Twenty years is the point where one can retire from the military and enjoy a lifetime of benefits.
Those of us who left service before that mark? Well, we proudly carry the title veteran. No long term retirement. No guarantee of full VA eligibility. But there is pride in being a veteran. I served.
The day I started removing the sod surrounding our front yard post light I took a selfie, wearing the navy blue baseball hat with gold embroidery: USNA 1999. It was fresh from the college reunion swag bag and a new addition to my gardening uniform. Despite the cool October air, I was slightly sweaty from the effort to create a new flowerbed outlined with large rocks reclaimed from Annemarie’s yard. The flowerbed wasn’t, and still isn’t, as large as I’d like: it would be in the way of the kids’ wiffle ball first base line. Still, that day stands out in my mind because I finally rectified within myself the should’ves and could’ves.
As I moved sod, breaking through the compact layers, amending the soil with compost from the backyard to inject life into my new garden plot, I thought about the path I had chosen. Before the reunion, I sold myself short: I chose to stay home with our children while Graham continued in his military career. I went from LCDR (Lieutenant Commander) to Mrs. overnight.
And I felt I’d left something behind because of the fancy, framed diplomas and awards that hung on my wall, reminding me of an earlier part of my life. While I added adjunct instructor to my resume in between shuttling children to school and sport practices, I also saw Facebook updates of classmates becoming commanding officers, leading Amazon’s aviation distributions, and receiving well-deserved promotions. If these weren’t forcing me to consider my choice, seeing a fellow female classmate become an astronaut, a possible contender for being the first woman on the moon and an inspiration to girls and boys alike, colored my self-image.
The carefully curated images on Facebook force these brutal self-evaluations to the detriment of finding what feels right. The opening garden showed me where I could plant sun-loving perennials and even some vegetables, but it also meant I could consider how this bed would welcome guests and be a resting spot for my eyes from our kitchen window. Yes, design follows rules, but often times the rules are there to break. When I was in my squadron, I knew that there were specific socks I was supposed to wear in my boots. And critically thinking about it, having cotton next to my skin if I were trapped in a fiery crash would be superior to polyester melting into my delicate ankles. Still, I paid little regard to the rules and chose to wear wild socks that made my heart lighter. It’s far easier to make it through a check-ride knowing that your feet are covered in rainbows. Or cows. Or witch stripes (I was flying through the air and cackling at times, so maybe I became my socks?).
As I hefted rocks, the work bringing me back to the current struggle, I reflected upon a conversation with JP, a fellow classmate. He pointed out that few of our class, man or woman, are astronauts. It dawned on me that these Facebook posts should not color my selfie; my goofy sock loving self was the one with sovereignty over her image. In bending down and moving boulders, exhausting myself and forcing me out of my head, I finally realized that I never stopped serving. Nicole Mann, the astronaut, continued serving in uniform and is accomplishing a career few can or will match. Her service is laudable and I’m forever awed that I was pinned in college wrestling class by this inspiration.
But my service didn’t end when I became Mrs. Sloan. I still give myself to my community in ways unmatched by others because we all serve in distinctly unique ways. I felt that day, as I took my selfie, that I have used my training, that I never left behind the LCDR, but instead capitalized on those lessons as a Mrs.
And as a mom.
As a leader.
As a gardener.
As a volunteer.
As a servant who finally recognized her worth.