The Words After War Interview with Siobhan Fallon by Michael Pitre

October 4th, 2015 — 1:31am

(This interview first ran on The Huffington Post Book Blog)

As part of Words After War’s September book club selection, Siobhan answers a few questions from Michael Pitre, author of Fives and Twenty-Fives.

Michael Pitre: You Know When the Men Are Gone was published a few months after I left the Marine Corps. My wife read it immediately, and showed me the scene from “Inside the Break” where Kailani finds a pamphlet of family reunion rules hidden among her husband’s equipment. The rules include, “Your family members are not your men; they don’t have to obey your orders,” and, “Do not engage in intercourse with your wife immediately upon your return.” My wife asked me if I remembered how many of those rules I’d broken when I came home, and we laughed because of course I’d broken all of them. So, having lived the experience, we found humor where others might’ve been dismayed. Do you think the book resonates differently with military families than with the general public? Which potential audience was more important to you when you were writing it?

Siobhan Fallon: Civilians always ask me if those pamphlets mentioned in that story are real! And of course they are, I used the one from my husband’s return from Afghanistan in 2005 as my template for the fictional version. If I remember correctly, it really did recommend, “Take time to be charming.”

There was so much I didn’t understand about the military even after I became a spouse. So yes, I hoped to show a glimpse of day to day military life to those who have never stepped inside our gates, to offer civilians more than the splashy headlines of deployments and homecomings.

As an officer’s wife, and especially as a Company Commander’s wife who led a Family Readiness Group, I was someone who was supposed to be capable and confident and I often found myself being a cheerleader. I was full of “You can do it!” or “Time will fly, before you know it your soldier will be home!” or, my least favorite, “It’s time to put on your big girl panties!” (OK, I never actually said that but I did have a magnet on my fridge that did).

None of those statements reflected the magnitude of shit spouses could go through with their mate halfway around the world when you need new tires for the car, when you, your three year old and your six month old all have strep throat and are awake at three a.m., when a tree falls on your roof during a storm, when you lost your husband’s dog, when you’re depressed and anxious and suddenly a stranger completely disconnected from your life wants to buy you a drink and that drink promises to give you a momentary escape. These are of course things that can happen to anyone, but the stress is heightened when every newspaper mentions dead soldiers in Iraq and you maybe haven’t heard from your soldier in four days, you’re in a new base far from family and friends, and on top of it all you’re thinking that to be a good wife and a patriot, you need to act like this is a breeze.

So more than thinking about ‘audience,’ I was hoping to be more authentic in my fiction than I could be as a living, speaking human being. I wrote the stories in an attempt to say yes, it’s actually OK to feel like this sometimes, the news programs are leaving so much out when they narrow military life into images of parades with heart swelling music, or even flag draped coffins. The fact that military life is so nuanced and weird, so potentially tragic as well as wonderful, is also why it’s fascinating to write about.

I was also writing while we were still there, boots on the ground, FOBs going full steam, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seeing the evidence of that in every house or apartment in Fort Hood that was missing a spouse or parent. It was happening around me, the seemingly unending deployment cycles of deploy a year, home a year, deploy again. I didn’t have any long view or hindsight yet, I had no idea we would withdraw troops out of Iraq in December, 2011. I was busy writing the now, that small window of 2007-2009, for whomever was willing to read it.

MP: There’s a real tension between the husbands and wives in your stories. Deployed soldiers are convinced that their wives are cheating, and don’t know how to relate to their wives when they finally come home. Wives have similar suspicions of infidelity, and grow bitter while stranded in the middle-of-nowhere Texas by their husband’s profession. You walk a tightrope between these two perspectives, and both sides get an equal hearing. How did you retain your neutrality during the writing process?

SF: Well, at times it did feel like a very black and white world, women on one side, men on the other. My husband was a company commander of an infantry unit (all male) and I was the Family Readiness Group leader of all those spouses (all women). More times than I could possible count, while he was either home or deployed to Iraq, we’d have a conversation or email dialogue where each of us had to advocate for the spouse of our own gender. I’d tell him the aggrieved wife’s side of things, and he’d come back at me with the soldier’s side. I’d like to think that some of those balancing acts surfaced in my stories.

MP: Speaking of tension between service members and spouses, I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper sticker around military installations with some version of the phrase, “Soldier’s Wife: Toughest Job in the Army.” I’ve heard young service members with extremely demanding and dangerous jobs express irritation at the sight of that bumper sticker. What would be your response to a young, unattached soldier who doesn’t yet understand the burden placed on military families?

SF: I can understand how that would make a young soldier, or any soldier/airman/Marine bristle. But that’s what slogans or bumper stickers or tweets do–find a glib way to express something has a lot more depth to it than a glance allows.

