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August 2: Flash Fiction Challenge

Monty sits on what remains of Cynthia’s deck in Ripley. Much of the rubble from the landslide remains, and yet life boldly rises. The apple tree uprooted and hanging over the fury of water that flooded Ripley Creek after the mountain slid, grows like a tree from a fantasy novel out of the gray and green rocks. Apples hang heavy in its branches.

A clump of roses takes root in a barren patch of dirt and kale spreads like weeds. Milkweed, nectar to butterflies, protrudes in clusters, tall green and promising to flower. A daylily nods its orange head by the deck. Purselane spreads across the rocky ground like nature’s band-aid.

I watch the Hub pet Monty, Cynthia’s charming rescue dog, a Daschund. He’s sitting down, which is good. Typically, the Hub would be gnashing his teeth at the pain in his knee, but he tells me the gel shot he got on Mondy is working. He’s tired, and no shot will take away the instability of both his knees.

The Hub gave us a big scare on Tuesday, ending up in an emergency room. His VA doctor offered to drive him after determining his blood pressure was through the roof. The day before, when he got the shot, the nurse raised the alarm over his dangerously high blood pressure, but he told her she measured it wrong. He can be surly to deal with in such circumstances.

On Tuesday we went to the local clinic for a weekly visit. Afterward, he wanted to see the Marine nurse he likes. I like her, too. She fights for him to get the care I’m fighting for him to get. She and his primary care doctor are the best. But often the referrals they make get denied by the VA. Slogging through the system is never easy.

I returned home to conduct a phone interview for a profile I’m writing, so the Hub drove back. He asked the Marine nurse to take his blood pressure because she does it right. She said it was THAT high. The doc came in, and both told him he needed to go to the emergency room immediately.

When his calls came through to me, I was on another call — the DVIBC had called me back, and it wasn’t a call I could miss, so I ignored his. He only told me he wanted to “talk” to the Marine nurse. I didn’t know he was checking up on his blood pressure. Or that he was in crisis.

I was managing the ongoing crisis — the Hub’s head. We’ve been down a scary path of weakening executive function over the past eight years. When it got bad, I pestered him to get seen for PTSD. I didn’t know what else it could be. His family and friends always talked about how changed he was after service, and I knew his quirks and moments when I’d call him out as “Sgt. Mills” because of his intensity.

But these past few years have been crisis hell. I couldn’t understand why, when we lost our rental two months before we could get into our next one, that he’d insist on going into the wilderness. I’m still traumatized by the experience. That’s when I started fighting hard as I ever have to get him into the VA. Before it was his knees. This time it was his shifts in thinking and behavior.

The VA had no trouble diagnosing him with combat anxiety even 33 years after the event. But he wouldn’t stay put. Next, we were off like a rocket to Mars (southern Utah) because it was a chance for him to get back into his aviation career which he loved. But he couldn’t do it. He was fired for PTSD symptoms.

That’s when I got scared. My husband was not acting like my husband and yet he couldn’t see it. I grieved terribly. I felt like I lost him, and in many ways, I have. A few widows have put it in perspective for me though — I still have him. It’s a bitter pill. But I charged on, getting him up to Michigan with him resisting the entire way.

Even now, it’s a weekly battle for two therapists and one ready-to-give-up wife to keep him here. I love my new community. I love being close to my eldest and youngest. I love Lake Superior and her tempestuous moods and generous rocks. I love new friends like Cynthia and Cranky. I love what the Red Cross discovered when they came to the Keweenaw — we are an intact community.

The Hub wants to leave. He hates mosquitos. He hates snow. He hates feeling bored, and he hates not being able to connect thoughts. He hates that his knees hurt so bad after years of needing a replacement.

You might notice a difference in attitude, and that’s part of the rub. But still, I fight to get him care. His therapists were the ones to catch on that something more was going on with him. That led to suspicion of traumatic brain injury (TBI). It would take sleuthing the pieces to puzzle out what happened.

We all knew about his hard landing into to combat.

The Hub’s mom got a phone call early in the morning of October 25, 1983, that her son was on his way to Grenada. A determined US president confirmed on television that he deployed US special forces – Navy Seals and Army Rangers – to rescue US medical students on an island that Cubans had fortified to build a runway for Soviet planes. So much for a dairy farmer’s wife to comprehend.

