No Good Shepherd

Afghanistan. August 2007.

Question 1208: What movie or book ending really left you hanging to the point of anger?

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen that Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie movie, and you still want to, then don’t read …

We were in Mehtar Lam, Afghanistan, our fifth location in less than four weeks. It was August, and everything was hot and dusty as we schlepped all our gear, weapons, and armour from place to place, documenting Airmen as they went on convoys, destroyed weapons caches, and trained the Afghan police force.

I was sleeping in a room designated for distinguished visitors, since I obviously couldn’t sleep with my two male teammates in their room. The room had a bunkbed, a wardrobe without a door, and bars over the tiny window in the corner near the ceiling. Compared to a tent, it was nice.

But it sucked.

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The First Profile Pic

Today‘s Throwback Thursday photo was, apparently, my first Facebook profile picture (or the earliest one I saved), taken in September 2007, a few days after I returned from my deployment. I was 26, Miss C was 4, and an only child then, and for weeks upon my return, she spent most of her time attached to me in some way. We were watching television here when Martin snapped this. It feels like a lifetime ago. She was so tiny!

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Flashback Friday: Reporting from the Triangle of Death

[dropcap style=”color: #9b9b9b;”]I[/dropcap]n many ways, it seems like a complete lifetime ago. But all it takes is a blink to return to that summer in 2007 when I was deployed to Iraq with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever known.

Eight years ago this week, I landed in Baghdad with JV and JB for our second trip through Iraq.  We all know what happened there.  Yet my experience in Iraq was definitely more than that one incident.

I hate reading about what is going on in Iraq these days. I have little interest in the politicians changing their tune about it all in accordance to the election seasons. It doesn’t bother me as people dissect the purpose and role the United States played in that part of the world. I feel such a disconnection from all that chatter.

But when it comes to my memories, to the things I saw happening there, and especially when I remember the people I met and served alongside over there, I remember everything clear as day and remain proud for having been there among them.

And I also remain so grateful to have made it back, to be here eight years later and remember.

You can read this week’s Flashback Friday post HERE.

TBT: Disney World

For this week’s #TBT post, I’m sharing a photo from our first Disney visit ever in 2007.

I was sent to Orlando on behalf of the Air Force to attend an annual conference for three days, so Martin & Miss C came along and we made a long, fun weekend! Miss C was three years old, which is Jaz’s age now.

Flashback Friday: Greetings From Baghdad and Other Fun Memories

I put my eyes on JB this morning.

His office met up for breakfast, and he invited me to come along. He was walking through the dining area as I was walking in.

Did you get that?

He was walking.

I mean, I know he’s recovered and has been back on his feet again for years.

But the last time I saw him, he wasn’t walking, and he wasn’t going to be walking for some time after that.

Yet this morning, he walked up to me and gave me a huge hug.

Later today, I will be heading back to the base to attend the retirement ceremony, and I’ll share photos and such next week.

But for Flashback Friday, I’m sharing the links from our time there in the Middle East, when it was J-Team 1.0.

Gearing Up For Our First Assignment

Greetings From Baghdad

Surviving Baghdad

Reporting from The Triangle of Death

One Down, Two Remain

 

Flashback Friday: Snowbound Training

Me in training at Fort Dix

All that snow (ha!) earlier this week brought back some training memories.

I spent a few weeks at Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2007, preparing for my deployment to Iraq. At least, I was under the impression I was going to Iraq then. I was going to be working in the public affairs office at Balad Air Base for the summer. When I wrote today’s Flashback Friday post, I was still under the impression that I was going to Balad.

But midway through my training, I was reassigned to the three-man combat news team.


That was a rough time for me. I was away from Martin and Miss C. Just a few weeks earlier, I discovered my neighbor moments after she committed suicide, and then I got the news my job was going to be different. And suddenly, training for two weeks in a blizzard for a summer in the Middle East that would routinely involve convoys, mortar attacks, almost daily interaction with the locals in two extremely different cultures and countries … I remember feeling anxious that two weeks of combat skills training wasn’t going to be enough for a job like that.

While I still think the combat news teams back then should have received more training, the truth is that the training we did receive was pretty awesome, and our instructors were incredibly passionate and dedicated to ensuring we knew enough to get home safely.

They crammed as much as they could in the time they had us because they knew our lives depended on it.

And my team did get home safely using the lessons learned at Fort Dix.

So here’s my entry from March 2007 that I wrote during my combat skills training course.

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Confident in his masculinity, Jaz wore his sister’s pink jacket yesterday evening to show solidarity for International Women’s Day. So adorable was this that it took less than 10 seconds for someone to point it out.

Flashback Friday: Discovering Chuck E Cheese

 

Last week, I took all three kids to Chuck E Cheese.

 

By myself.

