An Army Mom's Reflections on Veterans Day 2013

Our soldier is in the second row.
Our soldier is in the second row.
photo by Stanley Leary.

We passed an anniversary last week. It was one of great emotional significance to our family. On this Veterans Day I thought I’d share these reflections from my Army mom perspective.

Last week marked the anniversary of my oldest son’s first deployment to Afghanistan. He is home, safe, and awaiting his orders for the next stage in his Army career.

Even though he is stateside, and I know he is just fine, I wrestle with the emotions of the past year. When I hear the National Anthem played or watch a patriotic video I relive the emotions I felt during my son’s deployment. Especially today as images of our veterans are flashed on television, and written about in the newspapers and social media, my emotions are right at the surface.

Being the family member of a combat veteran brings with it a unique set of emotions. We are proud of our soldier, but anxious for their safety. A huge part of me hopes he will never be deployed again. But my wishes are secondary to my son’s desire to do what he has trained years to do, defend our country.

I watched a beautifully done piece by Brian Storm. It is about Starbucks effort to hire veterans. It isn’t really a piece that would bring other non-military people to tears. This morning, sitting at my kitchen table watching that 13 minute piece, I had a lump in my throat.

At one point in the video was a clip of a returning group of soldiers. I was immediate brought back to a day this passed July when our family and a few friends waited anxiously for our soldier and the rest of his battalion to return from their nine month deployment.

The General addresses the assembled crowd of family and friends. photo by Stanley Leary
The General addresses the assembled crowd of family and friends.
photo by Stanley Leary

I had never experienced such a mixture of emotions before that day in July. I wanted to laugh, but my throat was too tight. Tears formed as they marched in, but then we had to wait for a series of addresses, songs and rituals.

My stomach did somersaults as the General spoke a few words before the crowd was unleashed to rush toward their soldier. Then, then came the moment when my daughter and I sprinted to our soldier for the BEST HUG EVER.

The mind is a funny thing. In the simple act of remembering that moment I am brought to tears.

So today, Veterans Day, 2013, I will honor our veterans, but in my own quiet way. This year, and probably for the next several years, my emotions are too close to the surface to attend public events.

I don’t mind people seeing me tear up in public. I know my tears honor the brave  men and women who serve. I also know my emotions are not necessarily the same as another military mom.

But for today, I need to take care of myself and not dwell in that dark scary place family members dwell in when their loved one is in harm’s way.

A video by my husband, photographer, Stanley Leary, of the Homecoming, July 2013.

Our family is together again. photo by Stanley Leary
Our family is together again.
photo by Stanley Leary
Our family welcomed Nelson home from his first deployment in July 2013. Photo by Sarah Kohut Harrell
Our family welcomed Nelson home from his first deployment in July 2013.
Photo by Sarah Kohut Harrell


He's Home!

Dorie and Chelle hold the Welcome Home banner before entering the gym.
Dorie and Chelle hold the Welcome Home banner before entering the gym.
photo by Stanley Leary

Wednesday, July 17 was a big day for our family. My oldest son returned from a nine month deployment to Afghanistan. It was a tough nine months. Due to the nature of his mission we knew very little of what he was doing or where he was most of the time. Unlike other battalions, his battalion could not post updates and photos to their Facebook page. Before the 17th the last time I heard my son’s voice or saw my son’s face was around Christmas time when we had a quick Skype call. To say we were excited for his homecoming is a major understatement.

Our daughter was attending her church youth group camp this past week. We had to stop by the camp to pick her up on our way to Fort Stewart. On our way tot he car from her cabin I saw something shining on the ground. It was a small coin like piece of metal with the likeness of a Spartan warrior on it. It made me choke up. My son was part of the Spartan platoon during this deployment. I took this as a very good sign.

We checked into our hotel in Savannah for our daughter to change out of her grubby camping clothes then it was off to Fort Stewart. The entire trip I kept checking the Fort Stewart Flight Checker web site to make sure there were no changes. Half way to the base I received a call that the location of the homecoming was changed from Cottrell Field to the gymnasium due to threatening weather. At least the time didn’t change.

Family and friends ready to welcome him home.
Family and friends ready to welcome him home.
photo by Stanley Leary

We arrived almost two hours early, but we weren’t the only ones. Plenty of other families anxious for the arrival of their loved one were filing into the gym too. Veterans from previous conflicts welcomed us into the gym and handed us a small American Flag. I had seen photos of previous homecomings in the gym and decided that a seat near the floor would be the best plan. When you are close to the floor you can get to the soldiers quickly when they are released. Our family sat in the second row, center, saving places for other family and friends to join us. It was fun to meet other families as we waited.