A spouse appreciates a sentiment like that not because her ‘job’ boils down to being more life threatening or specialized or physically taxing than her soldier’s. But it recognizes that there’s so much more to being a spouse than cashing your soldier’s check every month: being the one who stays and waits and manages to turn whatever quarters you are assigned into a real live home, being the one who picks up that home and takes it to the next place when the military member with the functioning career is stationed somewhere new every couple of years, being the one who usually does not get the certificates and medals and plaques, being the one who is there when the movers come, who is there with the kids every day when the soldier has a two week training exercise in the field. We are called ‘dependents’ in official military speak. There are plenty of successful men and women who would gladly depend on themselves but sometimes they chose to put their military member’s employment first, sometimes the demands of being a military spouse make it very difficult to maintain a stable career of their own.

So, yes, all you EOD techs getting blown up, you guys probably win. But mil spouses like to think that the work they are doing is valid, indispensible even, and that bumper sticker acknowledges that.

MP: “Remission,” is the story of a woman dealing with a rebellious teenage daughter and a possible cancer diagnosis, all while her husband is deployed. A good friend from my time in Iraq was the daughter of a colonel who got hooked on the family business and joined the Marines. She told me a story about how when she was a little girl her father deployed to Somali while her mother was battling cancer. The tone of her story was so casual, so matter of fact. Her childhood, harrowing in retrospect, seemed ordinary to her at the time. Her dad deployed, and there was no use dwelling on it. That was his job. Military reality can be harsh, but I’ve found very little bitterness among military families I’ve known. Why do you think military families are so loyal to the service? And what would you think if one of your children wanted to join the military?

SF: Military life takes a certain type of person, and well, I like that person. Obviously no stereotype is true of all people, but I usually feel comfortable with military spouses or members of the military, we ‘get’ each other on a different level, we have touchstones we can rely on, like comparing the bases/states/countries we’ve lived in or figuring out whose baby learned to talk or walk or read while their daddy/mother was deployed. The military community is made up of hardy folk; they can hold usually their liquor and are pretty proficient at profanity and gallows humor. But most of all there’s a sense of having lived through a very specific sort of fringe lifestyle, especially since September 11, and even if you’ve never met that person before you feel like you have shared something.

Do I want my two girls to join the military? I don’t know. I was there the day my husband graduated Ranger school. He had foot rot, could hardly look me in the eye because he was so socially retarded from being in a pack of filthy men, he was nothing but skin and cheek bones. If a woman can do that, then hell, she’s amazing, I hope she runs for President someday. But do I want my little Maeve or littler Evelyn to lose forty pounds and get recycled if she’s gets caught digging through a trash can for dinner? Not so much. Of course that’s the extreme. And I would probably feel the same way if I had a son. Worried, because that’s what a parent is supposed to feel about everything related to their kids. But I’d also be proud to have instilled a sense of service into a child, the way I’d be if one of my daughters decided to become a police officer or fire fighter, a social worker or a teacher. There are jobs that people do that serve a higher purpose than filling up a bank account, and I’d be pleased to have a child chose a path that puts others first.

MP: What are you working on now?

SF: A novel tentatively titled: The Confusing of Languages. It’s set in Jordan during the Arab Spring, and I turn to the embassy community in much the same way I turned to the military world in You Know When the Men Are Gone. Embassy culture is naturally diplomatic: on the one hand we are expected to embody American ideals, on the other we are meant to embrace the culture we find ourselves in. My novel revolves around two American couples, especially two female Army spouses who become fast friends. One wife embraces Jordanian culture while the one remains very firmly rooted in her idea of America, and the two outlooks and behavior collide. The word collision sums what I am trying to get at, the collision of American and Middle Eastern culture, the collision of very different personalities, the collision of female friendship vs. marital love, all with the Arab Spring unraveling in the background.


Words After War is a nonprofit literary organization with a mission to bring veterans and civilians together to examine war and conflict through the lens of literature.

Follow Words After War on Twitter @WordsAfterWar
Follow Siobhan Fallon on Twitter @SiobhanMF
Michael Pitre doesn’t have Twitter, but for information about him or his terrific novel, Five and Twenty Fives, look here.

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Interviewing Jesse Goolsby

September 3rd, 2015 — 11:58pm

This Words After War interview first appeared on the Huffington Post Words After War Book Blog site.

