Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Last week Christians world over entered the season of Lent, mostly giving up something of pleasure or vice for 40 days and nights. Some dove in after partying like a Rock Star. My family and I experienced some of that in Eindhoven during a swim meet, which coincided with Carnival. It was fun to watch, but I kept thinking it would take many about that long to recover from their hangovers.

In England, we ate pancakes the night before in one last symbolic indulgence on Shrove Tuesday. Meanwhile, I viewed friends' posts and listened to others with interest as those around me considered their sacrifice. Notions of change ranged from subtle to extreme; or even none at all, depending on the individual.

Lent is an old English word meaning, “lengthen.” While pondering what I might let go for 40 days, I noticed a post from a friend who is returning home after a 365. A “365” is what military members refer to as a year-long tour of duty, which does not include family members.


365 trumps 40.

365 days in the desert is a long time. The sacrifices made by the entire family are many. And often, as I’ve witnessed, those effected put forth such positivity, it’s easy to forget the endurance it must take for everyone involved. 

My friend returning home documented his experiences this past year through a gifted eye followed by a trail of photos he shared on Facebook throughout his deployment.  The images brought context and insights to his daily life. Intended, I believe, for his near and dear, he paid forward perspective to many of us who otherwise would have no clue what it means to spend a year in Afghanistan, away from family.

At the same time, another friend is considering a year to come without her husband, as it seems he will be assigned a 365. They await word. I look on as she considers life in his absence.

Like many military spouses I know, she is stoic. She doesn’t appear phased. But I imagine as she navigates through her days with her busy family, she also mentally negotiates all it will take for her to do everything without her partner. It’s exhausting just thinking about it. People say you take one day at a time, thus the term, "another day down."

A 365 is a sacrifice my friends endure with grace. And it offers such levity to me during this Lenten season. For me it's a bridge. What is that saying, something about the strength of a country carried on the shoulders of but a few? Ah — I'm sure to muddle it.

But I try to remember as I anticipate the question some friends pose — the “WHY?” question. As in, why would you spend your life this way? Most people I know who are members of our voluntary armed forces or married to someone who is, are a gentle, pensive, adventurous folk who feel a sense of duty and at some point beg the question, “What would the world look like without us?”

But that’s beyond the scope of my thoughts today. Today I simply try and fathom the length of a 365.

It’s a commitment many take in stride, while others simply cannot embrace. Babies are born. People die. Birthdays are celebrated. Children are soothed. Beds are made. Stories are read. Holidays and seasons come and go. 

In 40 days, folks return to chocolate and wine, and Facebook for another year before considering letting them go again. In contrast, it seems forever — a year.

And it is a long time, when you break it down to daily life, especially when the kids are small; growing and changing daily. Many people I know create symbols of “another day down.” Some string 365 beads or candies for the kids to remove daily in their countdowns to when their beloved returns.

Another friend dove into work during her husband’s year away. Though she is a lawyer by trade, she became a substitute teacher and worked as many days as she could get. Meanwhile, she coached; taught in church; made fitness goals. It seemed the busier she was, the less time she had to feel lonely, or so I imagine.

My family has, so far, not endured this particular period of military penance. Five or six months is the longest we’ve been apart at one time. Not everyone undergoes 365s, but out of the one percent of US citizens who serve in the military, more and more seem to be learning to live through one.

During the Vietnam era, the tour of duty for the majority of the soldiers and Marines was a year. But this memory is distant for those of us who were infants at the time or in our childhood.

It is better now for families, I imagine. We now are able to keep in touch via voice and video in real time. This helps bridge the divide and keeps the memories of small children in check.

During this pensive time of year, as winter slowly gives way to spring, why not reach out to someone you know whose sacrifices bring levity to our own gestures of endurance.

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." — Winston Churchill in regards to The Battle of Britain

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


We just returned from the last meet of the season — our league Championship meet in Eindhoven, Netherlands. We drove through England, France, and Belgium to get there. The history of Europe and how wars may’ve been fought, comes into bright, clear context as you drive. The country borders, except for the channel crossing, appear matter-of-factly, sort of like county line markers. Not even as big as state crossings, which usually banner the interstate and proceed a welcoming center in the states.

