Honoring a Hero

Exactly seven years ago today, I stood with many others at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Maj. Troy Gilbert after his F-16 crashed in Iraq while he was defending soldiers on the ground who were under attack.Today, on the anniversary of his burial, I stood once again at Arlington National Cemetery with many others to honor and welcome a part of him home again.The circumstances of Troy’s death in November 2006 are pretty dramatic. He was providing surveillance and reconnaissance for ground forces north of Baghdad when a coalition helicopter went down. As American forces were securing the helicopter and the people inside it, insurgents attacked them. Troy flew in, strafing the insurgents, and flying less than 200 feet from the ground. Continue reading

The One About the Flash Mob

As you are aware, it’s December already.

Which, of course, means November is over, as is my National Novel Writing Month challenge to write a 50,000-word novel. The good news is that I accomplished that goal, and the novel isn’t even done yet. I’ll keep writing and working on it, because it’s a great story, if I do say so myself, and I like where it’s going.

But more on that later.

In other news, we had a pretty busy month — a birthday, some traveling, lots of eating great food — and I’ll be using the next week or so playing catch-up and sharing some of the highlights.

In the meantime, I’m sharing a video that the U.S. Air Force Band posted overnight. They performed a flash-mob concert here in downtown Washington DC, at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. Funny enough, Ashley and I ate a late lunch there, hours after this all happened. I’m sad we missed it.

But fortunately, it was beautifully captured in this video for all of us to enjoy as a kickstart to the holidays.

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

 

On My Way

JB and me in Iraq in 2007. I’m the short dude on the left.

 

I’ve been lucky.

Ever since my deployment in 2007, I’ve been able to keep in touch with my team: JV, JB, and JZ.

Unlike the experiences of my grandfathers and uncles who served in previous conflicts, I didn’t just go home and never see my fellow Airmen again.

Through social media, the grapevine, and in-person reunions, I’ve actually been able to keep track of retirements, career changes, families, and such.

Out of all my connections — military and professional colleagues, friends, and family — there is a special place in my heart for these three men.

For six months (if you include the time I spent training with them, too), I worked, lived, traveled, laughed, annoyed (I admit it), cared, and thankfully, survived with those guys. In the entire span of my lifetime, those months are just a small chunk of my life experience, right?

But whoa, was it extraordinary.

Because we actually worked together at the Pentagon for a few more years upon our return home, and because we live in the same region and invite each other to family barbecues and birthday parties, I actually get to see JV quite a bit.

JV at his surprise birthday party in 2012

I also got to reunite with JZ, who ended up being an attendee at one of my social media briefings a few years ago.

That was an awesome surprise for me, and I actually had Martin drive up with the kids so we could all sit and talk and catch up.

When I saw JZ, and got the scoop on how well he and his family were doing, and how his career was doing, there was such an unexpected sense of relief there for me. It’s one thing to see updates on social media or through the grapevine, or get emails every now and then.

It’s another to actually put eyes on your battle buddies, and see that they are well.

With JZ and Miss C in 2011. Jaz was still baking at the time. ūüôā

Which leads me to JB.

He’s the one dude from my team that I haven’t been able to see again in person.

The last time I saw him and his bald head was when they ran out of that kitchen (which was set up as the medical clinic) with him on the stretcher, out to the helicopter waiting to take him to Baghdad after his legs got shredded from the mortar blast.

He spent that summer in Washington DC at Walter Reed in recovery. Martin even got to visit with him.

But he was released and flown home just days before JV and I returned to the United States.

And we haven’t been in the same place ever since.

Until now.

This evening, I’m on my way to put a status check on him as he retires from the Air Force.

It will be good to see him.

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I did not know it was International Talk Like A Pirate day when I picked my nautical-inspired outfit this morning, ahoy! But thar you have it.
Thanks to Ashley¬†¬†the Intern for takin’ t’ picture.

This Is the Rest of Your Life

My thought as I took this photo in 2000?
“This is soooo going on my future web journal when I get this film developed.”

I forgot to point out a special anniversary/birthday earlier this week.

This blog turned 12 years old on July 28.

If it were my child, it would be going through puberty now. But I feel like blog years are sort of like dog years in that things grow and change rapidly, so in Internet/social media/technology years, my blog is really almost 200 years old.

I’m pretty proud of my archive over there.

For fun, I’m sharing with you some photos that were taken around the time I first started blogging/recording our history in 2000/2001, as well as the podcast Martin and I created a few years ago about that year.

