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.