Veteran Voices: Make it to Chow

455 days deployed in Iraq. Single parenting for months while my spouse was deployed. 8 weeks of Beast Barracks wondering why I signed-up for this while all my friends spent their summers partying.

My military experiences were not very difficult nor really all that unique. We all went through a basic training, attended a few hard schools, went on really long deployments, and then I even got to experience deployment again as a spouse. There were always times when the stress seemed like it would never end. I often thought I would never get through it. The time to the end seemed overwhelmingly big and far away.

A big world is a terrifying world.

COVID makes my world big again. Fear, uncertainty, and non-stop changes to my daily routine threaten to unseat me at each day. Taking a walk, getting groceries, or chatting with a neighbor from a distance, now bring about thoughts of fear or even shame. School, work, fitness – every part of daily life has moved online. My world feels like it is moving further away from everything I knew and the people I depended on when times got tough.

Make it to chow.”

That is what I used to say to myself during Beast Barracks or at a really hard school. I knew that the cadre had to feed me. If I could just make it to chow, then I wouldn’t quit. During deployment, hot chow was something to look forward to during the endless days. Midnight chow is still the greatest meal of all time. When life was busy with my spouse deployed, meals became a time to for my family put down our hectic day — catch our breath — and listen to each other.

Meals kept my world small when it felt too big.

The world is getting pretty big again. Any illusion of planning for future events seems futile. Those things we use to mark our days such as school, work, sports, and parties are all gone. The support I didn’t know I needed from parents, teachers, and coworkers has evaporated. I cannot even travel to see my family or dearest of friends.

If we can make it to chow, we will be alright.

Each day, my family needs to eat. My kids are probably not going to always like what we cook. We will certainly spill some milk. But multiple times a day, we now get the chance to sit, stop, and listen over a shared meal. In these few minutes together, we share our joy and our fears. And the world gets a little bit smaller.

With meals, we can use love to close the gap between social distance and fear.

I have no idea when this will end. But that is okay because today, I will just focus on making it to chow.

Veteran Voices: Shared Bunkers

The nighttime dash to the concrete bunker was a blur. The alarms were new to me, so I woke confused. I think I put on socks. I figured real shoes would be better than flip flops. Then I had to find the nearest bunker — my path frustratingly blocked by some ill-placed stairs. I was in the bunker probably within a minute of hearing the alarm.

Once inside, I half-sat/half-squatted with my back against the cold concrete. I was wearing every single piece of body armor issued to me. Nape strap, deltoid protectors, groin protector – even had my side plates in. I was so new that my chin strap smelled pretty fresh and my helmet fit tightly.

How long will it be like this?

Should call my call or text my husband? What do I do if we get hit? Will I be able to help someone else? Will they overrun the base? Will I feel it? Will I hear it coming? Then looked at the guy at the end of the bunker.

He was in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette.

What the hell was he thinking! What kind of example was he being for all the young soldiers in here? If we get hit, we will need this guy as part of our fighting force. If we get overrun – and where the hell was his weapon!

Reckless, lazy, complacent….

As an officer, I needed to order this selfish Soldier to get it together. He needed to be better! In that bunker, I vowed, after this all calmed down, to find out his name and unit, order him to wear his body armor, track down his weapon, and have a talk with his first sergeant!

We are all in a bunker. Getting bombed. Together.

Bathrobe guy was here, in Afghanistan, hiding in a shitty concrete bunker, sitting on a chunk of rock just like me. He must be afraid, even if he looked casual. I started to ask myself some questions. How did he get this way? How long had he been here? Was he even a Soldier—or was he media or a contractor?

Living in fear is exhausting.

It starts with your sleep. Illusive, restless, and soon what was sleep just becomes dozing. Turns out, you can live on very little sleep. Then you struggle to be awake. I became hyper-aware of everything. I watched for signs of what could come – vainly struggling to find hints of the threat unseen but always present.

Living in fear is not sustainable.

I am afraid of COIVD-19. We all are. I am afraid of what could happen. I am afraid for the future — tomorrow, next week, next month…when will it end? These fears are shared across our country, but play out differently in the corners of our minds.

Fear is not unique, but it is personalized.

I am afraid for my family and friends. I am concerned about the economy, school, jobs, where I will get groceries, what happens if my kid gets strep throat, and how will I sustain our current routine? As I lay down and struggle to sleep, COVID-19 haunts my thoughts in all the unique ways my family is impacted.

We share the bunker.

Some of us will put on body armor. Some will smoke cigarettes in a bathrobe. All of us are afraid. Rather than yelling the man in the bathrobe or mocking the person in body armor, let’s try to see each other. I face the same threat you do. I sit here, waiting for the COVID mortar round to strike, hiding in my bunker, and wondering what will happen next.

