Gretchen McKay

A soldier’s story

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

VICKSBURG, Miss. — Most of us have a way of coping, a method for dealing with the things we’d rather not deal with.

Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak chose denial when she was notified in October — just a few months shy of retiring after a 20-year career in the Army Reserve — that she was being deployed to Afghanistan.

Friends no doubt were surprised that a wife and mother of two could handle that kind of life-altering news with only the occasional tear and not a smidge of self-pity. And leaving behind the engineering and consulting business she’d worked so hard to grow over the past five years? Surely that’s worth a complaint or two.

But there Lt.  Col. Cieslak was, almost to the moment she stepped on the bus after saying her final goodbyes to her family on April 15 in this quaint Southern city, as steely as the Army-issue Beretta M9 strapped to her shoulder.


“It’s such a big deal that you can’t process it,” the 42-year-old civil engineer from Ben Avon explained earlier this month, after returning home from her final trip to Fort Hunter Liggett in California for pre-mobilization training.

Her only option was to “compartmentalize” her emotions and focus her energies on the long to-do list associated with a military deployment — preparing finances, going over household details, squeezing in a few last-minute family vacations, writing a will.

Johnny, her 8-year-old, took a different tact. Like so many children who’ve had to share a parent with the Army — about 500 Pennsylvania reservists have been deployed to Afghanistan since 2001 — he was clingier than usual, occasionally whiny.

Then, a week before the young family left Pittsburgh for Vicksburg, he turned to kisses. The soft hollow of his mother’s neck, her elbows, knees and cheek — all were fair game for his small, fluttering lips. The goal was to give her a kiss for each day she’d be gone — 365 in all.

“He knows a year is 365 days, so he holds that in his mind,” Lt.  Col. Cieslak acknowledged with a wistful smile, as Johnny’s lips found the engineer brigade patch on her left shoulder on April 14, after a farewell ceremony for the soldiers and their families at Morris Army Reserve Center. It’s home to the 412th Theater Engineer Command.

She’ll actually be gone 400 days. After months of preparation, the hourglass finally was hemorrhaging sand; at the crack of dawn, she’d be on a bus headed for Fort Benning in Georgia, from which her unit would eventually board a plane with hundreds of other soldiers and contractors for the Middle East. “It’s his way of coping,” she said.

Turns out, she was just saving her tears.


Moments after her commanding officer, Col. Craig Sanders, gave the order for the 39 reservists to file out at 6:54 a.m April 15, Lt. Col. Cieslak’s resolve evaporated. The tears starting pouring. It was tough to know where hers ended and her children’s started when she took Cara, 9, into her arms, and then a sobbing Johnny.

“Honey, don’t worry about me,” she murmured, pressing a face crinkled with emotion to his chest. She rubbed his head tenderly, saying half to herself, “I’m going to come back safe to you.”

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

A lingering kiss for her husband, and then she was on the bus, watching her family waving and blowing kisses from the parking lot. One day down, 399 to go.

Taking a pledge

Lt. Col. Cieslak didn’t set out to be a soldier. It was her mother who encouraged her to consider an ROTC scholarship to Penn State, where she’d study engineering, to keep her options open. To her surprise, the Delaware County native loved the program, gaining so much self-esteem from the rigorous, regimented training that when her eight-year commission from the Army Reserve as an engineer officer ended in 1999, she stuck with it.

“It taught me so many things I never thought I was capable of doing,” she recalled. “It really helped me develop into a young adult.”

When Cara was born in May 2001, though, she questioned whether she’d continue even though at the time there was little chance a reservist would see active duty; her commitment was one weekend a month, and two weeks in the summer.

Then 9/11 happened, and everything changed. America suddenly was in a war against terror. Reservists started deploying.

“It was very clear to me that I was meant to be in the service.”

Her first call came in late 2003, when Johnny was 3 months old and she was working as a project controls manager for AMEC Construction Management. By then a major in the Army’s facility engineer group, she’d spend six months in Kuwait as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, overseeing construction of roads, security checkpoints, a fitness center and sports complex and secure office space. It was excruciating leaving a baby and toddler, but Mr. Cieslak, also a civil engineer, had just ended a telecommuting job to become a stay-at-home dad. Or as he viewed it, “a perfect storm of availability and preparation.”

