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Be Safe, Love Mom
A Military Mom's Stories of Courage, Comfort, and Surviving Life on the Home Front
With Nan Gatewood Satter
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Copyright © 2015 by Elaine Lowry Brye and Nan Gatewood Satter.
Published in the United States by PublicAffairs™, a Member of the Perseus Books Group
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Book Design by Pauline Brown
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Brye, Elaine Lowry.
Be safe, love mom : a military mom's stories of courage, comfort, and surviving life on the home front / Elaine Lowry Brye with Nan Gatewood Satter.—First edition.
ISBN 978-1-61039-521-2 (hardback)—ISBN 978-1-61039-522-9 (electronic) 1. Families of military personnel—United States. 2. Mothers of soldiers—United States. 3. Soldiers—Family relationships—United States. 4. Military spouses—Family relationships—United States. 5. United States—Armed Forces—Military life. I. Satter, Nan Gatewood. II. Title. III. Title: Military mom's stories of courage, comfort, and surviving life on the home front.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Dedicated to my heroes—my mom and dad, my husband, and my children, whose sacrifices of service before self give me hope in a difficult world.
In memory of my father, who served his country piloting his F6F Hellcat in the skies over the Pacific, and for my mother, who continues to teach me about strength, determination, and gratitude every day.
You're in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines Now
Becoming a Warrior
From Ballet Slippers to Combat Boots
Oh, the Places They'll Go
You Are Not Alone
The Sisterhood and Beyond
The Biggest Family in the World
Love in the Mail
It's Okay If You Break Down in the Dairy Aisle
Support from Unexpected Places
What Holds Us Together
I Believe in Miracles
Climb Every Mountain
Nourish Your Soul
Sandals on the Ground
Saying Goodbye Again and Agai
The Things We Carry
It All Takes a Toll
The Sneaky Bastard
The Gold Star
No Guts, No Glory
No Guts, No Glory
Be Safe, Love Mom includes information about my own experiences and those of other military mothers. These mothers have been most generous in granting me permission to share their observations and stories in this book. I have changed most of their names to protect their privacy and the privacy of their military children.
With that same regard for privacy, I have, for the most part, kept stories and mentions of my nephew, Luke, out of these pages. Luke was an important part of our lively household for many years, and we love him dearly. His story, perhaps, is one for another day.
My biological children have not been so lucky. In all cases, they have been identified. Sorry kids.
Elaine Lowry Brye
It's the first time the six of us have been together in more than three years, and we are all giddy with excitement. My four uniformed children—Eric, Jordan, Katrina, and Brendan—are crammed together side by side on the cabin steps in preparation for a new family portrait, and they are laughing so hard that one of them has turned beet red and another is doubled over and holding his belly. Just like when they were little kids in the back seat of the car kicking and pinching each other, there's lots of physical contact. Except now, decades later, the punches in the arm, slaps on the back, and constant jostling are signs of affection rather than of squabbling. I close my eyes and am transported back to earlier days when they would tumble and wrestle together like a pile of puppies. "Somebody's going to start crying soon," I'd yell, and moments later, just as predicted, a tearful wail would rend the air.
Now, their hilarity interrupts my reverie. I am pulled onto the steps and teased mercilessly while my husband, Courtney, stands by, arms crossed, looking happy and proud.
In our family, connections of the heart are not expressed through long soulful gazes and earnest "I love you's." I know, and so would anyone watching, that all of the teasing and tussling of this joyous reunion weekend are expressions of my family's deepest love. And as my children press in next to me in their mottled camouflage—each uniform different, for each child serves in a different branch of the United States military—and their raucous rivalry escalates, I am in bliss.
The tangible reminder of this bliss—the latest treasured family portrait—will go on the staircase wall next to all of those happy images from my kids' childhood and teenage years—years when they were never too far from the nest; now, I glance down at their standard-issue boots and am amazed to realize that the dust of so many distant lands has been tracked all the way to the cabin we have rented here in rural Idaho. And on the days when having four children in the military seems to demand more strength than I possess, the love and delight radiating from this photo will strengthen my mother's heart and be my ammunition against despair. I need this photograph, this ammunition—oh, how I need it. Because I don't know when—or if—we will all be together again.
Although you and I most likely have never met, we have the privilege of sharing our child—or in some cases, children—with this great nation we live in. As they do their duty, we do ours. And sometimes it can be lonely here on the home front. Believe me, I know.