I see your fear and I get it.

Today, I vow to look into the eyes of those walking down the sidewalk, with their heads down because they fear the virus will pass with a look. I will waive to the elderly man in the mask who crosses the street when he sees me because his fear is fatal — yet he just wants to hear the birds and feel the sun. I will waive to the exhausted parent herding a group of kids on bikes while wondering how to work from home and teach elementary school at the same time.

We share the bunker.

Veteran Voices: The Cav Scout

I first met the Cav Scout on a crisp Fall morning. Like every new Soldier in my company, his platoon sergeant brought him by the office for a short introduction with the commander and 1SG. He stood at attention, looked me straight in the eye, and confidently answered my short questions about who he was and his past.

The Cav Scout was now a helicopter mechanic. He was an NCO and had experience leading Solders. His background was a bit unusual – retrained by the Army to be a helicopter mechanic after multiple deployments as infantry.

I should have taken those questions more seriously. The answers mattered to the Cav Scout.

I do not remember what exactly happened. Alcohol incidents were so common back then, that I cannot remember the specific event. Probably a DUI or not quite a DUI but close enough.

The Cav Scout drank a lot. Most Soldiers do at some point in their careers. They drink to have fun. They drink because they are bored. The drink because they can.

The Cav Scout drank for other reasons.

The Cav Scout went to rehab. Not the group therapy bullshit that the division held once a week – nope. The Cav Scout was sent straight to a multi-month, in-patient program. My guys drove him out and got him set up. Then I kinda forgot about him – until we had to go pick him up. That would fix him right?

We didn’t fix the Cav Scout.

The local police called me with a problem. The Cav Scout wasn’t actually in possession of any drugs, but he was in a house full of people using cocaine. The cops could not hold him, so would the Command want to come pick him up?

My guys went to the house and picked up the Cav Scout. They brought him back to the base. Then, the Cav Scout ran away. He was not wearing any shoes. It was winter. The MPs found the Cav Scout near the hospital half frozen, with bleeding feet, coming down off his high.

The Cav Scout went to rehab again. PTSD, drugs, alcohol — I do not remember what the actual reason was. My guys drove him up and dropped him off. They would fix different things this time.

Can we fix the Cav Scout?

There was a zero tolerance policy for drugs. I’d already started paperwork to chapter the Cav Scout out of the military. Any drug-related chapter was considered less than honorable, so policy required a discharge with an “other than honorable” service characterization. This detail is important. Without an honorable discharge, the Cav Scout would not get full Veteran medical or education benefits. It was policy. My hands were tied.

We did this to the Cav Scout.

The Cav Scout had served his country and his teammates. We had deployed him and asked him to do a hard job in an impossible place. When he broke, we gave him a band aid. First we just ignored it. Then, we gave him a new name and a new title to erase the old one. Only after he was too far gone, did we ask him if he wanted help.

He made his own choices…right?

I was easily the lowest ranking officer in room. One-by-one, each member of the command voiced reasons to discharge the Cav Scout without benefits. Drugs. Alcohol. Failure to Adapt. Positive for cocaine. This would be an easy chapter.

We broke him. Give him a fighting chance.

I do not know what I said. I know I was not the only one who spoke up. The Cav Scout had severe PTSD. His pain was real and it came from his time deployed. He did drugs and he could not continue to serve. But please, give him a chance to choose his new life. He probably won’t take it. He will likely keep doing drugs. But give him the chance.

I still believe in the Cav Scout.

Less than a year after I met him, the Cav Scout left my company — and the Army — under Honorable Conditions. My guys took him to the gate. They took his ID card. They shook his hand.

The Cav Scout became a Veteran and he still has a choice.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class and their families.

Book Review: Chop Wood, Carry Water

Author: Joshua Medcalf

I don’t have a goal.

This stark realization hit me pretty hard a couple months ago. Probably for the first time ever in my life, I was not actively pursuing any tangible, defined goal. I’d always had something I was working toward. I had been grinding on my degree, working for my next assignment, learning to fly anything new with wings (or rotor blades), having children, or trying to buy a house.

What is next?

I tried out many things that felt like goals – Crossfit, keto, yoga, lifting, a short insta-pot obsession, cyclecross, volunteering at the school, swimming laps, running, wine tasting…

Was I just speed-dating hobbies?

I started to think about my goals differently after reading Joshua Medcalf’s book, “Chop Wood, Carry Water.” Medcalf’s main character, John, is on a journey to achieve his life-long goal of becoming a samurai warrior. John clearly wants to become a warrior more than anything else and is prepared to dedicate years of his life to reach his goal.

