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 should 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.

Book Review: “Lost Connections”

Author: Johann Hari

People not pills

Smith was a good kid. A hard worker. Kinda goofy but always good natured. So when my work phone buzzed in the early afternoon on a Saturday and it was Smith, I was surprised. He told me he was going to kill himself and thanked me for being kind to him.

As a commander in the GWOT Army, I had a checklist for this phone call. When a Soldier acts a certain way or says just the right words, and the checklist told me exactly which doctor to call, which hospital I could send him to, and how long we needed to wait before we could start a chapter to process the soldier out.

Nowhere in the checklist was – “ask Soldier what’s going on.”

And that is how, so many young men and women came through my hanger with bottles of pills, appointments with psychologists, and finally – chapters out. As the commander, I was part of the process that pushed them along, hoping that if we moved just a little faster, we might get a replacement before we deployed.

Johann Hari’s “Lost Connections” was incredibly eye-opening for me. The first part of the book speaks to the history of mental health medication and treatment over the last few decades. Hari describes how being diagnosed with depression at a young age greatly shaped his identity. Later, as he began to question his treatment effectiveness, detachment from his diagnosis left him unbalanced and looking for the true cause of his pain.

Hari’s quest to learn the true cause of depression and anxiety led him to nine breaks in critical connections. These disconnects range from exposure to childhood trauma, an absence of nature, and a loss of meaningful values. Hari then goes on to offer a number of ways to reconnect with what matters most to us.

Connect with others

“Reconnecting with others,” hit home with me thinking about Smith and how we, as a military organization had handled mental health. Most of my Soldiers had made some real bone-head choices. Sure, some Soldiers were struggling with multiple deployments, difficult family situations, and substance abuse. But the vast majority of the kids on pills had just been young and stupid, because that is what young soldiers do. And have done for decades.

So why now, did we punt them to pills and docs rather than our NCOS and leaders. These young men and women needed guidance from older men and women. Mentors. Friends. A sense of belonging and need to live up to a hero. Young Soldiers needed to know the feeling of letting someone down, having regret, finding forgiveness, and striving to not fail again.

Maybe Hari was on to something known by many an old 1SG – these kids need leaders not pills.

Smith didn’t die that day. There is no checklist for that kind of phone call. It is person to person – listening and talking – and praying. Every part of me was praying that he would keep talking a little longer so that the police could get there. Later at the hospital, when I saw Smith, it wasn’t the same goofy kid. Maybe they had him on meds, which is what I like to think, but he was hollow and gone.

I wept that day for so many reasons. Despite saving a life, I knew I had a checklist to follow. It was waiting for me at my desk. The next day, I would be starting his paperwork to leave the Army, his friends, and his support. I would start the process to remove him from the one thing I knew, deep down, he needed most: us.


Smith is a real story and a combination of stories. He is one of many casualties of GWOT that will never be thanked, memorialized, or have books written about. So I am writing it now.

Book Review: “The Happiness Hypothesis”

Author: Jonathan Haidt

Choosing Curiosity, Taking Control

Emotions are flares to guide your path. They will help direct your journey, but be careful to not let the heat consume you.

I learned anger after my first deployment. Anyone who sat through a command&staff with me, or was there when the local police called – again – about one of my soldiers, certainly saw my anger. My husband saw my anger. My friends saw it. In the military we hide anger with jokes, and cynicism, and booze – but it sits there – seething under the surface.

I learned isolation from traumatic family events. For all the calls I didn’t return, the help I refused to take, and the nights I did not sleep worrying about everything that I didn’t know how to handle – I still refused to let any of it go. I put everyone else before me, isolating myself in the name of protecting and caring for my wounded family.

Jonathan Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis” was my first exposure to thinking about the source of my emotions. Haidt uses a powerful metaphor to describe the relationship between our “conscious mind” and our “emotional response”. He describes the relationship as a rider (conscious mind) trying to steer an elephant (emotional response). The rider thinks he has control but really – come on – at the end of the day, the elephant will do what it wants!

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is a creation of our mind” – Buddha (taken from Haidt’s book, Ch 2)

Haidt describes 10 Great Ideas drawn from his studies of the world’s major religions. He talks about how even across oceans, humans approach concepts like reciprocity, seeking happiness, love, the power of adversity, and many more Great Ideas in very similar ways. He explores how our rituals, our art, and our social customs shape our perceptions of the world around us. Using the metaphor of the rider and elephant – it is pretty clear how a lifetime of experiences ultimately train our elephants.

As I walked with Haidt on his Great Ideas adventure, I began to see how my life experiences – from my education, to my family traumas, to the experience of war – had shaped the way I interact with the world fundamentally. I began to see that my world shaped my thoughts yet my world was also created by my mind.

Finally, with this kinda confusing, “chicken and egg” realization – the words of a good friend finally started to make sense. “The Trauma happened only once. We then experience that Trauma a thousand times over as our minds struggle to process it. That is the cycle of PTSD.”

About the same time I was reading the “The Happiness Hypothesis,” I was also exposed to the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) at a Veteran retreat. CBT is a tool used to help people learn methods for interrupting negative feedback loops to help control responses that are physically or emotionally harmful.

Situation – Thought – Emotion – Physical Response – New Situation

There it was again. My thoughts. Armed with the confidence that I could deliberately shape my thoughts, I realized I might be able to re-learn how to responded to the world. I did not have to be angry. Or feel isolated. I became curious about my thoughts – without judgement. I learned to pause in the emotion and wonder why it was there. What experience from my past had trained my mind to respond in such a way?

“The whole universe is change and life itself is but what you deem it.” – Marcus Aurelius (Haidt, Ch 2)

Learning to be curious about my emotions – to catch them and investigate them – was the first step in taking control of my subconscious. I was riding an elephant yes – but I was training him along the way. My emotions were my guides – now telling me to pause for exploration and giving me control over how I responded.

Little by little, I chose to stop being angry. I decided to stop feeling isolated. And so – I wasn’t. My world is my thoughts. My world is created by my mind. I chose my world.

I am the elephant.


Here is the VA’s page of resources on PTSD and the VA Crisis Line

These are just a couple amazing Veteran retreat options I know: