WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
WHAT IS A GRUNT?
According to Major H. Gene Duncan, a grunt is “that tired, filthy, thirsty, hungry, footsore, ripped-trouser, camouflage-painted, lean, mean, son a bitch who has kept the wolf away from the door for over two hundred years.”1 Dictionaries are more concise, with Oxford defining it as a “low-ranking or unskilled soldier or other worker” and Merriam-Webster’s as simply “unglamorous.” Unlike the latter two, Duncan intended the term to be one of affection and endearment rather than derogatory.
Why do grunts need good news?
If the military suicide rate is any indication, grunts could stand to be reminded that there is reason to live, reason to smile, reason to carry on. As I write this, one soldier and seventeen veterans will take their lives each day, or one every eighty minutes.2 A lot of ink has been spilled about military suicide as a mental health emergency, but not much has changed. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2014 veterans made up 8.5 percent of the population but were responsible for 18 percent of all suicides.3 The relative change over time has remained steady, from a low of 19 per day in 2001 to a high of 21 in 2011. Since then it has remained “stable” at about 20 per day.4 “Stable,” dependable, unchanging. Like how I get asked if I am thinking of killing myself every single time I interact with the VA. With suicide, stability is the problem, not a solution. If we make only minor adjustments to the way we think about military suicide, we celebrate the shit out of minor improvements and take for granted that shit sucks just because.
The United States uses the NATO phonetic alphabet, which assigns a phonetically unique word to each letter of the English alphabet. Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, et cetera. Grunts love their acronyms, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (or Fox for short) is WTF in mil-speak. Whiskey Tango Fox is that thing in your head right before you do a double take, an unspoken Am I crazy, or…? It’s more than just a saying; it’s a gut feeling that conveys surprise and confusion as well as disgust and offense. I feel it every time I go to the VA, every time I get asked if I am having thoughts of suicide. I’d rather feel pissed off than feel numb; I’d rather feel a lot of something than nothing at all. It’s a shitty choice, but it’s one that veterans have to make every day.
We need to fundamentally change everything we know about military suicide. If anything, we’ve talked about it to death. I’ve got a dark sense of humor, a coping mechanism I acquired during my time in service. Just to see what happens, I’ve thought about answering in the affirmative when, during literally every interaction I have with the Department of Veterans Affairs, I get asked, “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” It feels like that color-changing DVD logo bouncing around on a blank television screen. You just want to see it hit the corner. Just once, I feel like I should say yes, just to see where that morbid Choose Your Own VA Adventure leads. (Mischief aside, if you’re having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and ask for help.)
When it comes to mental health, my motto is Illegitimi non carborundum (“Don’t let the bastards get you down”). It’s not proper Latin, but neither is “de oppresso liber.”5 Grunts don’t have time for propriety. Often they don’t have time for emotions either.
SMAD, THE NEW HANGRY
I have cried in public exactly two times. The first was on March 16, 2007, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Celeste Zappala, a cofounder of Gold Star Families for Peace, was speaking about losing her son, Guardsman Sherwood Baker, in April 2004. I had been invited to read a short reflection written by Sergeant Joshua Casteel, a Christian soldier I would later meet and befriend over our interest in theology and Scripture. I learned of Joshua’s death, from cancer exacerbated by burn pit exposure, while on tour for my first book. The moment I lost it, when my eyes became firehoses and my face contorted beyond my control, was the moment Celeste said, “A young vet wraps a garden hose around his neck and leaps away from the nightmares that beset him.”6 She was referring to Marine Reservist Jeffrey Lucey, whose suicide was narrated in the first piece of investigative journalism that broke the military suicide story.7
The second time I cried in public was on June 15, 2016, in the Wilson Recreation Center at Duke University in front of a world-renowned theologian (along with everyone there just trying to get a workout in at the gym). I’ll get to it in a moment, but first I need to explain a little about how I got there. My three years as a student veteran there had sucked, but I chalked it up to being older and more experienced than most students. What I once shrugged off as isolated incidents eventually proved to be systemic. My concerns weren’t even the tip of the iceberg; I discovered that a string of vets had voiced their concerns and were ignored or got in trouble. One Duke student veteran, Alex Ney, had even served in the same battalion as me at Fort Bragg after 9/11. But two years before I got to Duke, in April 2008, Alex took his own life in the middle of a PhD program, leaving behind a spouse and two-year-old child.8 Learning of Alex’s death didn’t make me cry; it made me angry.
