Call to Arms

I sip on my coffee and scan over emails: doesn’t apply, not me, junk, I have a meeting with the Colonel today. The Marines’ voices bounce off the walls with excitement as they chug Rip-It energy drinks, the unofficial sponsor of war. When I ask where they get neverending cases of the eight-ounce cans of carbonated super caffeine, the answer is always the same: one of the Marines snaps to attention and announces, “We know people who know people who kill people, Ma’am.” That Marine remains at attention until I lose my bearing, which doesn’t take long, and everyone erupts into laughter. This is how every day starts with the exception of Sunday. Sunday morning, I wake up before dawn and head out for a long run on the lesser-traveled dirt roads that wrap around the perimeter of base. The Marines have the option of going to church or sleeping in, but the workday doesn’t start until noon.

I hit reply to an email from a friend back home and write, “Good morning, things are exactly the same as they were yesterday and the same as they will be tomorrow.” As I hit send, I hear the thick metal door of our warehouse-turned-office creak open, as whoever opens it fails to realize how heavy the door actually is; this is my first clue that it’s not one of the warehouse Marines coming in to grab a Rip-It before carrying out the plan of the day. I slide my chair to the side to stay out of view from the visitor.

Our office is a small warehouse made of cement blocks and filled with dust-covered desks and beat-up office chairs. Along the back wall, next to the fridge full of Rip-Its and bottled water, is a rifle rack where the Marines place their M16 rifles while they work. When they leave for chow, go to the headquarters building, or pick up supplies from the depot, they wrap the various styles of tactical slings they have acquired around their bodies and carry their weapon at their side.

I was warned to be careful. This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online.

At some point in the war, a unit that inhabited the space built half-walls out of plywood, making a break room next to the rifle rack. In the small, cluttered space there is a dirty sofa that nobody uses because a poof of dirt explodes when you sit on it; crates of ground coffee; rusty wall lockers filled with boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, candy, paperback romance novels, other random items that strangers have sent in care packages throughout the years of war (including the occasional pink nail polish that Sergeant Browning picks out to secretly paint her toenails); and boxes of letters from school children, women looking for dramatic love stories, and parents remembering the children they have lost. In front of the break room is another segregated area where I share an office with Staff Sergeant Sharpe, my sister-in-arms. The plywood walls were not intended for privacy, nor was the window cut out in front of my desk that allows the Marines to roll their chairs over and pass documents back and forth instead of walking twenty steps to get my signature. In the front of the warehouse are desks lined up where the five supply admin Marines work. Due to the closeness both here and in the barracks (which are also converted warehouses), everyone knows everything about everyone. I can’t even hide it when I get a Dear Jane letter from my boyfriend during the second month of the deployment—some of the Marines offer their own letters for comparison and condolences. We are more than family because we can’t afford to tease and bicker; at war you have to love and support those to the left and right of you, because at any given time they could be the one to save your life, and during the daily grind they are the ones who save your sanity.

I know exactly how far I have to lean to the left to stay out of sight of visitors. My introverted self needs the extra ten seconds to gain awareness of the situation before confronting whoever is on the other side of the wall. As I lean, I overhear the conversation.

“Good morning, sergeant, can I help you?” Lance Corporal (LCpl) Curlee announces with pride. LCpl Curlee is barely nineteen, just over five feet tall and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet with a bag of pennies in each cargo pocket. She’s one of the most motivated Marines in the shop. When she checked into the unit with LCpl Shivers a month before, they were told, “Pack your bags you’re going to Iraq.” Neither complained; both eagerly prepared for six to thirteen months in a combat zone. I hear her voice over the sergeant she’s addressing. “I don’t know, sergeant, let me see if she’s available.” The office gets quiet as everyone wants to know what business the unexpected visitor has with “The Ma’am.”

“Ma’am, there are three Army sergeants here to see you,” LCpl Curlee says.

“What on earth do three Army sergeants want?” I ask rhetorically.

“I don’t know ma’am, they said something about a blog,” LCpl Curlee says with her normal tone of enthusiasm.

My heart drops as my stomach twists into a tight yoga knot that I can never get the rest of my body to mimic. A week ago, during an unexpected invite to the base coffee shop, I was warned to be careful. Specifically, I was told, “Lieutenant Prifogle, people are reading your blog and I don’t mean for entertainment.” This is the battle I face in war—someone or someones in the unit hiding behind computer screens waiting for me to incriminate myself online. I registered my blog with the all the right authorities, sat through a brief with the public affairs office about what I can and can’t post due to operations security (OpSec). I have been so terrified of posting something that could violate OpSec and cost troops their lives that all I’ve written about is the weather and my daily runs that range from three to fifteen miles. I draw in a deep breath and stand tall.

Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.

If I’m going to be arrested by PMO in front of my Marines, I will do it with dignity. After all, the sergeants are just the messengers, not the accusers.

I turn the corner of the wall that separates my semi-private office to the open space and am surprised to see three young sergeants eagerly waiting like they are about to meet Megan Fox.

“Can I help you?” I ask confused.

“Ma’am, we just wanted to meet you in person. We’ve been following your blog the past few months and we just really enjoyed it. We’re on our way home and asked all around base to find your office.” The leader of the pack, a male sergeant, smiles and talks rapidly. I look behind at the two other soldiers—one is a female. I shake all their hands, still confused.

“Well, thank you for reading, I’m not really sure why you find it so interesting,” I say. “I’m just a sup-o stuck here on Al-Asad running myself into the ground.”

“Ma’am,” the young woman jumps in from behind the other two, “when you’re out here, nobody back home knows what to say or how to relate. It just feels like I’m not alone when I read your posts.”

