Military Spouse of the Year: No Beauty Contest

IMG_20130202_194305[1]For the past five years Military Spouse Magazine has presented an annual award, the “Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year®.” Though it’s not officially sanctioned by the U.S. Military, it’s no beauty contest either. 2012’s award to Jeremy Hilton is proof of that.  I can personally verify that he would look terrible in a tiara.

The brainchild of Navy wife Babette Maxwell, the award was created to recognize leaders and reward volunteerism within the military spouse community in a cohesive branch-wide event. What happened, however, was a real “build it and they will come” environment that I have witnessed spreading like a controlled burn with a slow, steady breeze behind it. In addition to the obvious fact that everybody likes a little recognition now and again, the winners of this event end up with the kind of publicity that can make a profound difference. That means the winners’ causes get exactly the kind of boost they’ve been hoping for. It also means that instead of a sailor nominating their sweetie for being the “bestest wifey ever” the trend is for volunteers to be nominated for their efforts in the military community. That’s exactly the kind of legitimacy we need in the milspouse community.

In 2011 I was virtually introduced to Bianca Strzalkowski, a Marine Corps wife. She was serving then as 2011 Military Spouse of the Year® and it was the first time I had heard of the award, likely because it’s rarely mentioned in the reserve community. After spending just a few minutes with her in person (and laughing about my inability to pronounce her name), I understood why she had the support of so many: she had a mission to make sure military spouses were getting higher education, and this girl seemed unstoppable. In a single year she took her idea to the next level, creating a Military Spouse Education Initiative. Believing spouses can achieve educational goals despite the obstacles of military life, she met with Congressional leaders, attended meetings with Department of Defense officials, and worked with the American Council on Education to find ways to make this idea of hers a reality. She has now created the Military Spouse Education Foundation and is working on a new Military Service Grant for spouses who are excluded the from Department of Defense’s MyCAA program. Bianca took her expertise coupled with the responsibility of the award, and really put it to work for others.

Jeremy Hilton, an Air Force spouse and the first male spouse to win the award, experienced the same kind of lift for his platform in 2012. The care and treatment of the military’s special needs children affects a relatively small group within the military, so creating a voice for them may have been virtually impossible without the award. A recent article in Time Magazine and a spotlight on Fox News should be proof enough that he’s using his powers for good and not evil. But Jeremy doesn’t just look bad in a tiara; he has developed a national campaign for legislation, has spoken in front of the Congressional Family Caucus, and has raised his issue with the Congressional delegation to the Armed Services Committee.

I was recently named Naval Base San Diego’s Military Spouse of the Year by my peers and the weight of it is just hitting me. If you read this blog, I already owe you a thank you because it was your voting that allowed me to move to the next level of this process. I’m honored to represent San Diego, the Navy Reserve spouse community, and all of those spouses who have somehow managed to hold down both a career and an unending chain of moves. You can make me your voice at the national level by voting on Tuesday, February 5th.

However, I’d like to take some time to introduce you to some of the other spouses I’ve met, either virtually or in person, who have also been honored with nominations. I think it’s an amazing testament to the award. These are exactly the type of military spouses that make bikinis, baton twirling, and sequins obsolete. I’m pinching myself (and my non-bikini midriff) that I’m even within their company. I’m proud of the way they’ve supported each other too, some even casting votes for each other. It feels great to know that what we’re all stumping for in these last couple of days is not ourselves, but the idea of giving a voice to an entire segment of the military community that we’ve chosen to serve.

Rachel Preen - Rachel is a Marine Spouse, a family readiness advisor at Goodfellow AFB, and the writer of “Living on a Bootband Budget” who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. Born in New Zealand, Rachel had trouble as a brand new military wife coping with deployment, moves, and frequent separation even after her husband’s return. Instead of focusing on the negative she has made it her mission to help other new wives, taking on the mantra, “If not me, then who?” She is a great supporter of all the branches, and my hat is off to her for being one classy lady.

Jacqueline Goodrich – This Army wife and founder of “The General’s Kids,” a nonprofit to support the children of Wounded Warriors, knows first-hand about the sacrifices military families face. After her husband had his jaw severed and shrapnel embedded in his leg in an Afghanistan firefight, she has helped him through a year of rehab. The road ahead is still long and Jacqueline approaches it with an outward view. The most touching statement from Jacqueline about her new position as a Wounded Warrior Wife whose first accompanied duty station was Walter Reed Hospital? “This was meant to be part of our story and we were meant to be there for those going through it now.”

