Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Veterans Day… Then and Now

I come from a family who has always honored and valued those who had the title of
“Veteran.”  I know how they fought for our safety, and go in harm's way for people like you and
me, while sacrificing time, and being away from their very own loved ones.  I would consider
myself to be an extremely “patriotic” person.  I say the pledge proudly at the beginning of each
school day with my class, and loved to watch the color guard march in parades throughout the
years in my small hometown.  I have sung the National Anthem at countless basketball,
volleyball, and football games, and on stages all across Missouri and the United States.  I know
the meaning behind those words and respect the veterans to whom those words truly belong.  I
have taught my students about the price our veterans have paid for us to sit in our warm
classrooms and take in all the knowledge that we truly are privileged to learn.  I have inspired in
the hearts of my own girls the beauty behind the American Flag and how to honor it properly.

Absolutely, all those things above are still 100% true in my book and are never to be put
down.  And yet things have changed in my world.  I am now, by definition of the word, a widow-
-a word that I have learned to despise and shudder at when it lingers in my ears.  But not only am
I a widow, I am a military war widow.  That has changed my entire outlook on so many things,
Veterans Day included.  My heart truly ponders the meaning of Veterans Day and how it has
changed for me.  It is all those things above, and so much more deep.  Some of my thoughts are
driven from my experience since becoming a war widow, others come from how I know my
husband felt about veterans in his life and those battles and wars he spent his lifetime studying.  Still other thoughts stem from my honor for those who served with my husband during his 12
years of service to our country.

Veterans Day is about men like my husband’s grandfather, a great man whom he admired
and worked daily to be more like.  Serving in WWII, Rhea’s grandfather left the only world that
he knew to go and see things that no man should ever see.  A man who taught my husband about
true bravery and saw death first hand in terrible battles that we only read about in our history
books.  The horrific visions etched in his mind, until he went to heaven, we will never know.  But, those moments and his sacrifices allow us to live as we do now….Free.  Veterans Day is
about Harold Rhea.

Veterans Day is about the camaraderie between the men and women in battle who
become family.  The guys and gals who meet over a cup of coffee while in training, who huddle
in a barrack and play videogames for hours just to get away from the sand and mess of a world
that awaits outside their fence surrounding their FOB.  Or the guy, who knows that a package of
Oreos and a hidden five-dollar bill will forever link them as battle buddies.  Veterans Day is
about those comrades.

Veterans Day is about those same comrades who have taken the place of a buddy and
gone on a mission they weren’t scheduled to be on.  Those medics who tend to and patch up their
own friends, who do everything they can possibly think of to keep their buddy alive until more
help can come.  Veterans Day is about walking down a road (if you can even call it that), in a
country where the people literally spit at you and spite you with every ounce of their being, while
you and your comrades pray that today will be calm and that only rocks will be thrown by the
children that line the street, and nothing worse.  Veterans Day is about deployed soldiers.

Veterans Day, now, is about the families back home waiting for a phone call or a Skype
session or for a glimpse at a digitized picture of their soldier, or even just a second to say “I love
you, Daddy.” Veterans Day is about those families and their soldiers who aren’t together on this
day, or any holiday, or a birthday, or for a first day of Kindergarten, or for a Pre-K Christmas
concert where the kids don’t even sing, it’s more of a shout, or for the first time your seven-year-
old scores a soccer goal and your jumping up and down so much you barely get the moment
recorded, or the first time your five-year- old jumps off the diving board, into the deep-end, with
their pink-sparkly- goggles on and her nose tightly plugged, but then squeals so loud when she
jumps she still ends up with a mouth full of water.  But they miss it, for you and me.  Veterans
Day is about military families longing for their soldier in those special moments.

Veterans Day is about those soldiers in beautiful dress blues, who had the task of walking
up the steps to my house, with a yellow ribbon attached to a pillar and the stars and stripes flying
next to the door, as they prepare to knock to give the news to me, a wife, that her husband gave
the ultimate sacrifice for his country.  It’s for that soldier and Chaplain who sat and held my
hands, as I heaved in pain and shook in disbelief, as the words left their lips. Veterans Day is for
Major Sean Wead and Captain Paul Stelzer.

Veterans Day is for my Casualty Assistance Officer who held my hand as I walked to my
husband’s casket for the first time.  It’s for the man who carried my children through the
Philadelphia Airport at 3:00 am.  For the man who pinned my gold star on me, in my kitchen,
and helped me make terribly hard decisions that no 30-year- old woman should ever have to
make.  This same man who gave up time with his own wife and children to take me to briefings,
meet with public relations people, and just be there for me and my girls.  Veterans Day is about
Major Lee Johnson.

Veterans Day is about my husband’s battle buddy, who asked if he could have the honor
of escorting my husband home to me.  He sat and prayed over my husband for hours in Dover
and while traveling to Kansas City.  He gave up time with his wife and boys to take care of my
family.  Veterans Day is about Sergeant First Class Clint Bowman.

Veterans Day is about the men who also lost their lives in the terrible chain of events the
day of my husband’s death.  Those soldiers whom were searched for and prayed for safety they
did not have that day.  Veterans Day is about Sergeant First Class Jeffrey Baker, Specialist
Mitchell Daehling, Specialist William Gilbert, and Private First Class Cody Towse.

Veterans Day is about my husband’s squad-- those soldiers who spent the last months,
days, and hours with Trent.  Those men and women who spent his last birthday with him, his last
Thanksgiving and Christmas with him.  Those men and women who laughed with him, and
prayed with him before every mission.  Those men and women who put their own lives in danger
to try and save him.  They searched disgusting, terrible water to try and find him.  Veterans Day
is about the 603rd Military Police Company, 3rd Platoon, 1st Squad.  Veterans Day is about the
man who took orders from his leader, jumped out of his gear, and dove blindly into the canal
time after time in search of Trent.  Veterans Day is about Sergeant Adam Hartmann.  Veterans
Day is about the woman who ran her hands down every stripe of his flag and kissed the stars of
his box before he was flown home to me.  Veterans Day is about Sergeant Taci Beatty.

Veterans Day is about Joanna, Abigail, and Autumn Rhea.  Those little girls who smile
and laugh when they play in a pile of leaves and look up to ask me if Daddy liked to play in
leaves, too.  My little beautiful girls who pray nightly “We love you and miss you Daddy, have
fun in heaven with Jesus!”  My precious girls who want a little bit more of Daddy’s cologne on
their t-shirt of his that they each cuddle with as they sleep.  My wonderful step-daughter who yearns for one more day with her dad.  That sixteen-year- old who texts me with random
questions about her father just so she can learn and know him more.  That teenage girl who is
more like him every day and hangs his dog tags on the rearview mirror of her truck just to feel
closer to him.  My daughters who know first-hand what loss is like, and who refer to their Daddy
as their hero, because he is.  Veterans Day is about Joanna Rhea, Abigail Rhea, and Autumn

My Rhea, Sergeant First Class Trenton Rhea, he is what Veterans Day is about.  The man
who stood by me for eight years of my life.  The man who could hold his daughters with such
tenderness, but hold a weapon with such strength.  The man who felt his soldiers were his own,
and would walk their walk, not just talk the talk.  The man who did give the ultimate sacrifice.  Veterans Day is my Rhea.

Veterans Day is about those who choose to stand in the face of danger for the people of
our country and others.  They do not receive the credit and honor they deserve, but they should,
daily.  Not just one day of the year, but daily.  I am thankful for the veterans in my life.  I am
very grateful for the veterans that played a role in my husband’s life.  Veterans Day is so much
more now….so very much more.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

A Tough First

The past few weeks has given me a window into my true growth throughout the past years. Sometimes there are moments in our lives that truly give us the opportunity to see the “Then and Now.”  Most of the time, we are too close to the situation to really see it clearly, but every once in awhile the clarity is there.  

I will tell you that the world of firsts sucks.  There’s the typical grieving firsts that I went through on year one; the first birthdays, holidays, anniversary, 1st day of school, music concert, etc.  Those were there, and it was just known that they were coming and the suck factor was going to be all over those days.  Then there are other firsts that sneak up on you.  The first time Abby scored a soccer goal and Jo had a softball hit, those firsts were so exciting and I was screaming my head off, as any sports mom would do.  Then, it hits you in the gut...shit, he was supposed to be here for that.  Or the first dates I’ve had, should have nothing but anticipation and excitement but instead filled me with insecurities and nausea.  My first time sitting at my kitchen dinner table with just me and my girls (took me literally years to do that, by the way.  One of the hardest counseling tasks I was ever given).  Firsts are zero fun.  

