I have a confession to make: I can be pretty judgmental. It is something that I have really tried hard to control over the past few years; working so closely with the military spouse community has made me overly sensitive about people who judge others without really knowing the full-story. But, it is hard. There is a dialogue that runs through my brain frequently when I am out in public and I see something that seems to be screaming at me to judge:
“So what if that 9 year old is riding in the buggy ... you don’t know, that child could have a disability, or the Dad might just be done and can’t put up the good fight today."
“Who cares if she is wearing PJ pants to Wal-mart ... maybe she is having a horrible week, all the kids have the stomach flu, and she has no other clean clothes.”
“No, that woman does not need to eat a cheeseburger. Being too thin is just as uncomfortable for some women as being overweight is for others. I don’t know her story.”
I think I have come a long way. Even when I see something and have to fuss with myself about my rush to judgement, I don’t spout off about it online or laugh and tell my friends. And then, I found myself in the Dollar Tree on Halloween. (What good story doesn’t start with, “So… I was at the Dollar Tree….," right?)
Out running errands, I popped in there looking for a few things. There were no children riding in my buggy that day, so I was taking my time browsing in peace. Headed down the children’s aisle I spotted something with Minnie Mouse and was taking a look, when I heard a conversation that stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Oh, cool! You want to be an Army guy for Halloween?!” A mother was helping her son, maybe age 6 or 7, pick out a costume for the evenings festivities. My ears perked up, surprised that in an Army-heavy military town anyone would opt for “Army Guy” instead of "soldier" ... but I wasn’t offended by the terminology. There was just something in her tone that made me think there would be more to the exchange.
I was not disappointed.
I tried to focus on the Minnie Mouse tambourine right in front of me as the conversation quickly turned from a costume choice to an opinion of military members that I honestly didn’t realize actually existed outside of anti-military bloggers or angry commenters.
“Where are all the toy guns? I mean, really. How they can expect you to be an Army Guy if you can’t even shoot a bunch of guns?”
I took a deep breath… we can blame Hollywood on that one, I still was not offended.
The mother continued on with really dumb remarks about what the kid could wear to look more like an Army Guy, and further discussion and laughter about how cool it would be to pretend.
Still not offended I started to make my way down the aisle when I heard,
“Oh, well I guess if they don’t have guns you could just carry these plastic knives and be one of those crazy, serial killer, Army Guys!!”
I froze. The tears welled up in my eyes. I was shaking in anger. Staring at some stupid, plastic toy I struggled to make a decision. Do I turn around and say something, or do I walk away? Would speaking up do any good? By not saying anything was I being a coward?
Five minutes later, as I sat in my van shaking and crying, I felt like a coward. I did not speak up. I did not turn around and ask the mother to change the dialogue. I did not suggest that being a Soldier for Halloween is great, but that perhaps using the word “serial killer” or “crazy” is not the best way to go.
Later that evening I started to question why in the world overhearing the exchange bothered me so much. I mean, it wasn’t my kid. Perhaps she really didn’t have any ill-intent with those words and was having an off day. Maybe she had a bad experience that shaped her view of military members. But still, taking all of those things into consideration… it really bothered me.
How could anyone actually believe that about any of our military members? How dare they?
And then I realized that perhaps it was because I live in a pretty awesome bubble; surrounded by people who love, adore and support our military. The people in my world know what incredible sacrifice it takes to be in our Armed Forces. We see, every day, heroes doing the hard work of protecting this nation… we know what wonderful people they are. We are pretty damn lucky, I think.
But not everyone is. Even in a small town like mine, where the Army post is a huge part of the community, not everyone lives in that awesome bubble. They still see what Hollywood produces, they watch the news, they read articles that go viral on Facebook. And we all know that many times, those outlets don’t get it right. Some may try really hard… but nothing shows you how amazing our military truly is, like being apart of the community that supports them.
It still saddened me, but a little bit of the anger subsided. I remembered that there are a lot of great folks working hard to make sure that the dedication and sacrifice of our service men and women outshines any bad news story or sensationalized war movie that is produced. And it re-affirmed my commitment to being a vital part of that hard-working community.
I will admit, I still feel guilty about not speaking up that day. My friends and family assured me that it was probably the right call; I do not do well in a confrontation like that and no one wanted to explain that headline to the neighbors.
“Local Woman Injured in Dollar Tree Brawl.”
That local, injured woman would have been me.
Still, I hope if it ever happens in the future, I can take a deep breath and say something. In the meantime I will continue to do what I can to let those outside of my bubble know the truth about our men and women in uniform.
They are heroes. They are not crazy. They are worth looking up to.
We are darn lucky to know them.
Erin Whitehead has been a military spouse for 15 years, and currently lives with her husband and two daughters in southern Arizona. Considered a leader in our community, she recently ended a successful two-year position as the Digital Editor for Military Spouse Magazine and was the 2010 Marine Corps Spouse of the Year. She is a member of the American Military Spouses Choir, is the Director of Fundraising for the Center for American Military Music Opportunities and is the Creator and President of her online business, Many Kind Regards. You may read more of her writing and learn how she helps people create their own online presence or personal brand at www.manykindregards.com