Jesse Goolsby is the author of I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them, which has been hailed as “beautiful and brutal” (Janet Burroway), “a major literary event” (Robert Olen Butler), “a book about the human heart” (Brian Turner), “powerful” (Esquire), and “an earthquake-in-your-soul-novel” (Michael Garriga). Opening in Afghanistan, the book follows three U.S. soldiers as they return to their families in small towns across America. Births, deaths, marriages, friendships, and time pass, but the three men are forever connected by one dark moment.
Goolsby, a graduate of the US Air Force Academy and the University of Tennessee, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in English at Florida State University and a U.S. Air Force officer. He is the recipient of the John Gardner Memorial Award in Fiction, the Richard Bausch Fiction Prize, and an editor for The Southeast Review and War, Literature & the Arts.

Siobhan: One of the elements of your book that I find the most fascinating (and I have to credit the astute professor and war-lit blogger Peter Molin for pointing this out to me during a discussion of contemporary war literature) is how you’ve created a ‘long view’ of the ways combat affects your characters. So much of the recent writing about Iraq and Afghanistan focus on narrower margins of time, yet you grapple with years and years, examining how one event can ripple outward to affect spouses, sons and daughters, grandchildren. Did you set out with the goal of writing about the larger picture of America at war?

Jesse: I set out with the goal of investigating human yearning for connection, and everything flowed from there—the setting, structure, point of view, pace. Early on in the writing of the novel I knew that in order to appropriately showcase the depth and desire of the three protagonists I needed to follow them before, during, and long after their combat experience, to get to know them as human beings, not just as soldiers at conflict. I also needed to investigate their particular tastes (i.e. Metallica, 49ers, Rocky Mountains) as well as the bonds of family, friendship, and community.
All of those things opened up the scope of the book, in time frame (35 years), geography (across America and Afghanistan), and perspective, where we have chapters that follow Wintric, Armando, and Dax, but also spouses, children, and community members.
I think that this does create a type of long view, or at least a view where simple binaries of “healthy” vs. “damaged” or “hero” vs. “villain” are absent, and instead, we get to see all of these characters as human beings searching for connection and moments of repose.

Siobhan: You’ve spent some time teaching in the Department of English at the United States Air Force Academy, do you think you teach literature differently to these young men and women than you would their civilian counterparts?

Jesse: I’ve taught both academy cadets and civilian students, and I hope I bring the same passion and enthusiasm to the classroom in each environment. There has been nothing in my professional life more rewarding than challenging students with great literature, requiring them to investigate the range of their individual morality, beliefs, and aesthetic joy, and to absorb-consider-react to art like The Illiad, Antigone, Othello, Dracula, Catch-22, A Raisin in the Sun, Dispatches, Beloved, Never Let Me Go, etc. But I admit to answering the students’ questions of “Why does this matter?” slightly different in each setting, even though foundationally the answer focuses on living a life well. This is because of the stakes: our country asks our US Air Force Academy graduates to lead and make life or death decisions—in one way or another—to be culpable in the devastation of war. While investigating literature and art is imperative to every student, everywhere, it’s absolutely vital that our military members engage in lifelong empathy and critical thinking through the humanities.

Siobhan: What sort of reaction have you received from your fellow military peers? Particularly, have you had any push back about being an Air Force officer writing about Army infantry enlisted soldiers?

Jesse: The feedback from my military peers has been overwhelmingly positive. Of course, all readers bring their particular sensibilities to the reading experience, so the responses have been as varied as the number of readers, which I love.
Many of the responses I’ve received focus on an appreciation that the soldiers and the families in the book are not stereotyped, that each character showcases individual and unique hopes, fears, dreams, and traumas. A few soldiers have joked about the fact that an Air Force officer would chose to write about soldiers, as opposed to fighter pilots or something, but I appreciate the minor ribbing from my brothers and sisters in arms.
My particular biography gets some attention, but it is largely ignored because readers are so smart. They know they are reading a novel, and they realize that fiction is appropriation. They don’t want me to only write about the experiences of a 6’4’’ big-nosed Air Force officer, or the Air Force, or war. And, bigger picture, we don’t want the limiting view of only the author’s self from any fiction writer. Fiction is inherently about imagination and creation and lives that are not our own.

Jesse's less serious side: tearing up the dance floor with fellow writer and Air Force pal, James Moad, at AWP2015, MN.

Siobhan: Do you think there is a particular direction current writings on conflict ought to take or areas the military writing community could look at more closely? And are there any exciting new books or writers you’d like to mention?

Jesse: I love the fact that writers get to follow their creative impulses wherever they lead, so I’m not much for prescribing direction, but I would love to read more fiction that deals with the consequences of conflict that showcase female protagonists. Off the top of my head, your wonderful book does this, Sara Novic’s Girl at War is another great one, and O.A. Lindsey has a novel on the way that will also help answer this call.
And wow, there are so many exciting books out! I’ve been on a roll with great reads lately. Each of these have blown me away and I encourage folks to seek them out:
The Grief Muscles by Brandon Courtney (Poetry)
The Evil Hours by David J. Morris (Nonfiction)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer (Fiction)
Demon Camp by Jen Percy (Nonfiction)
The Longest Night by Andria Williams (Fiction, out in Jan. 2016)

Siobhan: What are you working at now?