“At that age, it wasn’t so important the kids be loved by their mother,” Lt. Col. Cieslak agreed, “but that they were cared for by someone who loved them.”

It was tough, being half a world away in a pre-Facebook and Skype world, but the family soldiered on, staying connected through email and weekly telephone calls. Mr. Cieslak, 44, who’s something of a computer geek, also blogged so he could keep family and friends informed and blow off a little steam when single-parenting proved too much.

Mr. Cieslak learned he really liked taking care of the kids. But Lt. Col. Cieslak fretted the time away would cause an irrevocable break in their relationship “and that I would never get it back.” When she returned in May 2004, it took a few weeks for Johnny — an infant when she left and toddler when she returned — to warm up to his mom.

Two-year-old Cara, though, thought her mother had been gone only “two days,” proving small children not only have no real sense of time but retain the capacity to reconnect.

“Our relationship is maybe even stronger than if I’d never gone,” she said.

The first inkling of a yearlong tour in Operation Enduring Freedom came in September. Lt. Col. Cieslak had been training for years with a tiny engineering unit in Fort Indiantown Gap when her commander called to say she and a few other reservists had been transferred to a bigger unit in Mississippi that was being deployed to Afghanistan. She was on a list of alternates to go.

But the “real” call came in October: Be in Mississippi next weekend to meet your team.

And the compartmentalization, and learning once again how to be a soldier, began.

“It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid,” she noted. “The anticipation is what’s painful.”

From civilian to military life

In a way, learning first she was an alternate prepared Lt. Col. Cieslak for an easier transition. But it didn’t slow the flood of emotions. There was denial followed by anger the Army had disrupted her unit’s schedule, and sadness.

“I had to disengage myself from civilian life,” she explained, as well as make preparations for her business, Chronicle Consulting, which has grown to six employees.

Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette

Giving the news to friends in November, via Facebook, was relatively painless, as was writing a letter to her clients in early April. (She also posted a video on her website.) But how would she tell the kids, who this time were old enough to understand?

“We didn’t want to make it a dramatic event because kids pick up on that,” Lt. Col. Cieslak said. “We reminded them that I have this obligation, and the country needed me to do a job in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Cieslak agreed. “It’s not this big crushing burden that was thrust on us. We knew what we were getting into.” He has one brother in the Reserve and another who’s done two tours in Iraq.

Easing the departure was three months of pre-mobilization training in California and Mississippi, three weeks on, four days off.

“You go away for a few weeks, and they get used to it, and realize life will continue on their schedule,” Lt. Col. Cieslak said.

Building support

While Operation Enduring Freedom’s casualties are small in comparison to those in Iraq, no war zone is safe. So with job-specific technical training (as part of a 412th element known as Deployable Command Post Two, she’ll help oversee all U.S. forces conducting engineer operations in Afghanistan), Lt. Col. Cieslak this spring had to relearn basic soldiering skills: How to fire a gun, ride in a convoy, kick down a door without getting shot, provide basic first-aid to a wounded soldier. In February, she was promoted to lieutenant colonel, a rank accomplished by just 3 percent of reservists.

As she recounted to her children’s classmates when she visited Avonworth Elementary on April 6 in fatigues, she also got reacquainted with the Army Combat Uniform — and its 30 pounds of body armor and a 4-pound helmet.

The physical dangers of the job, though, aren’t what keep her up at night. “They’re just too big,” she said. “How could you?”

She worries instead about sharing extremely small living quarters with two other women — built for 300, the base in Kabul currently houses 1,200 soldiers — and whether she’s in good enough shape, both physically and mentally, to do the job.

Also gnawing at the back of her mind: Am I going to learn my job quickly enough so that I don’t put others’ lives in danger?

She finds relief in knowing the Army is the best trained and equipped military in the world, and that soldiers very quickly get into a routine. New for this tour was the suicide prevention class she had to take three times during training, including at 4:30 a.m. the day of her deployment. While the Army has provided more support to soldiers, some still get lost: the number of Army reservists and National Guard members who killed themselves more than doubled in one year to 145 in 2010.

