger than you are, supposedly better than everyone else. Or above everyone else, but we're not, we're just people. We deal with the same things you guys deal with, we just have to deal with it in a different way. And I think it's important that if you have that mental stability, going into law enforcement is the perfect avenue. Because you'll keep that paramilitary ideal, you know, you don't have really pick out what you wear to work. [chuckles]
VV: And you're around people that are like you, that want to do for their country, and it's not just your country anymore, now it's your town or your city. And people don't think about that, they think, "Oh cops are going in there because that guy was bullied as a kid, and now he wants to prove that he's better than you are now." And there are cops like that, let's be honest, there are cops out there that suck. But in every job, there are guys and girls that aren't great people. They do the job they do, it just so happens that when it's in law enforcement, or in firefighting or in teaching, or in clergy, when they mess up, that's big news. Because they're special, they're above the law. And there are laws created for them. If they mess up, the penalties are harsher. So, you can't have a closed mentality coming into law enforcement. You can't have this idea that your dad paved the streets and that's why I'm giving you a ticket. You insulted me by speeding. We all speed. Any given moment, we're all capable of doing or making mistakes. Every single one of us. And so, the way I go into it, and I think most cops go into it is, "This could be me, and I need to help this person." There is that one percent.
That leads perfectly into my last question. You may have already answered it, but I'll ask it anyway. If you were to come across somebody who was about to transition out of the military in about two to four weeks, and you had an opportunity to give them a piece of advice, what would it be?
When I first went into the military, my recruiter said to me, for basic training, because, you know, basic training is that big scary indoctrination, and he said, "Just take it with a grain of salt, Vance. Yes, it's hard and it's scary, but it's really a big act too. It's just posturing to get you in the right way." And I think the same thing happens when you're going back home. Everybody out there is just like you are. You can bring that life with you, but you have to be cognizant of their life too. It's a balance in everything. It's a balance in every call I go to. Sometimes I think the people I'm dealing with aren't that smart, but I have to treat them like they are. I gotta treat them with respect. It's a line that people use in law enforcement: "Be respectful, be courteous, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet." You gotta have that "be respectful and be courteous" first. Expect that everyone's going to be good to you but be prepared if they're not. And I think that's the whole thing. When you come out of the military, you're leaving an institution that has claimed for two to four years of your life or better, that you'd done things one way. There are so many good things you've learned from that experience. Take the good things and assert them into your life now. The discipline, the honor, the integrity. All those good things that you learned. And when you come into the real world. you'll be respected for it, and you'll be sought out after it. As long as you don't fall to the, I guess the victim idea of, "Nobody wants to hire me, nobody wants to do anything." You can't have that kind of mentality. You've gotta be strong and you gotta go forward. Always push forward. Everything's a war in a way. Just keep going forward. Don't go back.
JH: Vance Voyles, thanks so much for being on Incoming.
VV: Thank you so much.
JH: If you've been enjoying the true, original stories told by veteran writers and military family members on this show, then there are so, so many more waiting for you in the pages of the Incoming book series, published by So Say We All, our non-profit parent company. The first in the collection, Returning Home, was the genesis for this program, in fact. It contains thirty-six stories chronicling the process of exiting the armed services and reintegrating back into civilian life, a process that's more dangerous for many veterans than their actual deployment was. The second book in the series; Sex, Drugs, and Copenhagen; focuses on the coping mechanisms, sanctioned or otherwise, service members have used to get through the most difficult periods of their military careers. It provides a rare glimpse behind the public face of the military, to let its readers in on the most vulnerable, insane, dangerous, and illicit activities the men and women of the armed forces sometimes employ to survive the boredom, loneliness, and stress of being far away from home in a time of war. Like everything else we do here at Incoming, these are true stories, told from the mouths and pens of the veterans who lived them. And we think you're going to enjoy reading them a lot. Just go to Incoming Radio dot O-R-G and click on the book link to order. Pick up one for a veteran friend while you're there. It'll give you some common ground to talk about. Once again that's Incoming Radio dot O-R-G. Happy reading.
