Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Wonderful Block Leave

PHOTO: At PETCO Park in San Diego, California, on a wonderful tour of the home of the Padres. This was one stop on a great Block Leave vacation.

I sometimes forget that not everyone lives and breathes Army terms and events. I recently sent an email to my cousin talking about our upcoming leave plans and current events in our household ... and she promptly wrote back with a list of questions, including "What does block leave mean?"

So for my cousin and any others who may want to know, Block Leave is a period of time provided for Soldiers and their Families, usually just before and just after a deployment, to enjoy some time away from everyday work. "Block" because the entire unit is provided this opportunity at the same time and "Leave" because the Soldier is on official "leave" from the Army. In other words ... vacation!

We have taken a majority of our Block Leave times from Fort Hood, Texas. We have enjoyed several great places near our home, including San Antonio (can't beat the FREE admission to Sea World for active duty military) and Wimberley (fun little B&B town in the Texas Hill Country), but really love to take the opportunity to travel and see something new.

We’ll also include trips to see family and friends that we haven’t seen in awhile … Atlanta and Savannah are favorites for us (it’s very cool to have family living on Skidaway Island on the Georgia coast!) … and to see family that lives close by. Because my husband and I both grew up in Texas, and a vast majority of our individual families are still in Texas, we are able to spend time with our immediate families as well.

As our boys grow older – and begin having opinions of their own – are leave plans are changing somewhat. After this deployment, we had a good family discussion about where we would like to visit for Block Leave. “Alaska!” and “Hawaii!” were immediate, simultaneous suggestions … then Washington DC, Maine, the Grand Canyon, and San Diego were added to the list. In true military fashion, we listed out the pros and cons of each location and eventually decided on San Diego. The boys were thrilled about a plane ride (their first since they were babies), and could not wait to see Legoland.

As I write, the boys are sleeping in their hotel room on the Pacific coast after a very fun first day in California. We spent the entire day at Legoland and Legoland’s “Sea Life” aquarium (both fabulous and highly recommended!) and have a few more days already full of things to do from our “Go San Diego” book of ideas.

All in all, a great trip so far. I’ll be back with more as we experience this wonderful Army tradition of Block Leave …

In Honor of Army Dads

I was waiting on a flight at Dallas/Fort Worth airport several years ago and remember seeing a young Soldier get off the plane at my gate. He stepped into the waiting area, looked around anxiously, and then ran toward a young woman holding an infant. As they embraced and she lifted the baby to hand him to the Soldier, I realized that this young man was seeing his baby, his son, for the very first time. I know this scene is played out across our Army all the time, but it brought tears to my eyes to watch their reunion. This young Family stays with me as a reminder of what our Soldiers give up in the cause of freedom.

As Father’s Day came and went this year and we celebrated the dad in our Family, I couldn't help but think about all the Army dads out there who do such an amazing job of balancing family and work.

Having watched my husband of 15+ years, the past 9+ of those as a dad, I have seen how difficult it can be to be a great Soldier and a great Dad. It takes constant practice, endless perseverance, and boundless patience. He is amazing at it and I am thankful each day for his love and leadership in our family, but I think he’d be the first to tell you that it’s no easy task.

Any Army Family can tell you that being in the Army is not like many other jobs. In fact, "job" doesn't quite cover it. "Career" or "lifestyle" come closer, but it's an all-consuming life choice to be an American Soldier. Work days are long and hard, field exercises take dads away from their homes for weeks at a time, and ... to quote one of my favorite Toby Keith country songs about the American Soldier, "... I can't call in sick on Mondays when the weekend's been too strong ... " Many of the everyday liberties taken by workers all across our country (like calling in sick or showing up late) are not an option for our Soldiers.

Army training and combat operations trump all other events. Believe it or not, this is not a concept that makes me angry or bitter. I get it. I can clearly see how ensuring that our combat teams are prepared for war and keeping them focused and ready during combat operations is key and fundamental. Got that. What are a little harder to swallow are the missed births, first words, high school graduation ceremonies, and other life events. I intellectually understand why this happens, but emotionally, my heart breaks for these dads who miss so much. (Quick note: I am aware of the sacrifices made by our Army moms as well … and dual military Families have all of these issues two-fold … but today I want to focus on the dads in the Family.)

Army dads have a supreme mission … to perform well as a Soldier and to support a Family. Being gone from the home for extended periods of time can make it hard to keep ‘the pulse’ of what is happening, but I have seen countless success stories … dads who remain close to their kids, stay involved in the Family, and keep their marriage top priority. To these dads, I give my thanks and gratitude.

For every Soldier-dad who has heard the words, “Daddy, when are you coming home?” I want to say THANK YOU. Thank you for your courage, strength, and sacrifice. Thank you for serving your country even when it is not convenient for your own family. Thank you for loving your children enough to show them the right way to do things, even when it’s not the easy way. Thank you for dealing with the tough times in order to make our lives safe and free here at home. When that little dagger stabs you in the heart at the sound of “I miss you so much,” please know that you are appreciated and loved.