Men, especially those of us in or from the military, are not taught the difference between sadness and anger, so we often conflate the two. We won’t readily admit we’re sad, because it’s a sign of weakness. Being mad doesn’t have the same stigma, but it can also be unwelcome. Just like “hangry” is a mix of hunger and anger, “smad” is when we’re somewhere between sad and mad. It’s the abbreviated version of “I’m not crying; you’re crying.”
Dr. Ryan Martin, a research psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, says that “anger is a natural reaction to unfairness.”9 When kids angrily bark out that something isn’t fair, they are disappointed in not getting something they want. That disappointment is expressed as anger, but it might be sadness in disguise. Parents often tell their kids that “life’s not fair,” code for “Shut the fuck up and drive on.” As I’ll go over in the first chapter, God creates a world that is good, a universe that “bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Jr. observed.10 It would be more accurate to say that people are unfair, and life is whatever you make it. Some things are not fair, and some of the things we want are good, like justice. Sometimes the statement “It’s not fair” issues not from a place of entitlement but from a place of oppression.
We might feel both sadness and anger in response to injustice, and when we do it can be hard to tell the two emotions apart. When one of my kids is in danger, I react hastily with what looks like anger. They see anger and think they have done something wrong, so I need to explain to them that I reacted out of fear: fear of the grief I would feel if they were seriously hurt or killed. They know that anger is related to justice, but we need to be able to tell the difference between entitled anger (I did not get the thing I want) and righteous anger (the thing I want is justice).
Before #MeToo propelled assault, harassment, and discrimination to national headlines, I had been trained to listen for and report behavior that might violate civil rights. As one of two codirectors of the Divinity School Women’s Center at Duke University in 2013, I had a responsibility to be familiar with the institutional channels available for assault survivors to report crimes that deprived them of their civil rights. Using my privilege to advocate for others was second nature to me after my time in combat. In January 2005, I watched as an Iraqi soldier took a grenade to the chest while protecting a voting center in downtown Mosul. After the platoon medic and I patched him up as best we could, battalion medics arrived to take him to a US facility for treatment. As they lifted the stretcher to load him into the aid truck, he raised his thumb in the air. To this day, I still have no idea if he did it to signal that he was okay and to thank us for our help, or if he raised his right thumb because it was the one stained in ink, signifying he had already exercised the right that terrorists were trying to take away from him and others.
I’m not crying; you’re crying!
I am ready to die for civil rights like voting, equal opportunity, and freedoms of expression and worship. But the same culture that taught me not to cry also taught me that I could take anything the world threw at me, that I could shut the fuck up and drive on. That’s the double-edged sword of resilience—either too much or too little can kill you. I knew what bias, harassment, and discrimination looked like when it was being done to other people. It took years to name it when it was happening to me. God forbid I should have to protect myself, to stand up and do something when the dude in distress was me.
As a student veteran in seminary, I had dismissed bad experiences as misfortune, as though I and other veterans had a bad experience just by chance. It was common for student veterans to hear from classmates, a decade younger than them, that military service was evil or to get side-eyed when they mentioned their service.11 It was only slightly less common to get the same treatment from professors.12 It was not just a Christianity issue, it was an institution-wide problem.