Last week had another first for me, my first death.  My grandfather passed away rather suddenly last week.  He was a wonderful man who always had hard candy in church, taught me how to drive a combine, fished with me in the creek, sat at every single one of our shows in the summer no matter how far or hot it was, and taught me the love of the bacon/syrup combo at Hwy 65 Cafe.  He’s a man that will be missed by so many.   His passing was so challenging all on it’s own, because he was my grandfather.  Then, there was the challenge that came with his passing being my first death since Rhea in 2013.  

My sister called me to tell me about my grandfather.  First, I will tell you that she doesn’t have a disguise for her “everything’s going to be okay” voice.  The moment she said my name on the phone, I knew something was way off.  Or maybe, it’s just because we’re sisters and we can read each other that well.  I couldn’t go straight to where they were right away, I had to wait for instructions, on where I needed to go, either to St. Lukes if they were life flighting him, or if not, I was going to my hometown where everyone was at. It was about 30 minutes of wait time.  And where do you think I waited? My closet, the safe zone.  Waves of emotion went over me immediately.   I wasn’t ready to lose someone.  I knew I was lucky to have gotten 4 years without having anything major happen, but I still was not ready.  Is anyone ready?  Probably not, and definitely not me.  While I should have been using that 30 minutes to figure out what I needed to do, my processing skills were out the window.  So when I finally found out where I needed to go, it was massive panic in my world.  Along with the loss of my grandfather, I knew his death meant I was going to be asked to do things and be put in situations I was not at all ready for.  

It took me almost 3 years to go to a full family event that included extended family.  I have missed weddings, baby and bridal showers, graduations, birthdays, etc.  Family events to me, for a long time, just magnified what was missing in my little family.  Large groups of people put me back into all of the events and services for Rhea.  I wasn’t trying to be standoffish, I just literally couldn’t do it.  The anxiety that would take over my body when an event would come up, would almost make me full fledged ill.  I went to my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary party last October, that took me 4 months of counseling preparation to even go to.  And that’s all I did.  I didn’t sing, even though countless people asked.  Literally, barely even got there, so singing was out of the picture.  I was there, in a corner, with my best friend by my side, and that was huge.  There was so much that I still couldn’t do, but look at what I did do.  I was not at home in my closet of safety, I was at my parent’s 40th.

I had 4 months prep for that.  My grandfather’s services, I had 2 days.  Only 2 days to figure out how I could do this and not take 45 steps backwards in my journey.  I needed to listen to my needs and also be there for my mom, grandmother, and for myself, as well.  I knew where the services would be at, and that was the first thing to tackle. You see, Grandpa’s services were at the exact same church that Rhea’s were.  Rhea’s services were at the church we attended in Sedalia.  It’s a big beautiful church, filled with so much love and people that we both cherished.  That church was where we married and where he first heard me sing.  It was special to us.  And since his death, I cannot go inside that sanctuary.  In my mind all I see is his casket, covered in yellow roses  at the front of the sanctuary.  I can’t do it.  I can’t go in there.  I can go in the church, I’m a little shaky at first, but I can’t do the sanctuary at all.  What did that mean for the visitation?  The funeral?  Viewing my grandfather?  It was a disaster for me.

I was so fortunate that both my grandmothers, mom, dad, and sister were so extremely supportive and were fully aware of the challenges that were ahead for me.  My mom and dad arranged for me to view my grandfather in advance at the funeral home, instead of the church.  I was 45 minutes late, and pushed down a panic attack while driving in Independence stop light traffic, cried ¾ of the way there, but I made it and was able to view him.  To say I was scared to see a casket for the first time since Rhea, is an understatement.  I didn’t know how my mind was going to handle all of it.  Those panic attacks sneak up on you and your brain plays tricks.  But my family let me have my moment with him in that little room, and I did it.  It was hard, and I was still okay.  I was actually kind of proud of myself for how well I did.  

