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.

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.

The Strongest Generation: Weight of the Bag

This morning I went up in the attic, looking for Autumn decorations in storage bins that are poorly labeled (organization has never been my strong suit).  As I opened one of the bins, I noticed a plastic trash bag inside, also not labeled.  I soon saw the box next to it containing “memorabilia” from my husband’s jet crash that nearly took his life almost nine years ago, and immediately knew the contents of the plastic bag.  

This particular moment is etched into my memory with remarkable clarity, and I’ve never taken the time to write it down.  I want to share it in hopes that others who may be going through extremely tough times might find some encouragement that one day, by the grace of God, you will be able to breath again.



“Are you Mrs. Smith” a young sailor hesitantly asked.  “I’m Mrs. Smith,” I responded, with just enough breath to be audible.  “This is for you,” he responded, as he handed me a heavy trash bag.  “Ummm…” I said, but before I had the opportunity to inquire at to what it was, he had left the room.  

Nine months pregnant, I slowly ambled back to the hospital lobby chair, waiting to find out my husband’s prognosis – bag in hand.  I was curious as to what the guy had just handed me, a welcome diversion from the sense of shock that had robbed me of a full breath of air just twelve hours prior.  

“It was heavy…what was inside?”  

As I began to open the bag, still puzzled, I caught a glimpse of green fabric, the kind that carries with it a familiarity of both deep joy and heartache.  Though it was familiar, it was not as it should be–it took me a moment to realize what it was– his flight suit, ragged and torn, and then neatly cut in some places.  It was heavy, drenched in sea water, with one peculiarly unscathed detail…

His patch.  

The sight of his name stole the last little bit of breath from my lungs and I froze. A rush of emotion welled up inside with no way to escape.  I swallowed the tears that were too big to express… I was numb.  

In disbelief, I began pulling more items from the plastic bag.  His shirt and boxers, neatly cut from top to bottom. A torn sock. Finally a combat boot– only one– with the bottom partially ripped off.  It was heavy.

“He’s alive,” I kept thinking… “he’s alive”… and yet I still couldn’t seem to catch my breath.  

All of that water, some lost blood, and actualized fears were contained in that bag.  It was a bag I wasn’t supposed to have received, the contents of which were intended to be evidence for the investigation that was already underway.  I gave up on trying to take full breaths, it was a futile cause anyway.  

I closed the bag.  It was too heavy.  

Today, nearly nine years after this event, the contents of that bag still carry a weightiness, bringing back a flood of memories from that uncertain time.  The “what if?” still haunts me from time to time. The thought of why he survived when so many others in similar circumstances did not still makes my head spin. The fact that he fully recovered, fought to get back up in the jet, and has gone on to have a successful aviation career– while almost miraculous– means that the same danger is ever-present. It’s not entirely in the past.

Yet now, when I see those clothes, that patch, the titanium rod (which we keep as a memento of my husband’s transition to semi-bionic limbs!), that spent nearly a year in his leg before being replaced during yet another surgery, my fears give way to an underlying sense of hope.  

The sea water that once weighed the bag down has long since dried up, the wounds have healed, and new patches have replaced the old.  

My breath returned, although it took much longer than expected. Only scars remain, reminding me of a time when the load was too heavy, too big, too much to bear…a time when I was carried through by grace.


This post is part of a series called The Strongest Generation. These words offer insights into the souls of those touched by America’s longest war.

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?

Who is the Strongest Generation?

Touched by America’s longest war…

America’s strongest generation is all around you.

They sit next to you at soccer practice, watching their kid or grandchild play. They take your order at a restaurant. They pray silently in church with everyone. They stand in line for groceries, mentally planning what final errand can be run before picking up the kids.

America’s strongest generation is all ages, races, and religions. Some are infants while others are old men. There are college graduates and high school drop outs. Many are immigrants.

Each of them carries within them the seed of strength forged through struggle.

I served as a member of the military. But I was not alone. My family served. At any given point for about a 10 year period, my parents had at LEAST one child deployed. My parents, like so many, lived daily with the dread of what could happen.

Parents served. Grandparents served.

As a military spouse, I also worried about what could happen. Most days I was too busy caring for small children, getting to work, and trying to squeeze in some joke of a workout to think too much about the unthinkable – but when I stopped at night – there it was. And the children, who we all assumed were too young to understand, at night being tucked into bed asked the simple, yet disarming question. What happens if Dad dies?

Spouses served. Children served.

The families of our military carried the absence of their loved ones daily. Some days the feeling was acute. Other days it was not so near. Parties, holidays, and special events can make the absence crushing. A date on the calendar, a countdown clock – but we all learned that years apart cannot be healed by minutes together. People change, children grow. In reality, days, months, and years are needed after each deployment to grow together again.

Absence is an injury.

Some families don’t make it. Often the relationships were too young, tested in the fire of war before being given the time to anneal. Others were tired and they collapsed because, as a Nation, we asked too much of that marriage.

These are untold casualties of war.

All separated families struggle. It is in the struggle that we grow stronger. Accepting the struggle and embracing the challenge. Always working toward the goal of together. The strongest generation chooses love above all else. The family – despite the countless cycles of anxiety, isolation, and jarring returns, continues to look for the good times. They appreciate peace. The live for steady.

If you’ve been touched by war – as a Soldier, spouse, parent, or child – you are part of the strongest generation. You’ve know the greatest pain, the deepest loss, and the purest love. You’ve fought the inner voices of doubt or fear and continued forward. America’s strongest generation is all around us.

Find them, and you will never be alone.