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.

Veteran Voices: Finding Peace In Our Longest War

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I don’t live afriad.

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

Peace in small moments keeps my big fears away.

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

And then – I don’t.

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

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

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

And always hug the ones we love.

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

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


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

America’s Longest War Phones Home

What does it mean, when war becomes home and home becomes war.

On my first deployment, I remember standing in line with about 25 other people holding an AT&T calling card, waiting to use a phone in a big trailer filled with phones. The calling card was for 60 minutes but for some reason the rates got all messed up and you usually ended up with about 15 minutes.

Those were 15 minutes worth waiting in any line. At first…

Email was difficult too. Again there were banks of computers with a slow dialup and Internet Explorer. Tents were usually sponsored by the USO or MWR. Lines for computers were really long, especially after dinner. Time per machine was limited because so many people were waiting. Early in the deployment, we’d all wait for hours to send an email or make a phone call.

But as the weeks, and months, and years (yes, 455 days is a long damn time) went by – we waited less and less to email or call home. The world we left stopped being real and just faded away. So why spend 3 hours waiting to send another email about lifting weights, or chow, and asking about family. Home continued on just fine without us. We continued on without home. Our old world no longer seemed real. We were forgotten. We forgot everything besides the missions, the gym, the chow, and dust.

Enter technology.

It started with Skype. For the first time, we could see our family and they could see us. The video would freeze a lot and we’d make the calls over and over and over. But we could SEE each other! We were real and they were too.

Then the other 10s of different messaging platforms (we now call them “apps”) happened. The internet got faster. MWR started providing internet in our rooms. Skype became outdated. Today, my kids can send a video message by tapping an “app” and talking, whenever they want. I can share a google doc with my grocery list with my deployed spouse. Emails are now outdated.

When we first deployed, we were happy to see a box with magazines, beef jerky, and sunflower seeds. Letters would take 3-5 weeks to reach us. Today, troops serving in Iraq or AFG can order what they need on Amazon. APO is now an option on most drop-down menus for your “state.” Service members now struggle with the decision whether to bring their iPhone with them or wonder if the internet will be fast enough to support online gaming.

I don’t think I am happy knowing that ordering from Amazon or dropping a quick video message is common and normal. War is not common. War should not be normal. Normal is easy. We seem to have forgotten that war is not normal. What was hard, rare, and of last resort – today is normal and common.

I miss the 3-5 week letter.

That letter was special. That letter had a hard path to find me – in a hard place. I knew, when I got that letter, that someday I would return to a place where letters didn’t take 3-5 weeks to reach me. Home would be different.

What’s the difference now?

Veteran Voices: Part 3 – Behind the Generator

So that’s how I’m going to die –

It wasn’t so much of a question, nor a complete thought, it was more of a realization – that hit me like a train. Almost a decade ago, I stood in front of my boss, torn between the desperate desire to run and the inability to move.

I was a pilot working for an infantry unit. Mostly I planned air missions with the Aviation unit, serving as a coordinator between the helicopters and the ground guys. After our final coordination meeting, my boss stopped me and said, “ You’re rolling out with the Strykers to run the TAC,” which is a planning cell that typically operates closer to the front lines of a battle and away from the safety of the main base.

Umm what? Keep your shit together.

I couldn’t move. I don’t think I heard much after those words and my body seemed to stop functioning. My heart was in my stomach. My nerves were racing and the world was spinning round about me. My boss was still talking, and others in the TOC were moving around working, but I couldn’t hear anything.

I pictured all the terrible things that had unfortunately already happened to that unit many times over. The Stryker seemed liked a death trap to me. Maybe this is what ground guys felt when they climb into an aircraft –a flying death trap. They can’t control it and are hundreds of feet from impending doom.

Don’t puke. Breathe. Don’t look at anyone. Keep moving. Don’t stop.

I acknowledged my boss, walked straight out of the tent and kept walking. I knew I had to get away from everyone. I found rows of generators, all clean and packaged, sitting on pallets waiting to be shipped out. I was finally alone. But my counterpart had followed me out and started talking rapidly about the mission, with excitement and enthusiasm. Then I looked at him. He stopped dead. I just blurted it all out. I cried. Tears streamed down my face, I couldn’t stop them. He tried to console. I was having a panic attack.

How could I be so weak? I didn’t feel as tough as I thought I was.

My counterpart left, knowing I needed to be alone. I paced. I kicked rocks. I cursed. I tried to accept my fate. I thought about what I’d need to survive the week. I just needed to pack my bags and go.

  • Ammo
  • Extra ammo
  • Can I get a 9mm too?
  • Snacks. Must avoid MREs as long as possible
  • Warm Clothes
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Call my family one more time. Write one more letter.

They had my folder with my Will, POAs, funeral plan, and another set of letters to each family member. I left my stuff at home in boxes just in case. After my last deployment, this folder was the first thing my Dad gladly handed back to me saying he didn’t want to touch it again.

If I died, well I guess my number was up. I was in not-so-wonderful Afghanistan, at a not-wonderful time. After non-stop deployments you understand, sometimes it’s just your time. Way back, so many innocent years ago at Flight School, they told us to look left and to look right, and that in a few years, one of us wouldn’t be there anymore.

  • My flight school stick buddy
  • Several friends
  • My commander
  • My Soldiers
  • My teammates
  • Close calls – that but for the difference of a few moments – me.

I cleaned myself up, dusted myself off, and put myself back together. Then I walked back in, no longer hidden by darkness, fear or shame. I can do this, I will do this.

I apologized to my boss for the way I just stood there before. But he had the most perplexed look and said he and my counterpart realized it was smarter for me to run the mission from the base, with better radios and equipment, while my counterpart went to the TAC.

I’m sorry what?!? This night will not end!

Back outside to the generators, this time, motioning to my counterpart to follow. I yelled at him. “You told the boss I freaked out?” He replied, “No! I asked why you would go out with shitty radios to the middle of nowhere, when what you need to control the mission is here.”

Once again, I couldn’t stop the tears or the flood of emotions- anger, confusion, frustration, relief, guilt.

And I hated myself for it.

It wasn’t about the operation anymore. It was about him. “No, way! You aren’t taking my seat and I’m not sending you. I’m not writing a letter home to your parents. I’m not writing a letter to your fiancé.” He said he’d be fine and let me be. I kicked a ton of rocks, and cleaned myself up – again – and went back to work.

For a short period of time, we debated who would go – each of us wanting to carry the load for the other. Ultimately, the mission was called off. I used to wonder which one of us would have gone, and if the entire convoy would have survived. I see now that we both were afraid. We knew our fate.  My teammate wanted to protect me and I him.

The only way I know how to honor those I’ve lost is to strive to be a better human being, officer, leader, and friend every day. It could have easily have been me. 


This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class. Photo credit for the generators that gave us the time and space we needed: US Army.

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