The expression “tastes like chicken” crossed my mind as I drove. Only it morphed into, “looks like Ohio.” Much of the countryside reminded me of my home state. Rather flat, and rural, only with distinct steeples rising in the distance from the churches that rest in almost every village and city. And the town signs, Calais, Dunquerqe, Antwerpe, etc. These brought perspective, as well as the language variations when you stop along the way.

It was Carnival in Eindhoven. We drove into the city to discover much revelry in the streets painted brightly with people in costume and bold behavior. This lasted all weekend long —I imagine right into Tuesday night at Midnight. The Dutch are a tall people. Friendly. And their language comes across to me as sort of Swedish/German. Bicyclists are everywhere, as are bike lanes. Even many of the bicycles were in costume. I love that.

My family has become one of the “travelling swim families,” which are smattered across Europe throughout the European Forces Swim League. We all travel far and wide to come together as a community. Those from Naples seem to travel the furthest.

It’s a community that I love. This is our third (fourth?) swim family, and each one has brought together great people and great memories. We even saw friends from our first swim family at the meet. That’s the way it is. As with every universe, sooner or later, your stars align again.

Years ago, I resolved to find something, which would become a consistent thread in my children’s lives. No matter where we were in the world, I wanted to offer them a comfortable constant. I feared, otherwise, they might eventually lose themselves into that teenage no-man’s-land I observed out my kitchen window when my kids were young. It’s easy to do when your children are moved about; shifting up places and friends so often.

At about the same time, I saw my Mormon friends embraced almost immediately into a community wherever they moved. I’m not Mormon, so this wasn’t going to work for me, but I wanted to find the same scenario. Swimming does that for us. We immersed ourselves, literally, within two weeks of arriving in England last August; and before that Northern Virginia. 

Where once it took me months to line up activities and get involved, it now was something I could embrace, almost immediately. Swimming has brought us closer to all kinds of folks we wouldn’t otherwise have met. We cherish this.

My son turns 13 tomorrow. He is the oldest, so the teenage years are new to me. A couple of weeks ago he looked over on the way to practice and said, “Mom, I want to keep swimming. It’s part of me now.” This brings that warm well of tears threatening to bubble beyond the backs of my eyes. I try not to show the emotion when I respond. I want it to be their decision. Maybe I got lucky with my son. He didn't always feel this way. He works hard at swimming. It doesn’t come easy to him, so this is big news.

I can only hope my early resolution holds up and that my children always feel they have that familiarity that only comes with community; an extended family waiting for them, no matter where we are on the globe. I know many of our swimteam families who are moving on this year worry over finding the same sort of thing. I want to assure them they will and wish them all the best — and, as always, to swim fast — and have fun!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Gains and losses, in military terms, refers to the constant flow of people coming in and out of a squadron. As members arrive with their families, we gain. We gain a unit member, who, along with their family (if they have one), become our extended squadron family —at least for a while.

We gain responsibility for each other. On an overseas base, in a time when our military members are stretched thinner than ever, family support is crucial. The need to reach out to each other is at an all-time high. We try diligently to keep on top of our gains and losses.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we gain a friend.

The Army is known for a very high rate of deployment. This fact is oft-reported news. With our “quiet professionals,” all those who comprise special operations, it’s a fact understood mostly just by us. Our Air Force members here are in constant motion. And when they hit the ground running, sometimes (often) their family must fend for themselves.

This can be lonely, and this is when the role of the rest of the squadron, comprised of spouses, comes into play. We are supposed to look out for each other.

And we try.

The Air Force in recent years formalized its Key Spouse program under the guise of Suzie Schwartz. She is spouse to General Norton Schwartz, USAF chief of staff. She was here last week. I was in the audience of spouses with whom she met on RAF Mildenhall.

So much of what she said was so near my emotional core and sensibilities. I think many of us — those who serve silently and without compensation next to our active-duty partners — are cut from similar cloth; the sturdy, flexible kind.

But not always.

Again — we gained formality to a program that has existed in some form for some time. But, in the end, we are all too human. We are not perfect, or omniscient. Sometimes we do not know, even though we, as Key Spouses, are trained to be watchful and look for signs of an impending loss.

Last week we lost. We lost a spouse. We did not know.