[pause, piano music playing softly]
JH: Our next guest this episode is Natalie Lovejoy, a writer, composer, and lyricist who's original musical, "Deployed," she began writing while married to a soldier deployed to Iraq. This is her music playing underneath right now, that you're hearing. Her journey has taken her from Baltimore to Nashville and now New York City, where she tells us her story in her own words. Please meet Natalie Lovejoy.
Natalie Lovejoy: Hi, my name's Natalie Lovejoy and this is my piece, called "Two Roads."
To get from Nashville to Baltimore you take I-40 East to I-81 North, cutting through Virginia. Then you take the 495 loop around the mess that is Washington D.C., which will spit you out on I-95 North to Baltimore. I knew because I had made the drive alone, back and forth, last Christmas while my husband was deployed in Iraq. Now he is at the wheel, and I am in the passenger seat. We are on our way to visit our parents in Maryland before hopping back on I-95 North to go to New York City where I am slated to start grad school in a month, and he is slated to start hunting for a civilian job. It is somehow much less fun this time.
I first visited New York when I was seven years old and afterward declared to my parents that one day I would live there. As I got older and took more trips to the city, this conviction only grew stronger. New York is where those who don't fit in fit in; where a competitive spirit is celebrated, where originality is valued, where high aspirations are the standard, and where every other corner is famous for something. Yes, I was also aware that it was over-priced, over-crowded, old, and sometimes hostile, but none of that mattered to me because I knew home isn't so much a place you go to as it is a place where you belong.
The GPS says it's only thirty-four miles until the beltway. We are sitting in one of our car-trip formations; His eyes locked forward, his back soldier-straight, his jaw tight, his right hand gripping the steering wheel instead of my hand. I sit cross-legged, with my body and eyes tilted toward the passenger window. I imagine the scenery flying by to the beat of the music on the radio and make up stories in my head to go with the songs, as I've done on every car trip since I was about four. I prefer the formation where I sit facing forward and he holds my hand, or the one where I hug his right arm with both of mine while his hand rests on my left thigh, every now and then creeping up my leg until I slap it away, pretending to be offended because I am a lady. Because those formations mean things are good. The way we are sitting now is how we sit when there is something going on that neither of us wants to talk about. I finally go for it.
"Are you upset about something?" I hope he doesn't say what I think he's going to say.
"I'm just nervous. I don't know that this was such a good idea."
That's what I thought he was going to say. I decide to play dumb."
"Do you think we shouldn't've stopped in Bristol?"
"What? No, that's not what I mean."
I know what he means. He's talking about leaving the Army and moving to New York. All during my grad school application process, he had been encouraging. When I got into NYU, he was thrilled for me.
"Go there, baby. You have to. It's New York! You wanted to go back to New York, and now's your chance! Plus, it's the best school for you."
"But it's the most expensive, and New York is expensive. I got into Belmont, too. If I went there, you could stay in at Ft. Campbell and--"
"No, NYU is better for you. Don't pass this up."
With his blessing, I paid my tuition deposit, and set the wheels in motion to go to NYU. I did it all wrong.
"But you told me to go to NYU! Remember?" I retort, turning down Pete Seeger on the radio.
"Yeah, but that's only because I thought I wasn't coming back."
We wordlessly fall back into formation, and he turns Pete Seeger back up. His reason for encouraging me to go to New York suddenly occurs to me: he entertained this morbid fantasy of heroically dying in battle and leaving me his life insurance, which I would then use to go off to the Big Apple. Instead, he is very much alive, and we are going to one of the most expensive cities in the country, with no jobs lined up, so I can attend one of the most expensive schools in the country in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Oops.
