The power of story. That’s what my Dad, a retired Army Sergeant Major, was looking for earlier this year when he asked if I would be the keynote speaker at the annual Veterans Day brunch at the church where I grew up. I gave that speech today and wanted to share it here, too. What it became was more than a presentation to 50 veterans and their families. It became a thank you to the U.S. Military for all that it’s done to shape me, an ode to my own military family and a nod to the path the military took me on as a Brat, a military reporter and now a small business owner. If you care to read more about the military and how it has been a main character in my story, and in the story of Consociate, read on. More chapters to come.
Good morning. Thank you, Dad. Sergeant Major. Thank you all for having me here today.
There is TRULY no other place TO spend Veterans Day weekend than surrounded by the very men and women who just this week paved the way to give me the right to vote, who have helped make a safer world for my husband and I to raise our son and whose very blanket of security has helped shaped this great nation, one that allows me the freedom to have dreamed as a little girl of being a war correspondent and one day starting my own company where I get to spend each day telling stories.
This morning, I’d like to start out with just that – a story…and an introduction.
Please meet Retired Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Ferreira. In 2010, while serving in Afghanistan, a suicide bomber ran up to Brendan and detonated a homemade explosive.
“That was game over for my left arm,” Brendan said.
In fact, it was almost game over for Brendan. Doctors told him that he would never be able to do what he once could. He believed them because, as he said, they are doctors.
Complications from the attack and his recovery nearly led him to lose both of his legs. He started drinking. Abusing pain meds. Smoking. Eating terrible foods.
He, in his words, “blew up to 260 pounds” and nearly missed the first steps of his daughter because he was feeling sorry for himself and his new life.
At that time, people kept telling him what an inspiration he was. For a while he wanted nothing more than for them to stop saying that. He wasn’t, he said.
Then one day something clicked. Instead of shying away from his new life, he embraced it.
If people were going to call him an inspiration, he was going to earn it.
So despite a serious loss of vision, nearly deaf, one arm and legs still recovering from nearly needing to be amputated, Brendan started working out.
And last weekend, he earned that inspiration. It’s where I first met Brendan – at the Working Wounded Games near DC – a fitness competition for adaptive athletes. And not just any fitness competition. Sand bag throwing, rowing, deadlifting, weighted sled pulling kind of competition.
I saw Brendan with sweat rolling down his face, seconds after throwing up after sprints (one handed sprints) on a rowing machine and accepting the champion trophy for winning the entire competition.
He overcame. He adapted. He became the inspiration.
I was able to meet Brendan and am able to tell that story today because of the U.S. Military.
I was once asked why I never served in the military. If I felt bad because my mom, my dad and my brother had all worn the uniform and the flag.
I thought hard about that question. Admittedly a little taken aback. And then I answered.
It’s true. I never served in the military. But the military served me. In fact, it shaped me. Just as I’ve seen in my life it shape so many. So…today…because I believe in the power of story…here’s a few more stories – stories about the service of veterans, the families that support them and the community that loves them.
If I close my eyes and think back to my childhood in Germany, I swear I can smell helicopters. The sweet, with a twinge of sweat, smell of an Army hangar. The oil. The fuel.
It was how my Dad’s uniform always smelled when he got home from work. And he often got home late. Why? I learned watching him that there is code in life, there are things bigger than ourselves that are worth sacrificing for. He worked long hours because it mattered. Because, while I know he puts God and family first in his life, he lived by the code – HONOR. CODE. COUNTRY.
When I was a young girl, I dreamed about becoming the first woman President – perhaps I could have run against Hillary, eh, Dad. In my mind, I could help bring world peace in that role. Then, just maybe, Dad wouldn’t have to work so hard.
But then that dream morphed into wanting to be a war correspondent, telling the stories of the men and women who go to war, and the families that stay back to support them.
That’s where the story of FAMILIES come in.
I graduated from college in 2002 and by early 2003 was working full time at a daily newspaper. I was covering really basic stories – donations made to local charities, crime reports, traffic jams.
But in early 2003, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq and the entire community prepared to send the military men and women from our towns here into harms way, my editor looked around the newsroom, looking for extra reporters to help cover the ramp up and what was looking then like impending operations.
