Empty chairs, extra chairs

At Thanksgiving, the feast is on the table, but in a military family, the focus is often on the chairs. Some of us will have empty chairs, because of deployment or distance from family members. Some will have extra chairs around the table to make room for friends and neighbors to join the celebration.

With empty chairs or extra chairs, or some of both, we keep our traditions alive by recalling the stories that remind us to be grateful. Some military spouses shared their reasons for thankfulness and the ways they express it.

'We Will Always Remember'

One stormy autumn afternoon not long ago, I attended a book club luncheon on Joint Base Bolling-Anacostia in Washington, D.C. It was cold and wet, and we were happy to be indoors talking about books and telling stories. Air Force wife Patty Stendahl told about a visit to Berlin that recalled the city’s history.

When the Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago this month, East Germany and West Germany were reunited, and the Cold War ended. That era began as WWII ended, when Germany and its capital, Berlin, were divided up among the Allies after their victory; when nations formerly united to defeat the Nazis began to fight among themselves.

At the table

For me, the project began around a table. I was at the Military.com Spouse Summit in Washington, D.C., last year, where I reconnected with friends and met new ones. One of the new friends was Karen Pavlicin-Fragnito. She came to the table — all the way from St. Paul, Minn. — to share an idea.

“I want to create a book that’s like having lunch with friends,” she said, as we sat together after lunch. “A collection from different writers. I want to ask military family members to write about a challenge of military life and how they met it.”

Books for treats

Today’s the day for treats, and there’s no better treat than a good read, in my book. Reading together is a good place for parents to begin talking to their children about the stresses of military life, particularly about war and deployment when those events touch their lives. This collection of books celebrates the experiences of military families, both past and present, giving children a perspective and a sense of their place in history as military kids.


“My Daddy is a Marine,” by Alia Reese

Quarantine quandary

For a reminder of the chasm between military and civilian life in the United States, look no further than the war on Ebola. The national furor over whether or not to quarantine health care workers returning from the fight against the deadly epidemic in West Africa reveals a stark contrast. Military and civilian warriors are joined in battle to combat the virus that has killed thousands and is likely to strike thousands more, particularly in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Some of the warriors are health care professionals treating suffering individuals. Others are building treatment centers and infrastructure to support the medical care needed to stop the disease. For civilian and military alike, the enemy is the same: disease and death. But when military and civilian heroes return home from the Ebola battlefront, their paths diverge.

Cooking with Gwen

“Quiet on the set!” barks the director, pointing an accusing finger at three offenders. One looks away sheepishly, and another sits up straight as if to say, “I tried to tell them.”

I’m on the set of a new show, “Cooking with Gwen.” If it’s not a YouTube sensation yet, it should be. The star of the show is Gwen Phalen, the wife of Air Force veteran Tom Phalen. Gwen prepares recipes from friends as well as family specialties — all in her northern Virginia kitchen.

Defeating a monster

Kathleen Rodgers won her first writing award for feature stories about UFOs for her high school newspaper in Clovis, N.M. Now she laughs about that and the stories she wrote about Bigfoot. After high school, she interned at a local paper while taking night classes. By then, she was being stalked by another monster — one that was very real — an eating disorder called bulimia.

“But that was a secret,” said Rodgers, and a mystery even she didn’t understand. Conquering the eating disorder took several years and wise counsel from a good doctor, who helped her discover the roots of her behavior. Until then, she didn’t know it had a name, that it wasn’t about food, and that she wasn’t alone.

Walk a mile in these boots

Whether or not it's a 'combat mission,' military members are doing the job and wearing the boots

When the President of the United States promises America will have “no boots on the ground” in Iraq or Syria, military members and their families don’t take that phrase literally. He can’t be saying that no American soles will touch Iraqi soil — because they already are. Do most Americans know this statement is about mission, not footwear location? Military families do. They know that plenty of boots belonging to people they know and love are on the ground.

When my Air Force husband is deployed, his boots really are on the ground much of the time, like those of many support troops. Neither he nor I would compare his position to servicemembers who routinely go forward to meet the enemy with weapons at the ready, whether on the ground, at sea, or in the air. As a noncombatant, his job is not inherently dangerous, but he sometimes does his job in dangerous conditions, as do many servicemembers with non-combat job descriptions. Military members and families understand the distinctions between these duties. Everyone in a combat zone operates at some level of danger; none are immune to danger by virtue of performing non-combat duties.

Motive and opportunity

James Patterson doesn’t have any close relatives in the military, but he knows a few military characters: Jack Morgan is a Marine helicopter pilot-turned-private investigator. Dan Carter, his British counterpart, served in the Royal Military Police. Patterson knows these guys because he created them — and their exploits — for his Private thriller series. The author has created many other book series, such as the Women’s Murder Club, and plenty of well-known characters, like Alex Cross.

Patterson has sold around 300 million books worldwide and has written record-breaking numbers of best-sellers, but in a recent conversation, he wanted to talk about the military. This month, Patterson donated 180,000 of his books to wounded veterans. It’s not the first time. To date, Patterson estimates he’s given 700,000 of his own titles to U.S. military members serving around the world and in the States.

'Right Side Up' takes effort

Judy Davis is excited about the release of her first book, “Right Side Up: Finding Your Way When Military Life Turns You Upside Down,” but writing a guide for military spouses was not on her radar until recently.

Army life took her by surprise six years ago when her husband of 17 years rejoined the military life he had left before their marriage. Entering military life in mid-stride with two teenagers was a challenge, said Davis, for her and the whole family.