As a free-spirited, artsy-fartsy civilian who has no clue how to salute, I’m not always in tune with or understand the military culture or protocol. When I moved to Colorado Springs in 1990, I thought ‘1530’ on a party invitation referred to an apartment number. The first time I attended a promotion ceremony at Space Command on Fort Carson, I didn’t understand what propelled every uniformed person in the large auditorium to instantly stop every conversation and leap to their feet—like marionettes on a string—their arms and hands twisted in a backward position at my eye level.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“A General strolled down the aisle of the auditorium.”
“Oh . . . okay.”
When I announced, “I’m jumping with Rangers at the 75th D-Day Remembrance in honor of my son,” my all-things-military naïveté was unprepared for the blowback and the offense I caused to some militaristic individuals.
In the Gold Star Family community, jealousy—both bad and good—can sadly exist. When Kristoffer was killed, a friend informed me that a Gold Star momma was jealous because my son received more publicity than her fallen warrior. Stunned, I wondered: How can someone be jealous of my son being killed? When I told Sue ‘Moma’ Peney, mother of fallen Ranger, Sgt. Jonathan Kellylee Peney, 22, a combat medic assigned to 1-75 about the D-Day jump, she celebrated with me by saying, “I’m jealous,” then added, “and I’m so happy for you.”
Jealousy is a normal feeling, but resentment at another’s blessings shouldn’t fuel how we treat others. I met Ashley White’s devastated father at Dover, the morgue Air Force base, who had no clue that his daughter served on missions with Rangers. My precious firstborn and their amazing daughter were killed by a daisy-chain IED buried in the dirt of a booby-trapped compound as Kristoffer and Ashley walked toward each other [so I was told]. When Gayle Tzemach Lemmon wrote The New York Times bestselling book, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield, I was so happy that Gayle honored their daughter’s service as a member of the Army’s Cultural Support Team. When Ashley’s family was invited to the White House and George Bush’s Library, did I wish I could attend an event at the White House or meet George and Laura Bush? Sure. But as my sweet-hearted, mother-in-law always said, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Did this beggar experience a tinge of envy? Yep, however, more important than harboring jealousy, I felt more thankful the White family was given the honor, respect, and comfort of those blessings.
When Matthew Griffin invited me to attend a D-Day conference call each week with the planning team, every conversation was an education in sheer brilliance. Every highly-skilled person knew his job—inside and out—and I loved listening to their lingo and conversations about their specific areas of expertise from customs to flight load to procuring transportation and housing. I’d NEVER observed this kind of respect for each other’s expertise between team members. However, when some people on my home team decided to weigh in and pushback against this venture, I was surprised by the questions and criticisms I fielded.
Veterans Matter More. I was accused: “It’s not fair, you’re taking a spot that belongs to a veteran.” It never occurred to me that by asking to honor my son that I was robbing a jump spot from a veteran. A few weeks after this encounter, I found myself sitting beside the Big General’s wife at Fort Carson. I hesitated, but shared, “I’ll be jumping at D-Day to honor my son,” and I also mentioned the blowback, which ignited a fire in her eyes. She replied with force, “You are jumping in your son’s spot.”
You Have No Right to Matter. I was guilted: “You played the Gold Star mom card. The Ranger only said “Yes,” because you’re a Gold Star mom, but he really doesn’t mean it.” I struggled to see how I’d manipulated a Ranger for personal gain, when I shot Matthew Griffin a Facebook message, which seemed pretty straightforward: “Griff, Is it possible that I could tandem jump with a Ranger on the 75th Anniversary of D-Day to honor my son?” Griff: “Yes.”
One heated conflict I observed between Gold Star mothers offered insights into strongly held opinions: “We are entitled to zero. Our sons and daughters worked hard to earn their benefits, not us. I do not want to profit by my son’s death. We should concentrate on how we can make the lives of their fellow brothers and sisters in arms better.” It never occurred to me, nor was it ever my intention to take away a benefit earned by a veteran. Was a jump slot at D-Day considered a veteran benefit? And if it was, why didn’t Rangers and other special operators know that, when they jumped on board to make the D-Day jump happen?
Next, dying and killing commanded center stage, which seemed to be an appropriate topic, especially since the original D-Day was about killing and dying. Whipsawed by the incoming verbal crossfire, I was pretty sure the Army Ranger vets on the team would inform me of anything I needed to do or to know before I jumped. So during our D-Day calls, I reported the unasked-for comments and the team wanted to know: “Who are these people? Why are they saying that to you?”
After one-too-many blowbacks, my standard reply became: “It’s a done deal.” When my short reply didn’t assuage the backfire hurled my way, I stopped sharing my excitement with other Gold Star moms, because I care about the feelings of others and I didn’t want to ignite any jealousy.
Questions from Individuals Who’ve Never Parachuted
Experience Matters. I was interrogated: “Have you ever parachuted from a plane?” [No, but I’ve always wanted to. Had Kristoffer not been killed, I wanted to jump with him.] “What if you do something during the freefall and kill someone?” [Gospel according to Zach Carbo, my tandem master, “There’s nothing you could do to impact the jump, even if you fight against me.”]
Weight and Size Matters. I was shamed: “How much weight are you going to lose, so you don’t kill someone? How big is the guy you’re harnessed to? How much weight do you need to lose so you won’t make the tandem-master work too hard?” [I tried a little distractive humor: I don’t know, but he’s hot, drop-dead gorgeous, and physically fit.]