Jesse: I’m at work on a novel, tentatively titled Derrin of the North that will come out with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2017. I’m also in the final year of my PhD in English at Florida State University, and working on my dissertation. Most important, I have a family with three young kids, so I forecast a role of soccer and T-ball coach, and cannon-balling dad at the local pool.

For Jesse’s upcoming events and more information, please take a look at his author website at
For more on Words After War, please see
Also see Peter Molin’s very astute blog about literature and art relating to war at

Thanks for reading!

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The Face of Memorial Day

May 24th, 2015 — 10:01am

As Memorial Day approaches, I keep thinking of a young man I met in March 2012 during a book event at the Walter Reed National Military Hospital in Bethesda: Sergeant Derek McConnell. I spoke with many devastatingly young men and women that day, in wheelchairs, with crutches or canes, with scars and burns.

I remembered Derek because of his broad shoulders and fresh, baby face, as well as his mother who shared my first name, another Siobhan who lived with a lifetime of mispronunciation.

Derek had ‘the map of Ireland on his face’—red haired, fair skinned, smattering of freckles, a mischievous look in his eyes. On July 23, 2011, on patrol in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Derek was struck by an improvised explosive device while trying to rescue a fellow soldier. He lost his left leg from the hip and the right leg just above the knee and received blast wounds, including a fractured right arm, a skull fracture and kidney damage.

A year and a half later, while I was chatting with his mother, Siobhan Mary Fuller, he was doing wheelies in his wheelchair and joking around with his glossy-haired fiancé in the hospital foyer. His mom told me a little about Derek’s ongoing recovery, the thirty-three surgeries, transfusions, dialysis.

His vitality and pluck stayed with me, but I was haunted by this other Siobhan, this woman about my age, her ready smile and capable attitude. From New Jersey, she had moved to Maryland and utterly dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. I was pregnant at the time with a four year old at home, and I couldn’t imagine finally handing a child over to adulthood, having vigilantly gotten him that far, safe and whole, and then to have him return to me wounded, missing limbs, needing to learn to walk again.

On March 18, 2013, scanning my Facebook feed, I read that Derek had died at Walter Reed. The young man who had fought again and again couldn’t fight the impossible odds anymore.

And then there is one of my husband’s closest friends, Captain KJ Smith, who my husband has known since he was fourteen.

I remember meeting KJ while bartending one very busy night at my father’s Irish pub. He was off to the side, waiting patiently as thirsty customers waved money in the air and I slung pints and brimming wine glasses. He stood above everyone else, exuding the contained physical power of a star athlete, with thick black eyebrows and eyes wide with kindness when we finally shook hands.

KJ had given up soccer scholarships to go to West Point and worked doggedly to join that long gray line. He was planning to propose to his girlfriend on mid-tour leave when he died in Baghdad on December 8, 2005, his humvee hit by an IED.

When I see the Memorial Day photos of Arlington, row upon row of engraved names, I know those simple white markers and small fluttering American flags represent the entire lives of men and women like Derek McConnell and KJ Smith. Young, healthy, strong, willing to go places most of us don’t even Google. They are the boys running across a soccer field, the kid bagging your groceries, the high-schooler getting straight As in science, the girls playing varsity volleyball, every one of them somebody’s child who had an entire life of promise ahead. They are our own children in a couple of years.

Please remember them this Memorial Day.

To read my March 12 blog about meeting some of the young military men and women at Walter Reed please go to:

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AWP 2015

April 10th, 2015 — 12:26pm

Well, I was scolded for not taking better care of my blog by fellow mil spouse author Andria Williams last night (she said something along the lines of being sick of my ‘camel kissing’ photo from a past blog), so I’ve decided to quickly post before she beats me to it (take that, Andria!).

I’m warning you right now that this will be mostly a big gush. I’m so happy. I got off the plane Wednesday afternoon and just started smiling my face off and saying hello to everyone, and you know what? everyone smiled and said hello back!! People are friendly in Abu Dhabi, but I have missed looking total strangers in the eye, women and men (hurray, I can be friendly to men and not worry they will think I’m trying to seduce them!). I love America. I love the older man security guard here at the Hilton who started chatting with me when I was putting sugar in my coffee. The homeless man playing a little drum on the corner who said God Bless you when I gave him a dollar (though I was shocked to see homeless people again. No stray cats like the Middle East, but lots and lots of homeless people). The super friendly staff at Target (TARGET!!!) who chatted on and on about how nice my scarf was.

