Veteran Voices: Thankful

Veteran writing can be about the tough stuff – the hard times, challenging situations, and how we grew from it. Not every day was terrible or traumatic however. Many days were thrilling, funny, and totally kicked ass! My military friends are eternal and the experiences were unique. Every single day, I worked with the best people America had to offer.

And I mattered.

When deployed, it was easy for me to focus on all that I was missing. Looking back now, I can see more clearly all that I had. Here are a few things–funny and wonderful–I am thankful for from military deployment:

  • Fresh eggs, rather than powdered ones
  • The chow hall in remote Afghanistan that somehow had Baskin Robins ice cream
  • The crewchief that used the “scientific method” to determine if farts could be seen on the FLIR (he claims yes)
  • Midnight chow
  • Gyms with just weights
  • Gyms that were a 5 min walk from my office or my bedroom
  • Quiet nights, crystal clear skies, all the stars
  • The perfect amount of illumination for NVGs (not too much, not too little)
  • Illumination rounds
  • Xbox360 – Halo and Call of Duty
  • Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and Rip Its
  • Being welcome in every office, at every table in the chow hall, and with every group of soldiers. Always having a place.
  • Frozen water bottles
  • Hard dirt, No dust
  • Safe landings. Also the landings that reminded me that not all landings were guaranteed to be safe.
  • Shared loss. No fear of judgement for my tears or my lack of tears.
  • Knowing with certainty that if I did not make it, my team would get me home and they would remember me
  • Mattering

To those deployed- we miss you. Your empty chair at our table brings with it the deep ache of your absence.

This Thanksgiving however, I choose to live grateful for each moment, both the happy ones and the sad ones. From the sadness of your absence, I appreciate your presence even more. I look forward to when you return and can create shared moments with us once again.

Today, I live in this moment and I am thankful for it all.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class. Feel free to share things you are thankful for, from deployment or not, in the comments

Veteran Voices: The Phone Call

This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. The story that follows is told directly by a Veteran. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class.

Rather than thanking a Veteran for their service, read their stories, connect with their losses, and find your own strength in their courage.


They’d be 15 and 16 this year.   

The commander always has his or her phone.  When I took command, I vaguely remember passing the colors, reading a speech, and singing the Army song. I distinctly remember picking up the simple Motorola flip phone from the podium where my predecessor had left it for me. 

I never could have imagined what that phone would mean to me.

In 2009, I was in the B boarding group – somewhere between 31 and 60 – shuffling along to board my Friday morning flight when my work phone rang.  We were off today because it was a holiday weekend and the higher command gave everyone a four-day weekend. I did not recognize the number as I flipped it open to answer the call, while continuing to shuffle forward with my boarding pass in hand.

“Hello, this is detective Tom.  Is PFC Smith one of your Soldiers?”

I racked my brain. I had about 150 Soldiers and, while I knew their names, the most junior were the ones I had the least interactions with. I recognized the name but couldn’t place a face.

“Yep,” I said. “What happened?” Already I was running through my mental list of which senior NCOs could go pick Smith up from jail following a DUI or domestic and which officers were around to write the CCIR for the event.  Given it was a holiday weekend, there were not many people around to handle these tasks.

“Ma’am – You need to come to the sheriff’s office.  PFC Smith has been murdered and we need someone to handle the children. We figured the military would know what to do with the kids.”

I dropped my boarding pass. The shuffling stopped.

The sheriff’s office was a trailer. Seriously. Like one of those trailers that overcrowded public schools use for classrooms.  Temporary and cheap. A detective met me along with my battalion commander, battalion CSM, and my first sergeant. 

And we saw the children. Two boys. One was 5 and one was 6.  When I first saw them, the little guy was sitting in the lap of an officer, playing with a toy of some sort. The older boy was coloring. I didn’t look long. I couldn’t. I didn’t know then why I couldn’t look at them, approach them, or hold them. I hurt to see them. I was ashamed. I knew – seeing them there and knowing what had happened, that I had failed them.