I thank them for stopping by and wish them well on their journey home. I think about the young woman’s words. My emails and phone calls are sparse and the details I provide about life out here even more sparse. How can someone back home relate? The never-ending work day, the hurry up and waits, the eagerness to get in the fight, the never discussed fear of death. Nobody wants to hear about the blasé days, they want to hear about triumphs and war stories that change the course of history.

When I return home, I don’t fit into the keyhole that opens the door to my old life. My friends, the restaurants and bars I used to frequent, even the beautiful beaches of San Diego, all seem pointless after living in a war zone. I kept a blog to fulfill Antioch’s field study requirement for its MFA program. The assignment was to keep a blog while deployed, so after I unpack my bags and storage container, I file the paperwork to complete the project and stop blogging. I take the next semester off and stop writing altogether.

Eventually, I finish all the requirements to earn an MFA, but I never go back to writing with the enthusiasm I had before. Even now, as I write this, I struggle to put the words on the page. The various traumas of four years on active duty brings a monsoon of memories that flood my body with hormones of fear, then rage, then finally a sadness that no amount of prescription drugs or alcohol can combat.

After graduating from Antioch, I submitted to literary agents my final manuscript, a memoir that covers my experiences in the military. Some asked for samples, others didn’t—all said it wasn’t marketable, even though it was a remarkable story and excellent writing. I cried, I screamed, I destroyed my computer in a fit of rage, and then I tried to stop writing forever.

Six years after graduating, I share a few of my essays with my fiancé who is also a combat veteran. He says nothing at first, but asks to read them again, and again, and one more time without saying a word. Finally, he looks at me and says, “This isn’t about you. You realize that right? You have to publish this, but not for you.”

I stuff a piece of sushi in my mouth to inhibit my ability to say anything.

“You have to share this for the vets who are out there alone, scared, tired, depressed. You have to share this so they know they aren’t alone, that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way. You have to show them that they can overcome it.”

“But,” I try to interject with my mouth still full of rice and seaweed.

“God gave you this gift, you don’t have a choice, you have to finish and publish your story.”

To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced.

I think about the sergeants who came to my office and the many soldiers and marines after them who stopped by to shake my hand and thank me for keeping my blog because it made them feel less alone. I think about how I’ve felt since I stopped writing—like there’s a fog that constantly surrounds me; some days it’s light and misty, almost refreshing, but other days it’s so thick that I can’t find my way out of bed.

Periodically, I get an email or phone call from a fellow veteran chronicling his/her struggles in a journal that he/she wants me to read. They want to know if they can be writer.

“You are writing,” I tell them, “so you are a writer.” I instruct them not to focus on publishing, but focus on the act of writing. I tell them that they can publish it after their wounds are healed. I leave these conversations feeling like a hypocrite because most days I am still afraid of putting words on paper. I hit send or hang up the phone and glance at the manuscript sitting on my desk. I think about what my loving fiancé told me, “God gave you this gift.” I sift through the rejection letters, all saying the same thing—war stories just aren’t marketable.

To date, my story goes untold, as do the stories of countless other veterans struggling to make sense of what they experienced. Stories that could connect us; stories that could alleviate the fear, isolation, depression, and anxiety of joining the old world after a deployment; stories that could save one of the twenty-two veterans every day who just can’t take another day in this new world they are expected to navigate through alone.*

These stories aren’t told because, according to agents and publishers, readers don’t have any interest in war stories that don’t fit the mold of a young boy going off to war, triumphantly leading troops into battle, and coming back a man. We all know intuitively that this archetype isn’t real, but a true war story told well breaks our heart, makes us uncomfortable, forces us to look at heroes in a new light—they are just ordinary people who went down a relentless and unforgiving path in life for the greater good.

So, this is my call to arms to civilians: Go out and purchase the literary magazines and books that don’t sell as well but tell a true narrative of what hell-on-earth looks like. I suggest Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home, but there are plenty of others to explore. Let these stories disturb you, wake you up covered in sweat from the nightmares, make you weep in public for unimaginable losses, and laugh out loud as we retell stories of chugging gallons of milk to see who pukes first. Let it surprise you as you discover you have more in common with the experience of war than you could ever imagine, because war is a part of the human experience. Only then will you know what that sentimental meme you posted on Facebook about supporting the troops really means. Only then will you change the market and help new voices of the war narrative be told.

And this is my call to arms to veterans: Create art no matter what the market looks like or who tells you that you can’t. Write books, plays, songs, poems; draw, paint, make murals through your city. Do it because God gave you a gift, do it for your own peace of mind, do it to give a voice to those who haven’t found theirs yet. Most importantly, do it to connect to a stranger who is lost and needs to know they aren’t alone.

Together we can do more than raise awareness of those twenty-two veterans who commit suicide every day. Together we can reframe the war narrative and change the way the world sees veterans. We are called heroes and put on the highest pedestal, but we’re more like glass figurines of our former selves sitting in a curio cabinet. Together, we can make the shelf stable, together we can protect those who protected us.

 

*Editor’s note: This statistic—that twenty-two American veterans commit suicide every day (or one every sixty-five minutes)—comes from a 2013 report from the Department of Veteran Affairs. More recent sources, such as the Washington Post, have attempted to put the figure in context, saying that it may overestimate service-related suicides among aging veterans; at the same time, it does not include a 2014 update from the VA , which indicates a spike among the youngest (aged 18 to 24) veterans who take their own lives.

Lisbeth Prifogle

Lisbeth Prifogle is an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Her work was featured in Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming HomePoem Memoir Story – Volume 11The Splinter Generation, and Citron Review. She also received an honorable mention in Best American Essays 2012. Lisbeth holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently working on a travel memoir about a two-month, solo trek through Peru immediately following a deployment to Iraq. She lives in domestic bliss with her fiancé and family in Southeast Louisiana.