I am not the least bit jet lagged.

I mentioned this to Benjamin Busch last night at the Sierra Nevada College Reception and he claimed it was the air here, more oxygen, good for working out, but I’m convinced it’s just because I am in America.

The above ROCKED their panel, Women Writing War, with Andria Williams, Jehanne Dubrow, Emily Tedrowe, Katey Schultz.
I highly recommend everyone check out these authors’ varied and amazing work, I sat there jotting down notes from all of them (and feeling oddly, but nicely, uncomfortable, when Andria read a scene from one of my stories– people actually laughed where they were supposed to laugh). I was moved by line after exquisite line of Jehanne’s poetry (short excerpt below), by Emily Tedrowe’s heartfelt tackling of issues of authority and writing “credentials,” by Andria’s vast understanding of mil spouse literature, and Katey Schultz’s assertion that, though she’s not married to the military or a veteran herself, she was compelled to write about our wars out of “civic duty.”

I was on a panel, No Country for Good Old Boys: The Remaking of the Masculine in Contemporary American Fiction with heavy hitters Shann Ray, Kim Barnes, Alan Heathcock, Ben Percy. I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo, what a crew. I’d also like to quote our pre-panel discussion but I am afraid my mom might read this, particularly the comments about the appendages some of the above claim to write with… ahem, Ben Percy). They all have something in the pipeline, Percy’s newest novel, The Dead Lands, comes out next week.

Well, #AWP2015 is young, there is much ahead, I’m going to keep breathing this intoxicating American air and smiling my face off at every inspiring person I meet, writer or man playing drums!

P.S. If you are here at #AWP15, check out this kick*ss panel tomorrow, Saturday, 1:30-2:45, Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination Across Literary Genres, with Benjamin Busch, Phil Klay, Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, and me…

excerpt from Jehanne Dubrow’s work (from the online site Project Muse):

He brings me chocolate from the Pentagon,
dark chocolates shaped like tanks and fighter jets,
milk chocolate Tomahawks, a bonbon
like a kirsch grenade, mint chocolate bayonets.
He brings me chocolate ships, a submarine
descending in a chocolate sea, a drone
unmanned and filled with hazelnut praline.
He brings me cocoa powder, like chocolate blown
to bits. Or chocolate squares of pepper heat.
Or if perhaps we’ve fought, he brings a box
of truffles home, missiles of semisweet
dissolving on the tongue. He brings me Glocks
and chocolate mines, a tiny transport plane,
a bomb that looks delicious in its cellophane.

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January 8th, 2015 — 5:28am

Nearly every time I gave a reading or discussion about You Know When the Men Are Gone, someone would inevitably ask me why I hadn’t written a story from a female soldier’s point of view. I just didn’t have the insight or the story to tell, I’d reply, a little ashamed of my lack of imagination. So as soon as I finished watching the powerful FORT BLISS, I wanted to reach across cyber-space, find all those people, and tell them to watch this film.
FORT BLISS is the story of a female medic who returns to Texas after a deployment and tries to salvage her strained relationship with her young son. The movie viscerally sums up everything I hoped to cram into my stories, that razor-edged tight rope walk of being part of the military community, either as service member or family member, during this prolonged period of war. It strikes the right note about deployment vs. home front, duty toward country vs. duty toward family, and everything in between, without getting clouded by politics or headlines. FORT BLISS is one of the most authentic pieces of art I’ve watched or read about our current military situation. Bravo to actress Michelle Monaghan and director Claudia Myers and everyone else who made this film happen.
This Army spouse is recommending it to everyone she knows.
Last I checked it was streaming on Netflix so everyone please take a look soon…

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Camel Kissing

January 30th, 2014 — 2:35am

I might be making some poor decisions in an effort to not seem like an ‘ugly American.’ It’s just really difficult to decide what is an accepted cultural norm and what is just plain-out-of-line. Like when my family and I went to the camel market in Al Ain. Maybe I shouldn’t have just giggled uncomfortably when a fifty year old Pakistani man tried to kiss my six year old daughter on the mouth. Hmmm.

I better start off by describing the camel yard. All the guidebooks claimed it was the last of its kind and something we should not miss. So, after two days of Al Ain’s forts, mountain passes, and an amusement park (Hilli Fun City, oldest amusement park in the Gulf! Ride a roller coaster that’s almost as old as the UAE! Yeah!!), we drove through warehouse area after dodgy warehouse area at sunset, with KC determined to find this fabled tourist site.

We smelled it before we found it. Pen after pen with lots of camels inside, exactly as you’d expect, if you are actually expecting to find something as odd as a camel market.
We parked our shiny white Volvo SUV behind a closed up feed store and we stuffed our youngest into a backpack contraption that KC swung over his shoulders.