The book is probably best described as a collection of parables, broken into chapters. John’s sensei, Akira, guides him along the path to becoming a warrior. Akira helps John see that being a samurai means more than learning how to fight. With each chapter, John learns to value discipline, wrestles with his ego, experiences failure, and finally — submits to the process — all to achieve his goal.

Submit to the process…

When I looked back at my goals achieved, yes – those few days marking the completion of a goals were certainly important milestones. But what stuck with me more about my achievements, were all the little moments along the way. Difficult exams, hard fought races, endless nights with crying infants, perfectly blue skies, landings I won’t forget from missions I cannot forget, and all the sunsets – in all the places!

Medcalf’s book reminded me that what mattered most wasn’t any goal I set out to achieve, but rather, how I got there. The process and the journey mattered far more than the outcome.

I am still pretty sure that I don’t have a goal. I am certainly still trying out hobbies. But now, I strive to enjoy every moment because it is these moments that matter. The faces of my kids when I surprise them at school, or the boundless joy of my dog when he hears the word “walk,” or the way my son still likes to snuggle up and watch a movie — this is my journey.

These moments are the process and the process is my goal.

Book Review: “Stillness is the Key”

Author: Ryan Holiday

Busy is a Choice.

Our family calendar looks more complicated than my old fight schedule. Matching aircraft, crews, and mission equipment to a week’s worth of flights has got NOTHING on running a household these days. Trying to get kids to all their activities, while making sure you volunteer “enough” at the school, attend PTO meetings, and maybe sneak in a workout is more complex than air assault planning!

As I looked at our upcoming week’s worth of activities, and struggled to figure out how I could be in two places, across town, at the same time on Friday night – I realized something very critical.

I chose all this.

Not a single event on this calendar was forced upon me or my family. We chose to do sports, or volunteer groups, or workout classes. I begrudgingly added my name to the now endless number of “to bring” lists in signup genius.

Why…?

Ryan Holiday’s book “Stillness is the Key” hit me right up front with an ugly truth. I am doing all this because I think I am supposed to do it. Other people need me right? This is the kind of person I am – or I want to be. Right?

“Stillness is the Key” helped me take the first step to answering that question in my overly busy life. It was remarkable simple, but shockingly difficult.

Stop.

Stop doing. Hold still. And listen. Ryan explores how life bombards us in three critical dimensions; mentally, spiritually, and physically. We experience demands imposed upon us by others and we struggle when we try align our three dimensions with someone else’s values.

“Stillness” provides a roadmap for the reader to get their mental, spiritual, and physical self off the express highway of external demands on back on the road of self. For me, as I read the book, I focused on my tendency to overcommit – both myself and my family – to things we did not need. I reflected on how these demands drew me away from our real goals and family values, despite maybe looking pretty good to everyone else.

Each night, as I worked my way through this short book, I started to slow down just a little bit more. I thought about ways to live deliberately. I started seeing where I was committing time and energy to things others valued but I did not.

Today, I strive to read more of everything, play epic legos wars with my kids, and enjoy the peace of a quiet walk with my dog. I try to listen to the chirp of birds on my walk rather than drown out the nature’s chorus with a podcast or audiobook.

It took slowing down to see just how much time I really had. And just like that, I wasn’t busy anymore.

The Strongest Generation: Weight of the Bag

This morning I went up in the attic, looking for Autumn decorations in storage bins that are poorly labeled (organization has never been my strong suit).  As I opened one of the bins, I noticed a plastic trash bag inside, also not labeled.  I soon saw the box next to it containing “memorabilia” from my husband’s jet crash that nearly took his life almost nine years ago, and immediately knew the contents of the plastic bag.  

This particular moment is etched into my memory with remarkable clarity, and I’ve never taken the time to write it down.  I want to share it in hopes that others who may be going through extremely tough times might find some encouragement that one day, by the grace of God, you will be able to breath again.



“Are you Mrs. Smith” a young sailor hesitantly asked.  “I’m Mrs. Smith,” I responded, with just enough breath to be audible.  “This is for you,” he responded, as he handed me a heavy trash bag.  “Ummm…” I said, but before I had the opportunity to inquire at to what it was, he had left the room.  

Nine months pregnant, I slowly ambled back to the hospital lobby chair, waiting to find out my husband’s prognosis – bag in hand.  I was curious as to what the guy had just handed me, a welcome diversion from the sense of shock that had robbed me of a full breath of air just twelve hours prior.  

“It was heavy…what was inside?”  

As I began to open the bag, still puzzled, I caught a glimpse of green fabric, the kind that carries with it a familiarity of both deep joy and heartache.  Though it was familiar, it was not as it should be–it took me a moment to realize what it was– his flight suit, ragged and torn, and then neatly cut in some places.  It was heavy, drenched in sea water, with one peculiarly unscathed detail…

His patch.  

