Honoring our military “BRATs”

In honor of the month of the military child, we put together the following tribute for our military kiddos. They don’t choose this lifestyle, but they handle it with so much grace and courage. It’s an honor to know so many of these children. Turn up your volume — this sweet little 6 year old narrator is a military kid too. And I’m very proud to say she’s ours. 

My eyes well up just thinking about it

“Ed and I actually met in a bar, one night in San Diego. I learned he was in the military, we exchanged phone numbers, and not too long after that, he invited me to go to a Navy ball. My family is Indian and the culture is such that my parents wanted me to marry an engineer or a doctor. Their perception of the military was it was for people who didn’t succeed academically to advance to earn a 4 year degree. 

“I had no concept of military life. The night of the Navy ball, I decided I didn’t want to go and I told him I wasn’t really feeling well. I stayed home, he left the ball early and came over in his dress whites and brought soup and a movie. I knew in that moment that he was someone I didn’t want to let go. Randomly, my dad asked if I was dating anyone, and when I told him about my military man, he told me that really he just wanted me to be happy. They met him a few weeks later, and my dad told me about when he immigrated to the United States and he wrote letters to my mom, back in India. Her parents wanted her to marry someone more affluent, somebody rich and famous, but they were in love, and my dad saw that in my relationship, too.

“Ed deployed soon after and we had an email relationship. The more I learned about him, the more I liked him. He wanted me to know all about the military life. With all the acronyms and etiquette, he realized it was more of a culture than just a job, so he took me to pre-deployment briefs and gave me the 4-1-1 on life in the Navy. When he returned from deployment, we got engaged. We went to the church to speak with the pastor and got married a week later. It was one year, one month, one day after we had first met. We moved from San Diego to Monterey and then Rhode Island. We were married but I had just started graduate school, so he went to Rhode Island and I stayed in California. It was during that time that I first heard about United Through Reading. They’d given an emotional plea for volunteers and I loved the idea behind it — uniting families during deployment through the service member reading bedtime stories. United Through Reading would record the stories on video and would send the families a copy. It was before Skype, before FaceTime. It was such a special mission and I wanted to be a part of it. Even though we didn’t have children, I could imagine this as the ‘go to’ resource we would need when we had kids of our own.

“Ed deployed again when I was pregnant and came home just in time for the birth. We’d spent more time apart then we had together but we made it work! I finished grad school and I was looking for a new opportunity. I started as a program manager for a grant at a community college and I’ll be honest, I hated it. There was no camaraderie, no flexibility, and I wasn’t happy there. I wanted those things in a job. The Indian culture is such that your work becomes your lifestyle, with how you speak, your traditions, your passions. You see that in the military community, and I wanted to find a piece of it too, in my own career. 

“I contacted United Through Reading, as I saw all of the things I was looking for there, when I volunteered for them. They had an opening in data management and I couldn’t wait to get started. As times have changed, so too has my job, and now I serve as the Director of Campaigns and Initiatives. It’s an incredible place to work. We all work virtually, but definitely as a team. The work and the people have truly become a part of our family. Seeing these brave and courageous men and women reading a children’s book to their loved ones left behind … My eyes are welling up even talking about it! I cry every time I watch a video. To hear these kids react; to know the unbreakable emotional connection between parents and their children … it’s indescribable. Long distance is always hard, but programs like United Through Reading help keep our military families strong. To be a part of it all is both humbling and rewarding.”

To learn more about United Through Reading, visit www.unitedthroughreading.org

We are in this together

“I must say… I am always proud to be a military spouse, but there are some times that put the uniqueness of this group in full view. Right now, my husband, along with a lot of really amazing Naval Aviators, are being reviewed to determine if they will be selected for Command. The boards are meeting now. Results will be out in a matter of days.  

“But what amazes me is the group of spouses supporting these service members. These are women I am proud to call my friends. Some are pregnant and do not know if they will be forced to move with a new born, some are established business owners who may have to close up shop and begin again elsewhere. Some are in the middle of masters programs or their own careers. Some have small children who they will have to tell, yet again, ‘we are moving.’ They all have lives… that they will be forced to adjust, in some way or another, in a matter of days
“They will process the new reality (whether the results are the ones they hoped for or not). They will set plans in place to make quick and seamless changes in their lives, careers, children’s schools. They will prepare to leave a life behind and start anew. They will love their spouse and support them. They will reassure their spouse that they are in this together; good, bad or ugly. 

“They do this all with smiles on their faces and a tear on their cheek. They are strong, resilient, hard working women who plant roots quickly, make friends fast, dive in to new worlds head first and make it look easy. 

“So while we wait the news of our future (side note that I am really thankful that God is ultimately in charge here!) I am saying a prayer of thanks for the military spouses I call my friends. You will always bless and inspire me with your friendship and examples!”

I got this

  “We met in high school. He was a year ahead of me, and he enlisted in the Navy when he graduated. We wrote letters to keep in touch. He flew home for Thanksgiving and came to our home town parade in uniform. I was marching in the pom squad, and when I saw him, I was smitten. 

