Book Review: Plenty of Time When We Get Home

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I’m taking a quick break from the End of War Reading List to review Kayla William’s new book, Plenty of Time When We Get Home.

I just finished it. I read it in two sittings, the first was 200 straight pages, interrupted only because my flight landed and I had to stop to get off the plane. I’m not the type of person that will slog through 200 pages if it’s boring, so it is to Kayla’s credit for writing a book that flows well and keeps the attention of a picky reader.

I’ve earmarked much of the book and will start going through it below, but I want to say upfront that what makes this book special is its honesty. This book stings. The back jacket says memoir, but to me, this is a love story. A brutally honest, real-life, painful, painful love story.

First thing’s first. The book is good, and I’d recommend it to anyone who read Love My Rifle More Than You, is curious about what it’s like to come home from war and try to build a life, or fans of human drama.

The way I like to do book reviews is provide a brief synopsis, and then go through some of the parts that stuck out to me.

Kayla starts off the book just about where her first book left off, and from page one I felt like I was jumping into the sequel. Her first book examined what it was like to be “young and female” in the United States Army, mostly through the lens of a combat deployment to Iraq in 2003. This book links back to that one through the opening chapter, where her future husband, Brian, is injured in an IED explosion on the ride back to his unit after returning to Iraq after mid-tour leave.

From there, the book follows Kayla home and chronicles her journey through bars and post-deployment checklists during the honeymoon phase of redeployment. Brian and Kayla begin dating and start figuring out what it means to be war veterans in an Army getting ready for the next deployment and a nation at war but not really paying attention. Kayla leaves the Army and Brian is medically retired. The book follows them as they try to establish a life on the outside, discussing in parts; the release of Kayla’s first book and her involvement in the veteran community at large, going back to school, trying to find work and a place to live, her own struggles with adjusting to the civilian world, and starting a family.

The crux of the book, however, is Kayla and Brian’s relationship. Brian’s injury – which she brilliantly describes in calculating detail a lá one of my favorite parts in The Short Timers – significantly affects his ability to transition smoothly to civilian life.

Where Love My Rifle was raw and angry, Plenty of Time is reflective. There is still plenty of ‘shock and awe’ in the book, but written in such a way as not to be gratuitous for its own sake.  Kayla’s writing style feels similar, but not as fiery as Love My Rifle, which I think is a good thing for this book.

Both Brian and Kayla can be terribly frustrating. Brian for his outbursts and Kayla for both dealing with it and sometimes not fully understanding it. Through it all, their love for one another is clear.

If there are any faults in the book, it is in the repetition of a few key lines or ideas almost word-for-word that felt like heavy-handed ways to get a point across. For example, on more than one occasion Kayla discusses war news scrolling on the “little ticker at the bottom of the screen” as a way of demonstrating how divorced from the war the general population is.

Also, I feel like it is worth mentioning that Kayla writes unapologetically about her political leanings in the book. She’s never been one to hide them, and is very up front with her advocacy. Still, the last 1/3 of the book discusses in some detail her and Brian’s work with various political organizations. I mention it only because I know there are some readers who can’t help but get worked up about those types of things.

That out of the way, below are the things that I found particularly interesting. These are just reactions to interesting things in the book, so my apologies if one paragraph doesn’t seem to flow fluidly into the next:

Kayla does a fantastic job capturing how funny Brian can be, as he provides much needed comic relief throughout the book. For all of the faults and setbacks in their relationship and his recovery, he comes across as the guy that you really hope would be your friend. Some examples:

-The first thing he says after having a thick piece of metal shrapnel lodged in his head is “Give me a cigarette.”
-When he kept getting falsely accused of sleeping with another guy’s wife, he decided that if he was going to get accused of it and have to take so much shit for it, he might as well do the deed. So he did.

The title of the book comes from a conversation Brian and Kayla have while they are still in their flirting stage in Iraq. It is a nice, genuine moment, albeit foreboding since the reader knows where the book is headed. When my eyes passed over the words “…plenty of time when we get home” I felt something deeply sad.

Kayla’s great at capturing how little things matter. She often opines at length on the importance of a good commute, being a thrifty spender, and how hard it can be to get in a good workout. She describes the way their crazy dog Kelby wreaks havoc on their attempts to get their lives under control. How can they get their shit together when they have this maniac dog costing them tons of money and making life miserable?

Through the book, it seems incredibly irresponsible to read some of the lines from doctors and military officials in giving advice on how Brian should proceed after receiving his injury. From “just avoid activities that seem dangerous” to “you should just feel lucky to be alive.” It serves as a reminder that in those early years after the wars began, we (as a nation) didn’t really know what we were doing. Things have gotten significantly better since then, but it should serve as a reminder that things progress, and we should be humble in all of our so-called certainties.

Refreshingly, even after over ten years, Kayla hasn’t forgotten how wonderful some of the simple pleasures are upon redeployment. The first part of her book is peppered with references to “hot and unlimited” showers and other similar gems. As time and distance separates the veteran from war-time service, it gets easier and easier to forget those simple things.

Kayla writes an interesting story about repeatedly losing her shit at bars when no one would buy her or her friends drinks after getting back from Iraq because people assumed they weren’t combat veterans, because they were women. And then Kid Rock bought Kayla a beer.

She writes about a guy who should be everyone’s hero. The guy that says confidently that he or she is dealing with PTSD. I’ve met guys like him – the guy that is respected and a good soldier who is not afraid to say when he is hurting. The guy who drops the tough-guy facade and speaks the truth. We need so many more of them.

Kayla manages to capture a great scene depicting one of my favorite things: absurdity. Here, she is describing an accountability formation for soldiers who are assigned to a particular unit, but all in different situations which has them wearing different clothes. As stupid as this is, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when I read it. It reads like a scene out of Enlisted.

“One day when I went in with him, I was completely astonished at what the formation looked like. Soldiers who had assignments like Brian were there in suits. Others were in BDUs (battle dress uniform-camouflage). Still others were wearing PTs (physical fitness uniforms). Many were on crutches and clearly struggling to stand upright. Some were actually dragging IV stands with them. “What the hell?” I said. “Isn’t this excessive? Can’t they just send the squad leaders by their rooms or something?”

In a small, but very interesting anecdote, Kayla captures how selfish soldiers and veterans can be when she writes about an argument with her mom after she (mom) failed to pay a bill Kayla had trusted her with. When deployed, there’s this feeling that life should revolve around you and everyone should stop what they’re doing at once if you need something. Kayla repeatedly writes about how easy it is to do things when “someone’s not trying to kill you.” When Kayla yells at her mom for missing the bill, her mom turns the tables and tries to guilt Kayla out (which family members are very, very good at). Kayla argues back that it’s “her turn to be crazy” which goes back to the world revolving around the combat veteran. No one else should be allowed to be upset or tired or anything, so goes the thinking, because hey, at least YOU’RE not the one with someone out to kill you.

It’s an interesting area which I don’t think has been explored enough. I also got the feeling that for as honest as Kayla is in this book, there is more behind the relationship with her mother than is revealed here.

The two most powerful parts of the book describe Kayla breaking down, contemplating suicide, and a terrible, alcohol-fueled confrontation she has with Brian. It’s raw and honest. It’s terrifying. The confrontation will make you angry. Angry at both Kayla and Brian for letting things get to that point. But it’s real. And it is an amazing thing to read and it must have been a terribly painful thing to write.

Towards the end of the book, there is a telling scene where Kayla and some other female veterans get together to discuss another book by a female veteran (Hesitation Kills, by Jane Blair). It was interesting to read about a bunch of female vets hating (mostly) on someone else’s experience. They discussed at length, some of the things that annoyed them about Jane’s experiences, like choosing to forego drinking water to spare herself the embarrassment of having to stop and pee, or her belief that maybe as a female (and an officer) she might not have to go to war.

Admittedly, as I read this I started to think that maybe this was just a bunch of girls, hating on another girl, like girls (in popular media) tend to do. As I thought about it, I realized that this “hating” is essentially the same thing that male soldiers do when talking about other military people, especially those who put themselves out there and write a book. The military – male and female – is made up of a bunch of ambitious ‘type A’ personalities, and when one steps up front and says something, especially if he or she puts it down in a book, seemingly seeking recognition, it is very likely that that is going to be challenged, dissected, and attacked.

I enjoyed reading the book. Honestly, there was a part of me that thought getting through it might be a chore. It is very easy to get burned out on military books. Kayla masterfully paints a narrative that is accessible to anyone, who like I said earlier, is interested in human drama. It is incredibly brave to open your life up, warts and all, to a voyeuristic gazing public salivating for details about what goes on behind closed doors. Kayla lays it out and lets us look in and see, and I think anyone who reads this book will be better off for doing so.