PFC Smith was murdered by her husband. We will never know what exactly happened, but he killed her, in front of their boys. He then called the police, reporting the event, and killed himself. In front of the boys.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

My battalion commander and I didn’t always get along. Seriously – for those who read this, know me, and sat through command & staff – I know those words are a little understated.  However, that night, he might have lived one of his greatest moments. The boys were in the clothes they’d worn when their parents were killed.  They were not clean. They had no snugglies, or blankies, or favored animals. Nothing except the stained clothes of murder.

That night, my battalion commander and CSM walked out of that shitty trailer into a shitty town. They passed the crime scene tape, and local news trucks, and cops just sitting around – and went back into that terrible house. They passed the blood and bodies and fear and death. And they found clothes, blankies, and favored animals.

That night, they pulled from a house of death what remained of love. Two children, who’d seen the death of their parents before their own young eyes, were given fresh cloths, and something to hold – when all else was gone.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

The children became wards of the state that night. Shortly thereafter, the state split them up. PFC Smith had no living relatives – and the boys had different fathers. The state sent each to the nearest relative, who of course, were not the same person. We closed PFC Smith out of the military. We returned her gear to the warehouse. We gave her death benefits to the guardians of the boys. Her life ended. Her boys, brothers, were split.

I joined the Army to protect people. To defend those who could not defend themselves. To step up when no one else would. To give my life so you did not have to give yours. But I could not protect PFC Smith from her husband. I could not protect her boys from what they saw. I could not even keep those boys together after her death.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

PFC Smith was a good Soldier.  She was middle of the road on PT (most of us were). She came to work every day and did her job. She smiled and joked, even if she was just re-stocking bench stock. I think she was qualified to drive the 10 ton forklift and I know she could drive an LMTV.  She raised two boys – while living in what was probably an abusive relationship, and she never said a word. She came to work. She was prepared to deploy. She served her country. 

She is the strongest generation.

Today, many years later, I still fall apart the on the anniversary of this weekend. The sadness is overwhelming. The image of those boys in that shitty trailer, brings me to my knees. I could not fix this. I failed them all.

But then I think of Smith. I think of her everyday courage. I think of how she came to work each day carrying a load I will never understand. Staying too long in the memory of her death dishonors her life. How her life ended doesn’t define her. Rather, how she lived is how we should all be.  We have almost no control over what happens to us.  The state splits us up. The world we love attacks us. We can’t change what happens to us, but we can choose how we live in this world

Each year, I re-affirm to live like Smith. The bear my burden to the end. To face each day with strength and courage.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year. I hope someday they read this and know how amazing their mom was. 


Smith is a real story and a real person but I have changed a few things to help project her identity. She and her children are the silent casualties of GWOT. No one will ever thank them, memorialized her, or write a book about simple courage. So I am telling her story.

Veteran Voices: Part 2 – Behind The Generator

This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. We owe all veterans the right to tell their story, as they see it, without our judgement. The stories that follow are told directly by Veterans. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class.

Rather than thanking a Veteran for their service, read their stories, connect with their losses, and find your own strength in their courage.


Everything happens in threes

You may be a little disheartened that this title will not lead you to some sort of sexual erotic fantasy behind a generator, but I am sure many of you will appreciate and be able to relate this story.

‘Dammit! It’s happening. Breathe.’

Sometimes you are forced to make decisions you know are going to lead to the inevitable death of a patient.  While deployed, Soldiers adhered to very specific “rules of engagement” (ROE), even during medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) duties.  These rules specified to which hospital each patient was delivered. The MEDEVAC ROE were pretty clear cut. 

  • Any patient 18 years of age and younger will be transported to the American Hospital on Kandahar Air Field.
  • Any patient 18 years of age and older will to be transferred to the Afghani run hospital, known as Camp Hero.

‘Deep breaths. In through your nose. Out through your mouth.’