Now it was time to figure out the services.  Being in the sanctuary was not an option at all.  Please know, that I terribly want to be able to do these things.  It sounds ridiculous to some people, I know, I’ve heard that before, trust me.  However, as badly as I want to be doing these things, and as disappointed as I get in myself for the things I still cannot do, I just can’t do them.  One day I might be able to, but not now.  So, during the visitation I was able to stay close by, in the foyer of the church.  It was a long 2 ½ hours being right there in the midst of people waiting in line who haven’t seen me for years.  My sister jokingly called me The Greeter. Though in all honesty, I was trying to blend into the wall as much as possible.  During the funeral, I was blessed again to have my best friend take off of work to come sit with me, because I wasn’t going to be able to be with everybody else.  I listened to the service up in the sound/videographers booth with my back turned, so I could hear but couldn't see.  The service was challenging.  I cried and she held my hand, and I made it through.  Then I was able to join my family at the cemetery.

So, this first was pretty rough, but included some growth for me.  I wasn’t able to do a lot, and yet at the same time there was so much that I did do.  I said no when I couldn’t do something, and I tried hard to do the challenging things.  The aftermath of the services has shown itself in my appetite and sleep patterns.  I’m up to two meals a day right now which is excellent rebound for me.  I’m still struggling with getting my sleep back, but it will come.  Overall, I’m okay with how this first went.  It could have been better, but it also could have been way worse.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Continuing the Work and Breathing

When I last blogged, quite some time ago, I discussed how my focus was going to be on living life for me.  I have done that and then some over the last ten months.  However, I’m still sitting here with that same focus.  I’ve made some great strides since last October, but I’m not finished yet.  I might not ever be finished actually, but some definite great gains have been made.  When I left off in October, I was preparing to go to a PTSD retreat called Warrior’s Ascent.  It was 4 days of extensive work on skills and tools to help myself through everyday life.  This was one of the best decisions in the past 4 years of my life that I could have ever made.  It was a step in the direction towards getting my life back.  

Let me be transparent here and tell you that last August, September, and October were by far the lowest months I have ever endured.  Worse than the first months following Rhea’s death. Those first months were full of waves of grief, lack of sleep, little food, and being utterly lost.  Exactly as I should have been.  But, 3 ½ years later, I still felt utterly lost, but in a hopeless kind of way.   At that point in my life, as I sit and reflect, I felt the most alone I had ever felt.  I was trying.  I was pushing myself back to Christ.  I was willing myself to put my faith and hope back in Him, but my heart was so not there yet.  I would put my girls to bed at night, and the stillness would set in.  My panic attacks would creep up on me in the silence of my world and would take over me, and they would nightly.  My sleep was suffering again.  It affected my home life and work life.  I was quick tempered, anxious, and emotionally everywhere.  My closet was my safe place (and still is today).  I would feel the world closing in on me and retreat to my closet.  Literally, I go to my closet.  How crazy does that sound?

My thoughts were to the point that it was scaring me.  I know deep down I would have never taken my own life, but I had thoughts of just wanting to stop it all.  I wanted to stop the pain, the emptiness, the judgement of so many, the judgement of myself, all of it.  I wanted it to stop. That alone was too far for me and scared the living daylights out of me.  I remember crying to my parents on the phone on how I didn’t know what to do.  I was not okay, I knew I wasn’t okay, but I did not want to be medicated. I had done this journey without medication, and I didn’t want to start now.  I felt like I needed to feel all of it, I was supposed to feel it.   I was already signed up for the retreat, and I made a deal with myself.  Go to the retreat.  Learn as much as I can.  Take 4 days and focus on only me.  And give myself a month to implement the tools.  If I was still in the same spot, then I would go look into medication for my anxiety and depression.

Warrior’s Ascent is for first responders, or veterans who struggle with PTSD.  I didn’t fit the qualifications there.  But, I sent an email, explained my situation, counseling, and conditions, and they welcomed me with open arms to their community.  I was going to be with 15 other women who struggle with PTSD.  And that increased my anxiety.   I have a form of PTSD that a lot of people don’t understand or recognize it as such.  I have noncombat PTSD.  My girls do, as well.  I don’t have triggers like veterans do to fireworks, gunfire, etc.  Nor, do I have night terrors or flashbacks of war.  I, instead, have triggers to doorbells, soldiers in full dress blues, the smell of a man’s cologne, large gatherings of people, etc.  And, I have night terrors to what my mind has developed as the events of Rhea’s death, where I’m there and I’m watching it all happen before me, but I can’t do a thing but watch it.  Going to this retreat with people who probably were dealing with a different form of PTSD made me feel not enough, not the same, and not worthy. I was so scared to be on the outside and for people to think I didn't need to be there.  I’m not a first responder or veteran who have done and seen some really messed up stuff.  I was just a 33-year-old military widow who was a hot fucking mess.  But, I went.  Scared to death, I went to Warrior’s Ascent and hoped for acceptance and some kind of deliverance from the hell I was silently living in.

