Playing Switzerland

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There are few countries that live up to their reputation. With stunning snow-capped mountain ranges that lead into lush, green valleys; efficient public transportation networks and, ancient historical cities that seamlessly merge past with present. This is Switzerland; it is just as beautiful, international – and expensive – as you would expect.

We spent a total of 10 days in this gorgeous country hiking the Bernese Oberland, watching guild parades in Zurich and walking the promenade of the ‘Swiss Rivera’ in Montreux. You can see our full itinerary as well as tips for making the most out of your Swiss holiday here.

Other than our normal excuse for traveling, I had a real work reason for going to Switzerland. As a part of my three year stint working for NATO at SHAPE, Belgium, I was invited to the Swiss Armed Forces School as a guest speaker. Located in Lucern, Switzerland, an absolutely stunning part of the country, it was an easy ‘yes’ to participate.

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Picture: Town of Lucern

Only 26 NATO students are permitted to attend the NCO Advanced Leadership course which is held twice a year. Lasting for two weeks, the entire program is completely funded by the Swiss government. Not only do they provide, room board and a world class training program, they try to ensure that every NATO nation has at least 1 slot in each course. The college accomplished this goal in the spring of 2016’s class, which was made up of 25 different nations.

The foundation for the course is building teamwork between NATO countries while simultaneously instilling a sense of pride and empowerment in the enlisted ranks. This was one of the more interesting aspects I learned while working with NATO nations – the lack of empowerment, education and trust given to the enlisted force.

The backbone of the American military is truly built on the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO). The first leadership tier in the enlisted military structure, the US heavily invests in its ranks through education, leadership training and empowerment of its lower enlisted. This is not the case for 90% of the worlds militaries. Decisions are held up at the officer tier leaving lower ranks with less responsibility. This was often frustrating for my US service members who worked in NATO two or three ranks below what would normally be expected of them in the US.

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Picture: Team building course. Participants had to navigate the maze without speaking, on a time limit and had to stay within designated areas 

In speaking with the students it was not the curriculum that they were most impressed with – or the free lodging, beer and food – but the cultural exchange they were able to have with the other students. This was of course the highlight of my experience as well. My First Sergeant and I were treated as honored guests and were invited to  break bread with enlisted leaders from Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium. Their perspective on the course, NATO development and leadership were largely similar to my own, with one slight difference — I was the only female, the only officer and probably the only one under 30. So not only was I a women, but a young women that technically outranked the entire table.

In fact this was one of the reasons I was invited to speak on leadership along with my First Sergeant (Senior Enlisted Leader). I gave the officer side and he the enlisted side; we discussed how the two work together to create a perfect command team that takes care of the Airmen and ultimately, the mission. Although the message/speech went down fairly well, the school seemed less interested in the leadership message we brought, but what we represented to the rest of the crowd: a female commander (boss) and male First Sergeant (subordinate) that not only worked together, but worked well together.

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Picture: Preparing to go repelling. As a part of the course, participants repelled off a bridge, trusting the team member watching them to feed them appropriate rope lengths. These are the course leaders preparing to test it out (I am 3rd from the left, my First Sergeant to my left).

Up until this point in my career I hadn’t given a second thought to my gender. Despite the many non-standard, all male environments I worked in – as well as witnessing some questionable workplace behavior – my gender has never been a reason (or so I have thought) for those under me, above me or equal to me to treat me any different from anyone else.  The rank structure and uniform – true to name – strip every other societal first impression, forcing you to always look first at someones rank (so you know how to properly address them) and everything else, second.

I always viewed Europe as the most progressive continent in the world. Yet, after 5 years living there, and especially working with other foreign militaries, I was surprised to find that this is not always the case. America is surprisingly progressive when it comes to gender and racial equality, especially within the military. The diversity within the US is reflected in its ranks, encouraged and celebrated. While no organization or country is perfect, I gained a greater appreciation for what the US military represented to the rest of the world while serving at this post. Leading in every aspect, I can only hope to be a small part of that leading force showing that all else aside – solid leadership is about the person, and nothing else.

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Picture: Driving the alps

Military Service: Now & Then

Memorial Day

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.

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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.

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Normandy

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.

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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

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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 –

‘never again’.

 

 

Hanging out with TeamCoCo

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Did I mention I had the best job in the world? When I say I ‘deployed’ many assume I did what is seen on CNN – holster a gun, lead convoys, exchange small arms fire with the enemy and occasionally maneuver around an IED attack. Or actually, since I am in the Air Force, I should probably fly a plane and drop bombs for my day job.

Although I have friends that do all of the above, I got to do quite the opposite side of spectrum – work USO type events in an effort to regenerate our workforce. It meant I got to spend 6 months thinking of creative ways people could have fun (think concerts, card games and cardboard water relays) to decompress in an often stressful, high-paced work environment. This is my dream job – party planning, for a living.