In some ways, it’s easier being the person deployed than the one who stays at home, she said, because for the next year she’ll be wearing only one hat (soldier) instead of that of mother, wife, business owner and reservist.

“You’re focused, and busy,” she said. “You quickly start counting the days.”

And when she needs someone to talk her off the ledge? One of the reasons Lt. Col. Cieslak’s family came with her to Vicksburg, at their own expense, was so they could meet her “battle buddy,” Maj. Tracy Coleman, whom she’s known for almost as long as she’s been in the Reserve. This is the person who will tell her when she needs to take a break, and remind her everything is going to be OK.

“It’s a high-stress environment,” said Maj. Coleman, also a civil engineer who has kids about the same age as her friend. “You can forget to rest or look back to family.”

“I try to keep in mind a quote a friend told me: ‘Bloom where you are planted,’ ” agreed Lt.  Col. Cieslak.

Also providing support is a close-knit circle of neighbors in Ben Avon, which threw her a big going-away party on April 2 at a local coffeehouse. Lt. Col. Cies­lak likens the group to a “warm embrace.”

Skype and Facebook will make staying in touch easier than during her last deployment.

When she arrives in Afghanistan sometime this week, she’ll have some 380 days to go. But she’ll also have, from Johnny, his kisses.


Breakfast ‘n wed

Who doesn’t love a wedding? The dress, the flowers, the promise of love everlasting …

Add to the mix a good-looking member of the British royal family, an historic venue and a bride who’s just as self-assured as she is lovely to look at, and it’s guaranteed television magic. Even in the wee hours, when much of the world (husbands, mainly) would rather be sleeping.

As many as a billion are expected to tune into the Event of the Century, aka the royal wedding of Prince William and commoner Kate Middleton. Coverage gets under way, with great pomp and circumstance, at 4 a.m. (Pittsburgh time) April 29, with the wedding at 6 a.m. (11 a.m. in London).

To help folks celebrate in the appropriate style, hotels all across the country have rolled out the royal carpet with wedding specials. At New York’s Trump International Hotel, for instance, Anglophiles with an extra $149 in their pockets and mimosa in their right hand can watch the young couple get hitched on TV at a reservations-only Trump Royal Wedding Breakfast. The tasting menu — doors open at 5 a.m. — includes scrambled eggs with caviar.

Eggs also are on the menu across town at the New York Palace, only there they’ll be served with Devonshire cream. Other traditional English breakfast offerings at the $150 event, which commences at 5:30 a.m. with coffee and tea, include scones with marmalade and bangers — British-speak for sausage.

Here in Pittsburgh, Lord and Lady Palumbo of London, who bought Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kentuck Knob in Fayette County in 1986, will host a group of diehard royalphiles at a strolling dinner reception at Allegheny Country Club in Sewickley Heights on the evening of the wedding. The festivities, a $250-per-head benefit for the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, will include a royal look-alike contest along with wedding cake and Champagne. Hats, gloves, kilts and serious jewels recommended, though optional.

A less elaborate option, but still oh-so-British, is high tea from 1 to 3 p.m. on the day of the wedding at The Fire Escape coffeehouse in Ben Avon. For $12, you get scones with jam and clotted cream, finger sandwiches and jam layer cake. Ladies are encouraged to wear hats, and there will be games and door prizes. Reservations: 412-772-8569. Or throw your own tea with English goodies, including Dorset Drum Wedding Cheddar, Spotted Dick (steamed suet pudding) and jarred lemon curd, from McGinnis Sisters in Monroeville. They’ll even teach you how to brew a good cup of tea, which apparently is harder than you might think.

I’ll most likely be watching the ceremony in the pre-dawn darkness from bed, with only the glow of the TV and the occasional stink bug to keep me company, as my husband is not a fan of other people’s weddings in general, and the royals’ in particular. Though I am keeping my options open: Arriving in the mail last week was my friend Kim’s invite to a 5:30 a.m. wedding breakfast at her Ben Avon home.