How could she know her son was jumping with a concussion? He didn’t even know.

Less than a week earlier, a fellow Ranger spearheaded the Hub in the face during a soccer game and knocked him out cold. He was ticked off to get pulled from the game. Knocked out cold and that’s all that happened. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” Within days, he was flying in a C-130 to combat.

The Hub jumped with a T-10 parachute which Airborne uses for mass combat jumps. His rate of descent increased with his heavy load — a mortar round and all the communications gear for his unit. He hit so hard he bounced. He hit right knee, hip and head…bounced…hit his head again. He wore an M1 helmet which the Army acknowledges was not designed for impact. He essentially wore no head protection for 174 career jumps.

It would take almost five years for the Hub to realize that the pain in his knee after that jump was from bone fragments and a complete internal derangement of his knee. He had continued to jump, play soccer and rugby, all on a broken knee. That’s the culture of “Ranger Tough.” As much as I’d like to smash that tough attitude, I also recognize that it conforms to his identity.

When we go to the VA, I fight him as much as I fight them. I must be “Ranger Wife Tough.” He’ll ignore pain or report it’s low, then go home and rail about the pain. I won’t go into what it’s like to be married to a veteran, really only other veteran spouses get it, and many of them are exes. It’s not a glorious role.

But I know the Hub is a good man. He’s been a good dad, and I always felt safe with him (up until wilderness homelessness and Mars wanderings). Just as I did when I was raising three children, I ask, “Why this behavior?” Each new puzzle piece comes with a “why.” I keep arranging, searching the scientific studies, reading articles from the National Football League, reaching out to experts, asking for more tests.

We now understand that the Hub’s symptoms at the end of his military service and after he came home were likely due to TBI. PTSD certainly factored in — simply surviving Ranger Battalion required the maximum effort and PTSD is proof that one is a survivor. Another piece of the puzzle was linking his combat dive specialty after Grenada, after a TBI. It compounded the lack of healing.

But the brain can and does heal. The problem is what they call second impact syndrome. After a concussion, the brain releases tau, a protein which destroys more of the brain’s neurons. It leaves the brain vulnerable until it heals. If the brain suffers another impact (even a jolt), more tau is released. This is why repetitive concussions are dangerous. They lead to degenerative brain disease.

Chronic Traumatic Encephaly (CTE) can only be diagnosed after death through autopsy. Researchers are studying the brains of retired and living NFL players to look for clues. One marker is the presence of white matter brain lesions which also manifest in dementia. The Hub’s brain MRI reveals white matter brain lesions.

Symptoms include loss of executive functioning which explains why at age 55 the Hub was diagnosed by a VA psychiatrist with ADD. He never had ADD as a child or teen, or even hinted at it with learning or behavioral problems. But loss of executive functioning in adults is often confused as ADD. So it makes sense.

It’s why, when a doctor tells the Hub he needs to take the pills to lower his blood pressure, the Hub argues with him that he doesn’t have high blood pressure.

But today was a victory. In therapy with his Vet Center PTSD counselor, he recognized himself in a younger veteran he recently met. The signature wound of Iraq and Afghanistan is TBI. And most soldiers with TBI have PTSD. The VA, once it began to understand the immensity of the problem through recent TBI research, began screening all post-9/11 veterans.

The Hub is pre-9/11. When he came home, his parents wanted help, but no resources existed.

The fact that the Hub could see his own symptoms in another person was a huge moment of clarity. He understood why we were focusing on the two in-patient treatment options we have. He’s agreed to either one that comes through for him. I’m beyond relieved. He’ll have a team of medical and mental health professionals to work with all his issues.

Like Cynthia, though, we wait. We wait to find out if and when. She will rebuild a new home. We will rebuild a different life.

As I watch the Hub pet Monty while talking roofs and walls and how to live in a house with no running water or floors, I feel we are all going to be okay. I feel like it’s a yellow tent moment. We’ve pitched our tents and wait for the stars to come out. My tent is yellow. The color of sunshine and hope.

August 2, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a yellow tent. Where is it and who does it belong to? Think of how the color adds to the story. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by August 7, 2018. Use the comment section below to share, read and be social. You may leave a link, pingback or story in the comments.