For their endless patience and love, and in honor of their sacrifice and courage, Army Dads are my heroes!

Also, to Army dads … if you haven’t seen the video for the song “Price of Peace,” you simply must see it. It describes a daughter’s perspective on her dad going to war. Even more powerful is the fact that the song was written by a young girl whose Dad serves in the Reserves and is sung by this talented young girl along with her sister. Good stuff.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

He's Home!!

Photo: Our Soldiers just after stepping off the bus, and just before greeting their Families.

Nothing compares to an Army homecoming. After months apart, Soldiers are on their way to be reunited on an Army installation somewhere … usually in a gym or on a parade field. The Army band comes to play or a deejay is hired to play to the emotional crowd so music fills the air and excitement and apprehension build to record levels. Remember, it’s been months. Months! These Soldiers have been in the heat and sand, working nonstop with few comforts of home while the Families at home have handled all of the domestic duties while worrying each moment about their Soldier’s safety. (We could spend chapters on that alone, but suffice it to say, it is exhausting.)

Now THE DAY is here. Now this DAY is much different than that ‘other’ DAY. The goodbye day is heart-wrenching and sad and gloomy and feared. This day is the antidote to that day! This is a day full of exhilaration and nerves and joy and pride and love. Balloons bounce around the welcome home site, banners proudly welcome home the mommies and daddies and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters of the unit. Streamers and American flags abound. 4th of July décor has nothing on a welcome home ceremony! It’s a beautiful, happy occasion.

I absolutely LOVE seeing Soldiers come home. Daddies holding their babies for the first time, the first welcome-home kiss, moms and dads and grandparents and siblings wearing some version of the “I AM PROUD OF MY SOLDIER” line of clothing … this is good stuff! My all-time favorite is the Romeo-and-Juliet version (before the last act) where the Soldier and the spouse run toward each other, arms outstretched, and leap into an embrace, twirling, crying, laughing, kissing … while a love song plays and cartoon hearts float around them. You’ve seen them. There is not a romance novel out there to beat that scene.

All of the anxieties I felt about him coming home were erased the moment I saw the bus pull up to the parade field. From there, it was just exhilarating. It was finally MY turn! My Soldier stepped off the bus! My husband walked across the parade field! My kids’ daddy stood with his fellow Soldiers and listened to the (thankfully short) welcome home message. My boys got to run to their dad and hug (tackle?) him for the first time in months. Life is good, HOOAH, and all that. It’s a good day!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Army Kids are Army Strong

My Army Strong Army kids
A Welcome Home Hug

I have been thinking lately about Army kids and how they seem to have their very own brand of independence and confidence, honed by years of moving to new places, meeting new people, and saying farewell to good friends whose Soldier had been reassigned to a new location. When my kids talk about taking a family trip, they don't stop at the local Six Flags or Water Park. They suggest places like Washington, DC, London, England, and Vicenza, Italy ... all places where friends have moved in the past year.

In my reminiscing of Army kids, I was reminded of an Army child I met years ago, before we had kids of our own. My husband and I had just moved into temporary quarters at Fort Stewart, Georgia, when we heard a knock at our door. We had just arrived and no one yet knew how to reach us, so we were surprised to have a visitor. When I opened the door, a little girl about nine years old was standing there. "Welcome!" she said, "I am new here, too. Do you have any kids I could play with?" I loved that she was making the most of her situation (with her parents close by), and "growing where she was planted." It makes me wonder what personality traits she will take with her into her adult life that are enhanced by living the Army life during her childhood.

I have been monitoring my own children closely as of late, evaluating their reactions to the separation from their father along with seeing more close friends pack up to leave this summer. Last week, we were able to welcome our Soldier home from a year-long deployment. As we went through the various stages that were a part of this event, I kept an especially close eye on both of my children, ages nine and six. They have endured a long year of separation from their all-time hero and father and were beyond excited to welcome him home.

I enjoyed observing them making "Welcome Home" banners (favorite quote? "Mommy, how do you spell 'welcome-home-daddy-you-are-my-hero-and-I-have-missed-you-so-much-and-let's-play-our-favorite-game-when-we-get-home!'"), cleaning their rooms, baking welcome-home cookies, and hanging welcome home signs all over our house. They both made comments that the last few days before 'welcome home' were just too long. One said it's harder than waiting for Santa Claus; the other simply stated, "We've waited for this day for a long time."