My daughter came home from school to let me know her classmate’s mommy died the night before. Her friend found her Mommy. Her daddy was “at work.” This news was delivered by the school counselor at the end of the day. She said it wasn’t hard to figure out, because there were only two people absent that day. The counselor used the term “suicide.”

My daughter is nine.

It turns out our Daddy was at work with her Daddy. They worked together. Different squadrons; same group of quiet professionals. Minutes after my daughter told me,  the phone rang. It was our Daddy letting us know the “unofficial” news.

We lost.

Usually, losses are defined as those members, along with their families, who leave the squadron; on to the next adventure the USAF plans for them, or maybe to retire to a place of their own design.

But not this time.

This time the loss seemed unnecessary and especially painful, because she didn’t show any signs of suffering. And we were supposed to be looking out for each other; the spouses.

We did not know we might lose someone.

This loss left someone behind. A girl who lost her mommy; her husband; her friends who didn’t know.

Somehow this is almost more difficult (I say almost) than bearing the loss of our military members. We’ve suffered this kind of loss, too, here. Overseas, when we, the squadron, collectively were the only family here to support those left behind in the early morning hours. This is part of who I am now. 

So we gain new resolve, and vigilance. Today I received an e-mail from the squadron, updating me on our gains and losses this month.

I stare and wonder how I can outweigh the losses with the gains.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


There’s a horse in our back garden. We call him Charlie. Or Chuck. And sometimes the kids call him Caspar. It really just depends on who is addressing him at the time. The neighbors call him something else. He answers to any and all, as long as you follow the delivery address up with an apple, or two.

I tell him he is a rock star when I visit. He has ice blue eyes, which hide behind a wild mane of white rasta hair. He has a cool demeanor, and you wonder what he’s thinking as he stands there tall and aloof. He likes to nuzzle his nose into my pockets. He's learned they often contain treats. 

I love this moment. It reminds me of when I was a girl; letting my pony rub his nose up and down my body. I used to think it was his way of showing his affection. But he really just had an itch. I was his scratching post.

Charlie is a stud. Literally. He is left staked to the ground away from the other herd, only to be brought in to the mix on the occasion that one of them is ready to be ridden. I see the other horses look on to Charlie — seemingly star struck, as I am.

Chuck seems content enough to stand there. Every few days his owner mysteriously moves him (I never see this happen), and I wake to find him staked a little further out or closer in; depending.

Horace (my coonhound) and I go for walks and stop to see Charlie just about daily. I like to brush his hair out of his face and look into those amazing eyes, breathing in his horsey scent. He lets me. But as soon as I walk away, I notice he flicks his head until his hair falls back into place; hanging long down his nose.

(This reminds me of my daughter Gabby, as she doesn’t allow me to do anything to her hair either. I pull it back out of her face, and when I’m not looking she lets it down, falling over her beautiful cheekbones. But that’s another story.)

I am a girl, at heart, still fascinated and romanced by all things Charlie. I once gave my mom what appeared to be a random photo of an unknown horse. I bought it at a tradeshow where I worked in Cleveland. I stood for days across the aisle staring at this horse.

Taken from a distance, the Chestnut mare stands in the mouth of an old barn — alone, with a broken down tractor in the background. It is a very lonely picture. I told my mother I feel like that horse, often. She keeps it in her kitchen, closeby.

The other night it snowed. Hard. And the temperature in England fell well below zero degrees Celcius.

But there Chuck stood, alone in the darkness. I wanted to cover him with a blanket. That innate sense of caring for another left out in the cold was overwhelming. I shuddered at the thought of him standing there in the night; out in the snow and stormy weather. The winds whipped the snow across the heath. It was dismal.

I kept thinking of my Dad.

He always used the expression “rode hard and put away wet.”

It wasn’t a reference to horses, though.

You might imagine. He was referring to other lonely creatures; usually standing alone at the bar; waiting.

My Dad lived his life outside the sphere of anything close to political correctness. But he had a big heart. And he cared in his way very much. I know that now. Though, as a girl, I felt much like what I imagine Charlie feels, and maybe the horse in the photo I couldn't leave behind in Cleveland — adored maybe, but from a distance without too much connection.

(I woke the next day to find Charlie. He was standing right where I last saw him. He made it through the storm. I gave him extra apples.)