There was not one other non-camel herd person there until a car full of German-looking people passed by slowly (fair haired with square, wire rimmed glasses, definitely European).

“Oh, phew, we’re not the only tourists,” I said to my husband. I wanted to wave at them, Look at us! We read our guide book too! They stopped in the road just ahead. The women in the passenger seat glanced at us, at the camels, then back at us. She said something low to the driver and they did a U-turn and drove away. Quickly.

That’s when KC suggested I take the scarf off my neck and wrap it around my head.
That’s when I should have decided to get back in the car and demand my husband take us back to our nice hotel. Instead I covered up my blondish locks and held tight to my kiddo’s hand. I’ve found that, here in the Middle East, holding on to a child always helps ease potentially uncomfortable situations, giving me the appearance of virtuous mother rather than wanton great devil whore of USA (yes, I have an overactive imagination).

We were immediately accosted by a man telling us that he had every camel conceivable, big camel, white camel, baby camel. KC began chatting with the gentleman, who said he was from the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, as he led us deeper and deeper into the pens, farther and farther from our first world Volvo. He offered to take photos of us with his camels, and we said yes.

Every few steps, a young man would peel off from some dark corner and start following us. They were all wearing long knee-length shirts and loose pants in tones of brown, some with black and white checked scarves tied around their necks. KC greeted each; all of them seemed to be from the very place in Afghanistan where he and his infantry company had been searching for Osama Bin Laden in 2004. I couldn’t believe that he was telling these guys that yes, he knew Paktika, why, he had spent a year of his life there! Imagine that! In my mind, my husband looks every bit the Army officer he is. I also didn’t hear him say that he’d been a part of an “NGO” rather than a trigger-finger part of drone-dropping America. So when they started asking for money, I wanted to toss them a wallet and run, assuming there’d be an AK behind that grizzled so-called baby camel. Not KC.

By now we had accumulated about ten men and could no longer see the road. All of them asking for cash. KC gave the guy who took the pictures the 25 AED he had set aside for that very purpose, less than eight dollars, and then amiably shook hands with the others. Not happy with the amount, the man kneeled in front of us, grinned, and tried to plant one my eldest daughter. Who, playing it much better than her mother, smoothly ducked out of the way of the offending mustache and made a face that clearly said kissing was just plain gross.

I managed a pathetic: “Ha, ha, how about a high five?”

High fives seem to be the intimacy substitute of choice. Whenever a stranger gets too close– cheek pinching, bear hugging, random tickling, hair mussing (and then there was that time in Jordan when a guy picked Maeve out of KC’s arms and started throwing her up in the air as she screamed)– I have instructed my daughter to offer a high five. This time I understood we were outnumbered, realizing that whatever Ranger School moves KC remembered, he would not be his fighting-best with a baby strapped to his back, but thank God I was wearing cowboy boots and I was fairly certain I could gouge some eyes if need be (my Irish father didn’t show me how to beat the hell out of that punching bag in the basement for nothing).

Meanwhile Maeve coolly lifted a hand and slapped a sound high five on the man’s palm.
“Ok!” he shouted and stood. KC looked at me. I grabbed Maeve’s hand and started walking with husband bringing up the rear.

That was it. No one followed us. The sun kept setting. The camels kept making the strange noises camels make.

I didn’t take the scarf off my hair until I was inside our car and the camel market was in the rear view window.

Then we gave our six year old a long talk. High fives good. Kissing bad. And no kissing on the lips until she gets married.

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Welcome to Abu Dhabi

October 7th, 2013 — 6:20am

Hello there. Sorry about the long hiatus— lots of things getting in the way of my writing lately—new baby (OK, not that new, but I intend on using her as an excuse until she’s at least a year old), new move, new life (Abu Dhabi, UAE!!!).

Visiting the Sheik Zayed Mosque

Though I’ve managed to wring some inspiration from the upheaval– namely in hotel living. I have a new story in the upcoming Holiday Issue of the Washington Post (which will come out the Sunday before Thanksgiving and Column McCann will also have a story inside). I wrote a large part of it while at a hotel (where we were stranded, stateside and in the UAE, for about six weeks), jotting things down when the baby took her miniscule naps. The story takes place in Abu Dhabi, told from the point of view of a disgruntled American who is a bit fed up with children…

But mostly I’ve been soaking up the life here, taking photos and notes in my trusty little notebook shoved deep in my purse underneath sandy pacifiers and ticket stubs.

I thought I’d ease both of us, you and me, back into my writing with an especially easy post today, more photos than words (like the books my eldest child likes best).

So, without further excuses, here is a glimpse of my new world…

Sheik Zayed and sons watch over everything, including huge kid play area in a mall.