Miss C’s school had a fundraiser there, and she had her heart set on showing some school spirit. So, as soon as I got home from work, the three kids and I headed right back out again to the land of pizza and video arcade games and dancing animatronic mice and friends.

It actually wasn’t too bad. I was nervous about having the girls run off and play by themselves. Usually, Martin is there to go out on the floor with them while I hang back at the table to watch Jaz and our belongings.

Going solo meant having to be a bit more strategic.

I found us a table right in the middle of the action, so I could see everything and keep an eye on the girls while eating pizza with Jaz, who hasn’t yet warmed up to the flashy lights and screaming children there, and prefers just sitting and watching. I also doled out the game coins sparingly, requiring the girls to come back to me every few minutes for more.

As I watched the girls play, I remembered the first time Martin and Miss C experienced Chuck E Cheese. It was while I was deployed, and a neighbor introduced them to the franchise.

For today’s Flashback Friday, I’m sharing the post Martin wrote about that experience. You can read all about it HERE.

People Do Care

Listening. Healing. Photo taken by Miss C with her lo-res kid-camera as a friend and I talk about my visit to Michigan in February 2007.

 

January 25, 2007.

It was bitterly cold that evening, and black. In fact, everything seemed to be painted with an ominous cloak of foreboding that I could not shake. I got no work done at the Pentagon earlier that day.

Instead, I sat at my desk near the telephone, watching the clock and hoping she would call me.

She never called me.

Nancy was my neighbor.

At first glance, we were two completely different people. She was tall, blonde, and gorgeous; a 49-year-old Princess Diana lookalike who was also a seasoned DC businesswoman with a social circle that included names I regularly read in my Washingtonian magazine.

Nancy in 2006

At the time, I was a 25-year-old military working wife and mom of a three-year-old, sporting stretch marks and flat hair, and my social circle was regulated to a furry little monster puppet and a big purple dinosaur.

She drove a Jaguar with a custom leather interior. I drove a Honda that smelled of sour milk and stale cookie crumbs. Her closet was filled with power suits and dresses made by French and Italian designers. I wore Target and Old Navy from the clearance rack.

But somehow, over the course of the year that we were neighbors, Nancy and I became friends.

As it turned out, we were both Midwestern girls: she from the suburbs of Detroit; me from the suburbs of Cincinnati. We both grew up Catholic. We both came from large families. We shared a similar sense of humor. We both loved Europe, and we both loved to talk, which we ended up doing a lot during the evenings when she would come over to my messy, cluttered townhouse that winter. She took great interest in my job and my passion for public relations, politics, news events, and communication.

At the time, I was a very low man on the totem pole at the Pentagon, convinced that any venture into the real world of Washington DC employment would be a spectacular disaster.

She constantly told me I was wrong.

“You are smart and amazingly talented,” she told me. “Stop underestimating yourself and your potential.”

To prove it, she took me to social events downtown during the fall of 2006 and introduced me to her friends; female powerhouses who worked at the White House, or had started successful international companies, or smashed glass ceilings within government. She loved to talk me up, and I didn’t mind it. It was the first time it dawned on me that maybe, hopefully, I could actually find success outside of the military.

Despite her energy and excitement over my budding career, though, there was a part of Nancy that was very dark. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could sense it. It wasn’t until months into our friendship that she started to open up about her depression. At first, she would just make a comment here and there. But one night in early January 2007, she really let it spill.

For her, it was not some passing mood swing. It was a real, debilitating sickness that started when she was a young college student and remained her entire adult life, rearing it’s chronic ugliness in several grave episodes over the years. Only a few close to her knew about it. Mostly family. She came from a generation where this sort of thing was not addressed openly.

When I asked how she managed to have such a successful career and never let on, she gave an impish smile and said, “I have a few very good friends who fly cover for me.”

She admitted that she needed me to fly cover for her. She was in a deep depression again and she was flying home to Michigan to get treatment at a clinic near her family that routinely sees clients who fly in on private jets. She was going to be gone indefinitely.

She needed someone to watch the house while she was gone, to tend to her mail and plants. Of course, I agreed. I didn’t see her again for weeks, but then one night, she was standing near her mailbox. I was surprised to see her and invited her over to the house for dinner. She seemed frail and a little confused, but agreed to come over. We spent the evening on my couch watching American Idol and holding hands. She didn’t eat the take-out I ordered. I gently asked her questions about her visit to Michigan. Her answers were vague, and there was more silence than usual. So I talked to fill the space.

At one point, she finally squeezed my hand.”You are a good friend to me,” she said.

Later, as I got her settled in her beautiful home, she finally opened up that the trip to Michigan had not gone well, that she had left the clinic midway through her treatment, and that she wasn’t sure if she should go back.

