Warrior Wire: The PTSD Myth

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When I pitched this story, the point was to talk about how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was being over-reported and how there were all these myths about veterans that were causing them trouble back in civilian society. The title ended up focusing on the PTSD part of the story, but it’s about so much more. It’s about how veterans are judged on when and where they served, and how those who served pre-9/11 or who never went to Iraq or Afghanistan are seen as less-than, or as having not really served at all. And it’s about how female vets sometimes aren’t believed to be veterans because they’re women (a point that was driven home recently by this story). And it’s about hero worship and how even that has its downsides.

One of the first questions I asked each vet I interviewed was, “What are some stereotypes people have about veterans?” and the number of examples they came up with was astounding. Matt Selvage, whom I had interviewed years earlier for another story, came up with a list so long that it took up two full pages in my notebook. They told me about positive stereotypes that can be harmful, about negative stereotypes, about misconceptions and preconceptions. They also told me about the conversations they have amongst themselves regarding these issues. And they told me about PTSD—and part of that conversation was about whether it should be the more-familiar PTSD or the newer PTS (as some believe it is inaccurate to call it a disorder, which implies that there’s something wrong with the sufferer).

And while I really, really wanted the article to not be about mental health and post-traumatic stress, I’m glad that’s what it ended up being about. I got to talk to Will Simmons, an IAVA Leadership Fellow, about his experience with PTSD and how he came to accept his problem and work through it. It was an enlightening discussion, one that really changed the way I looked at mental health care. I thought about that conversation recently, when another veteran I’d interviewed (one who did not appear in the article) asked me to write a buddy letter for them to submit with their VA claim for PTSD. I remembered what Will had said about how long it took him to accept his problem and admit to others that he was suffering from PTSD, and I thought about all the other stories I’d heard from other subjects I’ve interviewed over the years about their experiences with seeking mental health care—including while writing stories about things as simple as veteran writing groups and art projects. All those voices were in my head as I wrote my letter, and I know it helped me see the situation differently than I would have had I not had the opportunity to talk to all those men and women who’d shared their stories with me.

That’s always what I’ve sought to do in Penthouse‘s Warrior Wire: to help at least one person learn something or see things from a new perspective. And what I write about may not always seem educational. Sometimes I write about guys going rock-climbing, or about cool events, or about music, but there’s always some substance. And as I explained to someone not too long ago, I like having my stories sandwiched between a bunch of naked ladies. I like thinking that someone could be turning the pages, looking for another sexy photo of the Pet of the Month, and, whoops!, they land on an article about veterans’ issues and maybe, just maybe, give me a few minutes of their time.

So, to make a long story not too much longer … If you want to read “The PTSD Myth” from the September 2014 issue of Penthouse, click here.

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Warrior Wire: Blood, Sweat & Prosthetics

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About this time last year, I got an email from D.J. Skelton, an Army officer who had once, several years prior, been featured in Penthouse‘s annual Badass Issue. He had apparently been living in China, and had only recently found out about his appearance in our magazine. He figured that, since we’d covered him once, maybe we would be interested in hearing about a project he’d been working on, and he included a link to Paradox Sports’ website. At the time, I was putting together a list of organizations that put on active, interesting events for veterans, and PS seemed like a cool addition.

I called D.J. and asked him if he could tell me a little about the organization, and we talked for a while about Paradox Sports as well as what he’d been up to since making our 2011 Badass List. He was funny and fascinating and incredibly well spoken, so after I closed out that story, I told my editor that I thought Paradox Sports—and D.J.—would be the perfect feature for the 2014 Badass Issue’s Warrior Wire column. And, as you can guess from the fact that I’m posting this, she agreed.

My favorite thing about getting to write stories like this is getting to interview interesting people, and everyone I talked to about Paradox Sports was fascinating. There was Timmy O’Neill, the professional climber (and amateur comedian), who’d founded PS with D.J. and who was the single most positive person I had ever encountered. It’s not that he’s overly optimistic or annoyingly chipper, he’s just … positive. He’s passionate about what he does and the people he works with, and he believes that if you try hard enough to see the brighter side of things, you can actually make yourself happy by sheer force of will. And the thing is, after talking to him, you’ll start to believe that, too. He’s also incredibly grateful for everything he has and all the people in his life; he sent me a handwritten thank-you note immediately after our interview, without knowing yet what the story was or how it would turn out.

