Today is my 8 year anniversary in service to the United States Air Force. This year, unlike years prior, the concept of service resonates much differently as I gain tenure in the military.
Eight years looks a lot different than 2 or 3 years. When I first joined, all I wanted was to see action, feel adventure, and see the world. And I did. I met fellow young Americans desiring to do the same thing. Some had cooler/risker jobs than me, ones that weren’t considered ‘support’ career fields like mine and although I had some sweet advantages in my own line of work, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt that I somehow wasn’t trying or giving hard enough. We all took our first deployments, many of us are now married and some have already met their first born child.
Somewhere along the way this oath I made to the United States Air Force became real. It wasn’t just a way to pay for college, a way to see the world, a way to seek adventure. It gave me all those things, but also came with real life sacrifice; separation from the ones we love and temptation to break the oaths we had made to each other.
Having returned from my first 6 month stint, I spent two weeks in Alabama at a core course for my career field. I looked around the room of people who were my peers in age, job and grade — and yet we all had different stories to tell. Convoy duty in Afghanistan, suicide saves, PTSD and the stigma of saying ‘enough is enough.’
When I myself look at my US cell phone, now 5 years out of date, I had to delete to friends, pilots who have died. In the age of social media it is still difficult to grasp their death – their faces frequently appear on my news feed. They are tagged in posts by other friends, and most often, by their all too young widowed spouse. If I were to go back to 2dLt me and tell her how real military service would get, I think she would have smiled, knowingly, said ‘bring it on’.
And yet as I look back into the recent history of war, the loss that I feel, that my peers feel, nothing compares to those that came before us.
I had the honor of not only being able to visit Normandy over Memorial Day weekend, but to participate in a few isolated grave ceremonies. These American men that fought alongside the allies during WWI and WWII are still remembered in small town ceremonies. It is amazing to see how Europe remembers the war; everyone from the local villages still come out to pay homage to people who died over 60 years ago. To witness, let alone be a part of this level of remembrance was a huge honor and humbling to say the least.
Yet, this was not the only humbling part. In addition to these veteran ceremonies, I was also able to take a full tour of Normandy.
Standing on Omaha beach, looking out into the sea, I tried to imagine not only what it would have been like being the man running up through relentless gunfire with less than 40% survival odds – but to be the person that planned the attack. Eisenhower had to not only plan with coalition forces, but had to pull together all factors of the US military. Naval considerations, a sea to land invasion, air war – with an air force that wasn’t even an independent service at this point! All this and they were coming from England to terrain that while researched, only was partly understood. To plan for this also knowing that you had so many lives in your hands – that is a burden we do not often think about, nor can we truly fathom.
Warfare has so drastically changed from the days of WWII. When I think about the struggle of planning for an invasion of this scale compared to the messy, blurred lines of the war on terror that the world is now engulfed in, I almost envy the simplicity of it all.
To fight a clear enemy, one that had an identifiable standing force without the existence of social media, lone wolf attacks and beheadings – it seems like an easy war to win. Of course, this being hindsight rather than 1943, I wonder if the people of the future will look the same on our current conflict.
The war we are now waging sees less lives taken, but more lives affected. Nowhere have I witnessed the effects of this new war than living in Belgium (and not the Middle East).
Brussels Terrorist attack
Many would have heard about the Brussels airport and train station bombing on March 22, 2016, some might have frequently passed through the airport as a means for travel or have called the city home. Few, however, were at the airport on the day of the attacks, had to account for and care for the casualties of the event.
In what will forever be burned into my memory as unprecedented chaos, the 72hours following the Brussels attack served as a test of accountability, leadership under pressure and taking care of our fellow service members.
My sisters were due to fly into Brussels airport on the day of the attack. I was prepping to take Easter leave with them in Lithuania; my mind was focused on getting out as quickly as possible. At about 0900 on 22 March we got word that the airport had been bombed; knowing that I had a number of personnel that lived and planned on traveling through that area, we initiated a 100% recall of all personnel. After accounting for all my military, I learned that my sister’s flight had also been diverted – all that I had personal responsibility for were accounted for and deemed safe.
Then, I learned that another Air Force family had been hit while attempting to travel back to the United States and being the closes Air Force commander, had been called to go to the hospital to go assist.
Fog of war became a new term that I understood; Belgian authorities were struggling to identify all the wounded, information was filtered through 3 different languages and I, being neither next of kin or medical personnel, had to negotiate my way in to a foreign hospital to feed information to Washington that had now become acutely aware of the situation. I was able to use both interpersonal skills as well as a fellow military bond to make sense of the situation, locate the additional missing service member and connect them to the appropriate lines of care.
Those 72 hours of response still seem like a sleepless blur. Belgian authorities pulled 36 hour straight shifts; initially they had over 100 injured, unidentified, international personnel. Getting medical information to identify these personnel, as well as filtering key information about these personnel ahead of the social media spin and in protection of the families affected, proved a telling task; one that I believe was accomplished successfully in spite of the shock and aww.
The World War today
As I watch, read and listen to the media; as I experience the war that is being written about; as I get thanked for my service; as I travel, survey the land, and reflect — the world seems to be more chaotic, while still being more connected than ever before.
We no longer fight states or declare war on a clear enemy; instead we declare war on an ideology that will stop at nothing to be spread. We wage war using bombs and fire arms without understanding how to wage war on the more difficult enemy –belief, survival and fear.
I do not envy Eisenhower nor do I think WWII was any easier than the conflict we face today, although it seems simpler. I doubt he or any great military leader could have predicted the wars of the future. I only hope that we will be able to look back on this time in history, to remember the fallen as we have over this memorial day weekend and say –