Military member faces resilience reality
By Lt. Col. Luke Lokowich, 5th Reconnaissance Squadron
/ Published March 17, 2015
OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- She wasn't supposed to die. It was the duty of the military member to face danger and possibly water the tree of freedom, right? It was supposed to be child birth, complete with laughter, joy and celebration at welcoming a new family member. What it became was a nightmare education that began by absorbing a flood of unfamiliar terms such as aneurism, eclampsia and HELLP syndrome. I had to verbally consent to a laundry list of organs that I would allow for donation. My needs and wants used to center around the cleanliness of my truck and when happy hour ended. Suddenly and without warning it became the fine art of a diaper change, techniques for preparing an army of bottles every day, and installation of a car seat. My life became instantly, completely, and regardless of the tragedy, centered on the care and feeding that was required of a newborn baby girl because the miracle of life for me that day was a trade and not an addition.
Avery really didn't care what my problems were, what she needed was a Daddy with his head screwed on straight. I'll admit that Avery was as easy of a baby anyone could ask for; God knew that I needed it. God knew that I needed time to grieve and learn how to move forward after losing my wife. I tried all the coping mechanisms: denial, blame, work, exercise, religion, support groups, relationships, alcohol, you name it. I blamed myself for not seeing the telltale signs of a body poisoning itself; I spent my days wondering if it was a dream, putting on an "I got this" face around my friends. Inside I was crushed. My Juliet had just died and I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. On weekends the spouses in my squadron would watch Avery overnight so I could feign happiness while drinking with my friends. I took a weeklong singles cruise to tactically insert myself back into my new demographic. I became as fast a 5K runner as I've ever been, and I reached out to support groups both on and off base, inside and out of my faith. None of it was me, and none of it was working.
Flying had always been my release, my disconnect from the hysteria of an imperfect world. My squadron left me off of the flying schedule to deal with the flood of change and paperwork involved with the new path my life was taking. Unbeknownst to them it was taking away the only happiness I knew, so returning to the air following my hiatus was a freedom that words cannot explain. Pilots have always compartmentalized tasks, and I was no different. My daily preflight routine simply had a new checklist item, and that was "drop Avery off at daycare." I will be forever grateful to the B-52 community for giving me aviation and fellowship in one old, ugly, smelly, eight-engine warfighter. It was on my first flight following JoAnne's death that I received a real, alcohol-free reprieve from parenting and began to heal.
I chose to celebrate. JoAnne was a wonderful woman, full of life and laughter. How fortunate I was to have been a part of her journey, albeit for a very short slice of time. I choose to celebrate her life for the time it was, and not grieve for the time that it will never be. Make no mistake; I shed many tears while poring over photographs of the woman I knew, reliving memories of a friend that I'd never see again. I let go of my anger, I stopped blaming myself, and accepted that my life was not a nightmare, but instead a process of transformation brought about as a result of a tragic experience.
Normal doesn't exist for any of us who have lost someone close. We establish a new normal that has ups and downs just like the old normal did. Moving forward is a choice that I've made and it's been the best thing I've ever done. It allowed me to fall in love again, it allowed me to continue to grow my family, it allowed me to succeed professionally, and it allowed me to be happy again. Have I "gotten over it?" No. Nor do I ever expect to.
Getting over loss is like getting over losing your right arm. While happiness will fill your days again, you'll still never be the same. Find a healthy activity that fills your need to get away for a little while, and accept the fact that when "it" hits the fan it's never evenly distributed. You can almost guarantee that tomorrow will be better. At the end of the day it's a pretty good ride, and worth sticking around for...