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

Book Review: “Radical Candor”

Author: Kim Scott

Direct feedback, no problem – right?

The military does feedback­­­—hardcore. Tasks have clear standards. Failure to meet the standards results in direct, swift feedback – written, verbal (perhaps this is too gentle a word), and physical. As a leader, I provided clear, objective feedback to my personnel and my unit.

Out of the military, I found my “direct” approach was not as well received (again, likely too gentle a word).  Additionally, I thought that everyone around me either gave no feedback or the feedback was trivial. ­ Transitioning from the military means interacting in a new, unfamiliar world. Without a feedback loop, I couldn’t tell how I was doing. The more uncertain I got, the more defensive I became — labeling people as “passive aggressive,” “super-introverted,” or “indecisive. ” I could not read them so I thought they were all wrong or just chickenshit. Then one day, I finally got some direct, candid feedback

It crushed me and it was exactly what I needed.

Kim Scott’s book, “Radical Candor,” fundamentally changed how I view feedback.  “Radical Candor” is written as a guide for managers, but the book spoke to both my need for feedback and the mistakes I was making when I gave it. Scott uses quadrants based on caring and directness to define approaches for delivering feedback.  Too direct – and you’re a jerk.  Too caring – and you are ineffective.

I was, what Kim Scott called, “obnoxious aggression” (aka jerk).

Scott argues that the most effective quadrant from which to give feedback is both direct and caring – which she calls “Radical Candor.” Be direct and specific with your feedback. Apply the same level of specificity to both the good things an employee does and areas where they aren’t cutting it. Make clear for your employee how they can improve.

Easy right? The tricky part comes with caring. Give feedback ONLY if you care about the growth and success of the other person.

When you care about another person, it doesn’t matter who is right and wrong. It’s not a contest for the best grades or the fastest times. Success is more than just winning – anyone can win. “Radical Candor” means defining success by growth.

When I framed feedback in terms of helping others grow, I fundamentally changed. I stopped competing with them and I started truly caring about the person. My ego and the desire to be right was replaced by my drive to help others overcome struggles and be better.

The funniest, most unexpected thing happened next ­— I got better at receiving feedback! Viewed through the lens of improvement rather than being right/wrong, I started to listen more closely to what a person was saying. I endeavored to really understand their assessment because I was myself on a relentless path to improve.

Slowly, my new world became a little less unfamiliar. I began to see hints of feedback all around me. The path was now defined by improvement and growth. I confidently stepped into the non-military world knowing that whatever it threw at me, and no matter my shortcomings, I would be just fine as long as I kept trying.

So bring on the feedback!

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:

Book Series: Expeditionary Force

Author: Craig Alanson

Voice Actor and Narrator: R.C. Bray

Skippy –

Sometimes I need the space and time to grow. So I pick up a science fiction – to be entertained and maybe grab a leadership lesson along the way.

Craig Alason’s book series Expeditionary Force both entertains and sometimes make makes me think. I started listening to these books as my PhD dissertation was getting into the tough stage – trying to end but not yet there. The books gave my mind a rest for a bit. In 30 – 60 minutes, I could mentally rest. Listening was key to this series because the narrator – R.C. Bray – truly makes the books come to life, especially one of the main characters, Skippy the Beer Can. I highly encourage you to listen to the audiobook version of this series.

I have only listened to the first 5 books in Expeditionary Force but there are at least 8 main storyline books, and some spin off stories, which is pretty common in science fiction. The premise of the series starts out in Book 1 with a simple science fiction plot: alien race comes to earth, aliens treat us badly, humankind fights back.

Enter: “Joe”

Joe is a grunt. An Army Grunt – E5. He is a normal guy from New England that happened to make some lucky, albeit telling decisions, during the invasion, and save earth. The young NCO finds himself rewarded with a trip to a far off world to fight for an alien species that turns out to be embroiled in universal war far greater than humans ever could have known.

Enter: “Skippy the Beer Can

Truly there is no better character in modern science fiction than Alanson’s “Skippy the Beer Can.” The first book takes about half the plot to get to Skippy – wait – wait for him. It is worth it.