Wanting to Hide (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls

Danni unzipped her tent. Vapors rose from the creek where it meandered smooth and flat across a meadow dotted with daisies. The sun cast colors across the eastern horizon of sharp mountains. She checked each boot, a habit from growing up in Nevada where scorpions liked to take refuge in a cozy shoe. The feel of laced boots gave her confidence to face the day. The volunteers would soon be arriving to camp. Ike had always teased her about how bright yellow her tent was – “Astronauts in space can spot it.” Today, she wished she had his camo tent.

March 2: Flash Fiction Challenge

march-2What had been murky pools a few weeks before are now flats of cracked mud. The kind of cracks that call to be pressed with the toe of a boot. It’s like nature’s original bubble wrap. You know, the kind you can snap and pop?

I’m walking down a desert road with ruts that have dried to resemble molded plastic. It’s not so dry yet that it’s dusty, and I know the moisture of an intensely wet winter in southern Utah (Mars) will bring an explosive spring. Already the desert has a different hue from when I first arrived in early September when temperatures were still topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  It was dusty red beneath blue sky with faded brush.

Ahead of me, a rabbit runs from mesquite to sagebrush, both which are green. Not grass green. Sage is silvery blue-green and mesquite is dark like pine needles. I look to yucca plants and prickly pear, hoping this landscape transforms with flowers as only a desert on Mars could bloom. Until then, I hunt for spring-signs and rocks. There’s no rocks of interest on this plane beneath the shadow of Hurricane Mesa. So I look up.

Was this area where the monkeys landed?

Beyond my focus, I can discern something white at the edge where I know the tracks aimed off the mesa to launch test monkeys in test ejection seats. I imagine a monkey in a pod drifting slowly overhead, its parachute white as the snow that lingers to the west on the Pine Mountains. If I can see the ghostly memory of the past, what else can I see? Shoshone boys chasing rabbits, a Mormon wife hanging laundry. This would have been a safe place to live, high enough above the flash flood washes, close to sources of water, flat for a house.

And there are foundations. I kneel to examine the rock foundation of a home or barn. Old chunks of seasoned beams lie scattered. A tangle of wire rusts near tracks of modern all-terrain-vehicles (ATVs). Broken glass glitters. Upon a closer look, the glass is modern. A strange pile of old debris, as if a homestead had burned. I poke around and find slag: cobalt blue streaked with white as pure as monkey parachutes; green like grass that doesn’t grow here streaked with black; golden and brown.

What were these remnants? Its not clear like bottles,  more opaque like iron slag, yet way too colorful. A desert mystery from a kitchen long ago on the spot beneath an Air Force test site. How strange when life is like multiple disconnected plays that share the same stage over and over. Eventually, the stage changes, but not as fast as the flashpoint of a human life or the drift of a flying monkey.

It’s been a long journey for me to get to this flat stretch of ground, picking up the slag of my own life. Like these transformed pieces, I’m changed, too. I’m not as polished as I once was. My edges are sharper, my color deeper. When I set out to conscientiously write a novel about the spouse of a veteran who decides to return to Iraq in mid-life, I wanted to explore why soldiers serve. Perhaps in the beginning of exploring service, I had high ideals of duty. I knew my husband was closer to his Ranger brothers than any other friendships or even family ties. And he has lots of cousins and hometown friends.

In fact, I think that day last summer when we finally got the Hub in front of a VA psychologist for an assessment, I realized something deeper about all those relationships he grew up with. In describing how easily he was friends with people, I nodded. The Hub never meets a stranger. But when pressed about his service and specific events, it became clear how detached he became from those formative ties. After service he was changed. Anger became a low-burning fuel that propelled him through life. Others describe him as intimidating. I learned (as did our three children) that he’s all bluster. He’s not dangerous or frightening, but that doesn’t change perceptions in the workplace. All these years he’s had us, his past ties and his Ranger brothers. Yet, he’s still on mission.

Duty isn’t to country and service is not driven by an ideal. He’d die for any one of his Ranger brothers, even now, and he continues to keep my perimeter safe and drive defensively. Why would he go back to Iraq if he were my character Ike? Training.

