COVID Re-deployment

As the plane descended, I was struck by how green everything looked. Just a week ago, flying over the desert of Iraq, the only color was brown sand. The green below didn’t look real. As the plane began to taxi to the terminal, I again noticed the differences of home. The runway concrete wasn’t cracked or full of potholes. The grass was freshly mowed. The plane lurched to a stop at the terminal, and seat belts clicked open. I began to sweat and my heart raced.

I was afraid to get off the plane.


America will start coming home from a deployment soon. This deployment was unlike any I’d experience in the military. In response to COVID, we’d deployed to our homes, rather than to Iraq or Afghanistan. Like a deployment, our daily routines of work, school, and activities were replaced with routines at home. We got new jobs as teachers, chefs, guidance counselors, and fitness instructors, while often continuing to work but from a new office.

Like a deployment, we had moments of anger and despair as well as happiness and laughing. There were countless hours of sheer boredom. Some people worked out a lot while others put on the pounds. Our uniforms were masks and we learned to know, just by feel, a 6 foot distance. Slowly, over time, we adapted to our deployed surroundings.

Redeployment begins this Fall as many people start coming home. Unlike military deployments, coming home will actually mean leaving home. The drive to the office, the walk to school — these things that were once so routine we barley noticed — will now be new and unfamiliar.

Today I stand at the threshold of the plane and wonder if I can step off.

I watch other people for signs about how to feel about all of this. I’m questioning why I feel different. Some passengers are dashing for the door, eager for things to get back to normal. Others hesitate, unsure about normal and not yet ready to go home. I find myself judging both those who sprint or those who freeze.

The weight of the first step is heavy. For many, this will be the hardest single step they’ve ever taken. Deciding to come home is a choice. It is one that must be made by each individual. Some people might take years to choose. Others will step easily back into life. A few might never return, remaining trapped in a deployment they cannot leave.

As I steady my breathing and slow my racing heart, the challenges of my past fortify me in the present. I’ve stood here before, wavering in face the obstacles thrown at me in life, work, or school. Recently, just deciding whether to get a haircut made me pause.

The plane has brought me home from home a COVID deployment, but I am not back yet. With one more steadying breath, I make the choice and step off the plane. I am coming home, one step at a time.

Whoever Sits In the Chair

I was slow to get out of the car. This was the first African-American funeral I had been assigned to work. I wasn’t from the South and I’d been raised in a largely white community. I had no idea how the families would react to a white, female officer providing military honors for their Veteran.

The US Army Flight School, located at Ft Rucker Alabama, is an assembly line for producing, packaging, and pushing out pilots.  The training plan is set for months but sometimes the perfectly synchronized schedule gets delayed by bad weather or not enough aircraft. This is how students end up in what we lovingly referred to as a “bubble,” or clogs in the training pipeline. A bubble is why I was temporarily assigned to a new job – funeral detail — and sitting apprehensively in a car at a cemetery outside Mobile, AL.

When someone serves in the military, they are entitled a funeral with military honors.  While some Veterans are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, most are buried near their homes at local cemeteries. The military unit stationed nearby is tasked to provide military honors for local funerals. Fort Rucker had the responsibly to conduct military funerals for the entire state of Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

I had a task to do. I had a Veteran to honor. So, I put my headgear on and got out of the car.

That day, I was aware of my insecurities about the color of my skin, being a female in uniform, and being surrounded by not a single person that looked like me. I scanned the crowd, desperately trying to determine how the families felt about me. I struggled to contain my apprehension as I knelt and handed the folded flag to the elderly widow who sat, ever so delicately in her graveside chair.

Her eyes met mine.

I passed that flag and completed the sacred pact our military had made to this Veteran so many years ago when he raised his hand to serve.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Army, and a grateful Nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

As I recited the words of our Nation’s gratitude, I saw the weight of her loss lighten slightly. I saw a flash of courage and pride that I can only say was the Veteran’s final gift to his loved ones — strength passed on through one final task. In that moment, as I knelt with a sacred flag, I was connected to the woman sitting in the chair before me. Race, age, gender, and everything else fell away. We were joined by the sacrifice of her loved one and her loss.