At our farewell party I had watched the look of panic and judgement cross everyone's face when we told them about our next steps. No, we didn't have jobs yet, but we'd find something. When I had moved to New York four years ago, before my newly-commissioned boyfriend had proposed, I had found a full-time job in less than a month, so I wasn't worried. He wanted to work for the government in some capacity, and as a former Army officer they'd grab him right up. However, once the words left my mouth I realized I sounded at best like a train wreck waiting to happen and at worst like a horrible person who was taking advantage of her sweet soldier's devotion. But there was another problem with our plan that I wouldn't comprehend until a few years down the road. He had returned from Iraq in mid-April. It was now mid-July. Three months. Three months. We hadn't even passed the honeymoon phase yet. Why hadn't anyone told me that asking a veteran to move from the insulation of an Army base to the concrete isolation of New York--after a year in a war zone in such a short time span--was a terrible idea for reasons that had nothing to do with me?
I continue to stare out the window and try to feel as nervous as he does, but I can't. I feel guilty for being so excited about our move, but this is the first time in four years that I am something other than a bookmark in someone else's story. When I first left my job, family, and friends to join my new husband in Ft. Bliss, the intoxicating buzz of newly-weddedness quickly faded into a pounding hangover. My soldier came home to find me sobbing in the middle of our living room floor on a regular basis.
"It seems like you're not happy." He had always been very perceptive.
"I think I'm depressed."
"Why don't you go shopping," he suggested, trying to help. "Or get a manicure?"
Outside the car it starts to drizzle, and my mind drifts to the deployment a year later. By then I'd learned to keep my outbursts to myself--in fact, it was my patriotic duty to do so. Don't tell him about your problems because it will upset him, and he needs to focus on the mission. It's ok for you to be upset but not for him to be. Because what he's doing is important and what you're doing is not. Because his life is important and your is not. At least not as important as his. This is your role in life, and you must accept it. You need to accept not mattering as much. But it's really not so bad--you get a roof over your head, free dental cleanings, and tax-free shopping at the PX. Mattering is overrated. Calm down, woman, and treat yourself to a manicure.
I'm overreacting and overanalyzing as usual, my husband would tell me; my husband who doesn't talk much, who never cries, who makes both his pain and joy invisible, who doesn't need me. No wonder the Army loved him. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that I had the completely wrong disposition to be a military wife. A military wife is supposed to be there to encourage, not challenge; to enhance his life, not have her own. I mean, not unless it's to have a portable career as a medical billing specialist.
But after a while my soldier seemed to be growing disillusioned as well.
"Once I'm done with this deployment, I'm definitely going to be looking to get out of the military," he had told me during one static-y phone conversation.
"It's complicated to explain," he went on. "But I'm tired of dealing with Army BS. I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing as soon as I get out, but I'll be looking for a job while I'm over here. I know there are plenty of things I can do. The possibilities are really endless!"
We finally approach the outskirts of D.C., and he takes the ramp for 295.
"You should take 495. There's less traffic," I say, even though I know it's too late.
"No, there's more traffic on 495 at this time of day."
"No, there's more traffic on 295."
"I used to live here."
"So, did I!"
"Just let me frickin' drive!"
The car goes silent again, and we again resume our formation--the bad one. I stare out the passenger window in a way I hope conveys I'm mad enough to jump out of it. And I could, too, because the car comes to a complete stop due to the wall of commuters ahead of us. He slams on the brakes just in time and grinds his teeth in defeat, and I'm both smart and dumb enough to keep staring out the window as if we're still speeding along at seventy-five miles an hour.
Because to be honest, I don't yet know which road is best because I have no idea where we're headed. I don't know yet how he will resent me for finding employment within the first week of our move while he can't even find the ambition to leave our apartment. I don't know yet how I will resent him for spending the next six months listlessly poking around the internet for job openings while I work from 10am-4pm and go to class from 5pm-9pm, commuting an hour each way, only to come home to the dishes from breakfast still sitting in the sink, the bed unmade, and the refrigerator empty save for some beers and leftover Chinese food. I don't yet know that even GameStop at the Jersey City Mall won't hire him.
I don't yet know that he won't be able to just "get over it."
I don't yet know that the only people who will make him feel accepted are the other members of his reserve unit, and that they will keep us afloat by giving him temporary assignments for the following six months. And I definitely don't know yet that after a year of unemployment he will re-enlist with the Army for good, B.S. and all, and that three years later we will be divorced. But really, how could I expect my Army veteran husband--military brat and brother of a Marine, son of a Marine (who was also the son of a Marine), brother-in-law of an airman, and nephew of two Navy men--to fit in anywhere else?