James and Sarah Harrell wait with Chelle.
James and Sarah Harrell wait with Chelle.

Slowly the rest of our group arrived. My ex husband and his wife, with two of my sons good friends sat behind us. Another Citadel classmate and his wife arrived. Then my dear friend and fellow Citadel Mom, Jerri arrived with her daughter Jada.

Jerri helped me tremendously to get ready for this first deployment. Her husband is a master sergeant in the Army and they live close to Fort Stewart. They’ve been through a few deployments. I tried to learn from Jerri what to expect.

L-R Chelle, Jada, Jerri and Dorie wait for the soldiers to arrive.
L-R Chelle, Jada, Jerri and Dorie wait for the soldiers to arrive.

Slowly the stands filled up. The Army band members began to arrive. At some point about an hour before their anticipated arrival a gentleman announced that the soldiers had landed at Hunter Air Field and were loading the buses.

I started posting short updates to Facebook. So many of my friends have prayed for us this year. I wanted them to be a part of this exciting evening. My notifications began lighting up with notes from friends who were following my posts and photo updates.

Soon the announcement was made that they were one mile away. My stomach began to do flip-flops in anticipation.

A General then announced that they were lining up outside. he reviewed how the next few minutes would unfold. It was obvious he understood that after the obligatory uncasing of the colors, a prayer, the National Anthem and the singing of a couple of Army songs, the families really didn’t care what he had to say.

The Genreal gave us instructions. photo by Stanley Leary
The General gave us instructions.
photo by Stanley Leary

Our group along with everyone else in the stands began to comb the faces of the uniformed soldiers in front of us. Our daughter was the first to spot our guy. Once he saw us he gave a slight nod of his head as if to say “sup.”

I honestly can’t tell you what the General said. My heart was racing and my emotions were jumbled between totally excited to teary because the anxious waiting was over. I alternated between wanting to laugh in relief to tears of joy. Stanley moved to the floor to capture of photo of Nelson while he was in formation. Chelle and I made our way to the floor as the General finished his comments.

Taylor, Dorie Nelson and Chelle reunited for the first time. photo by Stanley Leary
Taylor, Dorie Nelson and Chelle reunited for the first time.
photo by Stanley Leary

We ran to our soldier along with a room full of family and friends doing the same thing.

I found Nelson he had a huge grin on his face. That first hug was amazing. He hugged me, then me and Chelle, then my other son, Taylor, arrived and the four of us had a big group hug. Within seconds the rest of our group arrived for their hugs. Everyone was beaming. The photos began to be snapped.

You can see the joy and relief on all our faces. Photo by Sarah Kohut Harrell
You can see the joy and relief on all our faces.
Photo by Sarah Kohut Harrell

The local CBS affiliate asked Nelson to make a few comments. His comments didn’t make it on air that night, but Stanley stood there with the camera man and got the interview on tape. We were all a little surprised that our health conscious soldier’s first wish was to go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac!

He gathered his bags as the rest of us waited outside the gym and took more photos. One of the final photos before we headed to his hotel room to continue visiting was of Nelson lifting his baby sister. It is a tradition that started when she was just a toddler. It was a sign that our guy was really home with his family.

My oldest and my youngest reunited. photo by Stanley Leary
My oldest and my youngest reunited.
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.

An Army Mom's Life: Expecting the Unexpected

“Life is something that happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” John Lennon

I first read that phrase on a card my good friend, Chelle Chaudoin, sent me once in college. I had just had a break up with a man I thought I was in love with and she wrote a note of encouragement on the card.

That phrase came to mind as I am sitting in the airport in Richmond, Virginia reflecting on my weekend.

Over a month ago I received an invitation to attend the, February 9, 100 Years of Spider Basketball celebration at my alma mater, the University of Richmond. From 1977 -1981 I was a manager for the men’s basketball team and also worked as an intern in various areas in the athletic department as a student. This was my first official invitation to an athletic department event in 30 years.

The plane reservations were made right away and arrangements were made to stay with a good friend, for what was to be a quick fun weekend reunion with long time friends. When I talked to my friend about the travel plans she told me the day game was also her father’s birthday. This would be the first birthday without him since he died in July of last year. Already the weekend was changing shape.

At some point in January another event happened that profoundly changed what was to be a fun-filled weekend, an email from the Family Readiness Group of the 3-69 AR at Fort Stewart informing family members that one of our soldiers, SGT. Aaron X. Wittman, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Shortly after this email The Citadel related Facebook groups lit up with the tragic news. Sgt. Wittman was graduate of The Citadel and the son of a graduate.