Camp Hero is the local national “hospital” on Kandahar Airfield run by Afghani medical personnel. This emergency room type facility is where the Afghani people start “taking care of their own.” It’s a bloody slaughter house if you ask me.  A place where I would not entertain the thought of bringing even my worst enemy.

Looking up to the sky, I hope that gravity will keep the tears from falling. Just breathe.’

At the time of this deployment I had two beautifully innocent daughters who were my world.  My every decision was rooted in my love for these two impressionable little humans who needed a mommy to help them make appropriate life decisions, to rear them, and to give them guidance through the ups and downs of life.  No one ever forgets the first moment they hold their newborn child in their arms. Love floods your life. I never realized what “love” was until I had children of my own. 

My motherly love and instinct doesn’t just stop with my own children.  I found myself taking on this motherly role every time we had a child patient.  When a local national child on a liter passed by my door I saw my children in their place. I saw my children’s faces filled with complete despair. Not only was ‘my baby’ hurt, but being placed on this loud flying object, with people they don’t know.  A feeling of helplessness fills me because I can’t comfort my daughters. I blink and am brought back to reality to realize the child is not mine.

‘Don’t allow the flood gates to open. Emotions are weak!’

Picking up adult patients has a completely different dynamic than picking up children. A sense of innocence fills the aircraft.  All judgement is gone. We are here to save the life of a child and possibly change their prejudices of Americans. They say things happen in threes…

“MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! You have one Category A (possibility of losing life, limb or eyesight mission)”  

Our first patient of the day was a 15 year old child.  Our assumption, based off the ROE, was that the child would be going to the American Hospital. To our great disbelief, we were told to bring the child to Camp Hero.  “Kandahar Tower, please be advised we have a 15 year old patient on board.” My heart sunk at the response that followed. “MEDEVAC Aircraft, Kandahar Tower, you are to bring the patient to Camp Hero.”  Every horrible feeling associated with Camp Hero filled my veins.  We delivered the patient to Camp Hero but not without regrets. Within 45 minutes of shutting down the aircraft at our Forward Observation Base (FOB)……

“MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! You have one category A”

Another child.  Prior to getting the patient, our entire crew acknowledged the frustration of our last flight.  Once the patient was on board the medic told us the child was 14 years old. Knowing the last child was 15, 14 would probably not make any difference for the medical officer making the decisions.  We formulated a plan. If the child was younger, they may change their minds. This child was now “12 years of age” and we were going to get this little darling to the American Hospital.  “Kandahar Tower MEDEVAC aircraft inbound with a 12 year old Category A!”  Again, we were told to bring a child to Camp Hero. Comments immediately came from the crew. “What the hell is going on?”  “Who is making these decisions?”  “They obviously don’t have children!”  Adamant that we would get this child to the American Hospital, we tried again. “Kandahar Tower, MEDEVAC aircraft, I say again!  We have a 12 year old child on board!”  To our dismay, “MEDEVAC Aircraft you are ordered to bring the child to Camp Hero!”  I’m sure everyone thought it but, “What the fuck,” came from someone in the aircraft.

‘Get your shit together!  You are about to look like a fool!’

To say the crew was raging would be an understatement. Once back to our FOB, we all vented our anger in our own ways.  Everyone finally settled down to a heated game of Spades.  This game helped us pass many arduous hours during our deployment.  Just as the game started to get entertaining,

“MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! MEDEVAC! You have one category A”

It was almost laughable.  Another child. Ten years of age! As you can probably guess, “our child” was not going to be ten anymore! Disgust filled our minds because we knew the projected outcome. We were not about to let another child go to Camp Hero.  Not on our watch. With this child’s injuries and the outcome of the day’s last two MEDEVAC calls, we discussed what to do when we got to Kandahar Airfield.  “If we are directed to bring this child to Camp Hero, are all of you all willing to disobey their direct order and land at the American Helipad?”  Every single one of us was unwavering. We knew this decision could ruin our careers. 