Although I could throw a really sweet event, one aspect of the job that I had never done before was to work with the entertainment industry to host large scale concerts (think 1K+ people). I learned what a tech rider was, how to book a well-known artist and how much it really costs to do so. As I often told people, ‘they never taught me how to do this in officer school’.

Out of all the crazy stories I could tell from doing this job, the pinnacle of my 6 months in Doha was hosting the First Lady of United states (FLOTUS) and taping a live Conan O’Brien show.behind the scenes

I had 10 days notice. FLOTUS would be in town speaking at a conference encouraging women in STEM and wanted to swing by the base for a morale visit. She wanted to spend time with a small group of Airmen and then bring out an artist to entertain the base population – so she called Conan O’Brien.

I’ll spare you the prep work details, the lack of sleep, security concerns involved and speed forward to picking up the head producer, writers, talent manager and camera crew from the Doha airport. While they flew via ‘normal’ first class tickets, Conan got to come a day later via Air Force one with the First Lady.

Having skipped the normal paperwork procedures, (I normally needed a minimum of 30 days to process customs paperwork through the Qatari government) we started off the evening stuck at the entrance of Al Udeid Air Base, which is wholly owned by the Qatari government; a political stance we were reminded of while we waited for over two hours while foreign guards went through every piece of video equipment.

Normally I have a fairly negative stereotype of anyone who is part of the industry of L.A., let alone a group of people who by all accounts were famous and successful in the industry. Having this stigma on my mind, I was pleasantly surprised by the entire groups calm nature, patience and general pleasant company – keeping in mind that they also had 10 days notice on this trip and hadn’t slept in 24+ hours. It was at this point I started to realize I was with a truly great group of people; given a unique opportunity to peak under the curtain of the entertainment industry.

And what I saw was a dedicated team of professionals who were able to come-up with funny, situationally-appropriate material in under 24 hours. Later I learned the short timeline was something the team was used to; being a daily show, your best or worst show only lasts for 24 hours or until your next show. So if you mess up, no big, yet if you go big and win, the reward is short lived. This, to me, allows for great creative writing where you constantly have to reinvent yourself to maintain entertaining material. What was more refreshing is that they didn’t care what the local leadership thought of their oh-so-true-to-the-Deid jokes.

Show time

Getting as much B-roll as possible the day prior, I went with the head producer + driver to transfer Conan from the First Ladies team of White House staff to Al Udeid Air base.

Little known fact (well maybe just by me): Conan actually went to Harvard and is pretty much hilarious all the time, but amazingly, can still have a normal, serious conversation. Hanging out with the Conan O’Brien + team is like hanging out with an old group of friends. The guys had been working together for nearly 20 years, and it shows. Rather than feeling like the guy that just showed up 20 minutes ago, you feel like you were with them all along.

 Side note: It is interesting to see how dynamics change when you have access to someone famous. I chose to hook-up a friend as the driver who was a fan, but in doing so pissed off another friend. Not without good reason, but was another lesson learned; things change when you have exclusive access to someone famous. You suddenly become either more or less desirable depending on what people want and who you chose reward.

Behind the scenes with Conan O’Brien? Like working with a well-oiled machine that felt both refreshing and comforting all at the same time.

The clips in the below link  show pretty much everything to the trip. To the many selfies, excited troops and quirky moments that make up filming in both the challenging environment of the desert and a foreign military installation.

http://teamcoco.com/video/conan-entertains-the-troops-at-al-udeid-air-base

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SOS

Upon being told in late April that I would need to cancel all my vacation for the summer and spend two months in the sweltering heat of Montgomery, Alabama – I blankly stared. After recovering from the fact that I would need to cancel my Running with Bulls trip and tell my poor sister that she would need to navigate Harrogate, England without me…I started to think of the two month training as less of an order and more of a paid vacation back to America.

It had been two years since I had spent longer than a week back in the states. A fact that I honestly did not think much of until I stepped off the plane in Atlanta (aka Hot-lanta). I do not know what it was, possibly the upfront, slightly pushy nature of the TSA staff directing us to immigration or the fact that one lady boldly complimented my shoe choice (Brit’s don’t really do that) or possibly it was the diversity of the airport that made me really feel at home. England is lovely, but they don’t have the raw, boisterous, straight forward nature of an American that you just can’t help but love. I was so excited I nearly hugged everyone that greeted me with a “hello” and “this way”.

But lets get more to the interesting part of the story – why, may you ask, did I get sent to Alabama?

In the Air Force they have something called Squadron Officer School or SOS. This two month training (sometimes 5 weeks, other times 8…the Air Force can’t decide how long to make it) is meant to instill every Captain (officer in for about 6/7 years) with leadership principles as well as test them through a series of obstacles and “team leadership problems”/ TLP’s.