This program, Warrior’s Ascent, I can wholeheartedly say, saved my life. (I know sounds dramatic, but I mean every word of it.)  I learned about taking steps in my own journey back home.  I learned the art of yoga, though lack extreme amounts of flexibility.  I learned about the beauty and peace of nature (and most know I’m not an outside kinda girl.) I learned about different ways to journal or releasing your thoughts. I learned about trust for others and for myself.  But, I can probably say the one tool that helped me the most was the practice of meditation.  

Meditation is a practice, and every meditation is different.  When I started it at Warrior’s Ascent, I was not good at it.  In fact, for two days straight, I had panic attacks during every single time we practiced meditation.  I was so fortunate to have a patient teacher.  She would pull me aside and talk to me later about what I was feeling, what happened, what had triggered the panic attack.  I learned so much just about my panic attacks from those conversations with her.  For example, I bounce my leg, I get restless, I look around the room as if searching for something, and I hold my breath.  When I’m nervous, anxious, worked up, etc., I hold my breath.  Who knew?!? Not me.  I had no idea I was doing it.  Of course I would hyperventilate and panic.  I wasn’t giving myself oxygen when I most needed it.  On the 3rd day of the retreat, we did 6:30 morning meditation and yoga in a different place than normal, and I was by a window that was open.  And, it was the first time I did not have a panic attack.  My meditation/yoga instructor came up to me after and asked what was different.  I could hear birds, a cricket, and a light breeze.  I could hear sound.  It wasn’t still and silent. I have trauma that circles around silence.  Sitting in silence is painful for me and puts me in a terrible place.  Look at my panic attacks nightly...when it was still and silent.  Holy crap!  Look at what I learned about myself.  This was huge for me.  Huge.  I could meditate, but I had to meditate with sounds and/or music.  And from there, the world of meditation just opened up so much healing for me.  I breathe.  I push away everything.  I breathe.  I let myself have peace.  I breathe.  I breathe.  I breathe.

Along with learning the practice of meditation and learning more about my own panic attacks, I also learned about the love and acceptance of a sisterhood.  The 15 women I went through this program with are not me.  We do not have the exact same life experiences.  But, we are very like-minded and we have a respect and love for one another that I cannot properly describe.  They accepted me where I was at, and I accepted them.  I am their confidant and they are mine.  But the thing that brought us together the most, I think, is that we were all at the exact same spot.  We were done with life as it was.  We wanted more for our life and we were ready to do the work to get there.  

The final day of retreat with my sisters.

I’m still there.  I’m still at that spot.  I’m still doing the work.  I have days where I’ve got it all together.  And, I have days where I still resort to finding safety within the walls of my closet.  But, I show up for myself daily.  Every single day, I show up for my girls and for me now.  I also have a tribe of my sisters from Warrior’s Ascent still behind me, and a village of friends and family that still shower me with support.  I’m not done.  I’m still working.  And I breathe.

Side note:  My favorite way to meditate is to prayers, most of the time they are Catholic prayers.  I have found such peace in quite a few of them.  I’ll leave you with one of my personal favorites, the Prayer of St. Francis. This is an adaptation of the prayer, and I love it. Maybe you'll find some peace in it today.

My God, source of light, source of love
May I be your messenger in a world that’s in desperate need of you
May I be an instrument of your peace
In a world filled with division and discord
May I bring love, where there is anger and hatred
May I bring compassion and understanding, where there is hurt and suffering
Where there is doubt and fear, cause my faith to rise up
Where there is despair, may I be a voice of hope
In darkness, may I bring light
In sadness, may I bring joy
My God, rather than seek my own comfort and consolation
May I show mercy and be a comfort to others
Rather than needing to be heard and needing to be right
May I bring patience, understanding, and a willingness to listen
Rather than seeking to be loved, may I be love
For it is in giving that we receive
In forgiving that we are set free
And in dying to self, that we are born into our eternal life
Let it be so, let it be now, let it be