Chad Jukes was pretty impressive, too. A former high-school band geek turned soldier turned ice-climbing instructor, Chad somehow climbs ice—ice!—even though his right leg was amputated below the knee and he now has a prosthetic there. I can barely walk on a slippery sidewalk without falling flat on my face and I still have my two original legs, so I find that mind-boggling. (I mean, I also fall flat on my face on non-slippery sidewalks quite frequently, so anyone capable of more than that seems pretty athletic to me, but trust me, Chad would impress even a non-klutz.)

And then there was Reid Olmstead, a civilian volunteer working with Paradox Sports. I got to hang out with Reid a bit not long before this article came out, and he was so nice. He volunteers with a couple climbing groups that focus on helping differently abled athletes, and though the other climbers are blind or missing limbs, he truly doesn’t see them as any different from himself. Talking to him, it’s clear that he doesn’t think of those men and women as disabled, they just use some different equipment than he does. And it’s clear from meeting people he’s climbed with that they appreciate his attitude. I got to meet a couple of people who’ve worked with him, and they couldn’t resist gushing about how kind he is, and how generous with his time and knowledge. My article was done by then, so I wasn’t quizzing them or pushing for quotes—they just really wanted everyone to know what a good guy he is.

The point of all this is to say that, if you’re into the outdoors or rock- and ice-climbing, you should check out Paradox Sports. Their events are open to everyone, so no matter if you’re a veteran or civilian, require adaptive assistance or not, you can join a PS event and climb (or surf or hike) with the inspiring athletes who help organize their activities. And if you want to read more about them, you can check out my article, “Blood, Sweat, and Prosthetics,” from the July/August 2014 issue of Penthouse.

Bunny Tales: The Women of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch

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I’ve been Penthouse’s go-to girl for what I like to call the “naked lady” interviews for a few years. Whenever there’s a last-minute addition to the magazine or a hard-to-get-a-hold-of lady, I get called to action. I think it started because I was the utility player, the low woman on the totem pole and the one who generally had more time to spend tracking down the lovely ladies. But even when I got busier and had more on my plate, it was still my job, because I’d managed to develop a rapport with a lot of the girls we worked with. And, by some miracle, I almost always managed to track down exactly what we needed. So of course when the magazine teamed up with the Moonlite Bunny Ranch to start a new column, Bunny Tales, I was asked to do the interviews. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s always entertaining to get on the phone with a porn star or working girl and pick their brains. I always expect to get the same responses, and yet they always surprise me by saying things I would never imagine. Over the years, I’ve probably heard it all. I’ve had girls say things that have made me scratch my head, and I’ve had them say things that I still don’t think I’m old enough to hear. One girl I interviewed once giggled every time I asked her a “dirty” question, and could barely say the word “sex” without a mild freakout about being inappropriate, yet in her job she’d had sex with who knows how many strangers. (She was young, and when I first started, I probably had the same reaction, so I didn’t judge.) Another lady I interviewed wanted to know if I could keep her interview sort of PG because she was really excited to be in Penthouse and wanted to be able to send a copy of the magazine to her mom. (That was too cute for words. I still want to meet her mom someday. She sounds awesome.)

What I love most, though, is getting to connect with these girls. I always have to ask them about their sex lives and the “naughty,” “dirty,” “kinky” things they do on and off the job, but even in the weird world in which I work, that’s not something anyone wants to just dive into. So I always start off with a really regular conversation. “How are you?” “What’s the last book you read/movie you saw/TV show you watched?” “Isn’t it crazy that we have to have this conversation at all?” And once the ice is broken, things get interesting. Sometimes they explain parts of their job to me that I’m not familiar with (like Nuru massage … Google it), or they tell me stories that I just couldn’t imagine (like how one model was involved in a photo shoot that involved holding Pop Tarts between her butt cheeks—a story I think of every time I see a Pop Tart). What’s even better, though, is when they tell me about their personal, off-the-record lives. I get to learn about their families and pre-porn pasts, their future plans—I’m full of everyone’s secrets. My favorites are about their totally normal lives, where they go to school, read historical romance novels, or are secretly super geniuses with MBAs, PhDs, or degrees in things like public health administration, psychology, and journalism.

You can read all of my Bunny Tales interviews over on my NSFW Writing page.