I know because I've spent a lifetime living with and loving those who serve our country. As the daughter of an Army colonel and the mother of four military officers, I know what it's like to have those you hold dear in harm's way. My husband is a former Air Force pilot, and I, too, have served. And now I have the perspective of someone who has lived in a war zone, even if not on active duty. From July of 2010 until May of 2011, I lived in Kabul and taught at an English-speaking school. It was a life-changing experience.
As a moderator of the US Naval Academy (USNA) Parents listserv* since 2001 and now a USNA Parents Facebook administrator, I have been supporting Naval Academy parents for almost a decade and a half. Over the years, my fellow moderators and I have answered the questions of thousands of parents who are anxious and worried when their child ships off to the Naval Academy, and beyond that, who are completely lost when it comes to having a child in the military. I have heard their concerns—concerns you may share, and that I have shared and in some cases still share—and I continue to consider it a privilege to meet these parents and to answer their questions and allay their fears. I have often learned about courage and duty and letting go the hard way, particularly as they relate to having children in the military, and if I can pave the way for you and save you a little pain, it would be my honor and pleasure to do so. Because we are related, you and I. We are bound together by our love of our children and their calling to serve.
Iwas born to be a military mom. It just took me a few decades to realize it.
As the oldest of seven children, I spent a great deal of my adolescence proclaiming that I would never have children. "I've changed enough diapers and burped enough babies and wiped enough runny noses for a lifetime," I'd declare to anyone who even casually brought up the subject of motherhood. "I'm done with all that." Over time, love and biology made me reevaluate my teenage vow, and eventually I became a mom to four. My nephew later joined our brood for a grand total of five lively youngsters. All that early caregiving experience made motherhood a natural job for me.
And the military descriptor? I come by that naturally, too.
I am an Army brat, born at Fort Meade, Maryland. In my first eighteen years we moved seventeen times and I attended twelve different schools. Each of us seven kids was born in a different state. Watching the Miss America Pageant was, for us, a sibling competition—we each rooted for our birth state contestant. Growing up in an environment of ceaseless change meant that the only constant was family, which mostly meant my mom and siblings. Some years ago I added it up; my dad was gone for a total of seven years over the course of the turbulent Vietnam era, the backdrop for my childhood and adolescence.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had married a handsome Air Force pilot named Courtney Brye, whom I'd met as a result of my own Air Force ROTC training. Courtney's childhood was the polar opposite of mine in terms of stability. He grew up on a farm that his grandfather had homesteaded in North Dakota—his mother, in fact, still lives on that farm—and he knew everyone within a ten-mile radius. After leaving the military, Courtney proposed that we raise our children on a farm, and I loved the idea of rooting our family in one place. We found our dream spot in eastern Ohio and settled in to tend to kids and cattle.
It's funny how things work out. We purchased a farm with the idea of providing stability for our children (not to mention all the lessons that farm life provides), and now, thirty years later, they are spread all over the country, and occasionally around the globe. They've all chosen to dedicate themselves to lives in the military, which for them means lives in perpetual motion, and for me means a return to my change-is-constant roots.
If you had told me as they were growing up that this is where we'd end up, I would have looked at you as if you were out of your mind. Our four children are very different, with distinctly individual personalities and ambitions. We never dreamed that three of them would attend the same college, the US Naval Academy. And we certainly never expected that all four would become commissioned officers.
It was not a stretch, though, to imagine that Eric, our oldest, might follow in his father's footsteps—or flight path—and become a military aviator. He soared over every hurdle in the USNA's admissions process, and when he stepped onto its campus in July of 2001, I found myself a military mother. It was vast, uncharted territory. I knew how to be a military kid, but to have a military kid was a completely different matter. As I began to grasp the degree to which I would have to let go of my son, I was overwhelmed with grief and anxiety.
Is it any wonder, then, that I quickly found myself exchanging dozens of e-mails a day with other new military parents via the USNA-Parents listserv? What began as a survival tool for my first summer as a military mom has developed into years of support for thousands of fellow military parents. First as an anxious plebe mother, then as a moderator of the listserv, and now as a blogger, speaker, and military parent Facebook page administrator, I have been privileged to meet some of the finest parents that walk this planet. Their dedication to their children, their unsung heroism, and their personal sacrifices inspire me every day. And I have also come to know their children, who I've watched develop into warriors and leaders of the highest order. I have heard stories of courage beyond comprehension, determination beyond description, and heroes made both at home and on the battlefield. Now, with four children in the military—all officers, one each in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—well, I have earned my stripes as a military mom. I grew up as a little girl saying goodbye to my father over and over again, and now as a mother I repeat this process in reverse, saying goodbye to my children time and time again.
It's just what we do, we military moms and family members, for our loved ones and for our country.
