I started my morning yesterday with coffee and chit-chat with my coworker’s daughter, who is heading to Air Force basic training in a few weeks. We did the math: she was THREE WEEKS OLD when I arrived at Lackland AFB back in January 2000. I must seem ancient to her, but I like to think my advice is timeless. What an exciting time for this young lady!
I told her to be wise in choosing a battle buddy, and later, good mentors. Seek out those who are level-headed, optimistic, and genuine.
It’s pretty crazy to think that the people I went thru basic training with … if they are still in the service, they are probably thinking of retiring in the very near future. Isn’t that crazy?
Our family friend Eric came over for dinner this evening. He was my boss in Italy when Miss C was born, and we currently live in the house he and his wife built for their family when they were stationed here. They built this house and lived in it for five years before they had to return to the United States.
The day we were getting packed up in DC to move to Germany, he sent us an email saying he got a 30-day notice THAT DAY from the family renting from him, and asked if we were interested in moving in. It worked out perfectly. It was such a sweet visit as he shared memories of raising his girls here, and when it came time for a photo, we put our kiddos on the steps where his girls used to sit for family photos.
[dropcap style=”color: #9b9b9b;”]I[/dropcap] first met Aaron Burgstein on the edge of Ramstein Air Base’s vast flightline in Germany, just outside one of the hangars, the both of us bundled up against the wind and rain in our uniform Gore-tex jackets.
I was a 19-year-old one-stripe Airman, and one of the newest members of the 86th Airlift Wing’s public affairs office. He was a twenty-something-year-old officer, and one of the newest members of the major command’s public affairs shop which was situated across the base. The two of us were waiting for an aircraft to deliver a team of reporters being flown in to cover some military operations in Europe, and for their brief time at Ramstein, we were to be their public affairs hosts.
I was the first to arrive, showing up a full 30 minutes early. This was one of my first official tasks, and I was not going to be late. At the time, I knew nothing about then-Captain Burgstein other than he had way more rank than I did. And having just come out of basic training and tech school where anyone with more than three stripes, and certainly every single officer, required super straight posture and the utmost military bearing, I didn’t dare relax, even as he made small talk as we waited.
Eventually, though, he took a call on his cell phone, and relayed the news that the aircraft was delayed.
“We’re going to be out here for at least another 30 minutes,” he said. “Kind of a bummer, but at least we’re out of the office, and it’s not raining anymore.”
“That’s true, sir.”
He leaned against the side of the hangar, and I instinctively relaxed a bit, too.
“Soooo … what do you think about Air Force public affairs so far?” he asked.
“It’s interesting … so far,” I said. “I knew a little bit about it before I enlisted. I spent time at my dad’s Reserve wing, with their public affairs shop. It’s the only job I wanted, and I wouldn’t sign until I got it.”
He nodded his head approvingly.
“Smart move,” he said. “It’s the best friggin’ job in the Air Force.”
The aircraft ended up being an hour late. In that time, he asked about my background and what I hoped to do during my military career, and he shared a bunch of reasons why I was going to love being in the public affairs career field. I learned that he was coming from Korea, where he ran the public affairs shop. I learned that he was a huge Star Wars fan. And for the first time in my new military career, I learned that officers can, in fact, be funny human beings who genuinely care about those around them.
We worked together many more times while at Ramstein. Whenever I had to head over to the command’s public affairs office, I swung by his desk to check out his latest gadgets: his space was literally covered with robot toys and Star Wars memorabilia. A few months after that first meeting, I met his radiant bride, Cindy, at one of the outdoor office barbecues. As a bride-to-be myself, we definitely had things to talk about, and months later, both Aaron and Cindy drove three hours to attend my wedding and reception there in Germany. It was in our reception hall where he announced to Martin and me that I had swept up the command’s public affairs awards, five in all.
“An award-winning Airman *and* a beautiful bride all in the same week!” he said. “Can it get any better?”
I eventually left for my assignment to Italy while he went off to places like New York City and Washington DC. Our paths crossed again at the Pentagon, where I was a staff writer for the Air Force News Service and he was the public affairs advisor for the Secretary of the Air Force. This meant we often attended the same events, and I frequently sent him my material for review and approval. By then, too, we were both parents to toddler girls, and our correspondence was a mix of official business and photos of our kids doing something adorable. In the fast-paced, dramatic world of military headquarters, working with Aaron was breezy and effortless. It helped that my articles were usually on point, and he seldom had any changes for me.
Except for that one time.