You’ll see skinny Martin. Such a hunk.

Oh, and in recognition of my blog going through puberty (sort of), I’m also including one of the most delightful things I’ve seen on the Internet yet.

Enjoy. And happy belated blog birthday!

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Shut up. This was one of my clubbing outfits. Not even joking. There are no other photos of me in this shirt.
Grateful there were no cell phone cameras back in 2001. Thank you, Jesus.

His and her vehicles. Mine was a 1988 Ford Sierra and Martin had a 1992 Honda Civic.

Martin and his mother in fall of 2000, the day he left for Bundeswehr basic training. Love. That. Hair.

Martin wearing my BCGs — birth control glasses — from basic training while talking on the phone in my Kaiserslautern apartment to my family in the states in early 2001. I can assure you he did not put those glasses on himself.

I traveled a lot back then. This photo was taken in Berlin while I was visiting my friend Pam. I found the people in Berlin to be very friendly, although they had a thing for very strange hats.

Martin, his sister Carola, my dad, and my ol’ roommate, Stephanie, in Nuremberg in early 2001.

Dress shopping in the summer of 2001 while visiting Ohio.

That’s Martin on the far right during his Bundeswehr days. Look at those computer monitors.

Getting promoted to airman first class! Two stripes! YES! That was in the spring of 2001.
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On another note,  some habits die hard.

It’s gray and dreary today, and as I wrangled the kids out of the house this morning, I called over my shoulder, asking Martin to grab me an umbrella I could take to work with me.When I saw which one he brought me, I blurted out, “Oh, no! I can’t use that one!”

And he said, “Julie. It’s fine. It’s pink. And you are not in the military or in uniform anymore.”
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Satisfaction

Amelia the Minivan is in the shop and Martin took the car to Andrews. We ran out of milk, so we grabbed the bikes and headed to the store. Which, I realized, is uphill the whole way. And it is a freakin’ sauna outside. But there was a sale on Cheez-it’s and Gatorade, so Mom’s heat exhaustion was totally worth it.

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There’s a certain sense of satisfaction I feel as I listen to Martin try to log into the Air Force website responsible for his travel orders and such. It’s the password requirement. Hearing him curse in two languages … seeing him throw his fists in the air … “Why the hell do they need 15 characters? WCKR is NOT a word! Why is it saying it’s a word? It’s NOT A WORD!!”

I know now: it wasn’t me. No. It was never me.

PS – After about 15 minutes of entertainment, I finally went in there and showed him the trick. Sure, I could have let him suffer for about nine years, as I did before learning it, but I *do* have to live with him.

 

Martin Graduated

Some final words with one of his tech school instructors.

In the midst of all the excitement with Jaz last week, I didn’t get to share the good news.

Martin graduated.

He officially finished his military training last Wednesday and left technical school as a certified air transportation specialist* for the US Air Force Reserve.

I took off from work that day and drove down to Ft. Lee to attend the ceremony. A few other family members were there as well, and we all got to watch as our Airmen were given their certificates and words of encouragement from class leadership.

And I even got to step up and take the grip-and-grin photos for everyone.

 

After the ceremony, we headed over to the dorm so Martin could collect all his belongings, and within an hour, we were on the road again, heading home.

For good.

Martin is no longer considered a “pipeline” Airman. He’s done with his initial training.

Starting next month, he’ll be putting on the uniform at least one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and doing his work at nearby Andrews Air Force Base. Of course, there may be some travel to other locations here and there, some time apart, some more training down the road.

But now? He’s back to be being a full-time stay-at-home dad.

He’ll be posting soon about his tech school experience, and of course, we’ll be sharing as we follow this new path for all of us, especially as he re-integrates with the household again.

It probably goes without saying that we are so proud of him.

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* Here’s an Air Force video showing you what air transportation specialists — or¬† “Port Dawgs” — do in the Air Force/Air Force Reserve.

The One About Tech School

My roommate Carolyn and me during tech school in the spring of 2000.

This is the blog post about tech school.

The one I meant to write and publish earlier, after Martin’s graduation from Basic Military Training before life and all its distractions got in the way.

As you know, Martin is attending his technical school for his job in the Air Force Reserve right now, but this post is specficially about my tech school experience, when I went through it back in the spring of 2000.