If we go all the way back to the beginning, even my birth had military roots. My parents met while they were both in the Army. My dad was eighteen when he was drafted during World War II. The first day of boot camp, someone called out, "If you want to be an officer, line up here." He did, and a few months later he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. It was an amazing outcome for a child abandoned by his mother during the difficult years of the Depression.
Who would have thought that that neglected boy would grow up to become one of the Army's youngest colonels ever, and on top of that, would not only complete his bachelor's and master's degrees but also earn a doctorate by the age of forty-five? That's my dad's story. His thirty-five years of service in the Army were filled with accomplishments, and a striking photograph of him hangs in the Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Benning, Georgia. "Line up here" he certainly did.
I never realized the magnitude of what he accomplished until I saw it spelled out for me on his tombstone in Arlington National Cemetery. A veteran of three wars, he was awarded the Legion of Merit three times and received three Bronze Stars, as well; it's a story of valor chiseled into cold white marble. When I was a child, what he did meant frequent moves and frequent "tours" for dad—that's what deployments were called in those days. Now I see his service as his legacy. He was a warrior, literally and figuratively. There was a spark inside of him that was not extinguished no matter how dark the days were.
Then there was my mother. She, too, was a warrior, though an unlikely one. An industrial psychology major at Michigan State University, she was trying to decide what to do next when her advisor said, "If you really want to learn about people, join the Army." So she did, shocking her family and all who knew her. She entered the Women's Army Corps in August of 1952, and, after a grueling Officer Candidate School course, found herself commissioned as a first lieutenant and stationed at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
There she met my dad, and it must have been quite the whirlwind romance. After dating for six months they married in a civil ceremony, and soon thereafter he deployed to Turkey. A month after he returned from his twelve-month assignment, they had a church wedding. Eleven months later, I was born. In those days women were not allowed to be both pregnant and on active duty, so my first role was to provide my mom with an honorable discharge. I guess you could say I performed my military duty from the start.
Mom was the anchor. No matter where we were, she kept us all together. As a young child I understood that my dad was in the Army, and I helped my mom iron his uniform, but it was a simple time and my understanding of it was simple. I still held on to the hope that my father, with some help and gentle encouragement, might someday become more like Mr. Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver.
As the sixties unfolded, I came to understand that this would never happen. My father began a series of tours to Vietnam, and somehow my mother balanced the concerns she must have had about him with the complexity of handling seven children on her own. I could tell she was worried, but rather than focus on her own pain, she started to write letters to the mothers of my dad's soldiers who were killed in action.
We moved and moved and moved. Whenever someone asked me where I was from, I answered "Michigan." Mind you, I had never lived there, but my mom was from the Upper Peninsula and I knew that she thought of it as home. And whenever a PCS—permanent change of station—took us anywhere in the general vicinity of Michigan, we found ourselves at our grandparents' cabin on Indian Lake. Those summer days spent rowing on the lake during the day and catching fireflies at night came to mean "home" in a world of transition. So my hometown was a town I never lived in—until my father's second deployment to Vietnam.
We had moved to Frankfurt, Germany, and it was supposed to be a three-year tour. I was in eighth grade and the prospect of the three years in one school was heaven, an unbelievable gift. But it was not meant to be. My father got promoted, which meant a new job, a new duty station, and another adjustment for the family. We moved to US Army Europe Headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany, where there were so many colonels that we didn't have a house to accommodate our nine-member family, but a three-bedroom apartment.
The Cold War was still on. We had to have the car half full of gas at all times, with evacuation bags packed and a route planned in case the Soviets crossed the border. But there were even more immediate dangers. At that time, groups of terrorists were attacking US military installations. Our housing was not enclosed, so we were instructed to be watchful. Danger did come, not in the form of terrorists, but antiwar protestors. Twice they marched and surrounded our military housing complex. I sat in my bird's nest of a room watching German riot police in full gear beat them back. On the streetcar, I could hear Germans muttering anti-American sentiments. My American tennis shoes and Levi's jeans were dead giveaways as to my origins, and so I began to dress like a German to avoid confrontation.
In the spring of 1970, I returned from a train trip to Frankfurt and was startled to see both my mother and father at the station to meet me. In fact, this is the only memory I have of being alone with the two of them during my entire childhood. When they said they were going to take me out for dessert, I knew that something was terribly wrong. And it was. My dad had received orders to return to Vietnam. We would have to move again—for the third time in eighteen months—and I would have to start yet another school. Worst of all, my dad would be going back to war. At fourteen, I understood what that meant. In my military-dependent high school, others had received news of the loss of a dad—few women served then—and quickly disappeared to grieve.
