Early this week, I received what seemed like a cool chance of a lifetime. Our family support center had received an invitation from the Montel Williams Show to participate in the audience of a program about deployments and the effect that it has on military families.
As any military family knows, there is often a great gulf between what we experience and what the public sees. We keep a lot to ourselves. There is much that is difficult, and yet we don't discuss it outside military circles because it is often taken the wrong way in sound bites. The chance to discuss the situation in a forum that allowed explanation was priceless, and I jumped at the chance to be an ambassador for the military spouse community.
This is not what happened. And I got yet another abject lesson in why it is so hard for military people to trust anyone who thrusts a microphone at them while tape is rolling.
We met just off base, all 25 of us who were attending, and took a bus to New York City. Just for the record, it was NOT one of the 1950s wrecks! There were actually nice, comfie seats and televisions at intervals along the rows.
I read a book on the way up, and lots of people were excitedly chattering together. No one can talk like military people when they get together! We are nearly always instant friends.
We reached New York, and gathered into a very crowded audience holding room. We were attending at the same time as a school for the first show, and the kids were not exactly well behaved. But spirits were still high.
Hubby and I even got seated in the front for the first taping! We were this close to the stage! It was a very highly charged atmosphere, and we got to ask Montel questions before the show began. We were all having a great time.
The trouble started during the second taping, when we learned that Montel's agenda with military people wasn't what it had been portrayed to be when our group was invited to attend. And as military families have been burned so often by unscrupulous media members (I'm not attacking the ones who work professionally here!), we probably should have sensed it from the beginning. We were going to be ambushed.
As soon as the opening tape began to roll, hubby and I were uncomfortable. Montel was using this episode to discuss the debilitating illnesses some military members have suffered from anthrax inoculations. Using footage with the flag and men in uniform, Montel referred several times to military members being "guinea pigs", repeated several times about the mandatory vaccine which he presented as going to everyone with no one being able to refuse it. **
Montel showed truly heart-wrenching stories of women and men who had been adversely affected by the anthrax vaccine. As military members and family members we know those stories. We know that there has been a issue. In my own husband's case, he declined the anthrax vaccine before his latest deployment to Afghanistan and when hubby deployed to Iraq in 2003 he only received one shot and did not get the rest.
Furthermore, a point I made at the microphone, these military people who have been disabled by the anthrax vaccine are our family. As military members we are all family. With our relatives often thousands of miles away, we are family in a very real sense and the only family many of us have close at hand. We need to love and care for each other. We need to work hard to get each other the care necessary and commensurate with the service our family members have given. We are the first people to comfort each other, the first to be there in good times and in bad.
And while the issue of the anthrax vaccine is a very real one and one that needs to be addressed further, Montel Williams chose to use this subject to ambush a military group (which included women whose husbands were currently deployed to Iraq). The sudden ambushing of such an emotionally charged subject, combined with the portrayal of our military members as total victims (which included Montel's assertion that the military was being treated so terribly that no one would volunteer again and the draft would have to be reinstated) was an emotional manipulation and degradation of the very military members that were supposedly being lifted up. The blatant emotional manipulation and doomsday scenarios implied by the footage shown reduced more than one attending wife to tears.
When the military group attending pointed out that we were very uncomfortable with the way Montel was presenting this issue, we were told to bring these points up at the microphone. I did right before one break, but the flurry of activity and the back it up motions and the replaying of the music made it seem as though my valid counter-points were going to be cut and not included. Other family members asked for a more balanced presentation during break times.
But it got worse. The show was being presented in the most scaremongering fashion possible. There was only attention given to the worst cases. There was no attention given to those who had experienced no adverse affects, or only the mild swelling and soreness around the injection site, even though we had people like that present with us. There was no mention about the actual percentages such reactions actually occur in. And there was no mention of those, like an EOD friend of mine, who actually requested the vaccine and makes sure to keep it updated.
Finally, we all got up and left during a break before the taping was over. And I should probably add that there was a quite acrimonious exchange with Montel that resulted in one person being escorted out by the show security (who were very polite and professional, for the record). I did say, "You told us this was going to be about deployment, Montel!" to which the reply was, "Please, just leave." If there was any discussion of how deployment issues affect family members after we left, it happened without us. All I can say is that the direction and tone of the show definately made it look like the topic was not going to come up.
It is at this point I would like to address the men and women featured who had such adverse reactions to the vaccine - I am so sorry. I am sorry for what has happened to you. As your military family member, I want to do anything I can to help you. I wanted to hug one of the women on the show as we were leaving, thank her for her service, and ask her what I could do for her; but we were prevented from doing so by the placement of set workers. And honestly, with the anger involved in us leaving, I can see why there would be a lack of comfort in giving us access to the guests.
I'm often asked by people why I have such problems with the media. This is why. The Montel Show chose to mislead a group of military family members - people overwhelmed with pride at their family's service. People who thought they were going to be given a chance to discuss what our life is like, and what we go through. We thought we were going to be given a chance to be heard and to show how strong military families can be.
Instead, it seems we were included to achieve a political agenda. And I, for one, am so tired of being a military family used for a political agenda. Why can't we just be presented as we are - strong families and strong individuals who volunteered for this life. We need America's support, not to be portrayed as America's victims.
**Information on the military anthrax program can be found here. What many of us felt the insinuation was during the program was that ALL military are being/have been given/will be given the vaccine and no one is being informed of the possible consequences. There was, in fact, an injunction against the vaccine. As I stated before, my own husband was allowed to decline the vaccine. The vaccine will now be a part of the battery given servicemembers deploying to certain geographic locations once again. There are exclusions allowed for medical and administrative reasons. A more easy to read fact sheet (not associated with the military) about the anthrax vaccine, it's possible side effects, and the numbers in which they occur can be accessed here.