He finally takes my hand. I look at him. He smiles at me cautiously, and I return it, cautiously.
"I'm sorry I yelled. I still love you."
"It's ok. I love you, too," I say quickly.
"I'm sure everything's going to be fine. We love each other, and that's the important thing. Everything else will work itself out." He squeezes my hand, and I squeeze his hand back. "And look," he continues, "The traffic is clearing up. We'll probably be home in time for dinner."
And that is true. We are both headed home.
JH: Natalie Lovejoy, welcome to Incoming.
NL: Thank you, Justin.
JH: Let's start off with where you were in life physically and developmentally when you met your husband.
NL: I was finishing my semester, last semester, of my senior year at Catholic University in D.C. and he had just gotten his bachelor’s from the University of Maryland. They’re kind of neighboring schools. I was in school for musical theater, but I also took classes in composition. So, I was in the arts. He went to school for economics.
JH: And you don't have a history of military service in your family, or any predilection towards the uniform?
NL: Not really. I, like everyone's grandfather was in World War II. Or my grandfather was in World War II, like everyone else's. I have a distant cousin who is in the Army who I'm not that close with. I have an aunt that was in the Navy for a few years. My immediate family, my parents are both English professors, so yeah, I didn't really have any contact with the military growing up, except for what I saw via movies. My parents would watch, you know, The Longest Day and everything. Like Hair, the musical Hair I knew. [laughs]
JH: So how did you two meet? Who made the first moves?
NL: We met at a party. My sister was holding a party, and we met there. He told me his name and he said, "I'm going to join the Army." I thought that was kind of funny for a person to say to somebody, but I was like, "Alright, that's cool." I didn't think I was going to end up dating this guy.
JH: That's kind of code for, "Hi. I'm going to disappear for a good amount of time at some point in the near future." [laughs]
NL: Yeah, well, you know, it's funny, because he told me later that he said he knew he was going to marry me as soon as he saw me. He said he walked into the room, he turned, he saw me, and he just knew. So I don't think it was, I think he was just really proud of it. Something to give him, like, a strong identity. We dated for slightly less than a year before we got engaged, and then we were engaged for another year before we got married. So we met in February of 2005, and he left at the end of June 2005. I got sort of hooked right before he left. For a while I thought, "Oh this is just going to be a fling. He's leaving, and I'm going to be going to New York. He just started growing on me."
JH: How did he present his interest in the military. Did he say he was a lifer when you met him? Did he say he was a career man, or did he have plans to just do a tour for college?
NL: He didn't say specifically. After we got a little more serious, I made it clear that I didn't want to be a military wife for the rest of my life. We had already been talking about possibly getting married. After I said that, he said, you know, "I'll get out in four years after my contract is over. So, don't worry about it. And then we can go to New York. I'll get a job in economics or something." He had a best friend who moved to New York and got a job with a bank, so he didn't think it would be a big deal to get out. Looking back, it's really naive of me to think that he wouldn't be career. Because literally every male on both sides of his family is career military.
JH: You feel like it was kind of an inherited predilection?
NL: He grew up in the military. His dad was in the Marines. I just think there was a comfort in that lifestyle that he has. I feel like the civilian lifestyle is very foreign and scary to him.
JH: Can you talk a little bit about how you dealt with being separated so early in your marriage, when he first went off to training and later deployment?
NL: Well, the first year was actually pretty good. He worked at Ft. Bliss and he went to base every day and came home. But then it was about a year and a few months later, he got transferred to Ft. Campbell and that's when he deployed. I remember the was talk about him deploying even sooner than that, and I remember saying that, "We need to have some sort of time together before you leave to really strengthen our marriage and our relationship." Otherwise it feels really tenuous. It was really hard being separated that early on. I always went to things alone. Everyone else always had their plus one and I was always, "I swear I have a husband." My friends from high school, like, never met him. Even though I've met all of their spouses multiple times. And they used to joke, "Natalie, do you really have a husband? We don't believe you. We think you just made him up." "No, I really do. He's just never here."