We were both attending the three-day annual Air Force Association conference in Orlando, Florida. The conference itself is the same each year: a lot of speeches and panel discussions about the Air Force, and an expo floor filled with booths reflecting the latest in Air Force and defense equipment and technology. That particular year, the top Air Force leaders made some pretty incredible announcements, such as extending basic training and requiring NCOs to learn foreign languages, and introducing a new uniform.
I had a lot of writing to do, but first, Aaron insisted I join him and his family (who traveled there with him) for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe, my first experience in a place where dinner is frequently interrupted by thunderstorms and stampeding elephants. As we chatted about the decor, Disney World, our families, travel, and work, I mentioned how excited I was to have so much material coming from the conference.
“Glad to hear that. Just send over what you got,” said Aaron, encouraging as ever.
So after dinner, in the quiet of my hotel room, I pounded away at my laptop. I finished the article about basic training and the new language requirement, and focused in on my article about the new uniforms for women. At the conference, the Air Force’s top four-star general had spent a good 35 minutes discussing the topic. Women were to get new uniforms and new body armor that would better protect their smaller frames. And there would be new boots, ones that better fit and supported women’s feet. I replayed my recorder at least a dozen times to get the quotes right, excited about all this groundbreaking information, amused that I could name-drop Manolo Blahnik, the general, and Air Force space technology in the same sentence, confident that this was the best dang piece of writing of my career to date.
I sent it off to Aaron around 1:30 in the morning.
His reply arrived via Blackberry shortly after 5 a.m.
“This is definitely one of the best dang pieces of writing in your career to date,” he wrote. “Highly entertaining and informative. But, no. I can not approve this. Not today. Not ever.”
I was stumped.
Clearly he recognized my brilliant writing. Clearly he recognized that this was important information that would appeal to a good percentage of the Air Force population. But nevertheless, he wasn’t giving it his blessing.
I scrolled through the email chain, thinking I missed something. Nope.
I knew that Aaron probably had his reasons, so I wrote something back like, “Roger that, sir.”
But nevertheless, I was confused.
It wasn’t until a few days later that I found out the reason via a link Aaron sent me. It was a breaking news story about an Air Force one-star general who was obsessed with women’s feet and was found guilty of harassing female Airmen underneath him by offering workplace foot massages.
Air Force general. Shoes. Women’s feet.
Aaron knew that case was about to make headlines. No need to have a clueless staff sergeant put out a similar headline, no matter how innocent and unrelated the facts may be.
“Thanks for the save!” I wrote back. “Would have hated getting the boot for such poor timing.”
“No problem. It’s my job to keep you in step,” he responded. “This job definitely keeps us on our toes.”
Aaron left his position at the Pentagon during my deployment in 2007. During my last year in the active duty Air Force, he attended the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, writing a thesis about incorporating communication strategies into operations. Every now and then, he messaged me on Facebook with questions regarding the then-new social media policy my office produced, and shared how amused he was to stumble across my name down there during his studies.
“Just found another article you wrote about Air Force social media,” he wrote me. “Pointed out to my classmates, “Hey, I know that NCO!”
It was a reason he was the first person listed as a professional reference on my resume when I left the military. I knew I was fortunate to have someone like him in my corner, and I appreciated that he truly had a birds-eye view of my whole career, from my early days at Ramstein to my time at the Pentagon.
And even though I was no longer wearing the military uniform, Aaron was still interested in whatever was going on with my life. Social media made it possible to keep in touch easily and frequently. He enjoyed this blog, and sent kudos whenever something I wrote resonated with him. As he got promoted and his family moved from assignment to assignment, I followed along, living vicariously through his photos, pretending to be witty with my comments, and always shaking my head at how quickly his two girls were growing up.
In 2010, he sent a note that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. For the next several years, he posted about his fight against it. In the midst of surgery and treatment, he and his family continued their lives full of PMA … positive mental attitude. He shared this attitude via frequent posts about the top three things about his day. Many times, they were just simple things: a walk to school with his daughters, some cookies that were left out in his office, or the opportunity to go for a run. Eventually, he returned to the Washington DC area, and we were able to meet up for dinner before he and the family moved to Hawaii for his next assignment in 2013. Martin had just returned from Air Force basic military training, and we got such a kick talking to him about it, especially since Aaron knew us when Martin was a Bundeswehr officer.
That was such a sweet visit, and unfortunately, it was our last.
