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.

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

Veteran Voices: The Phone Call

This post is part of a series called Veteran Voices. The story that follows is told directly by a Veteran. These words offer insights into the souls of our warrior class.

Rather than thanking a Veteran for their service, read their stories, connect with their losses, and find your own strength in their courage.


They’d be 15 and 16 this year.   

The commander always has his or her phone.  When I took command, I vaguely remember passing the colors, reading a speech, and singing the Army song. I distinctly remember picking up the simple Motorola flip phone from the podium where my predecessor had left it for me. 

I never could have imagined what that phone would mean to me.

In 2009, I was in the B boarding group – somewhere between 31 and 60 – shuffling along to board my Friday morning flight when my work phone rang.  We were off today because it was a holiday weekend and the higher command gave everyone a four-day weekend. I did not recognize the number as I flipped it open to answer the call, while continuing to shuffle forward with my boarding pass in hand.

“Hello, this is detective Tom.  Is PFC Smith one of your Soldiers?”

I racked my brain. I had about 150 Soldiers and, while I knew their names, the most junior were the ones I had the least interactions with. I recognized the name but couldn’t place a face.

“Yep,” I said. “What happened?” Already I was running through my mental list of which senior NCOs could go pick Smith up from jail following a DUI or domestic and which officers were around to write the CCIR for the event.  Given it was a holiday weekend, there were not many people around to handle these tasks.

“Ma’am – You need to come to the sheriff’s office.  PFC Smith has been murdered and we need someone to handle the children. We figured the military would know what to do with the kids.”

I dropped my boarding pass. The shuffling stopped.

The sheriff’s office was a trailer. Seriously. Like one of those trailers that overcrowded public schools use for classrooms.  Temporary and cheap. A detective met me along with my battalion commander, battalion CSM, and my first sergeant. 

And we saw the children. Two boys. One was 5 and one was 6.  When I first saw them, the little guy was sitting in the lap of an officer, playing with a toy of some sort. The older boy was coloring. I didn’t look long. I couldn’t. I didn’t know then why I couldn’t look at them, approach them, or hold them. I hurt to see them. I was ashamed. I knew – seeing them there and knowing what had happened, that I had failed them.

PFC Smith was murdered by her husband. We will never know what exactly happened, but he killed her, in front of their boys. He then called the police, reporting the event, and killed himself. In front of the boys.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

My battalion commander and I didn’t always get along. Seriously – for those who read this, know me, and sat through command & staff – I know those words are a little understated.  However, that night, he might have lived one of his greatest moments. The boys were in the clothes they’d worn when their parents were killed.  They were not clean. They had no snugglies, or blankies, or favored animals. Nothing except the stained clothes of murder.

That night, my battalion commander and CSM walked out of that shitty trailer into a shitty town. They passed the crime scene tape, and local news trucks, and cops just sitting around – and went back into that terrible house. They passed the blood and bodies and fear and death. And they found clothes, blankies, and favored animals.

That night, they pulled from a house of death what remained of love. Two children, who’d seen the death of their parents before their own young eyes, were given fresh cloths, and something to hold – when all else was gone.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

The children became wards of the state that night. Shortly thereafter, the state split them up. PFC Smith had no living relatives – and the boys had different fathers. The state sent each to the nearest relative, who of course, were not the same person. We closed PFC Smith out of the military. We returned her gear to the warehouse. We gave her death benefits to the guardians of the boys. Her life ended. Her boys, brothers, were split.

I joined the Army to protect people. To defend those who could not defend themselves. To step up when no one else would. To give my life so you did not have to give yours. But I could not protect PFC Smith from her husband. I could not protect her boys from what they saw. I could not even keep those boys together after her death.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year.

PFC Smith was a good Soldier.  She was middle of the road on PT (most of us were). She came to work every day and did her job. She smiled and joked, even if she was just re-stocking bench stock. I think she was qualified to drive the 10 ton forklift and I know she could drive an LMTV.  She raised two boys – while living in what was probably an abusive relationship, and she never said a word. She came to work. She was prepared to deploy. She served her country. 

She is the strongest generation.

Today, many years later, I still fall apart the on the anniversary of this weekend. The sadness is overwhelming. The image of those boys in that shitty trailer, brings me to my knees. I could not fix this. I failed them all.

But then I think of Smith. I think of her everyday courage. I think of how she came to work each day carrying a load I will never understand. Staying too long in the memory of her death dishonors her life. How her life ended doesn’t define her. Rather, how she lived is how we should all be.  We have almost no control over what happens to us.  The state splits us up. The world we love attacks us. We can’t change what happens to us, but we can choose how we live in this world

Each year, I re-affirm to live like Smith. The bear my burden to the end. To face each day with strength and courage.

They’d be 15 and 16 this year. I hope someday they read this and know how amazing their mom was. 


Smith is a real story and a real person but I have changed a few things to help project her identity. She and her children are the silent casualties of GWOT. No one will ever thank them, memorialized her, or write a book about simple courage. So I am telling her story.