School of Hard-core Knox: Belle Knox Interview

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Apologies, because this story is old now. Very, very old, at least in terms of the 24-hour news cycle. Heck, it was old when I wrote it, in a way, because these things play out so fast on the internet that it’s really hard to keep up. But I like to think we do a good job of that over at Penthouse.

When my editor asked me to do this interview, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. I’d followed the news of the story, of course, but it felt like everything was already out there. Plus, this was an 18-year-old college student, and she was in the middle of a media frenzy. I couldn’t imagine having to contribute to that chaos. But I never say no to a good story (ask my editors), so I read everything I could find and tried to figure out what hadn’t been covered yet.

Of course, it should be noted that I had a bit of an advantage: I work for Penthouse. I can’t think of any girl in the adult industry who doesn’t want to be in our magazine, so it gave me a bit of an edge. Plus, unlike a lot of the reporters who were doing stories for mainstream outlets, porn was my beat. I’ve interviewed more than my share of X-rated ladies, and am friends with plenty of them as well, so I had a better idea of what the business was like than all those news reporters who’d beat me to the story.

It felt strange interviewing someone who was creating such a big hurricane of news at only 18. I remember being 18, a freshman in college, and what that was like, and I have to say, I did not envy Belle’s predicament. It was hard enough figuring out how to balance school and a social life and extra curriculars without the rigid structure that high school had provided. I’d also once interviewed a freshman rape victim at my college, and though her story created only the tiniest buzz, and only in our city, I saw firsthand what the media attention did to her. So multiply that by about a million and my mind was spinning just thinking about the everyday challenges Belle was facing—like should she just throw her phone out the window and hide in her room until it all died down. And while that seemed like a fine idea to me, it wasn’t quite what Belle had in mind.

She carried on a great conversation, and was very intelligent, but her youth and naiveté showed through. I had to remind myself over and over that although I was only 10 years older than her, I’d also spent most of those 10 extra years of life working in the adult industry. I had years of anecdotal evidence about what life is like on the inside, and when you “grow up” and try to get out. Her notions of going on to become a lawyer and do all these other things, they’re sweet, but they’re naive. In a world where everything you do is on the internet forever, it’s hard to imagine there being many jobs for a former porn actress, even if she gets a law degree. I mean, I hope I’m wrong, because I’d love to see the world stop caring about what people do in their personal lives, but it’s hard to imagine. I’ve faced plenty of discrimination for working in this business, and I’m simply a writer and editor, and a fully clothed one at that.

The thing I found most interesting about Belle, though, was how positive she was about the whole thing. Whatever you think of her or porn or the choices she’s made since her story broke, she’s managed to find a way to spin things her way. At 18, I don’t think I could have stayed so positive and kept up a happy appearance if I were being bashed in the news every day, and I don’t know many others who could, either. And for that, I’m totally in awe of Belle.

If you want to get to know more about Belle Knox (or see a little more of Belle, I suppose), please check out my interview with her, “The School of Hard-core Knox,” from the June issue of Penthouse.

Warrior Wire: We’ve Got Their Backs … And Their Tits & Ass

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I recently read a story about New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, and how he writes his columns about specific people and not merely the broader issues because readers have an easier time relating if the story is about a singular person than about the hundreds, thousands, or millions actually impacted. At first, I was kind of annoyed. It seems ridiculous of people to think that way, and I didn’t want to believe that that’s how we really react to news. But then I realized that that’s exactly how I write, too. Which brings us to my latest Warrior Wire column.

Every couple of years, someone decides that Penthouse should be banned on military bases and we get kicked out of the PXes all across the country. In the eight years I’ve been with the magazine, I’ve seen us banned two or three times, and heard about people wanting to ban us at least twice as often, probably more. The reasons are always a little absurd. I read something once about how a woman complained and fought to ban the magazine because she was in a PX with her child and saw a soldier buying the magazine, and she didn’t want to have to explain to her child what the magazine was and why this (grown) man was buying it. This startled me for a number of reasons. First off, all Penthouse magazines sold on newsstands are polybagged, which means you can only see the front and back cover. And, I’m sorry, but our cover is no more risqué than Cosmopolitan or Maxim or any other (wo)men’s interest magazine. Even our cover lines aren’t that racy. Again, no more so than any other magazine that you can find on the shelves. But, also, if your kid asks what Penthouse is, you can simply say, “It’s a magazine for grownups.” That’s what my parents did, and it’s what I do when I have to explain to underage folk (the kids of family and friends) what I do. And it’s always enough to end the conversation with them, because, really, they don’t care. And if your kid is old enough to care, they’re going to find a way to get their hands on some dirty magazines no matter what you do. (Don’t act like you didn’t steal your dad’s Penthouse or your friend’s dad’s Playboy. We all did it.)