“We went on a date that Christmas — skiing. He spent the whole day skiing backwards, trying to teach me. On December 28, 2001, we made it official: we were a couple. We spent the next six and a half years dating long distance. He got orders to Guam right around the time I graduated from high school, and I didn’t even know where Guam was. Shortly after that, he put in an officer package and was accepted to the Naval Academy. He came home the day of my sister’s wedding, when I was in college. He proposed while we were skiing, while the sun was setting. He got down on one knee in his ski boots. It was two years to the day that we first started dating, and even though I was only 19 years old, I knew he was my soul mate. He is the love of my life, my best friend, and he knows me better than anyone else on earth.

“Nine years and two kids later, he left last week for his fourth deployment, our third with kids. The hardest part is watching our kids miss their dad, and making all of the big decisions on my own. It’s so hard to not have your spouse around to tell you that as a mom, you are are doing alright. Not having that affirmation is tough, but you get those glimmers of hope, those moments where you know you are doing just fine. Today is my birthday, and he was able to call, which was everything. It’s true the best gifts in life can’t be bought. My deployment mantra is, ‘I got this.’ I’m keeping a routine for my kids, I’ll keep relying on my faith, and our incredible friends and lots of prayers will get us through.  

“It’s funny, this military life. Your friendships become as dear as family. I never thought I’d be so close to people I’m not related to — you make amazing and heartbreaking friendships. I can’t imagine another situation where, by choice and by force, you’d be put with such remarkable and diverse people. You really feel your support during the hard times. 

“Last summer, there was a mishap in the helicopter my husband was flying. That phone call was the single most terrifying and miraculous news I’ve ever received. He, and the rest of the crew, walked away from it. But in that moment, you realize how precious life is, how special your marriage is, and just how truly incredible your village is. From the friend that watched the kids while her husband drove me to the hospital, to the friends that brought dinner that night, and the generous outpouring of love and prayers, it’s humbling. The hard times bring you so, so close. There is great power in laughing together, but sometimes it’s the grief that brings you closest. When I had my miscarriage, my best friend sat with me on the floor and cried with me when there were no words. She picked off the pieces of toilet paper that were stuck to my face when I ran out of Kleenex. You don’t know while you’re in those tough moments that you’ll get through, but when you come out on the other side, you see just how strong you are. And so I keep repeating, ‘I got this.’ And I know I do.”

We can all keep serving

“Neither of my parents graduated from high school, so our family placed a large emphasis on education and service. My uncle was a Naval aircrew member who was lost in the Pacific theater during World War II. My father was an Army infantryman with the 78th Division and walked across Europe in that same war. My family believed that service to country was very important. I determined in the 7th grade that I was going to go to West Point. When I didn’t receive a Congressional appointment to West Point, my football coach helped me get into the Virginia Military Institute. I went there from 1963 until 1965 when VMI submitted my name to the Air Force Academy as an Honor Military School nominee. The Academy accepted me and I attended USAFA from 1965 until my commissioning in 1969.  

“I went to pilot training at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. Our graduating class had only one fighter in our selection block and that went to the number one graduate. I chose to fly the C-130 because I knew it was the fastest way to get to Vietnam. There was a war on, and I wanted to go. I was eventually assigned to AC-130 Gunships at Ubon, Thailand. My tour coincided with the draw down in South East Asia and Secretary Kissinger was negotiating the peace terms at that time. I remember one evening on the runway ready to take off for a mission and having to taxi back to the revetments because we were told that things were happening back in Washington. It was very frustrating; all we wanted to do was our job and help the troops on the ground.

“I served in the Air Force for 24 years and got to travel extensively and see the rest of the world. I had many great assignments – enjoyed the many hours of flying, was in a command billet, served in AF Legislative Liaison, was a Presidential Advance Agent, served on the Air Staff, and served as Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee for the first Clinton inauguration. All of these experiences confirmed my belief that the USA is the best country on the face of this earth.  

“An interesting story was one that occurred when I was Secretary Kissinger’s Military Aide during the first Reagan inaugural. We were traveling in a car one evening and he asked me what had been the most frustrating thing about being over in South East Asia. I told him about being on the runway and having to abort our mission and that it was a Washington decision. He laughed and said, ‘That was you?’ and I looked back at him incredulously and said, ‘Sir, that was YOU?!’ He is a very intelligent man with a great sense of humor and an unbelievable way of understanding people. He taught me that we don’t have all of the answers, and most importantly, the United States cannot impose our morals and ethics on cultures that do not understand them and have no interest in living under the same limitations and acquired freedoms. He also strengthened something my father always told me, and that was, ‘I never learned anything while I was talking.’

“I was lucky to fly C-130s all over the world, and doing really important work. But I’m not special. Like my football coach and coach Belichick say: ‘Do your job.’ And I did. I have friends in Texas, California, Maine, and Florida – all over the country. And whether it’s been 1 day or 10 years, when we get together it feels like the separation has only been seconds.    