I told her she needed to go back, that she should fly up there the next morning, that I would drive her to the airport. For some reason, when she didn’t answer right away, I blurted out that I would even travel back to Michigan with her.She seemed shocked by that.”You would do that?”

“Yes,” I said, and I meant it.

However, she said she wouldn’t want me to miss work. But she did agree to go back to Michigan on her own. I said I would call her in the morning and take her to the airport the next day.”Call me when you are awake,” I said before leaving her house.She never called.

Nor did she answer my calls to her the next morning or afternoon. Initially, I thought maybe she was finally getting some restful sleep. Maybe she was making the travel arrangements for Michigan. I called Martin, who assured me he had seen Nancy during his lunch break, walking to her car and back. That brought me some ease, but not a lot.

I snuck out of my office early and went home. There was a taxi cab waiting in front of her townhouse with the engine running. This was a good sign. She probably didn’t want to bother me, I thought. I called Martin to ask if he knew about the taxi: he did, as he had seen Nancy talking with the cab driver as Martin left the house earlier for his night job.

Satisfied with his answer, I got Miss C settled for dinner, though I kept watch on Nancy’s townhouse through my window.I couldn’t shake the feeling.And then, just as I sat down with Miss C to watch some television, the phone rang. It was my other neighbor, Karen, who was wondering if Nancy was with me. The cab driver was growing impatient as he’d been out there for almost two hours now waiting for her to come out of her house again.

My heart started racing from somewhere in the pit of my stomach.I asked Karen to meet me in front of Nancy’s house. Later, Karen said she knew from my voice that something wasn’t right. But she agreed to meet me, and I will forever be grateful for her compassion and heart because had she not gone, I would have made an awful discovery all on my own.At some point between the time Martin saw her with the taxi driver to the time Karen called me, Nancy went down to her basement and shot herself in the head.

Later that night, after the police arrived, I was taken to the hospital due to an anxiety attack.

It took several months before I could go down into my own basement alone, right up until the time I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

It took one full year for the nightmares to stop.

It took several more years before I stopped getting the adrenaline rush whenever that image creeped into my thoughts.

In the military, there is training for supervisors about the warning signs of depression and suicidal behavior. There are steps everyone is encouraged to take if he/she suspects someone is hurting and thinking of suicide. It’s so easy to watch the videos and read the examples, and think these things would be so obvious, but in real life?

In real life, people want to be respectful, to keep a safe distance from another’s emotional pain. I understand the embarrassment. The perceived shame and weakness. I thought I was being kind and proactive when I gently prodded Nancy for answers. I thought I was being direct when I asked if she was thinking of hurting herself.

But I did not ask the most direct questions: Are you thinking of killing yourself? Are you feeling suicidal?

I learned afterward that she had been planning it for months. That trip to Michigan was a last-ditch effort, and really, she didn’t have any hope that the treatment would work. Nancy had a plan and she was an intelligent woman. Even in her depression, she was lucid enough to know that none of us ever expected her — the same nonviolent woman who cringed whenever we talked about my upcoming deployment to Iraq, who weeped at the idea of me in a combat zone — to go out of her way to purchase a gun.

It was part of her plan to call that taxi driver with the hope that he would be the one to discover her.

What she didn’t plan — or couldn’t realize in the fog of depression — was that two neighbors cared enough to rush into her house to check on her.

The evening of January 25, 2007 changed my life. So did the following week, when I flew to Michigan to be with her family and attend her funeral. A few months later, I left for my deployment and dealt with all the emotion and stress of that adventure. That was a rough year, to say the least. 

But it made me question and reflect on the way I thought about mental illness and suicide.It made me wonder that if society was a little different, if we talked about depression, death, and suicide as freely as we talk about sex, politics, and religion, then perhaps Nancy wouldn’t have suffered in silence for so long.

Perhaps she wouldn’t have needed friends to quietly fly top cover to safeguard her career and social standing. Perhaps I would have been more brazen with my questions to her. Perhaps Nancy, who had all the connections and all the resources in the world, wouldn’t have felt she had to violently end her own life alone in her basement.

Today, suicide prevention made the headlines as the Surgeon General urged new focus on suicide prevention. The number of Americans taking their own lives is rising, especially amongst military veterans. There are plenty of resources for both those who are hurting and those who are concerned, like HERE, and HERE.

Depression is serious, but it is not shameful. Neither is asking for help.

Fortunately, the good memories I have with Nancy outshine that one horrifying, heartbreaking memory which no longer scares me. Despite that awful tragedy, beautiful things resulted from it. I remain good friends with her family, at one point returning the favor Nancy paid me by giving writing advice to her niece when she was applying to college. The confidence Nancy had about my career still buoys me to this day, especially when I get nervous.

First and foremost, we were friends and I’ve never felt anger or regret over the things that happened. Sadness and grief, yes. But I learned a lot of positive things from her.I learned to be a better listener and to trust my gut more.