Anyway, when I was asked to write this editorial, all those things came to mind. But my being pissed wasn’t going to do much, because I’m the writer. Of course I’m mad when people can’t buy my magazine. As a writer, I’m annoyed because it keeps people from seeing my writing, and I work really hard on every article. And as an employee, I get irritated because by not selling the magazine that pays my rent, they’re possibly cutting into my ability to pay my rent down the line. (Note: Jerks!) So I knew I needed other voices. And this brings us back to my earlier point. When I write, I write about people. Sure, sometimes I write about people who need better health care, or people who don’t want their retirement benefits cut, or even simply people who like music, but every story I’ve written has been, at its heart, about people. Because as it turns out, I’m one of those people who cares more about an issue when I can connect it to a person, a face, a name, a story, then when all I’ve got are statistics and hard facts.

I was surprised with how many of the vets I’ve talked to actually got back to me when I sent out an email asking for their opinions on the latest Penthouse ban. I’ve been lucky to always talk to people who are willing to help me out whenever they can, but this seemed like an odd story, and I really didn’t expect many responses. The four people included in this article—Jenny, Jesse, Geoff, and Justin—had the strongest opinions of all of them, and they also all had great ways of expressing those opinions. I had already written a rough draft before hearing back from them, but adding their statements really made this article come alive for me. Without them, it felt like just me being ranty, and outside of email chains with my friends, I try to keep my ranting to a minimum because who the hell am I? But with their voices, it became an issue, one that I thought people could understand as being about more than a magazine staff being upset that sales numbers were going to drop a bit.

Some of the quotes I got made me think differently. One of the reasons suggested for the ban was that magazines like Penthouse are a root cause of sexual assault, teaching men that women are merely objects. Jenny mentioned that one of the reasons that our magazine couldn’t be blamed for military sexual trauma (MST), though, was that MST also happened to men, and I hadn’t really thought about that before. And Geoff and Jesse both brought up points about how the military was so concerned with banning a magazine, but had yet to address the real issue of MST, which is that it’s underreported, and when it is reported, it’s almost impossible for the victims to get justice because they have to report to their chain of command, some of whom are the ones committing these assaults. But my favorite quotes came from Justin, who in our interview said basically all the things I wanted to say, but better. He brought up points I wanted to bring up, and basically could have written the editorial himself if I’d let him. He also had a great line about how it’s unfair that he can serve in the military, fight a war, risk death, but they won’t let him see a pair of tits. … And, okay, I’ll admit it, part of me was excited to be able to use words like “tits” and “balls” in Warrior Wire, since those articles are usually more cut and dry—and less vulgar. So, there’s that, too.

Anywho, the point of the editorial is that people (who are of age and legally allowed to do so) should be able to buy Penthouse if that’s what they want to do. Especially people who we’re willing to send off to war and who may come back injured or maybe not come back at all. So, yeah, I think if you’re allowed to go to war, you should be allowed to read a fucking “dirty” magazine. And if you don’t want your kids seeing the magazine, then don’t buy it (or do, but just hide it really well). Other people shouldn’t have to give up simple pleasures like this because other people are too fucking afraid of sex to know how to explain it to a child or, I fear, to have it explained to them. [End rant]

Now, if you want to read the actual editorial, and see what the vets I interviewed had to say about whether you—or they—should be allowed to buy Penthouse on military bases, check out my/the magazine’s editorial, “We’ve Got Their Backs … And Their Tits & Ass” from the June 2014 issue of, you guessed it, Penthouse. 

Warrior Wire: Denied Till They Die

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When I started working on this article, I honestly thought I’d be writing about something else. I’d been contacted by Tracee Beebe, a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about Vietnam veterans, and she told me that they were being denied benefits from the VA because their military records didn’t reflect their service accurately. I was intrigued, and I pitched my editor the story. At the same time, my father had just been awarded disability compensation by the VA for exposure to Agent Orange, something that he’d been fighting for since he returned home, and I had pitched another story about that issue. I even thought I might interview my dad, make him tell me all the stories I’ve never heard, and all the ones I have that I want to hear again.

