Monday, September 26, 2016

Lauren Kay Halloran's Memoir Explores her Mother's and her Military Experiences


An Afghanistan veteran and former military public affairs officer, Lauren Kay Halloran was in residence in August working on a memoir that intertwines her experiences with that of her mother, a nurse in the Army Reserve who served in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, including a deployment to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Desert Storm.

For most of her childhood, Lauren’s mother’s military commitment was two weeks a year, plus one weekend a month. “It didn’t really impact our family; it was just part of our routine. Then, all of a sudden this 700-person hospital unit that no one ever thought would be activated because it was so expensive to deploy, was activated.” She was gone for four months. Lauren was seven, her older sister turned nine while their mother was away; her younger brother was just two. “I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom thought it was a suicide mission because of the threat of chemical warfare and because the unit made them such a big target. The original deployment was for up to two years and she thought, I’m either going to get killed, or I’m going to be gone for two years and my kids won’t recognize me when I return.”

And then, ten years later, in the wake of 9/11, Lauren accepted an ROTC scholarship to college. Financial motivation was a big part of her decision. Even Lauren herself is somewhat mystified that after such a wrenching chapter in their family’s history, she ended up in the Air Force. “Part of my writing journey has been to try and understand why I joined up after my Mom’s experience. As a family, we actually all made a vow that nobody else would take that route because it had been so traumatic for my family. I’ve come to realize that my Mom was a big factor in that decision; I was following in her footsteps more or less. I always revered her—she’s my hero.”

When Lauren joined ROTC, she had no idea that we would engage in two wars lasting a decade plus. At the time, ROTC was very much stuck in a peaceful training mode. “We played volleyball and marched and learned the ins and outs of being an officer, but nothing that would prepare us for what was in store.”

A public affairs officer in the Air Force, Lauren “Flew a desk. You figure it’s the Air Force, I’m not going to be a pilot, I’ll be safe. My first couple years I was at a special operations base and people were deploying around me all the time. It was like a constant coming and going, people were being deployed three or four times a year in flying squadrons and I was watching this and kind of in awe of the dedication they all had. I thought they were all super badass as I sat in my air-conditioned office and watched them run around the base in the Florida heat carrying logs.”

It got to the point where Lauren wanted to do her part and so eventually she volunteered for deployment with a Provincial Reconstruction Team. “It sounded much more fulfilling than a typical public affairs gig behind a desk sending out press releases.” Charged with mentoring government officials, Afghan tribal leaders and religious leaders, Lauren’s team was assigned to Paktia province in Afghanistan. While she was there, military and security forces mentorship was assuming a more important role as was the building up of the local infrastructure. “So we helped fund the building of schools, medical clinics, vocational training and civics training programs to educate women on their constitutional rights—even if they could read, many people didn’t have access to the documents. It seemed like a very noble mission, and it was. It was rewarding and also incredibly frustrating.”

Lauren was in a more traditional area in Southeast Afghanistan along the Pakistan border. Women wore burkas when outside and in more private spaces, they wore headscarves. There were seven women on Lauren’s team out of 80. They all wore headscarves when off base as a cultural gesture. “It was really interesting how the Afghan men received me. I represented the U.S. military so there was an element of power and financial promise that came with my uniform, and some men were really excited about that. Some, as they approached me, going down the line shaking everyone’s hand, and they noticed I had a bun sticking out at the back of my helmet and was more feminine. So they would pass right by without acknowledging me. Others warily extended their hand, their attitude was: I’ve got to respect you because you’re here helping us. And some people were excited to meet me as an anomaly—a woman of power. We actually ended up on the news a lot, we women, even if it had nothing to do with what was going on. Often, I’d be in the background taking pictures, documenting events and I‘d end up on the news. They were fascinated by us; it was kind of unsettling.”