For those who aren’t familiar with this part of military training, technical school is where an Airman (or Soldier, Sailor, Marine, or member of the Coast Guard) learns his/her job. In some ways, it’s like college or a trade school, with all the classes, studying, and exams. (In fact, one can earn several college credits there.)

There are even dorms and instructors and dining facilities, just like a college campus.

But with more rules, and uniforms, and military order, of course.

Everyone who wears a uniform performs a job in the military that falls within certain categories or career fields. Each branch has a different way of calling these jobs. In the Army, these are called Military Occupational Specialties, or MOS. In the Air Force, the categories are called Air Force Specialty Codes, or AFSC.

Based on one’s scores after taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude, or ASVAB, test, there are more than 800 careers one can have in the military.

Because I was Air Force, my AFSC was 3N0X1.

Public Affairs.

It was the only military job I ever wanted.

Within days of graduating from basic training, I was on a plane for Baltimore, Maryland. Unlike the majority of my fellow Airmen, who were headed to other Air Force bases for their training, I was heading to Ft. Meade, Maryland, an Army post that is home to the Defense Information School.

I wrote about DINFOS before on the blog, after I was a guest speaker during one of the graduation ceremonies there. Since then, I’ve spoken there a few times to individual classes related to social media and government work.

A lot of the people I knew and worked with in the Air Force are now instructors there themselves, to include some folks who went through tech school with me.

But I digress.

I was sent to Ft. Meade to attend the basic journalism course for three months.

The day I showed up at Fort Meade, I was assigned a roommate, Carolyn, who attended basic training the same time I did, although we were in different flights and didn’t know each other. She was from Minnesota and I was from Cincinnati, and we both were sort of obsessed with Ralph Fiennes and The English Patient at the time.

We got along just fine.

We shared a room in the Air Force dorms which were housed in a long, narrow building right across from the school. We each had a bed, a nightstand, a wardrobe closet, a book shelf and a desk, and we shared an ironing board and mini-refrigerator.

And while we still shared a bathroom with all the other girls on our floor, there were individual shower stalls for more privacy. While it was different than sharing a huge bay with 50 other ladies, we were still expected to make our beds every day, line up our shoes underneath, and keep everything dust-free.

Not all the Airmen were attending the public affairs course. Some were being trained as photographers. Others were there becoming broadcasters and videographers. A few were learning graphic design. Carolyn was training to become a photographer, which meant I was a frequent subject for her photography assignments.

That first weekend there,¬†all the Airmen were involved¬†in a fitness challenge. All the classes were divided up into flights, and my flight was the newest right out of basic training. So collectively, we maxed out on all the scores since we were all in prime condition. For the final obstacle, our commander — a captain who once played football at the Air Force Academy — challenged everyone to a chin-up contest. If someone from our flight could pump out more chin-ups than he, we would get the top prize: a weekend pass with no restrictions.

You see, there are “phases” during tech school. I wrote about them in an earlier post, but to sum it up, the phases are in place to ease the transition away from basic. Under normal circumstances, my flight would have remained in the first phase — which meant an early curfew, no civilian clothes, no leaving the base — for at least three weeks.

Fortunately, my flight had a few young men who could do chin-ups all day.

That first weekend, all of us got to put on civilian clothes again and head downtown to Baltimore. We went to Washington D.C. the next day.

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during my visit to DC.

That’s when I fell in love with this city. It was my first visit ever, and I just knew I would return to it in some capacity at some point in my life.

But at that moment, I was focused on Europe.

When it came to my classes, tech school was pretty easy for me.

From the age of nine, I knew about the public affairs career field, and my curriculum choices in high school reflected my goal to enlist in that career field. All those years in journalism and writing classes, learning about the media, all those public appearances during my theater years and on my mother’s television show really paid off at DINFOS.

Public affairs was a perfect fit for me.

But where was I going to go after tech school?