Muscles Matter. I was browbeaten: “Are you going to get physically fit, so you don’t kill someone? Are you in shape?” [Nope. How do I explain that during the last couple of years, I cared for an ailing, disabled individual in my home who became bedridden and required turning every two hours—24/7—which prevented me from leaving my house to go to CrossFit?]
Health Matters: I was confronted: “What if you have a heart attack during the fall and kill someone? Have you had an EKG?” [Yes, I recently had an EKG. My heart is fine.] “Did you have a S.T.R.E.S.S. EKG?” [Oh, ah . . . no, I’ll schedule that with my doctor. This conversation was causing me some degree of stress.] “Did you get a physical? Men in the Special Forces have to obtain a physical before they jump. Do you have a release from your doctor to jump? What if you die during the freefall and kill someone?” [Um . . . yes . . . the Rangers sent me the “Round Canopy Parachuting Team—USA Medical Declaration Form for Airshow and Demos,” which was filled out and signed by my doctor.]
Personal Matters. I was dumbfounded: “What if you poop or pee your pants?” [Umm . . . ahh . . . is that even a possibility? Wear an adult diaper? Just in case?] “What if you throw up? If you throw up, stick your head inside your suit. Don’t just throw up into the air.” [Um . . . thank you, I’ll try to remember that if any vomit arises during the midair plummet.]
Hazards and Risks Matter: And finally, I was grilled again, and again, and again: “You could kill someone. Do you know how dangerous this is?” [I trusted the Rangers planning this mission who never indicated that I could kill someone.] “Can you stand holding your arms straight out with your back arched for five minutes? Can you balance your arms and arch your back for five minutes in a parachute wind tunnel? If so, then you have my permission to go ahead and jump. If not, you need to tell them that you can’t go. [Um . . . what part of “done deal” didn’t you understand?]
Excuse me? Don’t ‘Should’ on Me. I suffer from an acute case of people pleasing. While I may smile and appear to tolerate rudeness and contempt with a kind politeness, I’m not that easily intimidated, nor swayed by the criticisms, presumptions, or fears expressed by others. After numerous attempts to offer explanations—to no avail—the only way I knew how to deal with the ‘Should’-ers was to avoid those who didn’t want to share in my joy.
But my favorite question from an email sent by a General who will go unnamed, David, that made me bellylaugh, because my imagination heard the concern in his voice: “Did I hear you are jumping into Normandy? Please tell me you are doing this in a tandem fashion with a traditional skydiving canopy?”
My answer? I’m tandem-jumping into Normandy attached to Zach Carbo, a former Ranger and extreme athlete. He flies in those squirrel suits. Zach’s tandem-jumped with quadriplegics. I don’t know what a traditional skydiving canopy is, but I’ve learned what “dz” means. Does that count?
My concerned General was glad to hear that I was tandem jumping with Zach, plus he added a verbal blessing: “You are in for quite an experience that will not only make Kristoffer proud . . . you’ll be proud of yourself too.”
Blessings Matter, People:“Blessing” in the Old Testament [Hebrew: bĕrakah] means “a gift.” In the New Testament, the definition of blessing includes:
- Greek: eulogeō: “celebrate with praises”
- Greek: kateulogeō: “to call down blessings”
- Greek: makarismos: “to utter a declaration of blessedness upon one”
- Greek: eulogia: “a benefit”
- Greek: makarios: “happy.”
I don’t know about you, but it makes me happy to celebrate with praises and to call down blessings on those who benefit from a gift given by another that makes the recipient happy or brings them comfort. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” Matthew 5:4. The only time I don’t feel pain is when I’m graced by the comforting presence of Rangers, or when I hug, kiss, cuddle, or spend time with Kristoffer-infused DNA—his precious daughters, and with my wonderful daughter-in-love, son-in-love, and three bonus grandchildren. I am truly blessed.
A Life Tip: Don’t Be a Blessing Killjoy. Too often, jealousy, pride, fear, personal issues, or the desire to control others, rob us of:
- sharing the gifts we desire to give others
- following our hearts to bless others with a benefit, gift, or kind, uplifting words, and in return, the blessing and joy that comes from giving
- participating in someone else’s joy.
And as Paul, a controversial figure and an apostle, [not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father] wrote in Acts 20:35: “You’re far happier giving than getting.” Undeterred by the ‘Should’-ers, I’m beyond awed and grateful for the gift of this experience. But more than the jump, I’m blessed by the men I admire, who served with my son: I’ll spend nine days in their presence. The words “thank you,” fail to express the depth of my gratitude. As Griff—the man with an amazing heart—said, “Thank you” is enough. This was a divine appointment. This didn’t happen by accident.”
This jump onto hallowed D-Day ground is a multi-blessing: I’m blessed to spend time with and to share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with men who served with my son. To me, the team appears blessed by honoring a man they admired by organizing and participating in this once-in-a-lifetime experience for us to share. I’m honored to commemorate, not only the sacrifices of all the Gold Star families, but also to memorialize the sacrifices made by soldiers long forgotten who never returned home to the loving arms of those who dearly loved them. #SayTheirNames #NeverForget #RLTW!
Stay tuned for my next unexpected blowback—how a request tapped into my deepest insecurity.