Angela Caban – the New Jersey representative for the Army National Guard, Angela is also the founder of Homefront United Newtork, an amazing resource for military families. She started the network after a 2008 deployment when she had to reach out to find the help she needed because she found herself without the support of a nearby installation. Ever since, she has been on the front edge of military family information. She’s young, beautiful, hysterically funny in real life, and ferociously loyal to her military community. I personally voted for Angela to become an installation winner in January. Her MSOY profile is here: Angela Caban.

Kristine Schellhaas – A Marine Corps wife and creator of USMC Life, this lady is doing it all for military spouses! She has created a base-by-base guide for all major Marine Corps bases as well as a website full of discounts, benefits from both government and private companies, and information and help for all military newcomers. She not only runs a blog made up of other USMC spouses, she is also co-host of Semper Feisty Radio, where she covers issues facing military families and life outside the Corps. Her MSOY profile is here: Kristine Schellhaas.

Jenelle Hatzung – Though I’ve just met Jen through the MSOY process, I can confirm she is an instantly likable and genuine person! The daughter of a Navy Master Chief and now a Navy wife herself, she works as a Social Media Manager for Blue Star Families and started the blog “Navy Wives Unite” to connect and empower Navy families. She has worked as a family life consultant for Fleet and Family Support, and her family was awarded the NMFA Navy Family of the Year award in 2011. Now at Naval Station Norfolk, Jen wants to help military families dealing with the struggles of infertility, after battling the issue herself and learning the ropes of military healthcare and infertility issues. Her MSOY profile is here: Jen Hartzung.

Janet McIntosh – In my favorite of the nomination letters sent in by this Army wife’s supporters, Janet’s father wrote “She uses her experience to help other spouses and she always goes above and beyond to help other military families across the branches.” And I would wholeheartedly agree! I can’t even begin to list all of her volunteer accomplishments, but Janet answers family questions at Army Wife Network, is the Books on Bases program manager for Blue Star Families, and helps new spouses through Army programs she herself develops and implements! She says if given the award, it’s her goal to help new spouses as they begin their military journey, by sharing her experiences and helping to educate and empower them. She is the BOMB on Headline News’ new show, “Raising America” which premiers February 4. Go Janet! Her MSOY profile is here: Janet McIntosh.

Alisa Johnson – Alisa is a Navy wife who represents NAS Corpus Christi, and is working hard to standardize military pet policies. She wants to bring accountability for those who dump animals on base and commit pet cruelty with no consequences. Her organization, Dogs on Deployment, reports that pets are tied up or left on base every day and all members have to say is “I gave it to a friend.” If given the opportunity to represent the U.S. Navy, her platform is all about raising the elevation of military pet issues, and to inspire meaningful action by those who have the power to make a change. Did I mention she’s also an active duty Marine training to become a pilot? Wowzers. Her MSOY profile is here: Alisa Johnson.

There are over 20 nominees vying for branch titles in every category. You can see the entire list at the Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year ® homepage. Voting is one day only on Tuesday, February 5th.

New York to Lori: You’re a Writer.

I spent my Thanksgiving weekend writing an article about Kari Bales, but this time it wasn’t for my blog; it was for the New York Times. As in, The New York Times.

Lori Volkman

Surprisingly, the best part of the whole experience wasn’t the moment I got the “it’s live” email from the editor and clicked as fast as my fingers could carry me to see the byline with my name staring back at me, the internationally recognized newspaper’s logo resting gently above it. The moment that still has me gobsmacked happened in my basement at my makeshift game-cabinet-turned-writing desk on a cold Sunday morning. I sat hunched forward, leaning into my screen, excising each word with bleeding precision. My legs were losing circulation and I was hungry and my eyes burned. I was still in my hideous bathrobe and I was stinky and I was freezing, sipping cold coffee. And I loved it. It was in that moment that I realized: I’m a writer.

I almost cried. It was as if I knew I would never again be a lawyer, a wife, a mother, a military spouse, a daughter, a friend, a blogger or even a woman. It was the moment I realized that, despite my best efforts to be something else, I have always been a writer first. I’ve always narrated life in my head, always embellished events as pieces of a continuing story rather than simply allowing them to occur in moments, always struggled to assign meaning and connection to the most trivial. Everything foreshadows something, leading to a climactic discovery that leaves me better off than wherever the story began, or tragically arcs into the next chapter of my life, looking for resolution. I’m a writer.

I was interviewed recently by freelance journalist Laura Goode for a piece in New York Magazine about beauty pageants. I spun my tale of woe about the terrible price of being perceived the dumb blonde and how I fought back with myself, winning a state debate tournament in high school, going to law school, becoming a prosecutor, steeling myself as the independent military spouse during my husband’s year-long deployment. The material wasn’t used in her story, but it gave me a moment to tell myself the truth: what I always loved about those things in which I excelled was the writing. Heck, I even won the essay contest in the pageant. I wasn’t overcoming the presumed stupidity of pageantism all those years; I was fighting the notion that I was a writer. Why? More

That Feeling When Your Kid Asks You About Sex

photo by Jeremiah Kemper

My mouth was watering too much. My body somehow sensed that I might barf. My kid was asking me about sex.

There are times over the course of my career as a deputy prosecutor when I’ve felt so uncomfortable that I’ve had an actual physical response. Usually, it’s sweating from the heat of my own burning insides. My shirts get pitted out and little beads form on my forehead and moisture gathers on my upper lip and the back of my neck.

But none, and I do mean none of those experiences compared to the sweating I experienced this month when my nine year old daughter started asking me questions about sex.

Did you hear me? I said my nine year old daughter. What in the hell is wrong with chasing puppies and blowing dandelions and bouncing around in a pink-striped dress and singing Jesus Loves Me? Huh? Why must my child do this? What I’d really like is to get five minutes alone with the fourth-grader that squealed this vital information a full year ahead of the “end of the innocence” schedule I had planned. It would be a very non-criminal, non-physical, non-permanently-scarring kind of confrontation. It would be memorable.

The moment came at night, in the dark, like a clandestine operation gone terribly wrong. It all started out so nicely. Sweet Pea and I rarely have the privilege of being alone because we find ourselves rushing from home to school to errands and we always have her little brother on board, in hot pursuit, or eavesdropping. But this night was different. Her brother had been banished to his room for committing a heinous deed which shall remain classified except to say that it involved a small plastic Middle Eastern dagger and protests of “Molon Labe!” as I stripped the offending weapon from his seven year-old grip. Her father was gone (of course he was) so my daughter was all snuggled in to my bed. The fan was humming a lullaby as we hunkered down under the billowy down comforter, the cold air blasting in and the drone of the motor creating the perfect amount of coolness and white noise for a fall slumber. I was just drifting off to sleep when her sweet little voice broke the silence.

“Mom, isn’t it true that to make a baby a man puts his private parts into a woman’s private parts?”

I thought about fake-snoring. I thought if I kept quiet it might go away. I thought if I faked my own death … and that’s when the saliva started to build up under my tongue and I was forced to swallow.

“Mom? Is it really true?”

She seemed disturbed by this news more than inquisitive, which I completely understood. I remember the first time it was explained to me by a gaggle of 5th grade boys and referred to as “humping.” I had already given her the basics over the summer, anticipating that she was starting to have questions that could no longer be explained by the phrase “you came from my tummy” when we went sports-bra shopping. But they were very basic basics. And now … she wanted mechanics. And specifics.

Now, I consider myself a pretty highly educated, open-minded, worldly kind of “sex is a natural part of life” person, but I was unprepared to have this conversation at age nine. I covered the high points, trying to calmly remember the words used by my high school health teacher. I left out the part about fluid exchange, or really any bodily fluids of any kind. I wrapped it all up neatly instead with the all-important love and marriage bit, and released a completing sigh of relief. I intended that sound, in the dark, to signal an unspoken “the end” to her relatively benign line of questioning. Unfortunately, my daughter is a keen listener with an inquisitive mind and an attorney for a mother. More

And the Winner Is …

My video debut!  Wow. I just realized I’m much funnier on paper. And I’m much prettier when my face isn’t involved.

Big thanks to The Home Depot for supplying the booty! Oh, and there was a last-minute change to the rules. We were unable to pull the name from a hat. Turns out hats of the brimmed variety that don’t flop over when you reach in are in relatively short supply in my house. I guess I didn’t consider there might not be a top-hat in my closet. Since Husband did not authorize the use of his cover, I was relegated to a bowl. A boring old bowl. It still worked fine, but this contest went WAY old-school in the end. I still love Rafflecopter, but doing it this way was fun, too.

Congratulations to the winner!  Man, now that I know who it is, I want a full guest post on what you did with your prizes. Well, without further delay … here is the drawing!

I Have a Present. For You.

I’ve never endorsed products for money or engaged in other marketing opportunities of that ilk on Witty Little Secret for one simple reason: this blog isn’t about the money. It’s about sharing stories, telling it like it is, and finding some peace. And I’m not going to change that now, just because The Home Depot hired me to report about some of their Celebration of Service Projects, a campaign I would not have even considered if I didn’t sincerely believe in their mission to dedicate $50 million to Veterans projects across the country.

But they gave me something. Something kinda cool. And I’m giving it to you. Wait, no, this isn’t Oprah’s Favorite Things. You’re not all getting something cool. Just ONE of you.

What it is:

The Home Depot is all about energy efficiency and weatherization this time of year, when power grids blaze with cold-weather consumption. The package they gave me is a weatherization pack, amped up by some really cool new technology:

Estimated retail value of all this stuff is $195.00.

What you do:

You don’t have to like me. You don’t have to tweet me. You don’t have to share me or become a fan of this page. You just need to identify yourself in some meaningful way that lets me contact you if you win. That’s it. No strings attached. I don’t keep, sell, or make fun of your email names (That’s totally a lie; I consistently make fun of some of your email names and it provides such valuable dinner-time conversation that I don’t intend to stop).

Just leave a comment of any kind and I’ll have your info.

How and when we’ll chose you:

We’re going to pull your name out of a hat. Really. An actual hat. We’re going to hand-write your ridiculous email names on pieces of paper, mix them up, and draw a name. And we’re going to do it on Tuesday, November 6th, and we’re going to video tape it. And then we’re going to announce it. And then we’re going to mail it to you. And because this is a military spouse blog, no international restrictions apply. If you’re in Germany, Italy, Japan, or even the Middle East, I’m still mailing it to you. I’m not sure you want caulk shipped to the Middle East, but still, theoretically, I’m sending it where you want me to send it, and it doesn’t matter to me where you are.

Ready …… go comment!  [comments are now closed]

This giveaway also listed on:

  

Disclosure: This is a personal blog written and edited by me. Home Depot paid me to report on events related to their annual “Celebration of Service” campaign. However, I did not accept any form of cash advertising, sponsorship, or paid topic insertions, and Home Depot has not instructed me what to write or required me to endorse any products or services. The views and opinions expressed are purely my own. I only endorse products or services that I believe worthy. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider.

Home Depot helps Stiggy’s Dogs Serve Veterans

Stiggys Dogs

Home Depot volunteers gather in the early morning as the new Stiggy’s Dogs sign is hung at the entrance

I arrived in Howell, Michigan to a flurry of smiling workers in day-glow orange, rushing like bees swarming around a hive. Golden leaves barely clung to branches, flitting as the orange shirts rushed underneath them. Cool morning light filtered down, making a strobe-like effect that mimicked the frenetic pace below. It reminded me of relatives setting up for a family reunion.

I was at the house where Stiggy’s Dogs, a Detroit-area nonprofit running out of the kindness of hearts and the generosity of strangers, was getting a facelift. As a part of the Home Depot Foundation’s “Celebration of Service” campaign, I was invited to see the improvements being made by volunteers, and talk about what can be done for the military community.

Home Depot

Home Depot CEO Frank Blake at Celebration of Service

First I had the privilege of sharing a meal with Home Depot CEO Frank Blake. I was initially intimidated by his resume: Harvard undergrad and then Columbia Law, clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens, deputy counsel to then Vice President George H.W. Bush, general counsel for the EPA, and general counsel at General Electric. It seemed like the work of five men, not one. But that all dissipated as he approached. Blake was unassuming and downright regular; he wore a ball cap and the same bright orange shirt the workers had on, with a dark windbreaker and a small styrofoam cup full of black coffee. He was engaging and inquisitive, genuinely interested in the concept of blogging and how we tell our stories. His eyes laughed before he did, and I found him to be humble and easy.

We talked about what the conversation sounded like in the board room when Home Depot decided to focus on Veterans. He said it was a natural “no-brainer” because of the product Home Depot supplied and the fact that over 35,000 employees were Veterans. He said, “I know that when these folks return from duty the last thing they want to do is sit behind a desk.” But it made even more sense to me when he started to tell the story of the year his son, a U.S. Army soldier, was in Middle East. He talked about how he watched the news and waited for some communication, focusing his attention on what was happening over there. He said he soon noticed it was a state of mind the general population didn’t experience, and he wanted to support an ongoing effort to recognize servicemembers after they came home.

He sure has done a phenomenal job accomplishing just that. The Home Depot Foundation has dedicated $80 million to Veterans’ projects.

We walked toward the project site, where over 200 Home Depot volunteers had already gathered and were hard at work on their day off. Guess who jumped in to help, and got down on his hands and knees right next to them?

Home Depot Celebration of Service

Frank Blake, that’s who.

They were winterizing the house by updating insulation, replacing seals, installing new air filters, adding weatherproof doors, filling cracks with expanding foam sealant, and installing programmable thermostats. They told me it’s a focus for most of the facilities they overhaul, because it reduces a nonprofit’s monthly bills; heating and cooling costs account for nearly half of the average total energy bill, as much as $400 a year.

They were replacing older appliances like the refrigerator, washer, and dryer, with energy star models, and replacing lighting throughout the house with Energy-efficient light bulbs (CFL). They were building decks and widening doorways and leveling off surfaces throughout the house, so that the entire main floor was wheelchair accessible for the wounded Veterans served by the facility. There were plenty of aesthetic improvements too, from weeding and mulching in the serenity garden to planting winter-over annuals in the beds near the entrance. There was even a beautiful cedar fence and a brand new sign for the front drive, bearing the nonprofit’s new logo.

It was then that I finally had a chance to talk to the organization’s founder, Jennifer Petre, who was constantly racing around in jeans and a sweatshirt right alongside the workers on site. When her nephew, a corpsman known as “Doc Stiggy,” died in an IED explosion while serving his country in Helmund Province, Afghanistan in September 2009, she wanted to do something in his memory. Ben was dedicated to the health of those in his care.  Through her professional experience with animal control facilities, Jennifer knew there were unwanted rescue dogs that could be great companion and service animals for returning wounded warriors.

Like CEO Frank Blake, she realized the pairing of the dogs and Vets was a “no-brainer.” She has since thrown everything in her life into the project, and through Stiggy’s she’s been able to train, house, and provide these dogs completely free of charge to Veterans. As we talked, I could sense a lump forming in her throat (and mine) when she described how completely overwhelmed she was by the hard work of the  volunteers and what it would have meant to her nephew. I learned the facility was her husband’s long time family home. When I looked at him, he beamed with pride over his wife’s accomplishments and dedication, and I sensed he was truly honored to have the chance to participate in her dream.

The day continued that way, and I interviewed volunteers and corporate executives and nonprofiteers seamlessly. There didn’t seem to be rank or privilege amongst anyone there, and it was the kind of day where you couldn’t help but smile and strike up a conversation.

That’s exactly what I did when I saw a young man standing by himself, stoking a fire of crackling branches collected by some volunteers. He poked at them and leaned against his rake. It turned out that this was Jamie, one of the Veterans that Stiggy’s Dogs had helped after he discovered difficulties that stemmed from a previously undiagnosed case of PTSD. I met other Vets and their families, too: Eric and Mike and Mollie. Their stories deserve more room than I can possibly fit into this post, but all of them took time to share some of their very personal struggles with me, and I intend to honor their efforts with a separate story worthy of their message.

I left Howell, Michigan with a better understanding of the sacrifices our servicemembers make when they return home with invisible injuries, some of which take considerable time to manifest.  I got back on the plane to head home and thought about the hundreds of other events Home Depot will sponsor, and the hundreds of volunteers that will appear at each one. Despite my heavy heart I felt encouraged that through events like these thousands of Veterans will be personally helped. I thought about how the gap between the military understanding and civilian experience might just be filled in by a private corporation whose leaders and employees have chosen to make it their priority.

celebration of service

Photos by Home Depot employee volunteer and U.S. Military Veteran Gene Fleszar: teamdepotmichigan.org

The folks at Home Depot are sending me a box of energy-saving goodies to give away, and they’re working on an event here in my hometown of Vancouver, Washington where I can pitch in to help a local Veteran. I also got a response directly from the company spokesperson on what’s happening with the 10% military discount, and you’re going to like it! I’ll update you on that information next week.In the meantime, take a look at the Milspouse Announcements Page where you can meet the entire list of Do-It-Yourself, Home Decor, and Design bloggers that are covering this year’s Celebration of Service. I had a chance to meet these writers in person, and I can guarantee you they share my love for this cause – and they want to meet you, too.

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