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.

Book Review: “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control

Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.

I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.

I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)

Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.

As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.

Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”

About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.

Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation

There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)

Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.

Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.

I am the elephant.


Here is the VA’s page of resources on PTSD and the VA Crisis Line

These are just a couple amazing Veteran retreat options I know:

Book Review: “Thank You for My Service”

Author: Mat Best

Not Your Normal War Story

I loved war too. Thanks for telling your story Mat.

In late 2007, somewhere in Iraq, sometime between 2 pm and 2 am – I sat on a dusty couch watching, with 10 or so other people, a 20 year old crew chief that smelled like dust, Skoal, and sweat perform the most incredible rendition of “One” by Metallica. His fingers flew across the instrument so fast I could not follow. None of us was ready to try this song. But here he was – slaying it. As the final note passed, we all went crazy cheering like he had hit the game winning home run. And at the moment, he had. He was a Guitar Hero. For that moment – he was a god.

There is a LOT of time to kill in war. 455 days of deployment was more like 445 days of sheer boredom, 8 days of “hey that was cool,” and a couple of days we just don’t talk about – all dosed out in 8-10 hr increments thanks to flight hour/crew rest restrictions. We also played a lot of Call of Duty, Halo, some dumb WWII airplane game, and my personal favorite, Tony Hawk (for the soundtrack).

We did missions too. Those were fun most of the time. – That’s right. Fun. I loved flying and still do. There is no place in the world that a pilot can push, test, and utilize every feature of their aircraft except war. Even flying a routine mission can push the platform and the pilot (dust landings and AFG mountains are no joke). I miss the fun of flying in those environments (the “res” just doesn’t quite cut it). And I miss the people. Nearly every veteran I know misses the camaraderie that is built in combat.

Mat Best’s book “Thank You For My Service” is his story of his time in the service of our nation. Mat unapologetically describes how his time shaped him, gave him confidence, and propelled him to be the entertainer and creator he is today. He clearly loved every minute.

Mat is honest in his rendition of his service – doesn’t sugar coat it. If you don’t know Mat Best, I suggest checking out his videos linked at the end of this page before making a purchase to calibrate your expectations – this is not your normal veteran war book.

Which is why its worth reading.

Mat uses humor to drive a spike right into the heart of sensitivities, language, or veteran cultural taboos (suicide, PTSD, sexuality, and alcohol – mostly whiskey). If you are able to set aside judgement, for the week or so it takes to read this book, at the end you will have gained an honest look inside one part of the culture of war. You might not like it. You will probably not agree with him. You will almost certainly be offended by something. But you will have given him the chance to tell his story – which is one story of many from the veteran community.

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

For many, we loved our time in War. Most days, we miss it. Yes – almost all of us have scars. Yet today, we are thriving and kicking ass not in spite of war, but because of it.

Check out more Mat Best creations at Black Rifle Coffee, on YouTube, and on all sorts of social media platforms…