There was absolutely no reason for him to ask me to help. I was green. Fresh out of college. But I UNDERSTOOD the military. I could read rank. I knew what the impact to the community would be as we headed toward war.
And even more so, I knew what the impact would be to the families. If you recall, when the U.S. started its shock and awe phase of the war in Iraq, President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to turn himself in or face the consequences.
I spent that 48 hour countdown with a young military family from Langley. Dad was deployed. Mom was pregnant and had two young boys.
I remember watching the mom, thinking, HOW IN THE WORLD CAN SHE DO IT ALL? Stay strong for her family while worrying for her loved one. Get the kids to bed while knowing the U.S. was getting ready to invade and her husband was somewhere in the mix.
It’s funny, because that was the first time – sorry, Mom – that I truly appreciated all Mom had done for us while Dad was in the hangars, while he was in the field, when he himself was at war. As a kid, you think Moms just get it done. And Dads, too. But the reality is, their strength is what helps pull everyone through.
That night the U.S. invaded, I couldn’t help but look at those two little boys and remember myself and Adam – now Capt Shabbott – saying goodbye to Dad in the middle of the night as he left for the Middle East for the first Gulf War. Or somehow understanding that the envelope he left in Mom’s Bible – the one he said was only to be opened if he didn’t make it home – meant something.
In 2004, I tried, but failed, to write a similar letter. I couldn’t do it. And I can’t imagine how my father did.
That was the year that I deployed to Iraq myself…as the war correspondent I had dreamed of becoming.
The day I left, the last thing my Dad told me before I left, was tighten your chin strap. I wondered why he said that. Why? Details matter in war. Details and attention to details keep you alive.
The night before the convoy I was traveling in crossed into Iraq for the first time, I remember getting up from my cot to make sure my Kevlar vest was good to go and my helmet’s straps were ready. And I thought about my Dad, my Mom and my husband. I called my editor that night from my sat phone and through some nervous tears just made sure that if anything were to happen to me, or the convoy we were in, that he would be the one to personally notify my family. Then I thought about all the other families back home…the families of the soldiers I was traveling in the convoy with and thought about my Mom and her last piece of advice before I left.
Remember that whatever you write – whatever makes it into the paper – will get read by the families. They need to stay strong. You are going to be the voice over there and be sure you understand that responsibility and the weight the families carry.
I never TRULY understood that weight until years later when my brother was in Afghanistan and he called to tell me he’d been involved in a firefight. That he’d earned his Combat Infantry Badge. I knew what that meant…and that I couldn’t tell my mom because of the weight she would carry.
I spent nearly two months in theater during my deployment. The unit that deployed spent a year. In the years after my deployment, I listened to TAPS play from across nearly a dozen cemeteries as I told the stories of the men and women who didn’t make it home. The stories of their families.
A CITIZEN. A story about COMMUNITY.
I left newspapers nearly five years ago now. I went on to work for the military, helping train large combatant command staffs in how to work with the media during contingency operations. And three years ago, I started my own company. The goal? Continue telling stories that help make our community and our world a great place.
The reason I got to meet Staff Sgt. Brendan Ferreira was through that work and a contract we have with a defense firm in DC.
I like to think that in many ways, the military has served me and now I am serving our community by giving back in the only way I know how even out of uniform.
I voted this week. Proudly.
I don’t have a yellow ribbon on any tree in my yard, but I have one in my heart. Always.
And while my son is not growing up in a military family, as I did, I am teaching him the patriotism that I learned at his age. This weekend, while in DC, my husband and I took him to the Newseum. He loved playing weatherman…and had lots of questions about the Sept. 11 exhibit. At 4, he asked us why bad men would fly a plane into a building. He couldn’t understand. I told him he wouldn’t understand, but that there were brave men and women who were protecting us all from that ever happening again. Men and women like are here today. Men like Brendan Ferreira.
Brendan showed me just last weekend what it looks like to adapt and overcome. In closing, I’d like to let you hear what hope and the future sounds like.
He didn’t get all the words, but I did capture my son’s very first GOD BLESS AMERICA performance.
God Bless America and the Veterans who keep her free.
Thank you all for having me today. As my Dad, the Sergeant Major would say – HOOAH!