Then I rose, saluted, and withdrew with my team, leaving the family to make peace in these last moments. In our uniforms, moving with precision, directness, and care, the family of this Veteran saw one thing — the US Army saying goodbye to our comrade.

In the deep heart of Southern Alabama, I learned that loss and grief are the same regardless of who sits in the chair. I handed folded flags to the next-of-kin of all ages, races, and both genders. Mothers, wives, children, fathers, husbands…they all grieved the loss of their loved one.

On that day, I briefly experienced what it was like to feel different and out-of-place because of the color of my skin or my gender. For many, that experience is not brief, but rather daily. I also learned that finding connection through loss, and love, and service can break through fear.  I will forever remember and be grateful to the woman in the chair.

Welcome to the 1%

Sitting outside at the bar with some old friends, I sipped a cold beer and listened to the conversation. It was hard to believe that only a month ago, I had been sweating in the hot sun of Iraq. I sat, enjoying the warmth of the sun and ideally wondered how this could be the same sun that had scorched me mercilessly for the last year?

But the day wasn’t turning out exactly like I had pictured. Despite having known my friends for much of my life, they felt foreign to me. The conversation – about reality TV shows, sports, or someone’s relationship injustice – all seemed trivial. Next to us, a man complained about his meal, citing a violation of his self-imposed dietary restriction.

What the hell was wrong with everyone?

Almost certainly, a US service-member would be killed or maimed today. While we sat here chatting about bullshit, my deployed friends continued to live knowing that today might be their last breakfast, phone call, or preflight. In the country I just left, having a meal, or a job, or even electricity was a luxury. Going to school or the market could get you killed.

At the bar, people bought me drinks, called me a “hero,” and thanked me for my service. My friends asked a few questions about deployment, but I didn’t want to answer. How could I begin to explain any of what had happened when I couldn’t even talk about college football?

I silently sipped my beer. Angry and alone.

They say less than 1% of America served in the military. Listening to conversations of my friends — about Real Housewives, college football rankings, or some trendy diet — I began to feel just how small that 1% really was. I eventually left the bar, wishing I was back in Iraq with people who understood how I was feeling.

No one gets it.

Perhaps only 1% of the population treated patients, searched for medical miracles, and held the hands of the dying during the COVID pandemic. These workers sacrificed their families and their personal well-being, stood in the face of COVID, and chose not to flinch.

Healthcare workers will be coming home soon. My world of semi-normal will begin to mix with theirs. Our family has had schedule disruptions, frustrations with school, and disappointments certainly, but overall our COVID experience has been rather benign. I’ve seen the pictures of the morgue truck, PPE covered doctors, and people weeping behind masks. But I will never fully understand what it was like to be a healthcare worker during the COVID pandemic.

I will listen.

While I will never fully understand what it was like to fight COVID, I do know what it’s like to come home changed. I have felt isolated by an experience I could not share. When everyone seemed to move on with their lives, I know the feeling of being stuck and left behind. I know what its like to want to talk, but not have the energy to make a sound. I have wanted to just go back.

Welcome — to the 1%.

I pledge to hear your stories, ask you questions, or simply sit in silence and sip a beer with you.

Behind the Door

I stood in front of the door because I could not bring myself to go in. School doors are locked to protect the children, but it wasn’t the lock that was holding me back. I’d picked up my kids through this door countless times before today. To my left, a box with the intercom button that would buzz me right in. I was unable to press the button.

How do I go through this door? How do I tell them?

The kids knew the second they saw me. Picking up children from school is usually a flurry of bags and coats and art projects. But once the tornado of construction paper and backpacks slowed — they knew. The teachers could tell something was up too. All eyes turned to me, to us, and watched.

It was probably my eyes that gave it away. It is always the eyes.