Skippy is an all-knowing, all-powerful, artificial intelligence that despite his infinite knowledge and winning personality, is physically limited by the absence of hands and feet. Joe finds Skippy on a far off world and the two of them proceed to embark on a hero’s quest together – with humor and humanity all in one.

The book is light mostly, but sometimes deep. Joe must lead his crew, and with that comes choices that challenge his values and morals. Skippy learns that human connection and love are the one thing that cannot fully understood through writing code. It must be gained by personal interactions with the crew and Joe. Together, these characters lead a crew across the galaxy, finding themselves in a fight that is as old as the universes itself. The book is hilarious and I am grateful to the talent of R.C. Bray, who brings the characters to life.

Growth isn’t immediate. I find that I have to give myself the space and the time to grow. Reading books takes me some time – more time than blogs or social media. But I also need time to experiment with lessons, try out an idea, mull over concepts, fail, succeed, and try again.

Frequently, I just need an emotional rest. To give my mind a place to lay down, perhaps after a long week or challenging encounter. I need to give myself the forgiving minute – to breath.

Criag Alanson’s books give me just a few more minutes. Through humor and a damn good story, I can find the space to rest, recover, and grow.

I breath. I laugh. I grow.

Book Review: “Braving the Wilderness”

Author: Brené Brown

Being Me is scary. To not be Me is torture.

Alone, in the silence of the woods, I have only myself. And I will be just fine.

Brené Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” came to me when I was having what I call a “self-awareness hangover.” This usually happens when I have read too many self-help, leadership, or business books causing my trips into self-awareness to wander into traps of self-doubt. I start to worry about how I handled past conversations, led my former teams, and interacted with fellow parents. Geez – how did I managed to get out of bed and parent at all?

Self-awareness hangovers leave me certain I will never fit in and will always be upsetting someone. Feeling terrible and keenly aware of the many ways I can offend nearly everyone – I withdraw. I hide my True Self. 

“You are only free when you realize you belong to no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great. ~Maya Angelou

“Braving the Wilderness” told me, “Stop. Be yourself.” Brené Brown opens the book with the Maya Angelou quote as she reflects on a life-long desire to fit in. She describes sacrificing her True Self in order to belong.  Fit in or be left alone in what she calls The Wilderness. Terrifying.

Naturally, we resist abandonment at our most primal level. The Wilderness is where we go when cast out, never to return. But Brené argues deciding to bravely enter The Wilderness alone is how we find True Belonging. For in the quiet of woods, only self can be heard. True Self finally gets to stand alone.

And True Self belongs to no one.

From this powerful realization, immense courage and confidence is found. Brené then calls upon the reader to, without fear, open their True Self to others. It is only through this most honest effort to connect with other people that we will find the purest quality of humankind – unconditional acceptance of True Self and others. And we will truly belong. To everyone who seeks truth. And to no one but ourselves.

And with that – hangover was gone.

Book Review: “The Obstacle is the Way”

Author: Ryan Holiday

The hard path is the true path.

Life is hard. Excellent! My struggle is my advantage.

Challenge, setback, failure, loss, and rock bottom are not exactly comfortable. Once you’ve experienced any of these, you likely learned a strong lesson about avoiding them in the future.  That hurt! We have visible and invisible scars. We likely lost friends and status. We probably lost money. Most of all, we failed ourselves. — But did we?

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius

Ryan Holiday’s book “The Obstacle is the Way” opens with this powerful quote from one of history’s greatest thinkers telling us to stop running away.  Instead, we must turn boldly into our challenge and see it as an opportunity rather an obstacle.

Holiday lays out a path for turning what he calls “trials into triumph” by teaching us to control our perception of events. First, we must learn to master the only controllable part of any situation – our emotional response to it. Armed with this surprisingly powerful insight, Holiday then calls upon us to act. Deliberate, precise action that could fail, and fail again. This path is not one of reckless failure but rather it is a decision to act despite an unknown outcome. Finally, Holiday calls us to have the will continue forward. Our will fuels our courage to repeat the cycle – perceiving obstacles as advantages and motivating us to act–until we achieve our goals.

We are defined by what we do, not what we say we do. You know your obstacle. You now know your path.

Act.