Numerous times, I found myself filled with a strange mix of emotions -- pride, joy, sadness, anxiety -- as I worked with them to get ready for Daddy to come home. I loved how excited they were and was so proud of how well they have handled all that they had been handed during this time apart. I was thrilled that we would be a complete family unit again and that my youngest would have a parent available who could actually help him with his baseball stance (and not just say things like, "Mmm, I don't think that looks quite right, honey. Try lifting your elbows a bit ..."). I was also a bit anxious about what their reaction would be to seeing their Daddy again. I knew they would be happy, but it must be every Army spouse's nightmare that their children might not recognize their Soldier-parent upon return.

As it turned out, our welcome home ceremony was scheduled for midnight. The boys were crushed that they had to go to bed ONE MORE TIME before Daddy would be there, but were able to fall asleep fairly quickly. When I woke them up, the oldest bolted out of bed, slid into his shoes (they both went to bed in the shorts/shirt they would wear to greet Daddy), and raced to the front door. The youngest was exhausted and fought all the way to the car ("Why are you waking me UP?!?!?"), but woke up on the ride to post, thrilled to be on his way to getting his Dad.

When we arrived at the parade field, I was again amazed at the flexibility and independence of Army kids. My sons immediately approached a group of kids gathered on the field and, within minutes, were playing like old friends. As "arrival time" grew nearer, I watched the growing group of kids on the field. A dee-jay was playing fun songs and they ran and danced and played like they had all been best friends for life. It occurred to me that having a deployed parent in common might just be as strong a bond as knowing each other since birth.

Eventually, the deejay announced that the buses were just moments away. We watched as the military police car, with sirens blaring and lights flashing, escorted our Soldiers to the field. The Soldiers then exited the bus, moved into a formation, and began marching across the field. As they got close, the deejay announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen! America's Heroes are HOME!!" The cheers were deafening and the front row of kids looking for their parent again caught my attention. The looks of pure joy and excitement on these little faces were a wonder to see.

As the 2-minute ceremony ended, the announcer said, "In the fine tradition of the Cavalry, it is time to find your Soldier ... CHARGE!" If you've ever seen an elementary school field day race, you'll have some idea of how fast these kids reached their Soldiers. I think my oldest might have broken some sort of land-speed record as he sprinted to tackle his dad. As caught up as I was in greeting my husband, my hero, and the love of my life ... I still was astounded at the Army kids around me, all welcoming their hero home, and all ready for whatever might come next.

For these and a hundred other reasons, Army kids are heroes.  Army Strong!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

An Ode to the Army Wife

Yesterday I attended a farewell brunch for one of my dearest Army girlfriends. We've been in the same location for the past four years and survived two deployments together. She's been a wonderful listener, our kids enjoy each other, and we have similar views on Army life ... realistic with a large dose of humor.

As I was thinking about the move she is about to make (across the ocean with three kids into a foreign land), I was again amazed at the resilience of the Army wife. [Note: For all you PC folks out there, I have a great appreciation for Army husbands, but this one is for the wives ... so I won't always use the more politically correct "spouse."]

For most folks, picking up the family and moving into a foreign country would be a long, drawn-out, soul-searching decision-making process utilizing months of research, planning, and analysis. For my friend and her Family, it's a matter of getting orders to go. Almost in auto-pilot, they put their house up for sale, secured medical records, and packed up to go. I'm struck by the simplicity of that. It's the Army's own version of "Just Do It."

Another wonderful Army girlfriend moved last summer from our Texas post )after three years as my neighbor and top confidante) to Washington DC. The differences in the two communities are starkly different. With two little girls to consider, she researched homes, schools, and neighborhoods. After just a few weeks in her new location, the girls were enrolled in dance classes, new schools, and were making new friends. She would tell you, "This is just what we do."

When a Soldier receives orders to move to a new location (PCS or "Permanent Change of Station"), he arrives with his new job waiting for him and a very familiar structure to jump into. For his wife, not so much. She's the one updating her resume (again) and explaining why she has held six different jobs in the past eight years or has a break in employment of four years while she travelled the globe with her Army Family.

The basics of moving to a new place ... finding a home, school, church, grocery store, hair salon, and family care provider ... are often left up to the wife. And this doesn't even touch on hanging window treatments in new windows (that are never the same size as any previous home, ever - It's a fact) or making new friends of her own.

And this is during the good times! An Army wife with a husband deployed is another story altogether. Taking on full responsibility of a home and Family while supporting your Soldier is a gargantuan task. Yet I meet spouse after spouse who is making the best of a challenging situation, usually with the help of close friends and, again, a big slice of humor. When the new car that has performed flawlessly for six months suddenly announces "CHECK ENGINE" as you are driving away from dropping your Soldier off to deploy (true story of mine!), you'll either laugh or cry. And, at the end of the tour of duty, hopefully you will have laughed more than cried.

I looked up “resilience” in my computer’s thesaurus and found this wonderful list of words that I think describe the Army wife: flexibility, buoyancy, spirit, hardiness, toughness, and resistance … Most Army wives I know exemplify this list of words. The antonyms for resilience? Rigidity and defeatism; I have yet to meet a successful Army spouse that dealt at all with rigidity or defeatism … those words just don’t fit.