The brain cancer returned while they were living in Hawaii. The Air Force quickly moved the family back to the East Coast where Aaron could receive the very best treatment. Always the communicator, he kept right on sharing throughout his journey, and when he got too sick, his wife Cindy continued to post updates about him. It was both heartbreaking and frustrating to see him get so sick, but at the same time, the two of them never stopped remaining positive. Even his final post contained his classic PMA “top three” things: he told his wife he loved her, his daughters assured him he was the best dad ever, and he passed away peacefully in his home surrounded by his loved ones on Jan. 27.
Col. Aaron Burgstein was buried today at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. Needless to say, I wish I could have been there to pay my respects. Since the moment I learned of his death, I’ve spent a lot of time online reading the comments and posts made by mutual friends and colleagues — we shared almost a hundred of them. It’s been wonderful to read all the good memories about him, and to realize that the friendship and encouragement he offered to me, he offered to everyone in his path. His reach and influence was … is … so vast.
While rereading some old messages and emails, I found one he wrote to me shortly after I got hit by a drunk driver in 2011. In addition to the initial concern for me, he also wanted to do something as drunk driving was becoming an issue at his base, and he was concerned about his Airmen. So he wrote a commentary as a commander, and he wanted my take on it. I provided some feedback, and we had a classic back-and-forth on how to best communicate such a message across a variety of platforms.
His final message in that chain: “And in case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m really glad you are here to have this conversation,” he wrote.
That was Aaron. Thoughtful. Kind. A dedicated military officer. A wonderful human being. A friggin’ awesome friend.
He will be missed.
Need more proof how awesome he was?
The blogger at J. Q. Public did an excellent job summarizing what Aaron meant to a lot of people.
His college alma mater Ursinus College wrote an article about his personal courage during his fight with brain cancer.
And the following links are to Aaron’s own commentaries written for the Air Force:
In honor of the Air Force Birthday today, and since I’ve already posted photos from my time at BMT, today’s #TBT photo of me in uniform is from early 2001 when I was an Airman First Class at Ramstein Air Base. Martin had the day off from the Bundeswehr, so he surprised me by showing up at my office with lunch. Continue reading →
Martin is home now from his Air Force temporary duty (TDY) in Delaware. He arrived Friday afternoon and immediately went out back to play soccer with the kids and check out Miss C’s toy drone which she got while he was gone. He was also given a tour of the house since we moved things around. I think he did a pretty good job overlooking the dusty corners and piles of laundry.
Instead, he praised Miss C’s new bedroom (our former guest room), gasped when he saw everyone’s closets (which I culled free of winter/out-grown garments, sorted, and organized according to color), and nodded approvingly when he saw the space I carved out for him in his man-cave as part of the total house spring-cleaning I did throughout the month of May.
As wonderful as it was to go out and visit him every other weekend, we’re all pretty happy to have him home with us full time again. This past month felt really scrambled for all of us. Even though he was only gone for a month — and not the four months he was away for basic military training and tech school — we didn’t have the luxury of easing into a new routine, getting the kids and house prepared like last time. He was given less than 24 hours notice to up and go, and while the things we *could* control (like finances and childcare) were always at the ready, the disruption to our lives was much more apparent and I never felt like I recovered from that.
But now he’s back and I can catch my breath (and a nap)!
Routine as we [usually] know it can return again … until he leaves for more out-of-state training next month.
Spring 2000. Photo by my tech school roommate Carolyn at the Defense Information School in Maryland. I was 18 years old. It was early in the morning, and I was putting on my make-up there in our room. “Hey, hold still!!” she ordered. So, I froze in place as she moved around my head with her GIANT digital camera. The image was edited in a bunch of different ways, she got a good grade, and she gave me the prints.
I’ve written about the “deployment curse” on this blog before. It’s a military thing, and not specific to deployments. It also happens when the military member leaves on temporary duty, or even just a short business trip. It’s very similar to Murphy’s Law, but in addition to the whole “whatever can go wrong, will go wrong” part of it, there’s the caveat that all of it will happen within the first week or two of the loved one’s departure.
There was a moment a few months ago when JB’s wife, Jessica, paused as she was talking with me and a few others after his retirement ceremony in Las Vegas, Nevada.
We were standing at a back table in the room, looking over JB’s military memorabilia, and she was explaining a few of the photos. She had stopped herself after saying, “… after he got hurt.”
She smiled at us.
“You know, there was a time when I couldn’t say that without bursting into tears.”
It’s taken me a few months to write this blog post for much the same reason. I still get teary when I think about it, but it was such a moving and emotional experience, and one that really made me appreciate what it means to be thankful, which is one of the recommendations for living the Good Life.