JH: You said earlier that you didn't have plans to become a military wife. Can you talk a little bit about that struggle? About adopting that role and at the same time trying to live as the creative independent woman that you'd seen yourself as, that had been your identity.
NL: I really went into the military wife role not really knowing anything. I remember my future mother-in-law gave me this big book of officer wife etiquette. And I was like, "What is this?" I didn't even bother reading it because it seemed so archaic. I was like, "No one does this." But I went in kind of blind to it. My husband had told me that I didn't have to get super involved if I didn't want to. I didn't, you know, I could be as involved with other military wives, or the military, as I felt like it. If I didn't want to do that at all, then I didn't have to. So, I never felt, like, pressured to be an officer wife.
NL: At the same time, it was really hard just to give up my career and what I was pursuing before musically. And I knew that it was supposed to be temporary. It was only going to be for a few years. So, I thought, like, I can give it up for a few years. No big deal. But then, you know, actually doing it ended up being harder than I thought it would be. And, like I say in the story, I was just very depressed the first few months when I moved to Ft. Bliss. I felt like I had no purpose. I guess I could get some job doing something to pass the time, but that's not the same as having a purpose. I'd been very focused on my music. I started writing when I was like 10 and performing around the same time. I had very specific goals. So, I had been working toward this for many, many years to just give it up. You know, I was 24 and I saw my peers; they were going on to New York, and Broadway. Meanwhile I wasn't doing anything. So that was rough.
JH: You said your goal was to go to New York when you guys got married, and you had to kind of put that on hold for a little while. How did you keep your involvement in music following him around from station to station?
NL: I got involved with the El Paso Opera. I went to the office downtown and just like knocked on the door, "I have a degree in music. I'm a singer, pianist, composer. I will do anything you want me to do, I just want to be around music. I'll answer the phones. I just need, like, something to do. They did give me part-time work just doing office stuff. I ended up assistant stage managing an opera, Aida. And I ended up singing in two choirs: the El Paso Chorale and then a church choir. It wasn't much, but it was enough to keep me sort of plugged in to that music. It kind of really saved me the year I was in El Paso. And then, this is kind of interesting that the next place we moved to is close to Nashville, which is Music City. While he was deployed I actually lived closer to Nashville, I didn't live on base. I was like, "If you're not be here for a year, why do I need to live near an Army base when I could live near Nashville?" That was a really cool year, I worked as a receptionist on Music Row and I worked at a music store. I taught music lessons. I was involved in the whole open mic music scene in Nashville, so that was really cool.
JH: Can you talk a little bit about how you and your husband communicated when he was on deployment and if you, did you know he was going to deploy?
NL: So, I always thought he was going that we were supposed to avoid getting deployed. And he actually ended up seeking it out. He asked to be transferred to a unit that was deploying to Iraq because he wanted to go.
JH: Did that cause any strife? Arguments?
NL: He called me when I was at work, and he said, "How do you feel about Ft. Campbell." And I was like, "Uh, where is Ft. Campbell?" And he said, "It's about 60 miles outside of Nashville." And I was like so starved at that point for anything with music, even though I'm not really a country music lover. I was like, "YES! Yes, let's go there." And he said, "Well, before you get too excited I should tell you that that unit is deploying to Iraq." He told me that he wanted to go. He felt like it was something he was supposed to do. He said, "I feel like we're supposed to go here." And I felt the same way, I felt like it was just something that was supposed to happen. At the same time, I did feel a little resentful that he chose it, that it wasn't just something that they made him go.
JH: Was that at the point that you felt like the military was the other woman in the relationship?
