GBS: Parenthood and Military Leadership Lessons

Hanging out with some of the other cadets in my flight, waiting for the next block of torture.  The guy on the right was a prior-enlisted Coastie and popularly-regarded “flight dad.” – Olivia

By Olivia Nelson of Just Sew Olivia

It’s been a couple of weeks since Martin’s infamous first call home from Air Force basic military training.

I loved what Julie had to say about his call home. It didn’t sound sappy or weepy, but organized and accomplished. Just my style. You might credit German efficiency or Martin’s previous military experience for his presence-of-mind in covering topics from the storage unit to the dry cleaners in a precious couple of minutes, but I’m betting the stay-at-home dad experience was kicking in more than the Bundeswehr.

There’s just something about multitasking and referring for a bunch of chitlins that teaches a guy (or gal) that he can’t control everything.

“Manage the things you can and move on,” a mentor once said. “If something’s important, it will come up again.”

I listened, but I didn’t really internalize his words until I left active duty to raise my babies.
I’m not sure who grew more, me or them.

All I’m sayin’ is the best medicine for this Type-A control freak was staying home with two children under two. Now I understand that my own emotional response drives 90 percent of the stress in my life.

So I’m working more on managing myself and less on controlling the universe.

Lighting a smoke flare during survival training.  I look tough, but I’m laughably uncoordinated.  I still have the scars on my hand and the holey t-shirt where I almost set myself on fire. – Olivia

Martin’s blessed to have learned those lessons before heading off to basic and making that first phone call.

Me? Not so much.

When I went to field training, (the ROTC version of basic), we cadets didn’t get to call home. Instead, we filled in the blanks of a pre-formatted postcard that told our families we had arrived and where to send any correspondence. For my flight “job,” I filled the role of mail orderly. It was a pretty cool gig — picking up letters and packages and bringing things to your teammates to make them smile — right up until I found those little pre-formatted postcards in the outbox eleven days into training.

Back then, I was not the pillar of calm, organization and emotional stability that my children eventually molded. I nearly came unglued at the thought that my family had never received word of my safe arrival or how to reach me in an emergency.

I felt lied to, betrayed and angry, and lost respect for the officers leading our training. All the B.S. of basic aside, who wanted to emulate someone you saw as lazy and incompassionate? (Okay, so yeah, my response was a bit melodramatic.)

In retrospect, it should’ve been so empowering to know they were disorganized and human too.

That’s how Momma Olivia would view their actions now.

But Cadet Olivia didn’t have children…or perspective. I almost quit. 

We had an option called Self-Initiated Elimination or SIE in the military’s acronym-driven parlance. If a cadet chose SIE, she could end all the yelling, pushups and head games, and be on an airplane home that afternoon. The catch? She would never be considered for an officer program again. Two other cadets had already SIE’d, and I began to think it wasn’t such a bad idea.

One of the few perks to going through field training back in my day:  jet orientation or “Jet-O.”  Officer trainees got an incentive ride towards the end of training in the T-37 “Tweet,” the undergraduate pilot training aircraft at the time. – Olivia

A fellow cadet and confidant ratted me out to the lieutenant colonel who led our small voluntary Sunday Bible studies. Lt. Col. W. also happened to be our encampment’s vice commander, and for reasons I’ll never fully understand, he took a personal interest in my success. (Thank heaven for those people in our lives who, inexplicably, look out for us, even when we’re not being very likable.)

During the next morning’s oh-dark-thirty reveille, he approached our flight and started yelling. (Yelling’s a big thing for us in the military — an all-occasion activity.)

He yelled. “Hotel Flight, are you motivated?”

We yelled. “Yes, SIR!”

He yelled. “Is anybody ready to QUIT?”

We yelled. “No, SIR!”

He stalked down the side of our formation and in-between ranks to stand directly in front of me, so close that the brims of our hats (sure, sure, “covers” for the military crowd) were almost touching. 

“Cadet!” he yelled at me.

“Yes, SIR!” I yelled.

“Are you going to QUIT?” he yelled.

I was too proud to say yes in front of my flight, and too self-righteous to go back on my word once I had given it.

Brilliant. The man was brilliant.

“No, SIR!” …and that was that.

I bet that guy had kids.

Really, learning to motivate a 20-year-old hard-case isn’t all that different from learning to motivate a 3-year-old on Jamaican time. (Appointments are meaningless to my son Bitty. It’s all irie.) He knew my weaknesses were pride and self-righteousness, just as I know Bitty’s weaknesses are attention, trains and cars.

And Lt. Col. W used them against me … to save me.

Martin already has that perspective. Time will tell, but I’m betting he already knows what I hadn’t figured out. Basic training is all a big game. Superman drills and 8-minute meals don’t translate literally into any practical skill-set, but they do belie the trainee’s inner nature.

Not only will Martin do all stay-at-home moms and dads proud by responding beautifully under pressure, but I suspect he’ll be the one finding the sweet spot to motivate his teammates.

And if that doesn’t work?

Well, Martin’s kids might see a different side altogether when he tells them — with all the force and efficiency of a German tank commander and father of three — that they have two minutes to potty and brush their teeth before the bus arrives.


During her senior year in ROTC, Olivia took her mother to the military ball instead of a date.  Her example as a first responser inspired Olivia to serve and shaped many of the values she carries with her to this day.
If Olivia had tags, they would be: free spirit, believer, mother, wife, daughter, Airman, artist, advocate, communicator, vocalist, photographer, and writer. Based in Florida with her husband and boys, Olivia writes on her blog, Just Sew Olivia, about various easy-to-do sewing projects while also stitching in humorous and inspiring tales of parenthood, family, friendship, and life in general. Her greatest mentors are her parents, especially her mother Jessie.