I was numb at the news. My son is in the same battalion, but not in the same company or area of the country. He is also a Citadel graduate. Sgt. Wittman was also from Chester, Virginia near Richmond. Perhaps I could pay my respects to the family during my visit.

Once the obituary was released I realized my plans for a fun weekend would include a very solemn occasion as well, the burial of Sgt. Wittman at Arlington National Cemetery. My Army mom’s heart breaks for the Wittman family. From all accounts Aaron was a wonderful young man. Tributes were posted to YouTube by family members and his unit in Afghanistan. There is also a video of his delegate from Virginia moving to adjourn in the memory of Sgt. Wittman. Citadel grads and parents began to post their condolences to various Facebook groups. I felt I needed to do what I could to attend the burial at Arlington.

The Family Readiness Group (FRG) Leader for the 3-69 is also the wife of the battalion commander. She is the one I met in January to go with me to the Exchange to purchase needed items for the 3-69. I contacted her to let her know I would be at the burial service. She told me she would be there with a rear detachment officer. We made plans to meet at Arlington. A few Citadel moms wrote to let me know they too would be attending the ceremony.

A couple of weeks before the trip I saw a photo of a beautiful Gold Star quilt made by  Memories in Stitches. Her website said she makes banners for Gold Star families. After a few emails she said she would send a banner for the FRG leader to present to Mrs. Wittman.

Through a network of Citadel grads a graduate and father of graduates learned I would be in DC and offered to host me the evening before the burial. An amazing offer since we had never met. It was set, I was flying into Richmond renting a car driving to DC and attending the burial.

A few more surprises slipped in.

My long time friend and fellow Richmond grad, Joe Williams, lives in the DC area. We’ve talked for a while about collaborating on a project. He was free the night I arrived so we had an extended visit/meeting over dinner.

My host family for the night were extremely hospitable. After a great nights sleep I was on to DC to spend a few hours admiring the sights, that is until another synchronistic meeting came together. I called a couple who have a first year cadet, called a knob, at The Citadel. They were both home and invited me to join them at their home for visit and brunch. I met this family Matriculation Weekend at The Citadel and thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them. I was about to go through a very difficult ceremony. Spending sometime with a delightful couple made a terrific buffer for the more emotionally difficult experience that was coming next.

To be continued. . .

Remembering our Fallen Heroes

A Vietnam Veteran replaces worn flags beneath the trees along Warrior's Walk at Fort Stewart.
A Vietnam Veteran replaces worn flags beneath the trees along Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart.

After visiting with the rear detachment office at the 3-69 AR BN I stopped at the memorial site called Warrior’s Walk at Fort Stewart. Spending the afternoon on the base and seeing scores of Army soldiers where ever I went kept my mind on the young sergeant in the 3-69 who lost his life January 10 in a small arms fight. I never met SGT. Wittman, but he is a graduate of The Citadel and a member of the same battalion my son is in so I do share some connections with him. My heart aches for his family. Taking a few moments and walking along the Warrior’s Walk I found myself praying for the scores of families who are now one member short.

Shortly after arriving I met an older gentleman along the walk. His arms were full of small American flags on sticks. He wore a Vietnam Veteran ball cap. He was replacing worn flags with new ones all along the walk. We chatted for a bit, I thanked him for his service and continued my quiet walk.

Spurs, a boot and several statues are placed in memory of a fallen soldier.
Spurs, a boot and several statues are placed in memory of a fallen soldier.

Each tree has a small circle around it. Family and friends can leave items beneath the tree. I found myself stopping and pondering the items left. Some had a token from a favorite sports team. Some were covered in small angel statues. One had spurs, various statues, and a single boot at the foot of the tree.

The tree that hit me the most was one toward the front. A small photo of a young boy hung from a branch. Was this the soldier as a young boy? I try not to think about what I would do if it was my son that this tree stood for, but with this tree I immediately thought of the photo I have of my 4-year-old with his old Army helmet on one Christmas morning.

One memorial tree had a photo of a young boy on one of the limbs.
One memorial tree had a photo of a young boy on one of the limbs.

Warrior’s Walk is a beautiful tribute to the soldiers who lost their lives in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. There are just too many trees there.

As I left the walk my new Vietnam Veteran friend showed me the small opening in the pillar that holds the directory of the trees. One day soon SGT. Wittman will be in that booklet. I hope to attend the dedication service.

An Army Mom's Field Trip to Fort Stewart

I visited another culture yesterday, Fort Stewart. Since I did not grow up around the military that is how I felt when I entered the base. It wasn’t that the language or  people were different, but how to navigate the different rules and culture came crashing together for me while shopping in the Exchange.