My public affairs class photo with my instructors
Like all active-duty Airmen in tech school, I expected to get orders to my first duty assignment sometime in the middle of my schooling there. We all got to fill out a “dream sheet” listing the locations we preferred, and all of my preferences were in Europe – most in Germany. When the instructor said I really should list some stateside bases, too,¬†I explained my reasons for not listing any.
Of course, my ancestors came from Germany, and my dad loved it when he was stationed as a young Airman, but any time there was a major international military event, what location was in the news?
Ramstein Air Base. Germany.
Throughout my high school years, I paid attention.
Ramstein was where distinguished visitors visited and Americans returned from conflict. Notable things happened there. It’s where those injured in the Balkans, or in the 1998 embassy attack in Kenya, were flown.
If I wanted to be in the middle of it, in a place where things happened and media activity was constant, I wanted to be there.
So, long before there was Martin, there was a desire to speak the language and live and work in Germany on behalf of the Air Force. As a sophomore in high school, I signed up for German classes and took it for three years before signing up to be a foreign exchange student in the summer of 1999.
I wanted to be as prepared for the assignment as possible.
The instructor laughed when I explained all this, and said my enthusiasm for an overseas assignment would lead me straight to Korea.
Another student, though, overheard me.
She was a technical sergeant, a Reservist,¬†and was cross-training into the public affairs career field. She didn’t live in the dorms with the new Airmen, but attended classes with us.
During our lunch break that day, she wrote an email address on a slip of paper and handed it to me.
“I heard what you were saying about going to Germany,” she said, “and I think you should write to this person. She’s the one who manages everyone’s assignments. I heard her speak at an event recently, and she seems really invested in people’s careers. I don’t¬†think it’ll hurt you to reach out to her.”
So, in a moment of inspired bravado, I took the sergeant’s advice and wrote to the chief master sergeant in charge of assignments.
I later learned that the email was circulated from Fort Meade to Texas to Germany … throughout my career field’s entire senior leadership, actually.
It’s not every day that an airman basic — the lowest¬†rank in the¬†Air Force¬†— writes to a chief master sergeant — the highest enlisted¬†rank in the¬†Air Force¬†— and explains how the Air Force would benefit by sending that brand new baby Airman to Europe.
But I did.

In Cincinnati after tech school during my two-week visit
 
The weekend after I wrote that email, my family from Ohio came out to visit me during the Cherry Blossom festival in DC, and it was the first time they got to see me in uniform since they didn’t attend my graduation from basic training.
I was in Phase Two at the time — I could go off-base yet I had to wear my blues uniform. During the first day of their visit, we spent the day walking around the Mall to see the monuments.
At the Women’s Vietnam Memorial, a lady approached my father and me. She identified herself as an Air Force senior non-commissioned officer, and wanted to know what I did for the Air Force. When I said public affairs, her face lit up.
“I work as a career field manager¬†down at Randolph Air Base in Texas,” she said. “I don’t handle the public affairs assignments, but the lady who does sits right across from me.”
Needless to say, I started talking.
She took down my name, saying she would put in a good word for me to her colleague.
My dad was flabbergasted.
“I can not believe that just happened,” he said. “I think it’s a sign.”
It was.
About a week or so later, I got my orders to Ramstein Air Base.

To say I was excited is putting it mildly.

I couldn’t wait to head over to Europe.
But I had to finish tech school, of course.
In addition to the classes, there were “GI Parties” every Sunday night, when all of us Airmen were assigned household chores, such as mopping the hallways or dusting furniture in the open areas of the dorm.
There were random fire and evacuation drills in the middle of the night.
Early morning “fun runs” with the squadron.
Physical fitness (PT) in the afternoons in the field next to the dorms.
Curfew. Random room/uniform inspections. Custom and courtesy drills.
But there were fun times, too.
I really did enjoy my journalism and photography classes, completing assignments, and hanging out with the others after school or the weekends, when we ventured off base to the local malls and movie theaters, or to Baltimore or Washington DC again.
I got a belly piercing in a tattoo parlor right off base. (That was interesting.) And a few of us discovered a thrift shop not far from the base: I invested a nice chunk of my new paycheck on some great vintage finds.
I also bought a portable CD player and a huge CD storage case to begin my very own CD collection. (10 Internet points if you even know what any of that means.)
And I celebrated my 19th birthday there, too. A group of Airmen and Marines (who lived in the dorms across from ours) took me out for a birthday dinner that weekend, and brought me a cake and candles that morning.

Cake!
I graduated in the last week of May. 
The ceremony lasted about 20 minutes. I don’t even remember who spoke at it.
Later that day, my dad arrived from Ohio to take me back to Cincinnati so I could start two weeks of the “recruiters assistance program” which allowed for me to visit with family before heading over to Germany.
And the rest, they say, is history.

Family Reunion

Martin got to reunite with the whole family this past weekend.

Ever since graduating from Basic Military Training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, Martin’s been attending technical school at Fort Lee in Virginia. For the longest time, I thought this part of his training was going to continue in Lackland, as mentioned in his orders. While it is true that the training group is based in Texas, Martin’s school is part of a joint training facility located on an Army base, just like my own tech school experience.