NL: [laughs] Yeah, there's that saying that he's married to the Army and you're the mistress. Yeah, it definitely felt like that throughout our marriage, even when he was Ft. Totten and we were in New York. "Well the Army says I have to." And you really can't argue with that. I mean what are you going to do? You really take second priority to the Army. I felt like I even might have been third or fourth priority to him. I felt like I had two brains going on. One was like the rational brain: you know he wants to go, he already committed so he has to. It doesn't mean that he doesn't love you. That was the rational part of my brain. And there was like another part that was a completely irrational 25-year old girl that was like, "He doesn't love me. He doesn't care about me. He's left me for a year." I kind of like just wrestled back and forth with those two sides of my brain all year.
JH: Can you talk a little bit about what some of the stereotypes of the military spouse are that you encountered or that you perceived among service members and civilians?
NL: There's a stereotype that we're all lazy and overly dependent. I mean, like, we're called "dependents" which I always felt was a little insulting. And there is a stereotype that you're just there. Kind of like freeloaders. There's a stereotype that we're all overweight. It's just...yeah. It made me mad because, I mean, I feel like you're put in a position where you can't not be dependent. Because you really can't pursue a career very easily. You can get jobs, which might bring in some money but not enough to live on, not that the stuff that's going to get you benefits. So the military puts you in a position to be depended on the soldier and then makes fun of you for being dependent. I guess I always feel like, as a spouse, they're just waiting for me to screw up. I feel like there's a negative vibe towards the spouses. I guess this is where you asked me about the stereotypes. I'm guilty until proven innocent, I guess. People find out that I'm a spouse, it's like, "Oh, you're a terrible person, and you're an adulteress, and you're a loser and a dependent. Prove us wrong." If this is the first-time people are hearing from a military spouse on an interview, I don't want to make other spouses look bad. Not that I'm representative of the typical spouse or anything.
JH: Do you kind of feel like the military spouse identity is kind of like the punching bag or the scapegoat for a lot of the problems that a service member goes through?
NL: There's a general misogyny in the military and it's, like, woman hating. It's taken out on female soldiers and it's also taken out on spouses. The problems of the female soldiers are coming to light now with like rape. They're called "mattresses" behind their backs. It's awful. The other, even easier target are the Army wives, because we don't even have the prestige of being a soldier to fall back on. So, I think that's kind of where it comes from.
JH: Was there ever an anecdote where you were affronted by that?
NL: I remember, like, since I've been dating. Since I've been divorced, and if I mentioned on a date that I was an Army wife, I've had guys come out and straight up ask me, "Did you cheat on him?" Which I think is super rude and the fact that that's the first thing that comes to mind, not like, "Oh, thank you for YOUR service. Thank you for supporting a soldier." It's like, "No! Were you a slut?" So, like, yeah. That's one example.
JH: You mentioned in the conversation we had, you identified as neither being a veteran nor a civilian and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the nature of that in-between identity.
NL: Sure. Obviously, I'm not a veteran. I've also met civilians who, like I was before I got married, no real concept of military. Who have their education is from, like, movies, Hollywood movies, who make assumptions on things that aren't that accurate. I'm not that either anymore because I've been in that lifestyle and I've been touched by those people. Had my own experiences. Somewhere in the middle. There's no word for it, unless you're like, "I'm a ex, or a veteran's ex-wife." That's what I say, or I say, "Former Army wife." But there's no one word, like veteran, that describes what you are. Especially as an ex-wife, because I can't say I'm an Army wife. And ex-Army-wife just sounds like, ehhhhh, it sounds so negative.
JH: Do you feel like you have a separate identity or dissociate from your peers because of this experience that they mostly don't have?
NL: I do, I feel disassociated from both groups. I feel like I don't completely connect to veterans, and I feel excluded. I mean, it's nice when they include me, but I also get the sense that they're like, "Oh, a wife." They don't really want me there. In terms of the civilians, the non-military-experienced civilians don't quite understand it either. I don't really know any ex-wives in the arts. If you're out there, come find me! So yeah, I kind of, I don't really feel like I belong in any one place.
JH: At what point did you decide to seek out your art as a way of bringing that story out into the public?