The sight of his name stole the last little bit of breath from my lungs and I froze. A rush of emotion welled up inside with no way to escape.  I swallowed the tears that were too big to express… I was numb.  

In disbelief, I began pulling more items from the plastic bag.  His shirt and boxers, neatly cut from top to bottom. A torn sock. Finally a combat boot– only one– with the bottom partially ripped off.  It was heavy.

“He’s alive,” I kept thinking… “he’s alive”… and yet I still couldn’t seem to catch my breath.  

All of that water, some lost blood, and actualized fears were contained in that bag.  It was a bag I wasn’t supposed to have received, the contents of which were intended to be evidence for the investigation that was already underway.  I gave up on trying to take full breaths, it was a futile cause anyway.  

I closed the bag.  It was too heavy.  

Today, nearly nine years after this event, the contents of that bag still carry a weightiness, bringing back a flood of memories from that uncertain time.  The “what if?” still haunts me from time to time. The thought of why he survived when so many others in similar circumstances did not still makes my head spin. The fact that he fully recovered, fought to get back up in the jet, and has gone on to have a successful aviation career– while almost miraculous– means that the same danger is ever-present. It’s not entirely in the past.

Yet now, when I see those clothes, that patch, the titanium rod (which we keep as a memento of my husband’s transition to semi-bionic limbs!), that spent nearly a year in his leg before being replaced during yet another surgery, my fears give way to an underlying sense of hope.  

The sea water that once weighed the bag down has long since dried up, the wounds have healed, and new patches have replaced the old.  

My breath returned, although it took much longer than expected. Only scars remain, reminding me of a time when the load was too heavy, too big, too much to bear…a time when I was carried through by grace.


This post is part of a series called The Strongest Generation. These words offer insights into the souls of those touched by America’s longest war.

Veteran Voices: Finding Peace In Our Longest War

The first person I knew killed by the war was Smith. He was my table commandant at West Point when I was a Yuk (sophomore). As the ranking Firstie (senior), he set the rules for how the table operated. He decided when we ate, how the food got served, and how much work the plebes had to do before they could eat. Smith was a good guy – making sure the plebes did their duties, that the Yuks supervised the plebes, and that the Cows were not too jaded (or hungover). He was fair, pretty funny, and just making it through the Academy like the rest of us.

Smith graduated in 2002. I was sitting at pretty much the same table, with many of the same people, 18 months later when we learned Smith had been killed in Iraq. Smith made war real to me. I was 22 years old.

Our military has been at war for almost two decades. Iraq. Afghanistan. To me it was all the same war, just different terrain. Even after all the reporters went home, the photo journalists packed up their cameras, and social media moved on – we stayed. We rotated in and out of country. Used the same airfields. Ate at the same chow halls. Lifted in the same gyms.

America moved on from the war, but the military never left.

Today, there is a lot of anxiety about war. People are swiping their screens violently, looking at Instagram, doing whatever one does on Twitter – and worrying about how we got here and where we are going.

As a Veteran and military spouse – I see those posts too. I feel the tension. I ache with the dread of what could happen. Am I afraid – certainly.

But I don’t live afriad.

I wall that fear off. Some nights, that wall is a little shaky. An image, a flag, a post – can throw me over my wall of courage with a crushing thud. But then I walk it back; remembering I am at home with my amazing family. I live in an incredible country. I play a board game with the kids, or walk the dog, or simply enjoy a quiet cup of coffee in the early hours of the morning.

Peace in small moments keeps my big fears away.

There are times I wish I could make America see my war. I wish I could connect you with the war I have lived with for so damn long. I get frustrated. I want you to feel the same tired weight that lives behind my eyes, my heavy legs of combat, and taste the eternal dust of the desert.

And then – I don’t.

This is why I served. This is why my family serves. America’s surprise is how it is supposed to work. We fight so you don’t have to. We go so others can stay. We carry the cost of war so Americans can live.

So live every day of your life like it is your last. Live for Smith – and so many others. Love life. In the places we fight, people do not love their lives. They struggle to live, and eat, and survive. They do not read for joy. They do not take walks in safety. They want your life.

As a citizen, being aware of what is happening is part of our civic duty. But we must not forget to look at the stars because we are looking at our phones. We still must walk in the park, enjoy our meals, and read great books – oh what joy it is to read!

And always hug the ones we love.

Military members – do not feel bitter. When you get frustrated, do not berate your fellow Americans for not understanding. Give them your love. Support them. Listen to their fears. Cry with them. Tell them about your own Smith.

To live in the stillness of peace; that is the dream of the Soldier. We never stop looking for peace. It is why we fight for you. It is our final gift. Find your small moments, find peace – and live.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class and their families.