When you are in an elite force, you use your brain, brawn, morals and emotional strength to train. It’s important to understand that after all these years of seeing cracks in my husband’s behavior that it wasn’t simply PTSD. He does have PTSD, mild, as numerous evaluations state. As he describes to me, PTSD is merely a survival trigger to push a person into fight. The elite forces are not populated with flight responders. It’s the extreme training in this heightened survival mode that becomes like a switch turned on. And they want to do their mission. They train for their mission. They protect their brothers on mission. They dream of home; idealize it, but can’t stand to be still in it. They want to go on serving.

The Hub was diagnosed with severe anxiety disorder just weeks before we came to St. George, Utah for the job that didn’t work out. It had no chance of working out. We had so many stress factors going on, stemming from our bout of homelessness, that his anxiety was off the charts. I never thought of my husband as anxious until I realized what it was. The gruffness, the anger, the mistrust of authority, the refusal to let others walk over the top of him, the idea that others wanted to walk over the top of him and not recognizing how work-culture behaves. That training to do the mission no matter what has created a beast of anxiety within him. Serving in Iraq would relieve it.

But that’s not the answer. Unlike my character Danni, I said no way. Instead I kept my husband home, but he grew more restless and frustrated, detached and demanding. I was certain the behavior stemmed from undiagnosed and untreated PTSD. I also believe (and this is pure opinion) that the high rate of veteran suicides in the Hub’s age range (over 50) has more to do with longevity of suppressed PTSD, anxiety or depression from service than anything. Younger soldiers undergo readjustment therapy and the VA offers programs my husband never had. Yet fighting for VA service can be a battle of its own, and I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard veterans and their doctors minimalize their disabilities. Wiser veterans and advocates in the system warn other vets against “soldiering up.”

It took four years to get the Hub to “soldier down.”

By the time we got the diagnosis that leads to the care, we moved to Mars. To this date (March 2017) the Hub has yet to receive a primary care physician in St. George (and he’s been requesting one since September 2016). When he was placed on unpaid temporary leave, he was shocked and I was angry. Angry because I knew he was reacting to his anxiety poorly and the reasons cited for his eventual dismissal were related. I helped him write a letter to his employer asking for legal accommodations to his service-related disability. It was ignored. I called the VA and said we were in crisis. No one called back. I called the director and had a response in 15 minutes, an appointment the next day and a referral for CBT or EMDR.

And not even that came easy. Although we are taking classes and doing group therapy, the Hub’s first individual appointment was two days ago. Mine is tomorrow. I’m actually excited. Rarely do spouses or family members get mental health care or support. The Vet Center does allow for it, but they’ve been short a therapist. Poor woman arrived Monday and me and numerous other spouses from couples group therapy for vets with PTSD are ready to beat down her door.

We are slag forged in the fires with our veteran spouses, and want to fully transform into something of beauty and purpose.

We are the home-makers and although I aspire to be more than that with my own individual hopes and dreams, the home-maker role is as important as any.

And I have an update on our young and dedicated home-maker, bank-teller and overall Sweet One with her family’s new home after living in shelters and cheap motels. Her son is doing well in school, and thanks to all the books we collectively sent (I’m sure it was writers who sent books!) he has discovered a joy of reading. I’ll be certain to keep that joy alive.

Sweet One wants to thank all who sent house-warming gifts and to say she is cooking dinners for the family, making her first pot of chili in a crockpot. I had to laugh when she soaked the dry beans overnight and then texted me her concern the next day — are beans supposed to smell? I’ll keep fostering that joy of cooking.

For privacy, I can’t share full photos, but Sweet one approved these to be shared in a thank-you to you all:

How can I thank you and your friends for everything?? Hosting the welcome home party and all the wonderful and amazing beautiful gifts??? Thank- you just isn’t enough.
I’m overwhelmed…. And both of the guys are as well. J LOVES all his packages he gets, but last night a tie between both the tupperware and crockpot he helped me pick out. If possible more excited then I was. It was SO funny and cute we were both doing our happy/ excited dances and he was happier than I was about them!

Thank YOU ALL SO much for everything and ALL the love in each and every package.