You can imagine how thrilled we all were when we realized that Fort Lee is only two hours away from us in Northern Virginia.

Regardless of his location, Martin’s considered a “pipeline Airman” right now. That’s a term given to brand new Airman who make their way through the “pipeline” — BMT and tech school — before joining the real Air Force. Continue reading

Thank You For Your Service

Enjoying breakfast on the Riverwalk

That Sunday after his graduation ceremony was the last we saw Martin while down in Texas.

He earned a town pass for the day in two ways. First, he won it by maxing out on the physical fitness standards, earning himself a “warhawk” status¬†for extraordinary fitness.¬†Because of that, he got a certificate, a t-shirt, and a town pass.

This incentive is something new to BMT (or at least, new to me), and when Martin told me about it over the phone, his German accent threw me off, and I misunderstood that he was a warthog.

It was a few days later until I realized my mistake. I just assumed he was referencing something from BEAST week, and didn’t bother to get clarification.

It’s Warhawk: the Air Force God of Fitness.

(I made up that last part.)

The second way Martin earned the Sunday town pass was through his flight, and their designation as the honor flight. All the others in his flight also got to spend one extra day with their families as a reward for earning the most points through their exams, inspections, and fitness tests.

So, Miss C and I picked up Martin early Sunday morning and immediately drove down to the city, where we enjoyed breakfast on the Riverwalk.

Halfway through our meal, an older gentleman approached us, and introduced himself as a former B-52 pilot. He had been eating at the table behind us with his family, and when he saw Martin in his uniform and overheard our conversation, he realized Martin was a recent BMT graduate, and he wanted to treat us.

So he bought our entire breakfast, thanking Martin for his service.

The gentleman wasn’t the first to thank Martin that weekend. In fact, just about everywhere we went, people approached Martin to shake his hand, thank him for his service, and welcome him to the Air Force.

Martin said this made him feel really awkward because not only is he naturally a pretty humble dude, but for so long, it was people coming up to me and thanking me for serving, and occasionally treating me (or us) with some random act of kindness.

But most of all, Martin said he felt weird about it because in his mind, graduating from BMT didn’t really count as a significant contribution of service.

But he is wrong.

Every time someone approached Martin, I wanted to speak up about my husband, to bring them up to speed about how he’s already served and sacrificed. And it’s not even that he gave up his own Bundeswehr career, or offered such unconditional support to my own Air Force career.

It’s just that, in addition to all things that motivates one to join the military, Martin really and truly knows how hard it is, and how much is given and lost when one puts on the uniform … and how mundane and ordinary working for the Air Force can be … and how exciting … and how draining human politics and office politics and DC politics can be in the military, and how much it can change you, and not always for good … and all the other things that make life in the military one of the hardest and most stressful career choices out there.

Most new Airmen do not have that perspective.

But despite having witnessed all of that through my career and those of our good friends, and despite having a comfortable life as a stay-at-home dad with us at home, my warthog STILL decided to serve.

Yes, Martin.

Thank you for your service.

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The three of us. That’s Miss C sporting the panda mask she got at the San Antonio zoo.

The rest of that Sunday was definitely more low-key. After breakfast, we let Miss C decide our plans. This led us over to the IMAX theater near the Alamo, where we saw a documentary about monarch butterflies.

Afterwards, we drove back to our hotel, where the three of us ordered room service and watched animal reality television shows featuring adorable puppies and psychotic cats while all piled up on the huge bed. The only thing missing were our two babies, Lola and Jaz.

At least, though, we knew that the hardest part — BMT — was over, and we were that much closer to being all together again.

Our goodbye to Martin that day was relatively quick and painless. I pulled into the parking lot next to his dorm, helped him unload his new luggage set, and gave him a quick hug and kiss goodbye. He had an early morning flight out of Texas — the airport bus picked him up at 2 am — and then he would be off to technical school to learn how to become an air transportation specialist.

This meant he was now a lot closer to home, too.

Literally.

For the longest time, I thought his tech school was there at Lackland Air Force Base. But as it turned out … of all the places he could have gone for his training, his school is at Fort Lee, Virginia.

Just two hours south of where we live.

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Can you believe that Martin already wrote something for the Air Force’s official blog?

It’s true.

That Sunday, while we were hanging out in the hotel room, Martin typed up some thoughts about his BMT experience.

You can read it here.