My parents had been wise to break the news to me in public. Had they told me in the privacy of our home I'm sure the vehemence of my response would have frightened my younger siblings. I felt like I'd been punched in the gut and stabbed in the heart, but while in the café, I held myself more or less together. Once home and in the safety of my room, I cried so hard and so long that my eyes wouldn't open the next day. I mourned the loss of my new friends, my position on the yearbook, the boy I had a crush on. I grieved for the small amount of stability I had established there. And I was afraid. I had a teenager's typical turbulent relationship with my dad. But now he would be gone, and something terrible could happen to him.
The next night I raged at my father, telling him that the war was meaningless and that I was tired of being a military kid. He told me about the Montagnard villagers he had helped during his first assignment in Vietnam, and how the people there wanted to be free like those of us in the United States. He told me that young men in his command were dying every day trying to keep communication lines open, and that he had a duty to be there to lead them. I called the president a warmonger who liked death. My father drew himself up and said, "You will not talk about the Commander in Chief in that manner. I have taken an oath to protect and defend my country against all enemies. I will follow orders."
And just like my father, we followed orders. While he shipped off to Vietnam, we moved to my mom's hometown of Manistique, on the shores of Lake Michigan. We were excited to be living near family—an opportunity we'd never had before. At the age of fifteen, I finally got to live in my very own hometown.
It was a difficult time to be a military family in a civilian community. The antiwar sentiment was at its height, and I felt obligated to defend my dad and all those who were serving. I knew that the truth wasn't as simple as the slogans that protestors were screaming; my father had told me plenty of stories that proved it. He had unofficially adopted an orphanage in Vietnam, and my brothers and sisters and I gathered clothing and sent boxes and boxes of it for him to distribute. And he very much wanted to adopt a little boy that he'd become fond of, until the difficulties of adding one more child to an already full household dissuaded him.
My family and I watched the evening news together, and names like Pleiku, Da Nang, and Quang Tri became part of our regular dinner table conversation. At night I'd have nightmares of a car rolling up to the front door with military personnel bearing the worst news possible; during the day I resented having to be so responsible. But I was the oldest, and it was what I did. We carried on. We were a military family.
One day a car did roll up, and two officers in uniform got out. I thought my heart would stop beating on the spot. My dad was alive but had been evacuated out of the country because of a serious fungal infection. Little did we know at that time that there was much more to the story. My father was responsible for installing and maintaining communication cables throughout the northern third of South Vietnam, and he was in charge of the outposts scattered throughout that territory. He traveled to each one by helicopter, determined to lead from the front. Installation and maintenance of the cables required defoliation of the areas in which they were installed, and Agent Orange was used to do the job. He was awash in it, as were many of the soldiers under his command. Twenty years later, he would be diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which ultimately resulted in his death in 2006. He is now considered a delayed casualty of the Vietnam War.
After my father returned from Vietnam, he and my mother noticed that the stress of constant relocation had started to manifest in some of my siblings, so they decided to seek more stability for our family. My father was accepted into a doctoral program at Arizona State University, and we made the transition to Mesa, Arizona. This would be the last family move.
Together, my parents and their indomitable warrior spirits set the standard for how we lived our lives, and how their grandchildren were to live theirs. Two of their children, myself included, went on to serve. Of twenty grandchildren, seven are in active military service. Three of us married members of the military. And so the legacy continues. My siblings and I and our children couldn't forget the credo that my mother and father lived by if we tried.
Do your duty. Love your country. Live with honor. Suck it up.
As much as I had screamed that I hated military life when we were back in Germany in the sixties, my parents' legacy ultimately motivated me to serve, and I chose to apply for an Air Force ROTC scholarship in 1976 as I pursued an MBA. I found myself in field training in the summer of 1977, the first year ROTC was coed. It was during that training summer in Kansas that I had one of those accidental but meant-to-be life-defining moments. Women were just beginning pilot training that summer, and there was a lot of angst about women in the cockpit. I was scheduled to fly in the T-37 jet trainer. As luck would have it, smoke filled the interior of my plane as I taxied out with my instructor. I now had the privilege of completing my first emergency evacuation.
The powers-that-be scurried to procure another aircraft, and the new instructor just happened to know a pilot who lived in my hometown. The pilot who lived in my hometown just happened to fly sailplanes. When I heard his name, I laughed out loud; my neighbors had been trying to get me to go on a blind date with the guy for two years. The next time I was home, I called him, he took me up in a sailplane, and thirty-seven years later Courtney Brye and I continue navigating our life together.
- On Sale
- Mar 31, 2015
- Page Count
- 272 pages