The Exchange

I met the Family Readiness Group leader at the Exchange. The first sign that I was out of my element happened pretty quickly. I was sitting outside the Exchange in what I thought was the front entrance. A few minutes later my contact walked up and said, “I thought I should check over here. I was waiting on the other side, the front of the building.” Oops.

This was my first visit to an Exchange on a military base. It was like a mini mall. My shopping companion knew exactly where to go once we were inside. We passed kiosk shops with framed sports photos, ladies wigs and other items. We arrived at our destination, a store filled with uniforms and supplies for soldiers.

Before my trip to Fort Stewart scores of friends and people I have never met sent me checks to go toward supplies for the soldiers of the 3-69 AR. Many of the soldiers are in remote areas without access to the internet or a PX. Getting needed supplies is difficult, so are showers. We were told before they left that our soldiers will need us to send items like soap, deodorant, etc. more than snacks and goodies. When I heard there were some soldiers who needed socks and underwear, etc. I put the word out and people responded. To date I have received $1,310 for this project.

Once inside the Exchange I handed over the cash, holding some back to go toward shipping. Since I do not have a military ID all the goods needed to be purchased by my contact. We decided shopping at the Exchange was better than ordering online with free shipping. The prices are so much better on base we could send more to the soldiers this way. We are buying for two platoons, about thirty men.

socks in the cart

We started in the underwear and sock section. Standing in front of a wall of socks we began to read labels. We settled on one style labeled “Military Fatigue Fighter” and features “Graduated Compression” and is made with “Wick  Dry & Scentry Technologies.” While neither of us really knew what “Scentry Technologies” actually means after reading the description of the sock we decided on this style. We opted for a mix of large and extra-large socks. It was on to t-shirts and underwear.

Standing in front of the t-shirts we had fewer decisions to make. There was only one choice in the type of shirt to make, cotton or polyester. Then it was a decision about the size mix. After getting enough for two per men, it was on to the underwear.

The standard issue briefs were only $2.05 a piece. While most of the guys we knew prefer boxer briefs we opted to go with the standard issue because the boxer briefs were over four times the price.

By this time our two shopping carts were pretty full. My shopping partner was keeping a running total on her smart phone.

We turned to the cold weather gear. Because the soldiers are in an area that is very cold now we opted for the “ThermaForm Neck Gator.” The label touts, ” A unique construction of layered fibers that create a body-conforming climate capsule to keep your neck and face warm and protected from winter weather,” Plus it had moisture control. I am learning that wicking and moisture control are important features for soldiers.

After a quick check of our running total we had enough money to buy something in the three dollar range. We opted for foot powder and were on our way to check out.

I made a slight detour to look at the Teddy Bears dressed in uniform. Our 14-year-old daughter came to mind. She misses her oldest brother and would love one of these bears. I settled on one with its cover pulled down to cover its eyes, the same way our soldier wore his cover at The Citadel, plus it had a distinctive nose like our guy.

On to the register. The ladies were very nice. One rang us up while the other bagged the items. To our surprise we came in at $995, not the $1,100 we thought we had. It was on to the PX to buy breakfast bars and oatmeal. The MRE’s provided the needed calories, but we thought the soldiers would appreciate something that doesn’t come from a standard issue box.

loaded carts

The PX was a big grocery store with great prices. We made quick work of the breakfast aisle loading up our large cart with boxes of nutritious bars and oatmeal. A little girl about 4 years old just stared at our cart as we walked down the aisle.

The check out line was like any other store. The lady working check out reminded me I was not at home in an off base grocery store. As she was ringing us up she asked if we needed custom forms for the USPS. We didn’t tell her why we were buying such a huge amount of bars and oatmeal, she just knew. It turns put she receive the stop mail notice for her son and had a stack of forms in her car. She gave the young guy bagging our groceries her car keys to retrieve the forms she no longer needed. One Army mom helping another.

With my little Toyota Corolla now filled up with items to ship to Afghanistan, we drove to the battalion headquarters office to see the Family Readiness Group Support office. I wanted to stop in to say hello and to express my condolences to the rear detachment staff after the death of Sgt. Wittman of the 3-69 just a week before.

After a quick visit and a few photos, I was on my way off base. I took a little time before I pulled out to reflect on the day. I only spent a few hours on base, but I had learned so much. I had to let it sink in a bit.

As I approached the Main Gate, I saw the “Warriors Walk” a tribute to Fort Stewart soldiers who lost their life in during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. I had to pull over to pay my respects. I’ll write about that experience in my next entry.

Dorie visits with the Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader and the FRSA.
Dorie visits with the Family Readiness Group (FRG) leader and the FRSA.