MAJ Carmen Decker-Smith, U.S. Army
I would like to preface this entry by saying that, as you know, it was hard for me to do. The questions are good ones, and the answers are revealing. I am generally a private person. Very, actually. To readers, I will admit that I dragged my feet with this blog entry for a month. And might have for longer if Jenn and I weren’t friends and if I didn’t respect her work, and if I didn’t support her fantastic project. However, we are and I do. So, here goes!
I used to want to do everything. As in, if you asked what I wanted “to be” I would tell you, Everything. If you asked where I wanted to live, well, I would tell you everywhere. I’ve narrowed it down some since then. I’ve been a bank teller, a waitress, a truck mechanic, a substitute teacher, an ICU nurse, a nurse practitioner. I’ve also been a stay-at-home mom, a single mom, a high school dropout and university faculty. I don’t think I’ve ever had a job I didn’t enjoy, by the way.
College was a winding road. I started an interesting multi-college experience with community college in several states, and a couple universities in a couple states. I had my oldest son when I was eighteen, was in school myself for a graduate degree when he was in high school. I used to go to my youngest son’s high school career day in uniform and give a presentation. I told the alternative school students that a conventional route isn’t the only way to reach your destination.
Before I enlisted, I counted out dollar bills, deciding if I had enough money to take a kiddo to the doctor ($55 for a visit, which would be a bargain now); thought I'd best join up so could I take them without turning out my pockets. I used the old GI Bill to got to college--just like in the commercials! I had a break in service after that initial enlistment; worked part time, took care of boys--which was a blessing and a joy--went back to school for my graduate degree. I was working at a military treatment facility in my last year of grad school, taking care of Soldiers who were sent home with injuries, and I realized that I wasn't done serving.
My oldest son, who was in the Air Force at the time, came to hospital from Monterey the following day; I had told him to bring his dress uniform. After he returned to DLI two weeks later, his brother still in a coma, he called me and said, "All I can think about is Ace. Can I come back home?" He took a hardship separation and has been his brother’s caregiver since. My sister and I stayed at the hospital 24/7 during his ICU stay. Someone was with Ace 24/7 for the entire time he was in the hospital; we eventually enlisted the generous help of friends and family and rotated “shifts,” but for those first few weeks my sister and I never left. She went for days without seeing her own kids, and the only time I could sleep was when she was there.
There is a book-long story to tell, so I’ll summarize by answering the question, How did you overcome it? by saying: with unfailing hope.
Oh, and my boys—all three of them—have punched each other since.
Well, when I met you in 2014, it was a year and a week after Ace got hurt; he had spent about 6 and a half of those 12 months in the hospital. I had moved to ADA housing, re-ordered my life and learned how to ask for help. (A hard lesson for me!) I was tired and wound up tight. I did terrible in school, but the experience was exactly what I needed.
Long story short: I’ve been a nurse practitioner for thirteen years. I’ve raised three clever funny men. And I’ve found my niche in the Army.
I have three boys 29, 27 and 23. Collectively, they’ve been altar servers, fist-fighters, Boy Scouts, musicians, petty outlaws, and athletes. They’ve been on academic probation and they’ve made the President’s list for academic excellence. Sang in the church choir and played in punk rock bands. Overall, I am delighted with them; obviously.
I have one sibling, a sister a year younger than me; she has been in the Army for 26 years. We’ve been neighbors for 6 duty stations over 20 years. Can you imagine? What a blessing! Our children are like siblings and, as children, my boys have memorized her number before our own at a new duty station. She commissioned me as a captain and promoted me to major, then lieutenant colonel. She was a sergeant when I was a specialist. We shared maternity BDUs and, for a long time, Class A’s. When my middle son was injured and I moved on post for ADA housing, her husband and her sold their home and moved on post, too, living four doors down.
Six years ago, my middle son, Aesop (Ace), fell while hiking in Colorado. He was 20 at the time; my snowboarding, water skiing, camping, skateboarding, irreverent joy. Tall and thin, known to answer questions by singing lines from songs of all genres until I went from angry to laughing. He sustained a profound head injury and a complete spinal cord injury. And many other injuries, but the enduring deficits fall into one of those two categories. He was in a coma for 5 weeks, and the medical story is too long for this blog. But it sucked. And it was amazing. We were lifted by prayer and family and friends. I must have whispered, “Don’t leave” in my boy’s ear a million times.
I had no—I mean zero, zip, a big goose egg—balance in my life when I showed up, just in time, to sign in for school. Of necessity, my whole family’s lives had revolved around my son’s care and recovery, and I didn’t do much else. My head was at home while I was work, I was near anti-social; exercise and sleep were fading memories. I am smiling as I write this because it’s sounds so…dramatic. But it was. One of my dearest friends told me that Aesop’s recovery was going to be a marathon, not a sprint, and that I needed to pace myself. Wise advice, which I promptly disregarded.
So, what happened since? Well, first of all, a three-and-a-half month TDY hit a reset button for me. I went back to church and the gym and out to eat and the occasional play and spent more than a minute on my appearance for the first time in years. I also spent time with friends, new and old, and every conversation didn’t start and end with how Ace was doing and with how I was “holding up.” Simple things, I know. And then I took those simple things home with me and sustained some of them. It sounds so easy. (It wasn’t easy!)
I’ve been moving around with the Army for longer than I haven’t. Previously, as a spouse, and a Reservist and on active duty. I have been compelled to serve, and am proud to serve; it’s difficult to articulate, but I think most of us who have get it, even with my inability to write it well.
My dad served, my only sibling has been in for 26 years, her husband will retire with 20 years of service next year, my boys' dad retired with 24 years of Army service, my oldest son served. Currently, less than 0.5% of Americans serve in the military. My family's service has probably solidified the distorted way I calculate odds. Sometimes, a one-half a percent chance seem like good odds, to me. (Which I advised the neurosurgeon when he told me my son's chances of survival, by the way.)
I also cannot express how well the Army provided for us after Ace was hurt. My Army family, both Soldiers and DA civilians, closed around us and took care of us. I couldn't think of anything except my son's next breath; they deleted my overseas assignment orders, approved me using up every bit of leave I had, then approved some more. On-post ADA housing was prioritized, healthcare needs were met and when we were stable, my position was waiting, with high expectations of my performance. My boys and I PCS'd with my sister and her family twice since then.
I could say something about the educational, travel, leadership, and professional growth opportunities the Army has provided me, because there have been many, but I'll pare it down to this, friend: I relearned myself in hardship. I mean, the measure of myself; through responsibility in austerity.