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.