For the last day of classes (LDOC) in April 2012, undergrads paraded around campus in T-shirts adorned with cartoon bombs that read “The End Is Near.” The formal withdrawal of troops from Iraq had occurred just six months prior on December 18, 2011. My phone buzzed in my pocket all day from other vets expressing their smadness at the privilege of kids these days. Sometimes, however, the implicit bias was light on the implicit and heavy on the bias. Like when I got an official government email asking my help in getting qualified, high-speed enlisted Marines to apply to Duke through the Marine Leadership Scholar Program. The email dropped the names of three general-grade Marine officers and Duke alumni who supported the program and wanted to see it succeed, but for years the undergraduate dean of admissions never returned calls or replied to (usmc.mil) emails.13 One month after my bringing this to the administration’s attention, that same dean was reappointed to a second five-year term.14 There is a lot more, but the worst was before even all that.
While I was still a student, I caught wind of a Duke student veteran who had died before I arrived. I approached the university president as he walked to his Jaguar one day on my way to the bus, asking if he could help me find support to improve resources for veterans, both students and staff. He absentmindedly gave me a name, the vice president for student affairs, after muttering, “So sad, that veteran a few years ago…” It took years to figure out whiskey tango fox he was talking about, and I think finding out was what broke me.
THIS IS DUKE
Alexander Ney was an artilleryman, like me, but an officer. From what I could find out through public records and a few emails from people he knew, we were also both paratroopers at Fort Bragg for a few overlapping months. We weren’t in the same battery, the artillery equivalent to an infantry company, but we almost certainly crossed paths. I reenlisted to go to Schofield Barracks in December 2002, and he deployed to Kuwait for the invasion of Iraq in January 2003.
The guys I kept in touch with after I left didn’t have many good things to say about the first year of combat operations in Iraq. They came home in early 2004, as my deployment began, and Alex was discharged as a captain in time to start a PhD program in molecular cancer biology at Duke by the fall semester of 2005. Late in the evening of Wednesday, April 16, 2008, during his third year of studies, he was found dead at his home in East Durham. Arlington National Cemetery is his final resting place, not far from his hometown of Washington, DC.
I’m not crying. Are you?
“This is Duke” used to be a central branding message for the university, emblazoned on everything from webpages to T-shirts. It’s hard to find nowadays, maybe because it is ripe for appropriation by naysayers (and truth-speakers).15 “This is Duke” is about perspective; whose Duke? My experience of Duke as a student veteran was filled with bias, harassment, and discrimination. It wasn’t called that, not even by me, at least not until I reached my breaking point. Duke may have been a great experience for some, but for a lot of veterans it was anything but. We’re just accustomed to keeping quiet and being kept quiet.
When a student died unexpectedly at Duke, on campus or off, undergrad or graduate, the senior vice president of student affairs would distribute campus-wide statements. In two weekday examples in 2007 and 2010, statements went out the same day. In a particularly tragic weekend in September 2014, two deaths occurred with a statement the following Monday. In Alex’s case, the only statement I could find was published four days after his death, on April 20, giving students less than twenty-four hours’ notice before a memorial service at Duke University Chapel and offering no resources for grieving students, veteran or otherwise, in need of counseling or psychiatric services.16 Among the incidents I found, he was the only veteran. Military communities can take it, though, right? Shut the fuck up and drive on.
The way veterans are treated is not fair. It’s not that we want something we should not expect; it’s that we deserve human dignity and we are denied it. Don’t mistake injustice for entitlement, especially with military families who give so much and ask so little.
I’m not crying anymore. What good does it do?
The week before I found myself at the Wilson Recreation Center, I had filed a complaint with Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE). I had swallowed my pride and asked for help, something that felt foreign to me as a combat-hardened grunt. After the registrar had assigned me the only evening section with half the number of students as other teaching assistants, I felt like I was not trusted with students despite my two years of teaching experience at Methodist University. I might have shrugged it off, but I had a child on the way and I was not going to miss the bedtime routine as a new father. So I scheduled a meeting with the dean of the Divinity School as the OIE-designated equal employment opportunity (EEO) representative.
