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.

PG VIDEO: KISSES AND TEARS

“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.

 

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