“Please bring tiara, diamonds and pajamas,” it instructs.

It wouldn’t be a true celebration without something a bit fancy, and authentically British, to nibble on while drinking coffee — er, sipping tea.

But not too authentic.

I’m guessing it’s so early in the morning that Kim, or anyone else not accustomed to pre-dawn eating, won’t be feeling Britain’s famous “fry up” breakfast of scrambled eggs with sausage, black pudding, bacon, half a tomato and baked beans. Ditto with any dish that requires a lot of prep work or can’t be eaten in bed (remember, it all begins at 4 a.m.).

With the five-hour time difference, it’s a stretch to think Americans will want to breakfast on the braised partridge and Filet de Sole Mountbatten a 21-year-old then Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten enjoyed after their wedding in 1947. Or the brill (a type of turbot) in lobster sauce and chicken breasts topped with lamb mousse that guests devoured at Diana Spencer and Prince Charles’ 1981 reception at Buckingham Palace. Definitely not the cod with oyster sauce historians believe was served after Queen Victoria’s wedding to Prince Albert in 1840, or roasted capons with mushroom-madeira sauce that graced the wedding breakfast table after the Queen Mother’s 1923 nuptials to “Bertie,” the Duke of York. You’d have to get up too darn early.

That’s not to say an easy menu that celebrates British food isn’t possible. For ideas, I tracked down on Amazon a copy of “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady, who began cooking at Buckingham Palace shortly after the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles. All of the dishes I share below can be made the day before the wedding, and eaten either half-asleep in bed or enjoyed later in the day with a glass of celebratory Champagne.

Cheers, William and Kate! A toast to love and laughter, and happily ever after.

Royal Tea Scones

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Royal Scones/Gretchen McKay

These are on the sweet side but taste delicious with lemon curd. Also feel free to slather on strawberry preserves, clotted cream (a thick, buttery cream often used in desserts) or whipped cream. Be careful not to cut out the scones too large or place them too close together on the baking sheet, as they do expand.

— Gretchen McKay

  • 3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-fine granulated sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 stick ( 1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3/4 cup to 1 1/4 cups milk
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1 beaten egg yolk for glazing

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine the flour, sugar and baking powder in a large bowl. Cut in butter and stir until flour mixture resembles fine bread crumbs. Make a well in the center of the mixture, and add beaten egg and about 3/4 cup milk. Add raisins, if using. Bring mixture together with a metal spoon, making sure you don’t overmix and toughen the dough. If mixture seems dry and crumbly, add more of the remaining milk, but add it gradually. You want a lightly bound dough that is neither too wet nor too dry.

Lightly dust a cutting board with flour, and roll or pat out dough to about 1 inch thick. Then, using a 2-inch round cookie cutter, cut out about 16 scones and place them on an ungreased baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Brush tops of scones with the beaten egg yolk.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until scones are lightly colored. Serve hot or transfer scones to a cooling rack.

Makes 16.

— “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady (Thomas Nelson, 2007)


Homemade Lemon Clotted Cream

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Lemon extract and fresh zest brighten this traditional English spread.

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 ounces mascarpone (Italian cream cheese)
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
  • 3 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • Zest of 1 lemon

In a mixing bowl fitted with a whisk, whip heavy cream until soft peaks form. Add remaining ingredients and whip until evenly combined.

Makes about 2 cups.

— Maureen Petrosky,


Asparagus and Cheese Tart

Cheese and Asparagus Tart/Gretchen McKay

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The Royal Wedding luncheon is sure to include seasonal items, including asparagus. I used grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the dough, and cheddar for the filling.

For the pastry
  • 5 ounces plain flour
  • 3 ounces butter, cubed
  • 3 ounces cheddar or other hard cheese, finely grated
For the filling
  • 5 eggs
  • 6 ounces milk
  • 3 1/2 ounces cheddar or other hard cheese, grated
  • 10 1/2 ounces asparagus, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise

Put flour in bowl, add butter and rub with your finger tips until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add grated cheddar into the pastry and mix. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 5 minutes. Butter a deep loose-bottom tart tin or a rectangular tart tin.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly dust the work surface with flour, roll out the pastry and line the tin. Chill in freezer for 20 minutes.