March 2, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) include slag in a story. Slag is a glass-like by-product of smelting or refining ore. Slag is also used in making glass or can result from melting glass. It can be industrious or artistic. Go where the prompt leads.

Respond by March 7, 2017 to be included in the compilation (published March 8). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!

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Evidence of Existence (form Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills

Danni knelt by the fire ring, rain dripping off her oiled hat. No campers remained, and she surmised the last ones had children with chalk. They left stones colored with pastel hearts. Layered coals hid what she sought. Digging with a stick, she unearthed a piece of glass Ike had broken when they last camped here. She couldn’t explain why she wanted the slag. She was an archeologist, proving existence of human habitation. She wanted to prove Ike had existed. G-Dog barked from the truck, bringing her attention to the dogs.  Hers now.

The slag would outlast them all.

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August 12: Flash Fiction Challenge

August 12His back is to me as he casts his flies. Hoppers or nymphs. He’d know; he discerns to the insect hatch. I observe not to plop a reading seat on an ant hill or encounter anything crawling across stones in the creek.

He’s Sgt. Mills, ex-Army Ranger and I’m the buckaroo writer he teasingly calls the Cowardly Cowgirl. He tosses a live grasshopper at my open Kindle and I squeal. He laughs and asks how I’d ever survive in the wilderness. I’d manage. After all, I’m a survivor.

We each have our own kind of toughness. He has physical, mental and moral strength; not someone to be broken. If you’ve ever watched a special forces movie with the proverbial ring-the-bell-to-quit element, know that Ranger Mills never rung the bell. The Army pushed him until it proved he was a soldier with no quit in him. He never quits.

In my wilderness, I know what it is to quit and be broken. My toughness comes from fighting back. There are some bells I’ve never rung — I escaped a family dynamic few ever do. I know to be hopeful, to persevere and to believe in a greater good. I’ve learned that quality of life is worth fighting for and that  every individual has a right to his or her full potential. I am empowered.

We both have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The gift of surviving; the mechanism itself that allows one to survive.

I’ll advocate for others with PTSD, and even share snippets of my story, but frankly I’m not a fan of labels. While diagnosis can offer insight, I don’t ever want it to be an excuse. When I was first diagnosed 24 years ago, it explained so much. I had a great team of therapists who loaded up my toolbox with ways to cope — emotional reprogramming, art therapy, parenting classes, group therapy. Recently I learned of the Human Givens approach in the UK and although that wasn’t my course of therapy I found several similarities. It starts with awareness.

Yet it I’d be unaware for years about my husband’s PTSD. It wasn’t until a mutual military friend asked for my help with her volunteer service to the Army psych unit at Fort Snelling (in St. Paul, Minnesota). She was using auricular acupuncture in a study to reduce combat stress. I did intake and brought rocks (that’s for another story, one day). Slowly, I began to see patterns in these soldiers that I recognized in my own Ranger Mills. She wasn’t the first person to point to him and PTSD.

I met my best friend Kate the first day of college. We were both writing majors and OTAs– older than average students. Our adviser was a no-show and from day one we looked out for each other. Our bond was instantaneous, but it took the normal paths of trust and disclosure to learn that we both had been diagnosed with PTSD two years earlier. She was married to a combat veteran who was irresponsibly put on medication and pulled off without thought to consequences. In a PTSD fugue state (where he’d wake up in the middle of the night reenacting scenes from Vietnam), he shot himself.

These are hard topics to share; hard for discourse. Many people squirm and change the subject. Yet Kate and I found in each other a friendship that had at its core an understanding of the brain’s survival mechanism. We could discuss symptoms, therapies, studies and stories without censure and feel a peace at knowing what each of us had gone through was familiar.

Kate never came out and said that my husband had PTSD, but she cleverly included him in key conversations over the years that planted a seed in my head. Even after my other friend suggested that my husband reach out to the VA, I never disclosed my thinking to Kate until she was on her deathbed.  She nodded. She knew. And that’s when she gave me the second best piece of deathbed advice: “Charli, you go home and tell him, you have his back.”

Simple words soldiers understand.

When in the heat of combat, when my husband jumped into Grenada with 110 pounds in his rucksack and landed with his parachute looking like Swiss cheese from bullet holes, all he fought for was the brother next to him. Not flag and country, not God and humanity, but for the soldier in the same firefight as he. 110 pounds was nothing. He’d easily carry a 175 pound Ranger because not only do they not quit, they don’t leave anyone behind.