We prepared for the worst. “Kandahar Tower, MEDEVAC aircraft inbound with an eight year old, Category A for the American hospital helipad!”  “Negative MEDEVAC Aircraft you are ordered to bring the child to Camp Hero!” A sense of pride and defiance, along with a bit of nervousness filled the aircraft. Up until this point, I think I can speak for everyone in the crew, no one had ever disobeyed a direct order.   We confirmed one more time, “Do we all agree to bring this child to the American Hospital?”  A firm “Yes” came from every crewmember.

“NEGATIVE Kandahar Tower. MEDEVAC aircraft with an eight year old Category A is inbound for the American Hospital helipad!”  There it was. We defied orders, making a choice we thought necessary to save this child’s life. A child we didn’t even know. With wheels on the ground we waited at American Hospital helipad for an ambulance. No one came, probably because they were ordered not to. As a crew, we again came to a decision to walk the patient the quarter mile to the hospital. Once everyone was back on the aircraft we departed for the FOB. Everyone was quiet with introspection of the day’s events.

The thoughts are racing through my mind.

Death. After death. After gruesome death.  There is only so much blood, dismemberment, and death a person can take until they themselves break. ‘Why them?’ ‘Why not me?’ ‘Who would do this to their own people?’ ‘Why are these people so barbaric?’  Some stressors have a slow creep.  Gradually they sneak up on you through the daily turmoil of life. Or, they swiftly smack you in the face at the least expected moment. 

‘I NEED A GENERATOR!’

After returning to the FOB, I found my safe place. A place I knew that would keep my most vulnerable secrets safe. A place I learned about from one of my closest friends. It was as if I was let into a secret society the day she told me of this hidden place…… so obvious but completely out of sight. No one would know I was there. I went behind the generator where I could finally let me guard down. I plopped to the ground in a plume of dirt, leaned against a HESCO barrier, and with my elbows on my knees I placed my face in my hands. I let the emotions flow from my body like a fire hose. Literally and figuratively. I needed this release. It had been a while since I visited a trusty generator. I’m not sure how long I spent there that day surrounded by HESCO barriers and the muting noise of the generator. I know that I took my time. I wept for the two children who were sent to Camp Hero. I wept for my own children who were without their momma. I wept for my frustrations of war. By the end of my personal generator therapy session, I wiped the tears from my face, patted the dust from my uniform and was ready to take on another day.

Who knew that an inanimate, deafeningly loud, dirty object could provide a stepping stone on which to pause, gather courage, and rise again once more.


Photo credit of those simple, yet soul-saving, generators: US Army.

Book Review: “Radical Candor”

Author: Kim Scott

Direct feedback, no problem – right?

The military does feedback­­­—hardcore. Tasks have clear standards. Failure to meet the standards results in direct, swift feedback – written, verbal (perhaps this is too gentle a word), and physical. As a leader, I provided clear, objective feedback to my personnel and my unit.

Out of the military, I found my “direct” approach was not as well received (again, likely too gentle a word).  Additionally, I thought that everyone around me either gave no feedback or the feedback was trivial. ­ Transitioning from the military means interacting in a new, unfamiliar world. Without a feedback loop, I couldn’t tell how I was doing. The more uncertain I got, the more defensive I became — labeling people as “passive aggressive,” “super-introverted,” or “indecisive. ” I could not read them so I thought they were all wrong or just chickenshit. Then one day, I finally got some direct, candid feedback

It crushed me and it was exactly what I needed.

Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor,” fundamentally changed how I view feedback.  “Radical Candor” is written as a guide for managers, but the book spoke to both my need for feedback and the mistakes I was making when I gave it. Scott uses quadrants based on caring and directness to define approaches for delivering feedback.  Too direct – and you’re a jerk.  Too caring – and you are ineffective.

I was, what Kim Scott called, “obnoxious aggression” (aka jerk).

Scott argues that the most effective quadrant from which to give feedback is both direct and caring – which she calls “Radical Candor.” Be direct and specific with your feedback. Apply the same level of specificity to both the good things an employee does and areas where they aren’t cutting it. Make clear for your employee how they can improve.