I'm not sure which came first ... are resilient women drawn to the Army life ... or are Army wives forced to learn resilience by being married to a Soldier? I would guess there are some of each, but if you are in the Army, you will likely learn to be resilient or not stay around for long. Being an Army wife is not for everybody, but those who do enter this life ... that love their Soldiers and support the life they choose together ... these are my true heroes and Army Sisters.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Soldiers, Lt. Dan, and Blue Bell Ice Cream

I find our Army Soldiers the most resourceful, dedicated, brave, and honorable men and women anywhere. Last weekend, I witnessed one of many examples of why I adore Soldiers. My kids and I attended a concert on Fort Hood featuring the Lt. Dan Band. It was a wonderful event and we had a great time. The music was fantastic, the crowd energetic, and the kids area well-organized and fun. All in all, a very fun night for us.

After a few turns in the bounce houses, my boys requested ice cream. I'm never one to turn down Blue Bell ice cream and the night seemed to call for a treat, so I agreed. I stood in the line while my ever-energetic boys ran laps on the track with some friends (friends they met for the first time a few minutes earlier -- as military kids do).

The line for ice cream turned out to be one of the longest I've encountered ... maybe ever. I happened to be in line surrounded by Soldiers in uniform; a happy place to be!

In much the same way that hostages being held against their will often bond quickly, so did our group of ice cream aficionados. We began chatting and I learned that this group of Soldiers had been transported to this event from North Fort Hood for the event and they were very much looking forward to getting their frozen treat.

After about half-an-hour, we realized we were standing in the wrong line and all moved together to the correct place. There was lots of kidding amongst the Soldiers as to who was to blame for the error, but all was in good fun.

Eventually, we all ordered and paid for our ice cream, then moved to a new line to wait for the orders to be given out. We spent another forty minutes or so standing here waiting. We also began to notice that there were people receiving the ice cream orders that had not paid for them. The worker would come to the window and announce "single dip chocolate waffle cone" and someone would step up and take it. Since there was no 'check,' it appeared that a group of young people were taking advantage and accepting ice cream that they had not ordered.

When we realized what was happening, the group of Soldiers -- without talking about it -- moved in closer to the window, creating a 'border' that the offenders did not care to cross. It was almost instinctive and amazing to see. Not only did these guys fix the problem with no controversy, they did it as a group without any planning whatsoever. The term 'band of brothers' came to mind as I watched them work together.

Once the thieves were thwarted in their efforts, we still had a long wait in front of us. By this time, the return buses were lining up at the gate and Soldiers were moving in that direction to board. My kids had worn themselves out and were playing quiet games of hide-and-seek. The concert was ending and Gary Sinise was addressing the crowd. My favorite moment of the night came when Mr. Sinise was talking about where the band had performed. At his comment that he had "been to Iraq four times," the Soldier standing next to me said, "You and me both, brother" with a smile on his face.

So now we've been in line for what seems like an actual eternity and the first few buses begin to pull away. When a couple of Soldiers joked that they were not leaving without their ice cream, even if it meant paying $60 for a cab ride back, I assured them that I'd drive them through Dairy Queen for ice cream then take them back before they’d need to do that.

At some point, we realize that time has run out. These guys are not going to get their ice cream unless some action is taken. Most of the buses have left and the ones remaining are ready to go as well. Because these are my newest heroes, I can’t help but intervene. I knocked on the window of the ice cream booth and explained that these Soldiers were very patiently waiting for their ice cream and were moments away from missing their bus ride home. Could they possibly be served first? The owners were very accommodating and starting asking each Soldier what he had ordered. As the orders were completed and the guys were moving out to their buses, they each called out in turn, “Thank you, ma’am!”

The most impressive part of this entire encounter to me was the attitude of these Soldiers. They ranged in age, rank, and experience, but each had an attitude of polite patience and deliberate respect for others. In a world focused on “me” and “now” so much of the time, it was refreshing to see humans who were not ruffled or upset by having to wait. I pondered this on the way home (with two boys sleeping in the backseat) and wondered … could it be that these Soldiers developed a new sense of priorities having spent time in a combat zone? Why did they instinctively appreciate the fact that waiting for ice cream is just not a big deal in the bigger picture of life? Especially in a culture where so many would be angry and frustrated? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know that these guys reaffirmed for me my basic belief in human kindness, decency, honor, and respect.

Now I realize that Soldiers are heroes on a much bigger scale than simply showing patience in a line for ice cream. These very same men could be on their way to a foreign land any day, ready to pick up a weapon and fight for our country. What they do on a daily basis … and what they commit themselves to do each day … is truly mind-boggling. I love them for that. But I also love that they are just good people.