The electric cars of Masdar City (kids LOVE these; OK, so do grown-ups)

Apartments Masdar style, built to catch the desert breeze, with solar panels on top.

The Abu Dhabi Zoo, where you can touch all the animals, and all the animals can touch you...

One of the strangest things I have ever seen-- Motorcycle display at Khalidiya Mall

Oh, and for those of you in the DC/VA/MD area, I’ll be at Howard County Community College and the Howard County Library, Miller Branch, for a few events on October 15! Please check out the details here if you think you can come or help spread the word.

Thanks again to all the readers, writers, and friends out there,

p.s. for more on the incredible sustainable dreams of Masdar City and Science Institute here in Abu Dhabi (free PhD program!), check out

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August 12th, 2013 — 1:42am

This mask was created by a U.S. Marine as part of an art therapy program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

Hello there. I was recently interviewed by writer Jim Mathews, the fiction editor of the literary magazine O-Dark-Thirty (and author of the fantastic story collection LAST KNOW POSITION).
O-Dark-Thirty is part of the Veterans Writing Project

The magazine contains poetry, fiction, and non-fiction written by veterans, service members, and military family members. Fantastic, right? So I thought I’d help spread the word to those of you in the military community who are looking for an outlet for your work, as well of those of you in the civilian community who want to support Veteran/Mil Family Members writing.

Here’s an overview from their website:

“O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project. In our seminars we give participants the skills and confidence they need to tell their own stories; O-Dark-Thirty is the platform to put those stories and others in front of readers. This is not a peer-reviewed professional journal, nor is it a judged literary contest. Our editorial style is more curatorial than other journals. Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us.

The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find.

One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.”

To learn more or to read issues online, please go to:
To read my interview with Jim, go to:

P.S. There is an especially excellent short story by fellow mil spouse and writer Beth Garland in Vol 1, No 1, Fall 2012 Issue O-Dark-Thirty (Reintegration, page 65)… Take a look!

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The Next Big Thing

January 18th, 2013 — 2:06pm

Hello all! Hope 2013 has been kind to you so far (I just had a baby so I am especially bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived at the moment, though I hope things get better soon, perhaps when wee wicked changeling is in preschool…)

This post is a chain self-interview; I believe it started on She Writes a few months ago. My good friend Olivia Boler, author of The Flower Bowl Spell, asked me to join the blog, and I want to thank her for thinking of me and giving me a chance to talk about a new anthology I’m a part of. (I, in turn, requested “Next Big Thing” updates from my lovely author friends Laura Harrington and Anne Ylvisaker– please take a look!)

What is your working title of your story?

“Tips for a Smooth Transition.” The story first appeared in an issue of Salamander, a great literary magazine out of Suffolk University, MA. It’s been included in the anthology, FIRE AND FORGET, which will be released in February, 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the story?

When I started writing my story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone, back in 2007, I felt like there was so much about military life and deployments that readers didn’t hear about in the news. Things have changed somewhat in the past few years, some great memoirs and novels have come out about both the soldiers’ experiences in theater as well as the family experiences on the home front (Laura Harrington’s Alice Bliss, Alison Buckholtz’s Standing By). And, as the years go by, there has been a greater scrutiny about how deployments affect both soldiers and their families. In “Tips for a Smooth Transition,” the protagonist, Evie, is almost too aware of what her husband may have gone through in Afghanistan, and she expects him to return to her damaged to some degree. So she watches him with a critical eye, expecting his reactions to be tinged with PTSD. She also feels guilty about her behavior while he was gone. I want the reader to wonder who is more unhinged by the deployment/marital separation: the guilt-ridden wife or the returning soldier? Who can the reader trust?

What genre does the anthology fall under?

War literature.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, fun. The spouse, Evie, could be played by Rachel Weisz. I think she is a tremendous actress, and she could perfectly express Evie’s emotional ambiguity toward her husband. The husband, Colin, could be played by Alexander Skarsgard. Don’t tell my husband, but I developed a serious crush on Alexander Skarsgard after watching him play Sergeant Brad Colbert in HBO’s Generation Kill. I’ve seen him in other roles, but, oh boy, the guy makes a great Marine/soldier. The interloper, John, could be played by Matthew McConaughey, he’s so smooth, can do a great Texas accent, and could nail a slightly slimy character who would pursue a woman whose husband is deployed.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your story?

Evie welcomes her husband, Colin, home from his deployment to Afghanistan, unsure if their difficultly reconnecting is due to his long absence or if he has somehow found out about a dalliance she had while he was gone.

Will the anthology be self-published or represented by an agency?