Easy right? The tricky part comes with caring. Give feedback ONLY if you care about the growth and success of the other person.

When you care about another person, it doesn’t matter who is right and wrong. It’s not a contest for the best grades or the fastest times. Success is more than just winning – anyone can win. “Radical Candor” means defining success by growth.

When I framed feedback in terms of helping others grow, I fundamentally changed. I stopped competing with them and I started truly caring about the person. My ego and the desire to be right was replaced by my drive to help others overcome struggles and be better.

The funniest, most unexpected thing happened next ­— I got better at receiving feedback! Viewed through the lens of improvement rather than being right/wrong, I started to listen more closely to what a person was saying. I endeavored to really understand their assessment because I was myself on a relentless path to improve.

Slowly, my new world became a little less unfamiliar. I began to see hints of feedback all around me. The path was now defined by improvement and growth. I confidently stepped into the non-military world knowing that whatever it threw at me, and no matter my shortcomings, I would be just fine as long as I kept trying.

So bring on the feedback!

Veteran Voices: Behind the Generator

Part 1: No one goes behind the generator

The sound is deafening. It smells like JP8, exhaust, and dirt mixed into a toxic, sweltering cloud.  Usually, the ground is littered with an array of ancient plastic bottles, relics of some past water bottle contract. Generators are positioned in hard to reach corners of compounds and only barely accessible for refueling. They are usually semi-entombed in concrete barriers to protect them from mortars – which traps the tiny, noxious, atmosphere within protective walls.

No one goes behind the generators.

I went behind the generator. In the noisy, hot confusion, I found a quiet safety in which to fall totally and completely apart.

If the generator could talk, it would tell of great sadness. A sadness born in an unimaginable world that is unfair and cruel and ruthlessly selective. It would tell of frustration – trying to remember my mission despite feeling our objective was just recycled from a different theater or an older war. Knowing surely that I mattered to the people I served, but questioning some days if they even know I existed.  Feeling with every email or post, that the people I left behind were slowly leaving me. Watching my dreams get harder and harder to catch.

And fear. The bitter taste of true fear that comes when I saw how easy and final death really was.

The generator would also talk of strength. Of looking the fear, and death, and sadness squarely in the face – feeling every bit.  The generator would tell of the birth of courage, which came in the moment when the tears ran dry and sobbing stopped with a rattling gasp. In those eternal seconds, courage would be born. Birthed in the decision to continue on.

Behind the generator- the Soldier chooses to stand, wipe the tears and dust, sling the rifle, and simply go to chow.

The next day, the mission will call. And we will choose to go out again.

I learned to go behind the generator from a good friend. She too lived this life that was both so full of reality and yet so empty. She knew how the conflict of emotions after death, crashes, sandstorms, pointless missions, and nearly dying for some dumb ring route could rip at the core of person. One day, she told me to go behind the generator and feel it all. “No one goes behind the generator,” she said. The generator won’t talk. No one will ask questions. She said I would be okay.

She was right.


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. Photo credit of those pristine, clean generators: US Army.

Veteran Voices: Series Introduction

Every Veteran has a story

We owe all veterans the right to tell their story – as they see it – without our judgement.

Delivering that story in their own unique voice can be the first, critical step to healing from the experiences of war. It is our solemn duty to listen. As citizens, we likely hold no individual fault in the prosecution or decision to go to war. But as a Nation, it is our responsibility to participate in recovering from it. In listening to these stories – as Veterans and citizens together – we can begin to heal and find peace.

The stories that follow are told directly by Veterans. This series consists of multi-part stories anchored by a single event that occurred on a single day. Yet this event played out long after that day. It was relived in the mind.  It was shared. Lessons learned were passed on over years and across continents to help other Veterans.

A single day and a single voice can have lasting impact. When we choose to listen, we choose healing. Here are their stories:

Book Review: “Lost Connections”

Author: Johann Hari

People not pills

Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.

As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.

Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”

And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.

Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.

Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.

Connect with others

“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.

So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.

Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.

Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.

I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.


Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.