The danger level is largely dependent on specific areas and specific times. When Lauren was there things were heating up. That particular region in Afghanistan was a hotbed for specific groups tied with the insurgency, so they knew it was going to be precarious when they got there. Historically, the area had been an insurgent stronghold because it shares a border with Pakistan. There were certain places within the province where American troops hadn’t been in a couple of years because they were too inaccessible and too dangerous. In 2009-2010 with the presidential election there was an uptick in violence countrywide as groups tried to disrupt that process. “Around the same time, the initial ground troop surge brought in a big influx of Marines, particularly in Helmed, who were involved in rooting out activity there. As a result people were pushed into Pakistan. Increased drone strikes pushed them back into our region, so a lot of factors conspired to make it a particularly interesting time to be deployed in that area.” Lauren who turned 26 while in Afghanistan, was there for nine months.

“I don’t regret my decision to go,” she says. “I think maybe when I first got back, I might have. That’s part of why I write, to more fully understand the experience and how it affected me. Maybe it’s delusions of grandeur, but I think my story is important. It’s not a typical combat story. For the most part, I was a bureaucrat. As a communications official, I was working with the local communications structure, meager though it was. I went on convoys fairly regularly. That was not my main job, but I still had a lot of issues readjusting when I got home. And I think it’s impossible not to. Even being here [at VCCA] in this gorgeous place isolated for two weeks with other artists, I’m sure there’s going to be an adjustment period. When you’re in an environment where you’re exposed to so much stress and so much danger for an extended period of time, it changes the way your body works, the way your brain works, and it’s impossible to not need a period to come down from that. That’s not really something that’s discussed outside the more traditional PTSD-inducing experiences—which are very important to talk about and I’m glad that’s become more of the public conversation. But the narrative focuses only on  that extreme end of the spectrum.. I felt very isolated when I got home because I wasn’t checking the PTSD boxes, but I still felt off and unsettled and I dealt with a lot of moral complications on the communications side. I was basically the filter between what was happening and what was being broadcast as happening.

“I was very idealistic going over, I’ve always been a positive, look-on-the-bright-side-of-things kind of person. It hit me really hard when I realized how complicated things were. We weren’t going to be changing the world in nine months, which I realize now is a totally unrealistic thing to expect. But I just didn’t anticipate the bureaucratic process, for one, following me out there. And it is just so difficult, even at the very basic boots on the ground level, to institute change without going up the chain of command and having that ripple back down in some kind of altered way. There’s all that and then dealing with the bureaucracy and vast corruption on the Afghan side. People in positions to help the greater community historically haven’t been able to do that. It’s an every man for himself environment out there. Most people are focused on where their next meal’s coming from as opposed to what can this new government do for us going forward. There was a huge disconnect between our good intentions and what was actually feasible or sustainable.”

Lauren had nine months left on her military contract by the time she got back from Afghanistan. It was a very tumultuous time. She was adjusting to being home on top of dealing with the death of her grandfather and the death of a couple of friends—one while deployed to Afghanistan, one soon after her return from an Afghanistan deployment. “I didn’t give myself enough credit for coping when I had all these things going on. I was talking to my parents a little bit, and my Mom was of course understanding. They were in Seattle, I was in Florida, so phone conversations were all we could do at that point.”

When she got out of the Air Force Lauren moved back to Seattle for a while as she figured out her next step and applied to graduate school. It was then that she began to have in depth talks with her mother. “As a seven-year-old when my Mom got home, I wasn’t privy to her adjustment struggles. When she came back as a mother of three and wife to a man who had been amazing as a single dad for four months, she was expected to slip right back into those roles. Because she was in the Army Reserves, there wasn’t the inherent support system of a base, or the people who’d been through the same experience. Basically she came back to the same spot she had left. We’d all been spinning our wheels waiting for her to get back there and as soon as she did we just took off running and she got caught up in it. She came to our school and did Veteran’s Day presentations. She brought back traditional Saudi Arabian clothing and my sister and I modeled it before the school, and I just remember feeling very proud. She talked about the things she’d done, her patients in the hospital and working with the Iraqis who came to the hospital to help, and I was just so awestruck by her and I had no way of seeing what a difficult transition it was for her. And so when I got back that was kind of the model in my mind of how things were supposed to work. That plus seeing all these people on base who’d deployed 15 times and seemed totally fine. In my mind that became ‘they’re strong and I’m not,’ and I just wanted to hole up in a room and eat candy and watch chick flicks and cry. I felt like there was something wrong with me. It took finally acknowledging that this is not healthy and self-referring to the base mental health clinic, talking to a counselor there who then ultimately got me to open up to my parents. Talking with my mother was kind of a process of us both opening ourselves up.