We walked 20 feet to a bench just outside the doors of the school and sat down. I told them the facts of what had happened. Unlike the movies, there was no wailing or screaming or even questions. Their tears were so quiet, silently falling on the red bricks at our feet. One question came…

What do we do now?

We drove to the hospital to see Dad. As we walked inside, I was thrown back to the events of the morning — entering a hospital I’d driven by a hundred times but never been inside. Wondering what I would hear when the ER doctor emerged. Bracing as he pulled the curtain back.

Later, with my children, the automatic doors opened and unfamiliar lobby space reminded me, again, that I did not know what I’d find upstairs. My wounded family entered this foreign land, which was far more terrifying than any battle or war I’ve ever fought.

We must walk through the door.

This week, we had more frustrations thanks to the COVID pandemic. What upset me most today, was again bringing bad news to the kids. I braced for the disappointment I’d become familiar with seeing in their eyes. Explaining why our neighbors crossed to the other side of the street rather than say “Hi,” as tears of confusion and hurt fell. Birthdays that would be celebrated without friends, mourned with silent tears. When the tiny screen of what has become school, ruthlessly closes on the world they left behind and little hearts break all over again.

I have to break their hearts again.

This morning, I again delivered a message of disappointment thanks to COVID. I braced. But this time — nothing— they simply asked, “What’s next.”

We chose to move forward with our typical COVID day — some school, gardening, art, and riding bikes. The future changed again, but today had not. As the kids logged into school and resumed their work, I realized that they had just walked through a door.

Thinking back to the hospital many years ago, I remember guiding them to the elevator and up to Dad’s room. We did not linger outside the door. We walked in to face what was the most terrible unknown a child could face. Dad was hurt badly. It was scary. But Dad got better and eventually, he walked through the door of our home again.

Each day threatens to bring a new change or new challenge. It is paralyzing to wait for the unknown to happen. I don’t try to predict or anticipate what is to come from COVID anymore. There will be more doors ahead and I will have to decide to walk through. But we have walked through some pretty terrible doors already, touched the face of despair, and found our joy once again. When I look into the eyes of my children, I know I am strong enough to lead them through whatever happens. And they are strong enough to follow.


Photo Credit: Dad

Finding Our Stride

The first month of deployment felt like running the 100-yd dash — in boots. For 18-hours a day, I went non-stop, fueled by coffee and energy drinks. My unit was busy inventorying gear, getting familiar with our mission, flying orientation flights, and doing last minute training. We held a daily update brief on the status of our critical tasks as we prepared to conduct a transfer of authority with the unit we were replacing.

A big change from home-life to deployed-life was that there were no cars. Where I used to drive from my hangar to meetings at battalion, I now found myself sprinting multiple times a day to the TOC. We had one van but it was usually fetching supplies or being used to coordinate inventories. Some of the bigger bases had bus routes, but the buses smelled like a high school locker room and broke down all the time.

On deployment, I walked everywhere and I walked fast.

After about 30 days, things started to slow down. The daily battle update briefings went to probably half the participants and were over in 30 minutes. In another month, the briefing would be held once a week with people only dialing-in if they needed something. Inventories became less frequent, soldiers starting working shifts, and I found myself walking to the gym as frequently as I walked to the TOC.

I was finding my stride.

My family has been through the “first 30 days” of our COVID deployment. Today feels a little more like yesterday and tomorrow doesn’t seem as scary. We try to keep a daily schedule, but we make allowances for an impromptu snuggle or the moments when someone just needs a little space. We’ve figured out how to have virtual workouts, playdates, happy hours, or anything else we used to do in person. My husband and I even have hand-and-arm signals to indicate “on a call” or not.

My household is finding its stride.

America will find its stride too. Changes to our lives that came rapidly, now seem to be a little more spread out. We are still watching the news but no longer glued to our TVs. We are putting our phones down and starting to pick up books. We still watch Netflix at night, but not every night. America is catching its breath, slowing down, and finding its stride.

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.