Place a square of parchment on top of the dough, fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake for 15 minutes. Remove beans and paper, and continue baking for 10 minutes.

Crack eggs in a bowl, whisk, then add milk and whisk again. Sprinkle half the grated cheese over the baked pastry, then add asparagus, egg mixture and remaining cheese. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until egg mixture is set. Serves 8.

— Adapted from

Chocolate Biscuit Cake

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The multi-tiered traditional fruit cake Fiona Cairns is baking for the lunchtime reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth will be decorated in the language of flowers. But Prince William reportedly also has asked for his childhood favorite, a no-bake cake made with McVitie’s cookies. I found the “tea biscuits” by Lyons at Market District.

Coronation chicken/Gretchen McKay


  • 1/2 tespoon butter, for greasing pan
  • 8 ounces McVitie’s rich tea biscuits
  • 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 ounces dark chocolate
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, for icing
  • 1 ounce white chocolate, for decoration

Lightly grease a small (6-inch) springform pan with 1/2 teaspoon butter, and place on a parchment-lined tray. Break each of the biscuits into almond-size pieces by hand and set aside. Cream butter and sugar in a bowl until the mixture is a light lemon color.

Melt 4 ounces dark chocolate in a double boiler or microwave. Add butter and sugar mixture, stirring constantly. Add egg and continue stirring. Fold in biscuit pieces until they are all coated with the chocolate mixture.

Spoon the chocolate biscuit mixture into the prepared cake ring. Try to fill all of the gaps on the bottom of the ring, because this will be the top when it is unmolded. Chill the cake in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours.

Remove cake from refrigerator and let it stand while you melt 8 ounces of dark chocolate for icing. Slide ring off cake and turn cake upside down onto a cooling rack. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake, and smooth the top and sides using a butter knife or offset spatula. Allow chocolate icing to set at room temperature. Carefully run a knife around the bottom of the cake where it has stuck to the cooling rack, and transfer cake to a cake dish. Melt the white chocolate and drizzle on top of cake in a decorative pattern.

Makes 8 servings.

— “Eating Royally” by Darren McGrady (Thomas Nelson, 2007)

Coronation Chicken

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“You should be aware of the most famous dish invented for a Royal event,” my Londoner friend Tony Wales responded via email, when I asked what “real” Brits would be eating on the day of the royal wedding. “Coronation Chicken was designed for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (in 1953) as a dish that every guest from every part of the Empire could happily eat (i.e. no pork, no red meat, mild spices, etc).” He included a link to a recipe for Coronation Chicken that ran in 2009 in The Telegraph.

So it’s not exactly breakfast food. But the chicken-salad-like dish is perfect for lunch after your post-wedding nap, served either with rice salad or spooned on bread.

I took a shortcut by using two supermarket rotisserie chickens.

For chicken
  • 2 chickens
  • 1 carrot
  • Splash of wine
  • Pinch of thyme
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Handful chopped parsley
  • 4 peppercorns
For sauce
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon tomato puree or paste
  • 8 ounces red wine
  • 6 ounces water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch each of salt, pepper and sugar
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 2 cups mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons apricot puree, made from soaked and boiled dried apricots
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons whipped cream

Poach chicken for 40 minutes in water with carrot, wine, thyme, bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns. Cool in the liquid, then remove the meat from the bones and set aside.

To make sauce, heat oil in a pan and add chopped onion. Cook gently for 3 minutes then add curry powder. Cook for 2 more minutes. Add tomato puree or paste, wine, water, bay leaf and bring to a boil. Add pinch of salt, pepper and sugar, lemon juice, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Strain and cool.

Slowly add mayonnaise, then stir in apricot puree or marmalade, Season again — the sauce must not be too sweet. Finish by adding whipped cream. Add only enough sauce to coat the chicken lightly, then eat it with a rice salad.

Serves 6 to 8.

— Adapted from The Telegraph, June 2009