A Toast from Strangers

This year the start of spring has been extremely cold. This morning, March 26, we have snow flurries outside. A far cry from the beautiful warm spring day in 1989 when my first-born decided to arrive.

I can’t help but think this cold weather serves as a symbol for how military moms feel when their children are deployed. Life goes on, but in a different way, when they are deployed. Since he is far away on his birthday this year it is entirely appropriate for it to be snowing on a day that we usually celebrate new life.  The weather mirrors my internal mood.

At our house we celebrate occasions big and small. This year celebrating was hard. I had sent a few gifts to him early. He really likes the Combat Humidor and cigars I sent. But last night, his actual birthday, I felt the need to do one more thing.

I called the owner of Molly MacPherson’s, a pub in Richmond Hill. It was one of Nelson’s favorite places when he was living there before he deployed. When I visited in the fall for a Family Readiness Meeting he took me there for dinner. I asked the owner, Jennifer, to help me with a birthday present for my deployed son. After giving her my credit card information I ordered Scotch eggs (his favorite) and a round of beer. I asked her to give it to her regulars at the bar. I also asked her to ask the patrons to toast Nelson on his birthday.

Patrons at Molly MacPherson's in Richmond Hill, GA toast Nelson's birthday.
Patrons at Molly MacPherson’s in Richmond Hill, GA toast Nelson’s birthday.

A few hours later an email came in from an address I did not recognize. It was a message from Jennifer. The email included a photo of a group of soldiers holding their beer up. The attached video was of the birthday toast. Jennifer told me one of the men had been with the same unit as my son, Speed and Power! 3-69 AR.

This cold spring day was warmed by the image of those strangers toasting my deployed son on his birthday. I look forward to the day my son and I can visit Jennifer at Molly MacPherson’s and toast his homecoming.

Celebrating His Birthday During Deployment

24 years ago this evening I went into labor with my first-born son. I was already 10 days past my due date and was ready to go. He was breach, but my doctor was going to allow me to deliver naturally, until he went into distress. With in minutes I was prepped and off to the delivery room for an emergency c-section.

Nelson spent a few days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after he was born.
Nelson spent a few days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after he was born.

Nelson came into the world in a dramatic fashion. He was tough though. At over 8 pounds he looked like a monster baby next to the others in the NICU. He had to be hooked up to monitors and receive oxygen for a few days. He recovered nicely from his exciting entry into the world and has sought adventure ever since.

He is celebrating his birthday this year far from home. I am writing this entry the evening of March 24 here at home, but it is well into March 25 where he is now. We all miss him.

This afternoon our daughter expressed her love for her brother in a birthday video for him. They are ten years apart. When she was a toddler she called him NaNa. The name has stuck, at least at our home. Her video made me tear up.

We look forward to the day we can celebrate his birthday at home.

Dorie and Nelson his first day at home.
Dorie and Nelson his first day at home.


The War in Iraq: Ten Years Later It's Personal

Ten years ago this week I was at our kitchen table reading the news of the “shock and awe” that started our war in Iraq. My two buys, 14 and 12 at the time were impressed with the photos that were featured on the front page. They were fascinated as they watched the televised images of missiles as they were launched and flashed on their descent into Iraq.

I was against our entrance into war. In 2003 I worked for the nonprofit, Faith And The City, and served as the producer for an interfaith dialogue television program. All of us in the office preferred a diplomatic approach to differences over sending our young soldiers into harms way. Ten years ago I couldn’t have predicted what I would be doing today.

This morning started with a message from my oldest son. He updated me on his work as a soldier in Afghanistan. My Facebook feed today is filled with retrospective pieces on the war in Iraq.

I couldn’t imagine then that my oldest son would be one of the soldiers in the Middle East today. I have said this before but there are days that seem surreal. I am here, and fine physically. Mentally my thoughts are all over the place. My son is always on my mind, but today scores of others weigh heavily on my mind.

My last year as a student at Columbia Theological Seminary (CTS)I developed a model of chaplaincy to journalist that cover traumatic events. Leading up to my final year in my master of divinity program many people questioned why a journalist would need a chaplain. As the wife of a photographer and having many friends who are reporters, I knew something many of our media consuming public still is not aware of as they read or watch the news. Journalists are first responders to traumatic events that others are fleeing from. Unlike other first responders there is no industry wide protocol to help them after an event. Firefighters, police, emergency medical personnel, all have some type of support protocol in place after an event. Many of these professions have chaplains available to them for support.

Journalist cover events, often at risk to their personal safety, then have to write, photograph and file stories about it only to go out and do it again the next day. They do not have a corporate culture of support. Like our soldiers, law enforcement members and others, journalists do not look for praise for doing their job. They are also hesitant to reveal they are struggling with the effects of what they have seen and experienced for fear of being sidelined from doing their job.

