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Cooking with Gwen

“Quiet on the set!” barks the director, pointing an accusing finger at three offenders. One looks away sheepishly, and another sits up straight as if to say, “I tried to tell them.”

I’m on the set of a new show, “Cooking with Gwen.” If it’s not a YouTube sensation yet, it should be. The star of the show is Gwen Phalen, the wife of Air Force veteran Tom Phalen. Gwen prepares recipes from friends as well as family specialties — all in her northern Virginia kitchen.

Defeating a monster

Kathleen Rodgers won her first writing award for feature stories about UFOs for her high school newspaper in Clovis, N.M. Now she laughs about that and the stories she wrote about Bigfoot. After high school, she interned at a local paper while taking night classes. By then, she was being stalked by another monster — one that was very real — an eating disorder called bulimia.

“But that was a secret,” said Rodgers, and a mystery even she didn’t understand. Conquering the eating disorder took several years and wise counsel from a good doctor, who helped her discover the roots of her behavior. Until then, she didn’t know it had a name, that it wasn’t about food, and that she wasn’t alone.

Walk a mile in these boots

Whether or not it's a 'combat mission,' military members are doing the job and wearing the boots

When the President of the United States promises America will have “no boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, military members and their families don’t take that phrase literally. He can’t be saying that no American soles will touch Iraqi soil — because they already are. Do most Americans know this statement is about mission, not footwear location? Military families do. They know that plenty of boots belonging to people they know and love are on the ground.

When my Air Force husband is deployed, his boots really are on the ground much of the time, like those of many support troops. Neither he nor I would compare his position to servicemembers who routinely go forward to meet the enemy with weapons at the ready, whether on the ground, at sea, or in the air. As a noncombatant, his job is not inherently dangerous, but he sometimes does his job in dangerous conditions, as do many servicemembers with non-combat job descriptions. Military members and families understand the distinctions between these duties. Everyone in a combat zone operates at some level of danger; none are immune to danger by virtue of performing non-combat duties.

Motive and opportunity

James Patterson doesn’t have any close relatives in the military, but he knows a few military characters: Jack Morgan is a Marine helicopter pilot-turned-private investigator. Dan Carter, his British counterpart, served in the Royal Military Police. Patterson knows these guys because he created them — and their exploits — for his Private thriller series. The author has created many other book series, such as the Women’s Murder Club, and plenty of well-known characters, like Alex Cross.

Patterson has sold around 300 million books worldwide and has written record-breaking numbers of best-sellers, but in a recent conversation, he wanted to talk about the military. This month, Patterson donated 180,000 of his books to wounded veterans. It’s not the first time. To date, Patterson estimates he’s given 700,000 of his own titles to U.S. military members serving around the world and in the States.

'Right Side Up' takes effort

Judy Davis is excited about the release of her first book, “Right Side Up: Finding Your Way When Military Life Turns You Upside Down,” but writing a guide for military spouses was not on her radar until recently.

Army life took her by surprise six years ago when her husband of 17 years rejoined the military life he had left before their marriage. Entering military life in mid-stride with two teenagers was a challenge, said Davis, for her and the whole family.

Living with uncertainty

September 2001: Dark green mobility bags, zippered mouths gaping open, mar the order of our living room floor, and our lives. In more peaceful days the bags were forgotten, stacked on top of some boxes in our garage. Now they’re spread out on the living room floor, demanding our attention, like the news footage from New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

My husband empties the bags, scrutinizes their contents: T-shirts, camouflage gear, gas mask and other necessities strewn on the carpet. One bag has a small American flag attached, clinging by one corner. It’s a reminder of another war, stapled to the canvas at the last minute before a departure 10 years ago. In the relative peace of the intervening years, it was easy to forget what is now clear to us. Life is uncertain.

Plant before blooming

She met her military husband in her hometown. They fell in love, got married, moved a couple of times for training assignments and had two babies along the way. When I met her, she was at the last of those temporary duty stations, but it couldn’t be temporary enough for her. She had her sights set on her husband’s next assignment — a large city on the East Coast — and she had her current location in her crosshairs. Her rapid-fire criticisms of the small Midwest town expressed disbelief that such a backwater could even stay on the map.

“Why would anyone live in a place like this? Haven’t they heard of Chicago and New York?” she asked me. “I have got to get out of here.”

Douse of reality

There’s a social media deluge going on. Men, women and children, sometimes entire crowds of people at once, are dumping buckets of ice water on themselves or each other. This wetting-down has a purpose, mostly raising funds toward research into treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or other forms of support for those who have the disease.

I talked to someone this week who had not heard about the “ice bucket challenge.” Explaining it to him made me realize how crazy it sounds: A person takes video of himself or herself getting doused with several gallons of icy water and posts it on social media and then challenges several friends, by name, to either donate $100 to the ALS Association or dump a bucket of cold water on their own heads. Judging by the videos I’ve seen, most people do both: give money and receive a cold shower.

'Schoolhouse Rock!' and the policy wonk

Watching the machinations of our nation’s government — its actions or lack thereof — we may feel helpless, unable to affect the decisions that affect us as military families. But Reda Hicks, an Army wife, attorney and self-described “policy wonk,” is convinced that we can make a difference. Hicks has a fascination for the finer points of legislation and policy, particularly as it relates to military members and their families, but realizes that many people feel overwhelmed by these issues.

The basics are not out of reach. For an outline of how federal laws are made, Hicks says look no further than a childhood favorite, “I’m Just a Bill,” from “Schoolhouse Rock!” The musical cartoon segment, now decades old, shows the journey a bill takes through the branches of  the U.S. government to become a law.

Psychology yesterday

A friend gave me a clipping from an old magazine, an article supposedly about military families, which brought home to me how much more our way of life is studied, understood and appreciated by those outside our world than it used to be.

The story, from a 1986 issue of Psychology Today, presumed to explore and analyze military life. Unfortunately, at the time there was so little data available about military families that the author had to rely on anecdotes, generalizations and unsubstantiated theories. She admitted in her story that studies and surveys of military families in the mid-1980s were either outdated or questionable. As a result, much of the story was either laughable or offensive. Sometimes both.