Then I started doing my interviews for this piece. It turned out that all the vets I was in touch with were trying to get benefits for exposure to Agent Orange, and all of them were being denied because they didn’t have “boots on the ground.” The story had changed.

My dad helped me out with a lot of the research as I worked on the story, and he sent me every scrap of paper and internet link he had that had some useful information. But because he’d (finally) been given a disability rating, he was no longer part of my Agent Orange story. And, actually, I was glad. Not because I didn’t want to interview him or hear his stories. We talk every week, multiple times, and I love hearing his stories. No, I was glad he was out of the story because of how hard it was to talk to the men who hadn’t gotten a rating and weren’t receiving benefits. Some of them cried when we spoke. Sometimes, I cried after I hung up. One man who’d agreed to an interview died before we could actually talk. That was tough. And all of them sounded a lot like my dad.

Tracee had started her documentary because of her father’s experience with the VA and Agent Orange, and when she and I spoke, it was like we were talking about the same person. The way she described her father—his attitude, the things he said, the way he thought about his service, the worries he had—sounded exactly like my dad. All of the men, really, were similar to my father. Maybe it’s just that they all come from the same generation, or maybe because they all fought the same wars, literally and figuratively. Whatever it was, it was like talking to and about my dad, all day, every day, while I worked on this. Except that my dad wasn’t sick like they were. And my dad wasn’t still waiting for someone to admit that something had happened to him and he deserved to be compensated. My dad, unlike some of the men I spoke to, was doing better than ever.

I know that there are so many more issues out there, and with wounded troops still coming home from Afghanistan, and the VA still mired in scandal, Agent Orange seems like a minor, far-away issue. But it’s still something that so many men (and women) are battling. And Agent Orange doesn’t only affect the veterans who were exposed, but their children and grandchildren. And while the number of people affected dwindles every day, as the older generations die off, it doesn’t make the issue go away. If we’re still fighting to get vets taken care of more than four decades after the Vietnam War, how long will this newest generation of vets have to fight to get the care they deserve?

While we wait for that answer, I’d love it if you’d take a minute to read my article, “Denied Till They Die,” from the May 2014 issue of Penthouse. You can read it by clicking the above image or by clicking here.

Warrior Wire: Diet COLA

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I don’t really have a lot to say about this article, especially since it’s kind of old news by now. I had written this when the COLA cuts were still an everyday news item, and it was the hot-button veterans issue of the moment. Now, with the VA scandal going on, this feels ancient. That said, I still think it’s worth a read.

When I was working on this article, something strange happened. A veteran follower of mine on Twitter actually reached out to me to ask me to explain how the COLA cuts were going to work. He hadn’t had a chance to really dig into the news, and he was concerned. Knowing that I followed the issues, he sent me a message asking me if I could put the whole mess into layman’s terms for him to let him know just what to expect. I took it as a compliment, that because of all my work writing and editing the Warrior Wire column the past couple of years, someone actually saw me as some sort of authority on the matter. It felt pretty cool, I must say. Although Penthouse has been covering veterans and the military for four decades, people don’t always take it seriously, and it’s not always easy to get interviews, as some people still don’t realize we publish articles like this. It makes the job of putting together this monthly feature that much harder, but it also makes it that much more rewarding when I get feedback. Whether it’s someone saying they’ve looked up my work and are willing to grant me an interview because they like what I’ve done so far, or someone like this guy who reached out and asked me, because of my writing, to help him understand the issue, it means a lot to know that these articles are getting out there and having some sort of impact. Even if only one person is helped by the work I do (and the work my editors and fellow Warrior Wire writers do), that’s still a big deal.

I’d also like to take a moment here to thank Joe Davis, from the VFW, for all his help with this article. I know a lot, but I’m also fortunate enough to have a really amazing community of people much more knowledgeable than I am who let me pick their brains every month and help me understand what’s going on so that I can share the news with my readers. I’m not exactly an economics wiz, so some of the math-y stuff involved in writing this COLA article was a little bit harder to grasp. Joe took the time to explain it all to me, and his responses to my questions were so in-depth and detailed that I joked that I should give him the byline of the story, since he’d put in as much work as I had.

Anywho, you can read my article, “Diet COLA,” front the April 2014 issue of Penthouse by clicking the image above or by clicking right here.