Sound like fun? Actually, it is a Hell of a lot of fun. I basically get paid to run around in the morning jumping through hoops, climbing walls or playing some sort of dodge ball game called FLEX (field leadership exercise…we love our made up acronyms)

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FLEX demo (also known as Icarus): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGkk3M66yHg

I consistently look around at what I get to do through the military and the Air Force and wonder how I get paid to do these things. Yes, SOS does take you away from home for 2 months and forces you to learn about communication and leadership principles (FRLM)..as well as forces you to play fake games that are supposed to test your leadership ability..but it is basically two months where your schedule is 9-3pm with half of that time spent outside solving puzzles.

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Picture: Project X – A series of obstacles involving limited resources, a lot of water and high walls.

Dos Gringos, SOS: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MF0Nki4_azk

Of course there are always those people that find it a waste of time (which they have a point with our hard working 6 hour days and 2 hour lunches), but I ask you, if the Air Force is spending thousands of dollars to invest in training you to be a better leader and giving you two months to reflect on this ability – why not take it?

Yes, I am still alive

and writing. I’ve just been bad at it lately…so here is my attempt to tell a new story.

Last month, as you may be aware, was women’s history month. I don’t know how you are when it comes to months dedicated to everyone non-white male, but  I tend to think that the months somehow hit overkill around the 1970’s. Asian pacific heritage month? Irish American heritage month?? (which by the way shares its month with the Women in March) but what really cracks me up is universal human rights month in December (which I didn’t know existed…good job government).

Now, I don’t know how your organizations work, but the one I’m has to have a luncheon or SOMETHING to commemorate the month to whomever. That is also annoying…no month is really special because the celebrations are basically the same with a different reason.

Well, the invite came out for the – surprise – luncheon for Women’s History month. I of course had all intentions of not going (although I do happen to be a women). Until the boss of the medical clinic asked me why…which I promptly responded with “It’s kind of cliche for me to go”.

Terrible, terrible idea Viva – don’t know what I was thinking. He then proceeded to go into a history lesson about the contributions of women in history, and how their roles are constantly downplayed because males have always written history.

Then it hit me – I used to think this way. Actually I do think this way and he was basically lecturing me on something I already agreed with. What is wrong with me? Where did I loose my appreciation and knowledge of the struggles women had to go through just so I could serve! It was only 40 or so years ago really….and even less to gain equality in uniform.

Basic point – while the months are still annoying, the cornucopia that is America and its history is an important thing to remember and celebrate. Don’t loose the importance of your heritage and the people who fought for you to get where you are.

(although I still vote that Black and Women’s history month are the only ones that deserve a month)

No Americans Served Here

Really?!

Last night was a typical Gunsan night – some hooch hoping full with Cheers, Metro and TLC – local ‘western’ catered bars. Which means that nearly everyone in the bar is military, not Korean.

However, next to TLC is a wine bar that is significantly more classy. Well we walked into this classy place and were told ‘No American’. What!? Seriously?! All I could do was make a sad face and walk out. I have never been kicked out of a bar for being American! I love wine! Plus the name of the place was written in English! Really? You aren’t going to let me have a glass of wine here, but you are going to write your menu in English!

Needless to say I was a little baffled. Clearly some rowdy bar goers from next door had caused a scene at TLC and were now banned from the place. Sure we are loud but really?! We are at least fun!

A sweep

No I am not talking about sports or a broom. This is very Kunsan specific.

Kunsan is known as the last ‘real’ fighter base. ‘The wild wild west of the Air Force,’ to quote my old boss. With that comes lots of habitual drinking, working 12+ hours a day, curfew and the concept of a sweep.

A sweep is for any ‘named’ person, pilot or friend, that is leaving Korea. Sweeps, as with most traditions, have a varying set of events. A schedule, if you will:

Event 1: Everyone rally at the squadron bar

Event 2: Tell embarrassing stories about the person that is leaving. Note – 1. you must put your hand in a bowl of ice water to ensure that you don’t talk for too long (fighter pilots like to talk, especially in front of a crowd) Note – 2. Women are excused from this rule, as from most rules w/ fighter squadrons, like paying fees to the bar. The youngest pilot instead puts his hand in for her

Event 3: We roll to A-town. Note – A-town deserves a post of its own so I will spare the details of this Korean area. Just know it means “America town” (now recently renamed to ‘international village’ to be PC…however noone buys it and still calls it A-town)

Take me to A-town

Event 4: Eat bulgogi, drink Hite beer, say individual goodbyes, have a wrestling match in the middle of the bar and crowd surf

Even the squadron mascot drinks Hite

Event 5: Have punk breakfast – at 2am.

Event 6: Keep drinking until you are forced to sleep

Sunday = sunday, funday. Mimosa’s at the squadron bar to talk about the festivities of the night before and recover before the 12 hour work week starts up again.

Yes, sweeps. A Kunsan tradition and just one of the few memorable events of being stationed at the Kun.