“A critical piece to my healing was opening up to her. During our talks, she shared things she hadn’t told anyone in 20 years. We both cried and started to uncover a lot of commonalities in our experiences. Different eras, different countries, different jobs, different services but a lot of those feelings are going to be the same.”

Writing was always part of Lauren’s life to some degree. “I was that weird kid in high school who liked writing essays. I wrote many, many essays about my Mom and her deployment. I realize now looking backthat of course it affected me in very tangible ways. It was that thing I always found my way back to.” An English major in college, Lauren was drawn to her military public affairs job because it had a journalism aspect. “I loved that part of it. My first exposure to non-fiction writing was talking to other people in the military and telling their stories, translating them to a way that could be received by a wider audience. I really felt a pull to do that.”

Lauren earned her MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston where she now lives. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Cobalt Review, Mason's Road, Spry Literary Journal, 20 Something Magazine, several military-themed anthologies, and the November 2013 issue of Glamour as the winner of their national "Real Life Story" essay contest. To promote understanding of post-9/11 veterans, Lauren gives lectures and readings around the country, including the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference, the Boston Book Festival, and the University of Iowa's Examined Life Conference. Her writing and interviews have been used in the creation of dance and theater productions.

The Military writing community is fairly small though it is getting bigger. I met Maurice Decaul (in residence at VCCA this summer) at AWP and that’s become a kind of a reunion for us. We started three years ago with a dinner for military writers and also nonveterans who write about military matters. The first year there were just seven or eight; last year there were more than 30. We’re geographically separated, but we tend to find each other in whatever city we’re in and rally together.”

While at the VCCA, Lauren finished a complete draft of her memoir manuscript. “I wrote 22,000 words, 72 pages, in two weeks, which is kind of mind-boggling. I think it was just what I needed, having the time and space and a supportive community to gut through it. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.”


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Silvia Tennenbaum, 1928 – 2016

We are sad to report that Silvia Tennenbaum passed away at age 88.

The author of novels and short stories, including the best-seller Rachel the Rabbi's Wife, Silvia will also be remembered for her bright blue eyes, her love of the Mets, and her progressive politics.  She was smart and kind and generous.  I was sad to get the news that she passed away this summer.

My daughters remember Silvia as the smiling writer with the blue hair.  Her hair was lovely and white, but she took to adding a swipe of bright blue hair color... sassy and unexpected... just like she was.  

Silvia Tennenbaum in her studio at VCCA (photo by Lois Lord)
Silvia was one of the first Fellows I met at VCCA. She had a long, wonderful history at Mt. San Angelo where she had been in residence fifteen times.  She first came to VCCA in 1984, and she had great stories to tell about the early days at VCCA.  She loved baseball and would organize us to go to watch the minor league team in Lynchburg.  The team was called the L-Sox early on, and she talked of watching Darryl Strawberry play there before he went to the Majors and the Mets.  She continued to attend the ball games when the team became the Lynchburg Hillcats.

She also had a deep connection to Lynchburg where she lived from 1951 to 1958 as the rabbi's wife.  Although she talked of moving to Lynchburg at one point, East Hampton, New York, was home to her. 

In addition to Rachel the Rabbi's Wife, she was the author of the novel Yesterday's Streets, for which she received the Goethe Medal of the Hessian Ministry for Science and Art in 2012.  She was touched by the honor and proud to be fêted in her native Germany which she had fled when she was ten years old. 

In an application to VCCA, she said that her life and work have been a search for her identity. She said, "I am still trying to chart the passage, the long road through sunlit landscapes, the melodies of the languages that compete in my head, the passions unleashed by my exile, my escape into life."   We were happy to have been with her during part of that search.

Silvia was deeply connected to VCCA. "I love the VCCA more than any other place I've been", she said in one of her evaluations.  It was wonderful to see the ease with which she entered life here.  It was a creative home for her. Somehow, I always thought she'd be back for another residency.  I'm sorry that I won't be seeing her twinkling blue eyes again...and the radical blue patch of hair above them.

-Sheila Gulley Pleasants