I came home from Helena and told Ranger Mills I had his back. He teared up, nodded and choked out a “Thank you.”

His PTSD is unlike mine in a few significant ways. First, I developed PTSD as a child which impaired personality development. He went into the Army mostly developed (18 is young for the male mind which some scientists suggest isn’t completely hardwired until the early 20s). Second, I’ve had a formal diagnosis and therapy. His diagnosis happens tomorrow at a hearing and he hasn’t once been examined by a qualified (or unqualified for that matter) professional. Typically, the VA assigns a diagnosis upon proof of combat service.

I have his back tomorrow. And I know I’m preparing for a fight because I’m going to push against the grain. I don’t believe that Ranger Mills has PTSD from a single point of conflict — the invasion of Grenada. I believe he already had PTSD before he jumped. I believe the Army Ranger School actually triggers the PTSD response and then qualifies those who can use it to become soldiers who don’t quit. Hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal, both symptoms of PTSD, are also traits of the elite soldiers.

The Army trained its Rangers “live” between Vietnam and Desert Storm in conflicts we never heard about in South America. Panama, Nicaragua, the Rangers were essentially the CIAs backup army, but shh, I never told you that. Neither has my husband. He’s loyal to the creed. I found out through a Catholic group (in college) who protested the School of Americas and had stories from nuns and priests in South America that never hit the news. What it does explain is his sustained exposure to PTSD triggering events. Ones the military will never grant him officially. But he has Grenada to count. Officially.

My next fight is against medication. Not once was I medicated until I voluntarily joined a PTSD drug study in the late 1990s. I had already been through my therapy and in control of my triggers for several years when I saw an ad for the study. Thinking I was going to help others, I went through a series of discomforting sessions until I received my second diagnosis of PTSD. Then they gave me pills. I wish I recall what they were; but I know they triggered symptoms I couldn’t control. I quit the meds immediately and the symptoms abated. I told the researchers what happened and it became a footnote in side-effect warnings.

Because of my experience, I don’t believe in medication as a way to cope with PTSD. Already, I think our culture is too quick to believe in the pill-that-solves-all. I’m not saying that drug therapy doesn’t have its place, but it should be either an emergency intervention to stabilize a person or the last tool in the box after trying other non-invasive therapies. In fact, the Journal of Psychiatric Practice posted a review to NOT recommend anxiety medication for PTSD. Had Kate’s husband not been medicated (he had lived with PTSD for over 20 years prior to being medicated), he might have lived to be the one at her side while she battled cancer.

Consider this statistic:

According to the VA, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. This means approximately 8,030 veterans kill themselves every year, more than 5,540 of whom are 50 or older.

Ranger Mills is 52. Tomorrow he gets his diagnosis. I will fight for him to get the best in the VA’s toolbox that doesn’t include medication first. I wonder how many of those veterans who died were offered nothing more than a prescription? They trained this Ranger never to quit. They can train this Ranger to know how to stand down his hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal. They can train him to manage his anger, to allow that civilians do things differently. They can help him with job-training or help him start a business, stand up for him when employers are unfair (his current employer pulled his route from him because he has this appointment tomorrow). I’ll help him communicate tomorrow; I’ll help him with future therapy; I’ll help him understand that PTSD is not a label or stigma.

I have his back.

August 12, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a character who is called to have the back of another. What circumstances led up to this moment? What are the character motives? Think about the interaction, the setting, the tone. What does it look like to have another’s back?

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Sarah’s Deliverer by Charli Mills

He’d hid the kittens Mr. Boots had in the barn. On those nights when coyotes yipped and she felt abandoned on the prairie, Hickok read to her his mother’s letters. Last night, after Cob raged that he’d clean out Rock Creek, Hickok calmed her fear. “I got your back, Sarah,” he said.

Now that Cob had thrown Wellman to the ground, Nancy Jane growled by the door and young Sally whimpered from under the kitchen table. Hickok strode tall and calm from the barn, walked right past Cob.

“Friends, aint’ we Hickok?”

No Cob, it’s my back he has.

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