By Gretchen McKay


Soldier’s Story: A year in Afghanistan changes Lt. Col Chris Cieslak, and her family

Categories : Features

This is the last in a series on Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak’s deployment to Afghanistan:

Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is welcomed home by neighbors. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette


A bunch of red, white and blue balloons danced at the front door when Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak came home earlier this month after a year in Afghanistan. But the rest of her homecoming didn’t exactly go as expected.

The Ben Avon Army reservist ended up returning to the United States the same week her husband, Jeff, had planned a spring break getaway for the kids to a water park in Ohio. So instead of one of those teary reunions at the airport, she was picked up by a friend and dropped off at a house that was as silent as it was empty.

Missing that storybook ending would drive more than a few soldiers crazy. Col. Cieslak isn’t one of them. Chalk it up to an engineer’s way of thinking, but to her, the fact her family waited until the next day to rush home so they could finish their vacation was an example of them continuing to live life to the fullest while she completed her service.

“At first, I was upset they wouldn’t be there to greet me,” she acknowledged earlier this month, just two weeks back into civilian life. “Then I thought, ‘Wait a sec … They didn’t sit on the sidelines when I was in Afghanistan and watch life pass by.’ ”

Col. Cieslak is the first to admit the 43-year-old woman who walked into that empty house on April 4 was not the same suburban mom who had left it a year earlier. That’s because during her deployment with the 412th Theater Engineer Command out of Mississippi, she learned something important: It’s only when you step out of your comfort zone and confront challenges that you can truly grow as a person.

Life lessons

Civilians like to think of military service as the ultimate sacrifice. To be sure, more than 6,000 American soldiers have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, and many thousands more have been injured, some seriously, according to Defense Department figures. But there’s also a gift that comes back to you by serving, Col. Cieslak points out, often in the most unexpected ways.

When you live with 1,200 people in a space that’s smaller than the footprint of the old Civic Arena, you can’t let bad feelings fester, she said. One of the most valuable life lessons she learned during her yearlong stint in the Afghan capital of Kabul was how to work through conflicts quickly, even with people you don’t like. Her time overseas also revealed, in a very concrete way, how others will support you during tough times if you simply reach out.

It was a challenging year for the Army mother of two, and not just because she lived in a walled-in compound that felt very much like a prison, or that it took a good five months for the civil engineer to find her voice on the job. She also worried whether the engineering consulting firm she’d spent countless hours growing into a successful business with several employees would survive her deployment. Then, in January, her 71-year-old mother, Lois, died from a heart attack while vacationing in Florida. The loss was devastating.

Mom was the one who encouraged her to consider ROTC while attending Penn State and was one of her most ardent supporters when she enlisted in 1991 in the Army Reserve. Had she not been able to lean on her community of fellow soldiers when that bad news made its way 7,000 miles across the globe, the last few months would have been unbearable. From figuring out how to get her on the first flight out of Kabul, to rallying around her when she returned from emergency leave, to recognizing the restorative power of work, they offered a comforting, collective shoulder to cry on.

“We were each other’s families,” she said, “so we tried to reach out to care for and watch over others.”

Value of teamwork

Working as a cog in the wheel of a well-oiled machine provided her with another insight into her own life: how much she missed being part of a high-achieving team. So much so, that by the time she returned to Pittsburgh, she’d decided she no longer wanted to run her own business, and she is in the process of shutting it down. On Tuesday, she’ll take a job as a project director with Oxford Development Co.’s sports and entertainment division, working on projects that include the redevelopment of the Civic Arena site.

“It was still afloat, and my baby, so it was depressing to let it go,” said Col. Cieslak of Chronicle Consulting, whose four employees included her husband, who served as office manager. Yet at the same time, the decision was liberating.

Everything falls on your shoulders when you own a business, and that can make you feel trapped and smothered, she said. So one of her goals while she was in Afghanistan was to look ahead and figure out where she wanted to be in 10 years. The answer was something that would make her feel “alive.”

“Before I left, I’d been in the same job for a very long time, and I think I was stuck in a rut,” she said. The change in attitude didn’t go unnoticed.

As impressed as he was with the way his wife ran her company and projects before being deployed last spring, the “old” Chris doesn’t hold a candle to the “new” Chris.

“She made this quantum leap of fearlessness, where nothing is going to stop her,” Mr. Cieslak said.

The family grew closer during Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak's year-long deployment in Afghanistan. Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Her family grew in positive ways, too. Her children, now 9 and 11, appear more self-reliant than they were a year ago, and their relationship is much closer. For her engineer husband, who’s been a stay-home dad since their son, Johnny, was born in 2003, he became even closer to this children. To her surprise, he even took on her job as the family “initiator,” planning several vacations and countless activities with the kids.

“It’s been very gratifying,” she said.

One disappointment over the past year, she said, was that she was exposed to almost no Afghan culture because her duties didn’t require working with locals.

“There was only so much you could step out of your responsibility, and do what you wanted to do,” she said.

It was also hard for her to regain her momentum after returning to Afghanistan after her mother’s funeral. With fewer than two months left, there was barely enough time to train her replacement, let alone finish her projects.

Also weighing heavy on her mind was her job with the 412th. To retire at her current rank of lieutenant colonel, she needs an additional 18 to 24 months in the Reserve. Unless she wants to keep traveling to Mississippi, that means finding a new unit — no easy task in a military that’s drawing down.

Hard to say goodbye

Having been previously deployed in 2003 to Kuwait, Col. Cieslak knew that most of the close friendships she’d form in Afghanistan wouldn’t last: forged in the pressure cooker atmosphere of a war zone, they’re just too intense to continue in the relative calm of civilian life. So as early as last fall, separation anxiety was setting in. She couldn’t help but feel melancholy.

By March, she was so sad at the thought of leaving her surrogate family that it started to overshadow her return to Pittsburgh.

“It’s like postpartum depression,” she said.

Three weeks into civilian life, Col. Cieslak is still adjusting. Facebook has allowed her to stay in touch with a few of her closest military friends, but most of those relationships have already started to fade. Now, the focus is on reconnecting with friends and neighbors and her husband and children.

She thinks it will take about six months to fully readjust — but it’s also kind of exciting.

“You go away, and come back, and it’s like falling in love all over again,” she said.

Many soldiers, herself included, thrive on the excitement of deployment. So the real challenge, she said, will be figuring out how to reap the benefits of military service — the intense relationships, opportunity to lead, the ability to effect change — as a civilian.