While I have written often about that day in Iraq, and can talk or write about it without feeling as much of a tug anymore, attending the retirement ceremony for my team’s broadcaster was way more emotional than I expected.
As far as Air Force retirement ceremonies go, it was nice and traditional. There was a summary of JB’s military accomplishments as a broadcaster, and recognition of his family and colleagues. There were laughs, nodding heads, and polite applause at all the right places. You could tell everyone involved and in attendance really admires JB, and put a lot of effort into it.
However, it was after the ceremony when I got a huge emotional wallop straight to the heart.
His mom came up to me.
Until that moment, I never met JB’s family. While he may have mentioned his parents a time or two, I knew more about Jessica and his kids from the stories we shared while deployed together.
And since the deployment didn’t stop for JV and me after JB was evacuated, I wasn’t able to really keep connected to his recovery as much as I would have liked. The most we got were updates through our colleagues and mutual friends until social media allowed us to reconnect some years later.
Of course, I knew that JB’s family would be at the retirement ceremony, but it never occurred to me that they would want to seek me out, but that’s what his mom did. I was leaning over to read some of his certificates when she came up to me and asked, “Are you the young lady who was with JB in Iraq?”
I looked up at her and said, “Yes, I’m Julie. I was the writer on his team.”
She politely put her hand out.
“We’ve heard so much about you, the girl who was with him,” she said.
“Oh, are you a relative?” I asked, still not sure who I was speaking to. She offered me a warm smile.
“Oh, I’m his mother,” she said. “I can’t thank you enough for being there for him.”
I remember repeating, “His mother? His mother!” as it dawned on me who she was, but before I could think or say anything else, she was wrapping her arms around me as I began to cry, telling her I was so glad to finally meet her.
Let me be more honest: I was a shuddering, hiccuping, sobbing mess, totally caught off guard by my reaction. I just never considered that I would be mentioned whenever the events of that day were shared with JB’s family, but then to have his mom there, wanting to meet me?
It was a lot.
She rubbed my back, explaining how she and her husband had no idea where JB was while he was deployed, that they weren’t expecting a call like the one they got when they learned he had been injured, how they traveled to him when he arrived stateside for care at Walter Reed, that they were relieved to learn he wasn’t alone when the attack happened, and how grateful they were for the things everyone did for JB that day.
Between gasps for breath, I blubbered about how bad he looked the last time I saw him, how pale and weak he was, how the last thing I did was kiss his sweaty bald head as they carried him away, and how great it was to see him so healthy again, to see him standing and walking.
And then she said, “You know? He’s okay now. You don’t have to worry now. And you’re okay, too. We are so thankful for that.”
I’m not sure how long we stood there like that, but eventually, she pulled away and turned to her husband behind her, and said, “Hey, this is the girl who was with JB over there.”
And then her husband approached me, and JB’s older brother (a former Marine), and even though I tried to compose myself, it was just so much to be surrounded by all of that. After we talked some more, I rushed to a corner of the room to check my make-up to make sure my meltdown wasn’t too obvious.
I was fine during the rest of the reception, and even stayed behind to help clean up, but as soon as I returned to my hotel room, I sat on my bed and cried some more.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I cried out six years worth of tears.
For as much as I’ve shared about my deployment experience, there’s so much more I haven’t shared because it’s just so exhausting and draining.
The aftermath of that incident (both immediate and long-term) and the way things were handled by some of the “leadership” (quotes intentional) were about as traumatic as the incident itself, and changed my perspective on many, many things.
For all the wonderful things that happened to me because of my Air Force service, there were very bitter things to happen, too. Time, focusing on all the opportunities ahead of me, and the amazing support of those close to me during that time helped lessen the burden.
Yet, when JB’s mother approached me, and talked to me, she unintentionally opened up some things that are still very raw and emotional … and yet in the process, her words healed my heart in a way I absolutely wasn’t expecting.
There was a reason I was there that day, why I was a part of that team, and why I was moved to do the things I did, and as I thought about these things, and the words she said to me, I felt like an incredible weight was lifted off my shoulders.
I’ve never questioned or doubted my service over there, but she gave me an answer I didn’t know I needed.
Even though my friend Mike and his wife Amanda just PCS’d to Maryland about 30 min from our home in DC, we all decided to meet up here in Cincinnati for brunch! Not only is Mike an Air Force public affairs NCO, he is also a Cincy native.
We ate at a local chili place in the area Mike grew up. He knew the menu by heart.