And I speak up more, which is why I’m posting about this today, to both honor Nancy’s memory, and to maybe, hopefully, in some small way, remove the stigma of depression and mental illness.

People do care.

Martin and the Virginia Tech Mom

Martin and me the morning I deployed in 2007
 


It was the mother of a wounded Virginia Tech student who provided an emotional connection of understanding to my husband during my deployment five years ago.

I woke up this morning to my radio news channel announcing the fifth anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre today, and it brought forth a bittersweet memory that’s not really mine, but I hold it as dear to my heart as if it all happened to me.

It happened between Martin and someone we just refer to as the “Virginia Tech Mom.”


The Virginia Tech shootings happened about a month before I was scheduled to deploy to the Middle East. I remember following the initial reports online that day, when CNN uploaded grainy cell phone videos submitted to them from students there on the scene. This was before Twitter, obviously, before YouTube really became the resource for footage like that.

Having been in high school in the late 90s, when it seemed like there was a school shooting somewhere every semester culminating with the Columbine shootings my senior year, the news of a school shooting was not shocking. Of course, learning the details and about the loss of 32 lives was horrifying and tragic, especially when we learned that the shooter and countless victims (both those killed and injured) were from our area.

But as it goes with major news stories that don’t really claim any real personal investment, Martin and I never thought about it beyond the headlines, especially as we were focused on our own situation: my involvement with the war in Iraq, which was peppering the news with scary and tragic headlines on its own.

I was gone in the Middle East for a few months when she walked into his bank.

She was a new client, and she needed to cash some checks and make some changes to some personal accounts. As Martin was the first available finance manager to assist her, he approached her and led her to his desk.

Initially, the conversation was a pretty generic exchange of information. As Martin plugged away at the computer, though, he realized the mother was making some changes on behalf of her daughter. More questions were asked. More information was given.

As it turned out, a few months before, the daughter was a college student in another part of the state before a gunman walked into her classroom and shot her at her desk, along with several other classmates. Her daughter survived, but many around her did not. She was critically injured, and had to wait in that classroom for hours before medical assistance was able to reach her.

Now, she was back home with her mother and on a long road to recovery.

Maybe it was because he knew about the Virginia Tech shootings. Maybe it was because this woman spoke with him so easily. For whatever reason, Martin opened up to this.

He shared that I was deployed and my news team had also survived a recent surprise mortar attack that required my team’s broadcaster to be medically evacuated by helicopter for his injuries.

Thus, what would have probably been a simple 15-minute banking appointment evolved into something much longer than that.

The two of them talked about how awful it is to send a loved one off with the reasonable expectation that they would return safely, only to discover that something terrible can happen in a second.

The mother admitted she worried if her daughter would ever be the same again, having witnessed all of that, and Martin agreed he worried about the same thing with me.

They spoke of what’s it like to appreciate the flood of support from the community, but to be embarrassed and uncomfortable with it, too.

They shared the frustration of not knowing all the details of what happened, and being scared to watch the news anymore.

Martin spoke of how powerless he felt watching me walk away from him and Miss C at the airport, and knowing he couldn’t stop me from leaving. The woman spoke about watching her daughter struggle with physical therapy, and feeling the rage that all of it was beyond her (the mother’s) control.

Throughout the conversation, Martin worked to complete all the woman’s transactions, and when they were done, he walked her out of the bank.

Then, my stoic German husband had to step away and collect himself before returning to his desk.

All during the deployment and for a long time after, Martin never opened up to me about what it was like while I was gone. He, of course, shared that he missed me, but assured me he didn’t worry as long as I was writing. In a letter, he briefly mentioned meeting the Virginia Tech mother, only saying it made him feel weird to hear the mother talk about what happened to her daughter. Only a year later, when I was going through all my deployment paperwork and rereading the letters we’d sent to each other, that I remembered and asked him for more details.

Martin saw his client every now and then over the years, but never exchanged more than greetings and passing updates about her daughter. Now that he’s no longer working at the bank, there’s no way to find out how that family is doing this anniversary.

But I am thinking of them, of the young lady who got shot, but especially of her mother. I’m sure she wouldn’t remember that conversation with my husband, but I do, and while I know she was probably sharing with Martin as a way to vent some of the emotions she was experiencing, she actually allowed my husband to articulate a lot of what he was going through at the time, too, something that does not come easily for him at all.

Her strength and grace in such a situation was — and continues to be — very inspiring.

I never think those kinds of encounters are merely coincidence.

I hope on this anniversary that Martin’s client, the Virginia Tech Mom, and her daughter — and all the people who were affected by the shootings there — have come to a place of peace now, and that life has moved in a positive direction for all of them.

We’re definitely thinking of all of them.