“I miss the people in the Air Force, and of course, the flying. Flying with those whom I respected the most is so memorable. But now I spend time volunteering and serving on the Board of Directors of the Warrior Foundation/Freedom Station, an organization totally dedicated to our soldiers who are severely wounded and suffer from conditions such as PTSD. The Warrior Foundation is a great organization that represented the US Navy and won the 2015 Spirit of Hope Award, named after the entertainer, Bob Hope. Every dollar we receive goes right back to these incredible men and women who need it. We are an all-volunteer organization where no volunteer accepts reimbursement. The founder, Ms. Sandy Lehmkuhler, is a Navy wife who started the efforts by asking for enough money to buy five electric shavers for returning veterans. It is now an organization with more than $4 million in assets. Giving back to those veterans… well it’s been the most enriching and rewarding experience of my life. Here I sit with no physical deformities and they have wounds they’ll have to work through for the rest of their lives. Serving our country in the United States Air Force is one of my proudest achievements, but we can all keep serving, long after we hang up the uniform.”

To learn more about the Warrior Foundation, please visit www.warriorfoundation.org


No one left behind

“My daddy, Captain Robert R. “Bear” Barnett, was a pilot in the United States Air Force. I was nine years old when he died. It was April 7, 1966. I remember coming home from school and seeing men in uniform sitting with my mother. I knew she’d been crying. She took my older sister and me into her bedroom and told us he wasn’t coming home. I ran back to school because I just wanted to see my teacher. It was all so surreal.

“We really didn’t get any information. We were told the plane he was flying had gone down in Southeast Asia, but the rest of the details were classified. We had a memorial service for him and they put a marker in the cemetery, but without his body, we didn’t have any closure. I used to have dreams that he would come to my classroom and that everyone had been wrong about him dying. As the years went on, the dreams faded. I have snippets of memories with him. Mostly, I remember him through the stories of the people that knew him well. He had a huge, generous heart. He’d pick up hitchhikers and he kept a log book of everyone he met. When he’d pass through a town, he’d look people up to see how they were, and see if they could share a meal. He never met a stranger. He’d leave to run a quick errand and wouldn’t come home for hours – he’d offer to help someone on a project or run into a friend. He was just that kind of man.

“I remember being in junior high and there was so much dissention about the Vietnam War. People were so critical of anyone who had fought in it. My mother told us not to tell anyone that our father had died over there. She wanted to protect us from being called names or spit on. It was so hard. He trained other pilots how to fly. He loved being in the Air Force. He died exactly the way he would have wanted to — serving his country fulfilled his life.  

“In 2005, they identified the crash site of my father’s B-57, in Laos. His plane had been shot down and they think that when he knew he was going to crash, he targeted the anti-aircraft gun site and he destroyed it. We were told that they were going to excavate the area and that these things could take a long time. We went to a family briefing about once a year with updates, but it didn’t seem like they were going to find anything. We were pretty disheartened.

“In December, I was sitting at my desk at work when my phone rang. I don’t usually answer unidentified calls, but when it said Dover, Delaware, I picked up. It was the Air Force Mortuary Service. They had identified Daddy’s remains and they wanted to set up a meeting to discuss funeral arrangements. I kept having him repeat it; I just couldn’t believe it. I hung up the phone and cried for an hour, before I could call my mom, my sister, my husband and children. It was just so much joy and relief, and confirmation that he isn’t with us. All those years of not having closure. We will have a full military funeral and burial for him on April 7 — fifty one years to the day that he died. I have so much pride in our government and our military. They promised us they’d never stop looking for him; that no one is left behind. We never forgot him… and they didn’t either.”


We always wanted to be pilots

“My brother and I always wanted to be pilots, not unlike millions of other kids. Several of our Dad’s friends from the Navy had been pilots, so it didn’t seem unrealistic to us. It was still just a childhood idea until a visit to the Naval Academy focused the goal when I was in 3rd grade. 14 years later, as a midshipman, I lucked into a training tour with a helicopter squadron in Virginia, and was hooked from there.  A childhood dream was starting to become a reality.

“Like anyone else who has a handful of deployments under their belt, one tour stands out against the rest. We all reminisce about our first deployment, but I’m lucky. I get to go back in time. I’m stationed with the same squadron and am now the Officer In Charge of the same detachment I first joined over eight years ago. The mission and ship have changed, but I’m following in the footsteps of leaders I admired and revered, hoping to somehow inspire a generation making its first marks on the Navy. 

“Honestly, this is not where I saw myself headed the first time around. I wasn’t yet sure if the Navy was in my ‘ten year plan,’ and I certainly never thought I would end up in Guam again, much less the same detachment. 8 years of flying and incredible friendships in Guam, Fallon, and San Diego had a way of changing those plans.

“Nearly 2 years ago, I was struggling with the decision to stay in the Navy or start a new chapter in my life. My always wise and lovely wife, Maddie, asked me this poignant question: ‘What are the chances that you’re going to find something out there that you love as much as the Navy?’ The question suddenly seemed so easy. I going to stay in. I was going to take orders to Guam. And I was going to do it with a love of flying, and pride worthy of flying the flag. And today, we did just that. Three helicopters, with nothing but clear skies around Mt. Fuji so that we could fly the flag.”