We met on February 29, 2016, one hour after OIE hosted an optional implicit bias workshop for Divinity staff and faculty. The dean seemed surprised there were evening sections at all, and agreed it was odd to not distribute the number of students equally among teaching assistants. Discussion also fell to veterans in academia, and I pointed out there were no veterans on faculty at the Divinity School despite it being a favored seminary for military chaplains. The dean suggested I speak with the only member of the Divinity School staff she knew had served. Not faculty, but rather a fund-raiser, the dean of external relations (DER).
Behind closed doors, he asked me to share with him what my experiences were, because his were so different. I told him about Alex and gave him a laundry list of grievances I’d compiled from several student veterans, most of whom asked to remain anonymous. He seemed surprised at the details I provided him, and to this day, I believe his suggestion that he only ever encountered puppies and sunshine. Hell, his whole raison d’être was to keep the money coming by making funders happy. Emotional malnourishment was written into the job description. So of course he filtered the exchange through his toxic positivity cheese grater. He acknowledged that the Divinity School was “not as positive as it should be” and later told a compliance officer of the Department of Labor that I was “unhappy with veteran treatment.”17 Smad, unhappy, what’s the difference?
A couple of weeks later I got an email from the DER with the subject line “Veterans Issues,” telling me he had convened a meeting “to discuss how we can improve the environment for veteran and active duty students.”18 When I asked if any students or employed veterans were at the meeting, he claimed he “met with” two people, who denied his account of events. But the kicker was that he “shared the affirmative action plan for veterans with our HR office.” The closest thing to a Divinity School “HR office,” to my knowledge, was the registrar who hired me.
Reporting workplace impropriety is hard because retaliation is always a possibility. I’ll never know why I got fewer students than my peers or why I was chosen to lead an evening precept, but I would later learn the registrar was unaware I had teaching experience, meaning she never read my résumé. The DER’s email suggested she had now been put on alert that someone was talking about affirmative action. That someone was probably a veteran… and an employee… Sure enough, contracts for the fall semester went out a month later and I wasn’t offered one.
Between the DER, the registrar, and the bias I had documented, I finally sucked it up and filed a complaint. I was done playing by whatever rules I was expected to, fed up with the failures of either self-interested people or brand-loyal administrators to do the right thing. It started with Alex Ney, a battle buddy I had never met but whom I could have fought beside. He had fallen, and I couldn’t leave his memory behind. I still can’t. Back to my sob story.
The first time I met with OIE was the day after sending an email to a professor with a penchant for dehumanizing Christian soldiers. My first academic adviser at Duke was a prolific academic whose scholarship focused on virtue ethics until 9/11, when it veered in the direction of theological punch lines and punditry. I began working toward my first theology degree interested in thinking about character and military service. There’s probably an alternate-reality version of me who got to pursue that path, but when I got to Duke what I wanted to do was overshadowed by what I felt I needed to do, which was to combat bad theology based on antimilitary bias in the church. When I noticed the adviser’s habit of conflating political decisions with the cannon fodder of those who carried them out, I pointed out that his cavalier commentary “does not reflect the high standard expected of serious scholars and it demeans the morally complex perspective of Christians struggling with what it means to serve.”19
The meeting at Wilson was a follow-up to this exchange. My memory is foggy, but I do recall that he was already there when I arrived, at a table by a smoothie vendor. I remember my chest was shivering, like the time I sat in the National Cathedral as my eyes leaked and my face convulsed. I’ve since recognized it as a symptom of combat stress; it happens when I am vulnerable, when I enter difficult spiritual territory. He let me start, so I explained how his comments were increasingly harmful and ignorant. The first words out of his mouth in reply were “Who are you to judge me?” I listened for a while, not because anything he said was worth hearing, but because I was frozen in place, tears slowly tumbling down my face.
I never would have met with OIE had I not reached my breaking point. The thing with my old adviser was one of a thousand paper cuts that were slowly killing me and my battle buddies.
If you had asked me what emotion I was feeling that day in the rec center, I wouldn’t have said I was crying because I was sad; I would have said it was because I was tired. Or, as Fannie Lou Hamer put it, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”20 The truth is that I was mad, but I couldn’t show it. Anger is a natural response to injustice, even if you are the one responsible for it. When that’s the case, anger is easy to weaponize: “I haven’t done anything wrong; he’s just an angry veteran.” But sadness can also put veterans in a box they don’t deserve to be in, and it’s a well-worn box. For some, it can become a coffin.