I entered my final year of seminary quite sure of the need for a caring presence for journalists. My husband and my supervisor in my clinical pastoral education class were about the only ones who understood my vision. Then the school year started.

It was the 2001-2002 school year. My first class was scheduled for the end of September. Then the events of September 11, 2001 unfolded. Seasoned journalists were seen crying on television. No one was immune to the grief and sadness of the events of that day, including the reporters, videographers, photographers, editors and other news personnel. Suddenly friends who doubted the need for a chaplain to journalists expressed support for my work.

In the course of my research I found an organization that understood what I knew inside, journalists who cover traumatic events are profoundly affected by the events they cover. How they are affected will vary, but like other first responders the events do stay with them in some form long after the situation has resolved. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, is a leader in the field. The founder, Dr. Frank Ochberg, in his quest to teach journalists to be more sensitive in their coverage of victims of violence found that the journalists were also in need of support for what they covered.

I began an email correspondence with Dr. Ochberg my last year of studies at CTS. His research was helpful to me in the papers I wrote for classes. By the start of the war in Iraq I had come to view Frank as a friend and mentor in my journey to learn to be supportive to people who experience traumatic events. The Dart Center is not a faith-based organization, but they appreciate that I come from a faith-based approach to support. My intent has always been to serve in a ministry of presence and support to people of all faiths or none at all.

That morning ten years ago after seeing my boys off to school and driving into my office I felt helpless. I was a volunteer chaplain to journalists faced with the reality of contacts and people I didn’t know, being embedded with our troops.

Our local paper, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a graphic one day. They showed a map of the Middle East. Photos of the journalists from the paper and CNN were placed over the areas they would cover. I pulled out a note pad and began my list. It was and is a prayer list of journalist who went to the Middle East to cover the war. I wrote their name and affiliation. I combed news sites of outlets around the world to add names to the list. Then alphabetized the list. My husband posted it to my website, where it remains today,with this introductory paragraph:

The following journalists are filing or have filed stories, photos and articles from Iraq. Please remember these people and their families in your thoughts and prayers as they continue to work to keep us informed.

Also, please remember the journalists around the world and in your hometown who work daily in dangerous situations and on difficult stories.

If you know of other journalists who should be listed, please send their name and affiliation along with a link to their work to: [email protected]

As the war continued I added name after name. The National Press Photographers Association found my list and posted a link to their home page. Journalists from around the world wrote to thank me for praying for them. I began to meet some of the journalists on this list through my own contacts with them and also through meetings of the Dart Center Ochberg Fellows.

There came a time when the movement of journalists in and out of the Middle East was so fluid that it was too hard for me to keep up an accurate list, but I continued to pray.

Today my prayers continue for the journalists, the soldiers, their families, the people of the Middle East, and the veterans all impacted by our involvement there.

The situation has become intensely personal for me now.

My oldest son is one of the soldiers in the Middle East. Now my son and our family are prayed for by others.

Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart.photo by Stanley Leary
Chelle and Dorie visit with their soldier in the fall of 2012 during Family Day at Fort Stewart.
photo by Stanley Leary

Too Close to Home

The color guard moves forward during the Casing of the Colors for the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart, October 2012.
The color guard moves forward during the Casing of the Colors for the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart, October 2012.

I am writing this entry filled with mixed emotions. The plan was to write about my amazing weekend in Charleston visiting with long time friends and cadets whose parents couldn’t make the trip to town. Then the news out of Afghanistan came in. I’ve taken a couple of days to let the news sink in.

First the report that two US soldiers were killed and several wounded. The next report was of a helicopter crash killing all on board.

The warm glow of a weekend filled with reunions and great conversations turned to the chilling realities of war. I could tell by the locations of the report that my son wasn’t in the helicopter or on the base where the soldiers were KIA. Just to be sure he was OK I sent a message to him asking him to just send an “I’m OK” message. He did, and pretty quickly too.

Even though I heard from my son my mind still went to the scenario of hearing an unexpected knock on our door. The knock by uniformed representatives of the U.S. Army that the families of those KIA this week have received. I don’t know why I allow myself to go to these dark places. Perhaps it is a way of empathizing with the families who do receive these knocks.

Today the news reports are being released with the names of the deceased. One of whom is in my son’s battalion. My prayers are with his family, his platoon and battalion members and his friends. The other soldier who died is the friend of my high school friends son. Both are graduates of West Point. The news of the soldiers killed in the helicopter crash is just beginning to be released as the families are notified.

Once again the war hits too close to home. My prayers are with the loved ones of these fallen soldiers.