“My dad was in ROTC at Holy Cross and joined the Navy. I did the same, at his encouragement. I sort of fell into the Navy. I like to be challenged. There was one other woman in my class; she was a Marine. It didn’t phase me. Everyone was treated equally.
“After graduation, I went to Pensacola for flight school and that was a lot of fun. I chose aviation because I thought it was the most challenging option available at the time. My first deployment as a helicopter pilot was in 1994 with the George Washington Battle Group. There were two women – my roommate and me. The flying was great. Nothing compares to flying at sea.
“I met my husband in the squadron. Even before we got married, we knew that we wanted six kids. I’m one of three and he’s one of eight. I was expecting my third child when I transitioned off active duty and went to into the reserve. We had four kids in five years and that was an insane time. A few years later, we had two more.
“I had been in the reserve for close to ten years and hadn’t been mobilized. We were mobilizing a lot of people at that time, 10 years into 2 wars, and it was my turn. I was going to Afghanistan for a year. By then, we’d had our sixth baby, and she had just turned four. Our oldest was 14. Even some of my closest friends couldn’t understand why I felt I needed to go. It was a time of war, and it was what the reserves are really for – to augment the active component. I knew it was going to be hard. But there was a part of me that was excited, and that also needed to show my kids that you don’t just sit and collect a paycheck. You have to pay your dues.
“You always hear military spouses say ‘live like he deploys tomorrow.’ I prefer to say ‘live like you deploy tomorrow.’ What would you want to be doing if you (the wife and mom) were leaving your family for a year? I spent as much intentional time as I could with our children and my husband in the days leading up to our goodbye.
“I was ten months into my deployment when I got a call from my husband. It was super early in the morning in Afghanistan. He caught me just as I was leaving my room. He had taken our oldest to the pediatrician to look at a lump near her collarbone. They were sent to the children’s hospital for X-rays and by the time they got home from that, the pediatrician called – they were pretty sure she had cancer.
“I could almost physically feel the whole world change. My first thoughts were worst case scenario, and then I was flooded with guilt for not being there. But the community of people I was deployed with was unbelievable – Army, Air Force, Marines, Brits, Aussies – all of them. I made one phone call and in a short time, everyone was surrounding me, crying right along with me, assuring me that they would get me home. It was humbling and much needed. Just a few days later and I was on my way back to the states. I am happy to say she is cancer free now.
“I left deployment very abruptly and I never really closed that chapter the way I probably should have. That call was on a Thursday. By Tuesday, I had shed all my combat gear and was at the Pediatric Oncologist with my daughter. Right away, I was dealing with our daughter’s illness on top of my rapid departure from Afghanistan. I coped by running and I was running a lot with no end in sight.
“I’d been home about a year when I decided I needed to do something. I visited the Women’s Memorial in DC and happened upon a book of pictures and stories of women killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. It spoke to me. I wanted to give a voice to that very small population of the military. At the time, it was 160 women who had died during combat operations. I decided to do a tribute run I called Valor Run. I ran one mile for each woman killed. 160 miles in 160 hours. I raised money for two non-profits — our local Combat Wounded Coalition and the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation. The response was overwhelming, so I turned Valor Run into a non-profit. We sponsored our second 10 mile and 5k run in May in Virginia, and on October 15th we will sponsor our second ‘virtual’ 10 mile and 5k. Last year, we had participants in 40 states and 4 countries run, and we are hoping for an even bigger turnout this year.
“It’s funny. People ask me if women want equality, why am I focusing on just them when more than 6,500 men died in Iraq and Afghanistan? You know, all through flight school I was always just one of the guys. As a female aviator in the 90’s, it was just about blending in, and I was ok with that. But this very small percentage of the military – the now 161 women killed in the Global War on Terror – doesn’t have its own voice. I’m doing this for the Gold Star Mother who lost her daughter. For the still serving, active duty man who lost his wife. For the kids who lost their mom. Those 161 women deserve to be honored and have their stories told.”
To participate in the virtual Valor Run on October 15th, register here by October 8th: