Best Thanksgiving

Thank you, Lord, for the courage and selfless service of our military troops. Thank you for their dedication in the face of difficulties and challenges. Thank you for their families. I pray that all of our servicemen and women will experience Your mercy each day, and that You will provide for their every need. Let them feel your presence with them, and your everlasting love. In Christ’s name, Amen.

The prayer above was posted on one of my friend’s Facebook page today in honor of Thanksgiving as she spends yet another holiday without her husband who is deployed. Just seeing that makes me once again appreciate our Thanksgiving this year so much more – this year for us truly is the best Thanksgiving ever.

SMSgt Rex Temple talks to his family from Afghanistan via Skype on Thanksgiving 2009.

We have so many reasons to be thankful. First and foremost is the fact that my husband Rex made it through a year in Afghanistan. He served on more than 180 combat missions, came under fire often and saw things he had never seen despite his three previous deployments and 10 other overseas assignments. But now we know he will be retiring for sure come next year. No more deployments. No more fear. Because for me it’s the never ending fear for your loved one that is the hardest thing to cope with when the center of your entire universe deploys. Today I am thankful that for us that fear is now over.

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The following was written in June 2009 while Rex was deployed but never published.

Waiting for a call or a knock on the door

My husband Rex left on his convoy mission yesterday about 12:30 am EST our time. I knew his team was headed into “the valley” and had enlisted some additional firepower from the Afghan National Army to help provide security for the two-day convoy.  He was hoping to be out of the valley before nightfall, providing no incidents or breakdowns.  Then he and his team would stay overnight at an outpost before returning the next day.

“It should be an interesting trip,” he wrote in his farewell e-mail as he hurried off to meet his teammates for this humanitarian aid convoy. In an earlier phone conversation he had told me in passing that he expected to be back on Thursday by lunchtime our time – and he would call me as soon as he got back.

I know the worry my husband and his fellow teammates have every time they leave the relative safety of their forward operating base. They know the enemy is out there determined to kill them.

I woke up Thursday morning exited about Rex getting back to his camp today and looking forward to his call. I checked my e-mail on my cell hoping for an early surprise; Internet had gone out the night before at my house due to a thunderstorm. Maybe his convoy was back early and he could send me an e-mail describing his two days away. He had been hoping to be the one tossing out candy to the Afghan children; he had even made a special trip to the camp’s store to get a few bags of candy so that he could pass the treats out at the villages he would visit on this trip.

But there was no e-mail so I went downstairs and got my two dogs Charlie and Sam ready for our morning trip to the dog park. At the last second I grabbed my laptop and decided to pass by Starbucks and check all the other e-mail addresses I had not yet bothered to program into my fancy new phone.

So a few minutes later in the Starbucks parking lot with a Venti Misto in the front seat cup holder and dog cookies keeping the “boyz” busy in the back seat, I logged into Twitter. In my favorites I have saved this address: http://twitter.com/usfora – the official Twitter site of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. And the site’s latest tweet said: “Three coalition servicemembers killed in IED attack in Kapisa Province.”

My heart dropped. I know enough about my husband’s convoys to know that this is an area he has to travel through often. He has only been in Afghanistan for about a month – he took off from Tampa International on May 5th for this tour that is supposed to be his last tour of duty before retirement. And the first few weeks of his stay there have been bloody – by Rex’s calculations the units close to him have lost eight troops in just the last few days.

The next few hours are sheer agony. I have an idea how fast family notification happens. I know what to expect; Rex has prepared me for both injury notification and also should there be a death. I figure out how to get the Internet back working at our house and I research the news websites for the latest details.

Finally I can’t take it anymore and head to the gym. As I pound through 3 miles on the elliptical I constantly check my cell for incoming e-mails. Nothing. I move to the bike and peddle another 30 minutes. Still nothing. Feeling defeated I head back home – it’s still too early. “They could still notify me” keeps running through my mind.

I get home and check all the news wires again. There’s a bit more detail available but nothing that really eases my mind. I keep looking at the clock calculating what time the incident happened and how soon they would likely be able to get the family if something had happened. I realize that if I make it to 5 pm then probably everything is OK. Because by then they would have already gotten a hold of me – whether it was an injury or something worse.

As the clock ticks closer to 5 I feel claustrophobic stuck in the house as I jump every time I hear the phone ring – and especially when I hear a car door slam outside our house. I say a quick prayer: “Let it not be the notification team. “

So I finally can’t take it anymore and take my husband’s car to the mall to go pick up my engagement and wedding rings, which have been fixed – some of the stones had come loose. Sitting in my husband’s vehicle I feel like his car represents his arms wrapped around me but I feel a massive need to be able to wear my rings. And hour later those two pieces of jewelry are back on my ring finger and I all of a sudden finally feel calm. And I calmly settle in for the wait to hear from him – however long it takes.

Rex finally e-mails home Friday morning. He is safe but four others who were on the same mission have died.

I need to take a deep breath and write a supporting e-mail back not showing my fear. I need to hide my fears and only show my love and support so my husband can keep going for the 40+ more weeks he still has to serve out there in the middle of the enemy’s roadside bombs and ambushes to complete his last tour before retirement. The end of this deployment cannot come soon enough.

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So on this Thanksgiving I am thankful for all the others who are still out there fighting the fight and keeping us safe. And I am thankful for all the families who support their deployed troops.

I am thankful for those who served bravely and made the ultimate sacrifice. My thoughts are with their families as they sit down on this Thanksgiving with an empty seat at their table. My heart aches for their loss and I am thankful for their service.

I am thankful for my husband Rex and his service of almost 28 years in the U.S. Air Force. I am thankful he is home with us – now and forever.

Reaching Military Families

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter during her opening remarks at the Carter Center Nov. 3, 2010.

This was a very special week for me. I returned to the Carter Center in Atlanta more than a decade after I was awarded the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship For Mental Health Journalism. Back in 1999 I was working in broadcast journalism and had convinced my employer WTSP-TV (a Gannett owned TV station) to support my application so I could get a $10,000 grant from the Carter fellowship to help produce a multi-part TV news series and a documentary about depression and suicide. This week I returned not so much as a journalist but more so as a military wife to speak to the 26th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium.

The symposium’s topic this year was “A Veteran’s Journey Home: Reintegrating Our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community, and Workplace.” “National Guard and reserves make up approximately one-third of all military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are more likely than other military to face multiple deployments. Yet, once their job is finished, guard and reserve service members return to civilian life instead of a military base, and do not have the same access to health care services as their active duty colleagues,” said Dr. Thomas Bornemann, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.

Liisa Temple giving the military families and social media presentation.

I was asked to speak at this event from the perspective of a military wife who greatly benefited from my husband Rex’s access to social media while deployed. Rex wrote a blog called Afghanistan – My Last Tour the entire time that he was gone; the blog also turned into a popular radio series on our local NPR affiliate, WUSF, here in Tampa, Fla., where Rex is stationed at MacDill AFB. Both my husband and I think the blog was a crucial lifeline for us and our family and friends; it ultimately made our marriage stronger and gave us something to share even though thousands of miles and multiple time zones separated us.

The audience at the Carter symposium was made up of mental health experts and military members as well as those who advocate for military families. My job as a speaker was to highlight how social media can be harnessed to help inform military families about mental health services that are available. So I made sure to highlight MILblogging, Blackfive, Bouhammer, YouServedSpouseBUZZ and many other popular milblogs; my goal was to show how working with military bloggers can be very effective in disseminating information to younger troops and their families. But to be honest I think I’m not sure I was entirely effective in reaching the audience when I got into the nitty gritty of Facebook, Twitter and using the #MilitaryMon hash tag in your tweets.

I met so many wonderful experts who are passionate about caring for the returning troops. However, there was one who just really impressed me with her energy and the services she provides through a non-profit called “Give an Hour.” Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. with a military family background, founded the organization in 2005. “ The mission of “Give an Hour” is to develop national networks of volunteers capable of responding to both acute and chronic conditions that arise within our society. The nonprofit, which is a licensed 501c3, provides counseling to individuals, couples and families, and children and adolescents and is dedicated to meeting the mental health needs of the troops and families affected by the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Van Dahlen was on the same panel with me and during her speech she said her organization provides confidential treatment for free to anyone who loves someone who has deployed.  “We mean parents, cousins, girlfriends – we don’t turn people away,” she said.

“Give an Hour” offers treatment for anxiety, depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, sexual health and intimacy concerns, and loss and grieving. I thought I was a pretty well informed military wife and I had never heard of this group. But I am so glad I did. And I plan to tell every military family I know about it because I have a hunch there are lot of people who could benefit from its free services.

There was also a booklet someone gave me titled “South Florida Military Family Peer Guide.” It’s a 58-page guide to deployment and I was amazed by its effectiveness; I read it twice cover to cover on the flight home from Atlanta. It is entirely based on confidential interviews with actual military families and it’s full of deployment related advice and tips in a very easily digestible format. The tips are color coded to indicate which ones are from the spouses and which ones are from the military member who deployed; each point of view is priceless and I wish I had had a chance to read this marvelous booklet before going through my first deployment. I truly hope the Florida BrAIve Fund, which sponsored the booklet will find a way to make it available online soon. However, the fund provides a magnificent web based guide for services for Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans living in Florida – just click on this link to get started.

I also had a chance to take with me to Atlanta a video I have been working on about a special new “hands free” wheelchair being developed at the University of South Florida by a dance instructor. This chair is of particular interest to injured veterans and if all goes well, the USF researchers and students working on the chair will soon get it in commercial production. You can watch the video by downloading a copy from USF’s i-Tunes U site here. Or by simply watching the YouTube link below.

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