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The Junior Officer Reader – Love My Rifle More Than You

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

LoveMyRifleMoreThanYou

A lot of the people who read my blog are young infantry officers. I usually find out awkwardly at some formation when a random 2LT comes up to me and says “Hey, I read your blog.” So, to the young LTs reading this. You should read Love My Rifle More Than You because you may soon have women serving with you (probably not too soon). In the field. Taking poops. This, along with Hesitation Kills offers some of the best insight you can get on what it’s like to be a female in the modern military. It sounds pretty tough.

I just finished reading Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams. I feel terrible, because this is a book I should have read a long time ago. I’ve met Kayla on several occasions and I’ve had her book for several years, but I never got to reading it. When I first decided to come up with a list of books that I think would be good for a junior officer to read, I knew her’s was one of them and it’s been on my list from the beginning. With the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, it seemed to be the perfect time to revisit the book.

Like a lot of soldier memoirs, this one takes place (mostly) during the opening of the Iraq War (2003-2004). Kayla writes a little bit about her life before the military, which colors her experience in the Army and in war (pissed off, rebellious youth). Kayla was a rebel growing up – not what we think of when we think of typical Army material (although for some reason the Army attracts rebels too). She signs up as an Arabic linguist before 9/11 and suddenly finds her skills more useful than I’m sure she ever bargained for. She eventually is assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and deploys to Kuwait before the invasion, and then bounces around Iraq doing missions with artillerymen and the infantry.

Pretty standard stuff in terms of the Iraq War memoir. Kayla covers a lot of time through the book and shoots through what were probably some pretty significant events to show the fuller picture. If the book has any faults, it’s that I wanted to know more about anyone of her experiences in the Army. She could have chosen anything – the animosity she felt to her female NCOs, the strange relationships she had with her peers, or the decision to wear mascara to a USO show and how that became a big deal. I’d have liked to see a lot of these smaller things unpacked and discussed in more detail. But that’s not the book Kayla wrote, so it’s a fault of me just wanting to know more.

What makes this book different from other war memoirs is it focuses much on Kayla’s experience as a female in the Army – and deployed – at a time when war and deployment was very much new for most of the Army. The beauty of the book is Kayla’s honesty about how she felt as a woman who was often objectified by her fellow soldiers, even though that can make for some uncomfortable reading. She talks about the ambivalence she felt in trying to perform to a higher standard in order to shut up her critics, who were always looking for a reason to look down on women, and the struggle in trying to resist the urge to use the greatest asset she had – the fact that she was female – as an excuse to get out of details or carrying something heavy.

Besides the insight on what it’s like to be “young and female in the US Army” Kayla hits some important points that reminded me of some things I had forgotten. Reading about her redployment home, and how everything seemed so trivial and insignificant, made me remember how I felt those same things in the year(s) when I first came home (as an aside, there’s no hope for me now – I’m too far down the rabbit hole of reality television and created drama to ever experience that self-righteousness again). Maybe because I’m so far down that rabbit hole, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the drama between Kayla and her various female NCOs who were all described as prissy and seemingly incompetent when it came to leadership. This reminded me of people I knew who grew up in the Army of the 1990s who did not expect – and were not prepared – for the Army of the 2000s.

Lastly, the part that stuck out to me the most was the real pride Kayla described when she received an award, an ARCOM, from the infantry unit that she had served with for a short period of time during her deployment. It reminded me of how small things, in this case, processing some paperwork to recognize a job well done, can go on to mean the world to someone who joined the Army to do good, but is often just pushed through the grinder (put your men and women in for awards!).

Incidentally, I had the book on me the other day and a fellow infantryman asked me what it was about, to which I replied that it was “About the experiences of a female soldier in the Army.” He replied, “Yeah, I mean, but what is it about?”

As if that wasn’t enough.

Since the decision to rescind the combat exclusion policy, women in combat generally and women in the infantry specifically has been the topic du jour here at Fort Benning (home of the Infantry). Most still think that this is something that’s not going to happen, or that it shouldn’t happen. To me, it seems like the time for argument is over and the time for realization and actualization is now. As leaders, it’s now our job to understand the unique challenges and opportunities fuller integration of the military will bring.

Any leader that wants to get ahead of the game and understand some of the issues that will be faced in a more integrated military would be doing himself a favor by reading this book.

These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams) 2/3/13
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12

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