Not long after I got out of the military, I was attending an antiwar demonstration where a young man, a newly minted veteran, was surrounded by cameras as he bawled his eyes out. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I can guess it had something to do with unresolved combat stress. People love a sob story, especially when it comes from “the troops” everybody claims to support. The problem with soldier sob stories is that they feed a civilian savior complex, the hope we have of being able to save/help/fix/repair veterans. The widely held assumption that military families need saving affirms the widely held belief that grunts are broken, war-weary, damaged goods. It might show vulnerability for a veteran to cry, but it might also be a mask for other emotions he or she isn’t allowed to express. Like anger.
That complaint I filed snowballed fast, and I got a lot of heat from administrators, faculty, even friends and fellow vets. Somewhere in there, someone told me I was “all heat, no light.” What they meant was that I was making people angry, getting all “fire and brimstone,” but not giving anyone any hope. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann wrote that the prophetic task must balance criticism with hope, and from outside appearances I was all criticism and no hope. I think the inverse was true, that Christians expect all light and no heat. Why else do you think services for Easter are so much more well attended than those for Good Friday? We want rainbows and puppies, but we don’t want the rain or to have to pick up dog poop. In prophetic literature there’s a recurring theme of a refining fire that tests us “as gold is tested” (Zech. 13:9) and that “will smelt away [our] dross” (Isa. 1:25). What good is the light without heat?
It’s easy to look at someone crying out on account of injustice, saying something isn’t fair, and accuse them of being an entitled little shit. But what if, and hear me out on this, something is actually unfair? What if military suicide is not so much about the internal mental health of soldiers and veterans as the human dignity they are denied by civilian society? What if the responsibility to change or improve isn’t on military families, what if soldiers and veterans aren’t the ones who are entitled? I understand if sometimes we can’t take the heat, if we need “fire, lite” instead of fire and light. I know it can be hard to see anger (I have kids, remember?). At some point we need to put an end to childish fragility and face the things we have done and failed to do.
WHO AM I (TO JUDGE)?
One of the things I think Christianity has failed to do for a long time is to treat grunts fairly, in Scripture and in tradition. I identify myself as an author because writers are artisans. It takes discipline and practice to “write.” Authors, on the other hand, are made by chance, and my writing is a product of circumstance rather than design. I wrote my first book, Reborn on the Fourth of July, because I saw a crack that battle buddies were falling through. I wrote an autobiography because I couldn’t find books that treated military service and Christian faith with intellectual and scriptural integrity. Autobiographies are easy; your story belongs to you, and nobody can tell you otherwise. My second book, For God and Country (in That Order), was written shortly thereafter and profiles nearly fifty Christian soldiers who defied the false dichotomy between pacifist and patriot, Democrat and Republican, or Progressive and Conservative. I never wanted to write; I wanted to teach. But blowing the whistle on a powerful institution like Duke made that difficult.
The more people tried to fit me in their box, the more I stubbornly refused to suck it up and drive on with my humanity in tatters. Close friends questioned my well-being, asking, “How much longer will you fight this? When is enough enough?” When I went over to see the founding pastor of a house church my family had attended, a man who also worked in the Duke administration, he said he felt threatened because I came to his house with a six-pack of beer. His wife, a mental health professional, came to the door to say, “You’re crazy… everything you touch turns bad.” I won’t lie, that one hit a nerve. So, I walked out of the gentrified part of the neighborhood to the Section 8 area, where my battle buddy for life, Jeremy Stainthorp-Berggren, lived. Before I got the whole story out, he started laughing. Maybe I would have cried, I don’t know, but vets are fucking crazy like that. We laugh at weird shit. When we caught our breath he said, about my being crazy, “Well, she’s not wrong.” He was right. She wasn’t.