NL: It happened not completely consciously, but it was during the year he was deployed. I really just did it as a way to sort of, as a release. I didn't really start out thinking of it as a musical. But I just noticed, especially in terms of the wives, the wife experience, how it was sort of just sugar-coated. I didn't really see it represented accurately in entertainment. I felt like I was allowed to be sad, and I was allowed to miss him, and those were the only two emotions. And yet I was really feeling this rollercoaster of emotion all year. And I kind of felt like, "Why isn't this being represented anywhere?" Because I write music, I write songs, that's just how I chose to express it. And then there was other things in the military that just struck me as, "Oh, this should be a song." There was one that was all acronyms. I was like, "Oh, you should make a song about all these Army acronyms." That was just funny. But then at some point, I would realize that I had enough songs that I should maybe put them together into a whole musical.
JH: The clip you picked out for us to play on the air here, "Thank You for Your Service," can you just intro that and talk about it?
NL: Well, it was actually inspired by what my husband went through, or my ex-husband went through, when he came back and couldn't find a job. He kinda kept going to lower and lower status jobs and still couldn't get hired. In the story, the main character comes back, gets out of the military, in a similar way, looks for a job. He first interviews with a business man, who doesn't hire him, who says, "You're so great, and you know we'd give this to you, but we're looking for someone with 10 years’ experience, but thank you for your service." And then he goes to a personal trainer, and he gets the same thing. Then he ends up at like a fast food restaurant who also won't hire him.
[upbeat piano] singing: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your service! And for everything you do. Thank you, please don't call us. We'll call you. We just wanted to say that we support you all the way. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your service! God bless the U-S of A!
JH: This episode of Incoming is sponsored in part by Combat Flip Flops. Combat veteran owned and operated, Combat Flip Flops manufactures the highest quality footwear, clothing accessories, and more, while growing entrepreneurs in conflict areas. Proceeds from every sale go towards funding women's education in Afghanistan, removing landmines and other unexploded ordinance, and supporting the veteran Special Operator community once they return home. Visit www dot combat flip flops dot com to learn more and enter offer code "Incoming" at checkout to earn twenty percent off your purchase and support Incoming at the same time. Combat Flip Flops, join the unarmed forces.
JH: We're back with our guest Natalie Lovejoy discussing the often-ignored perspective of the military spouse and her original musical, Deployed.
JH: My last question before we leave here today: if you were to encounter a military spouse who's partner was about separate from the military and come back home and reenter civilian life and you could give them one piece of advice, what would it be?
NL: Well, first of all I would say, "Have a plan." We were kind of like, cross our fingers, and didn't really have a really great plan. I'd also say to take advantage of all of the great resources that are available now, even more so than when my husband, my ex-husband, got out. There's a lot of resources for like free counseling for soldiers, job placement, lifestyle coaches. They're all free. So yeah, just take advantage of everything and also to find a... just a social support base. My ex stayed with the reserves and like I say in the story, it was really really important for him to have that connection. But even if you don't stay with the reserves, find a veteran group. I feel like it's harder for spouses. I don't know, like I said, I don't know of any ex-Army-wife groups on Facebook or something. Whatever she's into, whatever her interest are, just stay social and stay connected to people, I think that's really important.
JH: Natalie Lovejoy, thanks so much for being on Incoming.
NL: Thank you.
JH: That's our show, "Everything is a War." We hope Vance and Natalie helped y'all understand that person's singular experience does not stop with them. We're all in this together, y'all.
JH: Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Jennifer "Pepper Pot" Corley is our editor and sound designer at So Say We All. Our original themes were composed by AM/FM Music. Featured music in this episode was by Enrico Falbo, Lee Rosevere, and our guest, Natalie Lovejoy. At KPBS, our radio production manager and mentor is Kurt Conan, Nate John is remarkably hairless millennial innovation specialist, Emily Jankowski is our technical director, and John Decker is program director. Incoming is made possible by the California Arts Council’s Veterans Initiative for the Arts, KPBS Explorer Program, and the supporting members of So Say We All. You can find more us online at So Say We All Online dot com, and if you want to get in touch, please do email us at info at So Say We All Online dot com. Thanks so much for listening. Let's talk again soon.
[instrumental exit music]