The book is represented by E.J. McCarthy, and it’s being published in paperback by DeCapo Press in February.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

It took me a few years to write/rewrite the failed novel that the story is based on, and about a month to write the short story. It was a relief to turn all of that material into something I could use. I may go back the novel someday, who knows, but I loved being able to find a way to recycle some of the scenes that resonated with me the most.

What other books would you compare this anthology to?

Jeffrey Hess edited a powerful collection in 2009, Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, which is full of both iconic and lesser known war stories. Fire and Forget has a few names readers might recognize, like the lauded writers David Abrams (author of Fobbit) and Matt Gallagher (author of Kaboom!). Many of the other authors are newer to the writing scene. As recent members of the armed forces, they bring a freshness and urgency to the fiction about our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Who or what inspired you to write this story?

Friend Matt Gallagher, who is one of the editors of Fire and Forget, asked me to contribute. Other than myself, all of the stories are written by military veterans. Matt was giving me an opportunity to be the one civilian/family member in the mix. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a story at the time, but I did have a novel-in-progress hanging around rather uselessly. Matt gave me a month to get a story to him, and I managed to cut the 300 page novel down to 30 pages. Fellow anthology editor, Roy Scranton, gave it a sharp-eyed edit that also helped trim the story down to the final anthologized version. The story is very different than the novel draft, but the characters and some of the situations (a supposedly romantic trip to Hawaii to celebrate the husband’s return) are the same.

What else might pique the reader’s interest?

E.L. Doctorow referred to the anthology as: “Searing stories from the war zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the USA by warrior writers, Fire and Forget is about not forgetting. It is a necessary collection, necessary to write, necessary to read.” And we are taking the show on the road. I’ll be doing events in DC, NYC, and Boston with some of the other writers. Please check out the website,, for reviews and other details about this exciting new release!

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September 7th, 2012 — 7:49am

I was lucky to catch a screening of the new independent film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, in Arlington, Virginia last week. I was by far the youngest member of the packed audience and trust me, I am no spring chicken. As far as I could tell from the unit emblazoned t-shirts and baseball caps, and the gasps of recognition when they spotted one of their own on the screen, the room was full of Marine Corps Vietnam Vets and their spouses.

The screening opened with a brief prayer from a Bravo Company veteran, the room completely silent after his powerful final line: “Thank you for bringing us home.” And though I was standing with the military folk of another generation, that prayer felt like every prayer I have heard as an Army spouse whose husband has been through three deployments—those are the words of every single miraculous return, and unspoken in those words are the memories of all the soldiers who did not come back.

It was this universal feel of Bravo! that kept me at the edge of my seat for nearly two hours. I listened to the Vets on the screen talking about mortar attacks, about their intense comradery, and if I closed my eyes, they could have been any newly returned soldier recounting tales from Iraq and Afghanistan. Betty Rodgers, who co-directed with her husband, announced before the screening that this was “everyone’s story, not just Bravo’s.” It was Betty (hurray for spouses!) who convinced Ken, a member of Bravo Company, to make the movie after he had been trying to “figure out how to tell this story for forty-four years.”

Husband and wife team, Ken and Betty Rodgers

Bravo! recounts the siege of Khe Sahn, when the 26th Marine Regiment held out against a superior force of 20,000 North Vietnamese Army (NVA) for 77 days, from January 19 to March 31st. The film, with moving interviews and actual footage, traces the arrival, the siege, the ambush and massacre of members of Bravo Company, and the retaliation that the massacre prompted, spurring the Marines into an early morning offensive against the NVA that finally broke the siege, as well as the Marines’ return to America. The wartime photos and video of the day to day life of the young Marines, showing them washing their clothes, cooking in their hooch, reading books, clowning around, digging trenches, interspersed with interviews of their older selves, pieces together a startling close and personal view of the siege and its aftermath.

Like the best war reporting or storytelling, the words that open the film try to express the filmmakers quest for truth: “This is not a pro-war film. This is not an anti-war film. This is what happened.” One man, when asked why he joined the Marines, said, “I felt like we were doing what Kennedy asked of us, something for our country.” And another, still moved to tears by the harsh way he was welcomed home by war-protestors, “I want this country to love me as much as I love it.”

Betty Rodgers said, “We want the whole world to see this film” and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are interested in learning more about future screenings, would like to make a donation, become a sponsor or just help spread the world (the film still needs a distributor, etc), please contact Ken and Betty at 208-340-8889 or

The next screening is Saturday, September 8, 2012, at the West Roxbury Division Veterans Affairs, 1400 VFW Parkway, West Roxbury, MA, Time: 3:00 PM
For more about the men and women trying to bring Bravo! to the big screen: Bravo!The Project or
To read Ken Rodgers’ blog about the Arlington screening: “Why I Fight” or

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