26 July, 2008

A Year in Review: From dark to light

Well, it's my birthday and I'll [navel] gaze if I want to. You've been warned...

Sometime between the 25th and the 28th of this month is the official birthday of both me and this blog.

I'm not sure when it happens, but it seems that at a certain age, birthdays become more about looking back than looking forward. I seems I have reached that point, so here's a look back. Read on at your own risk...

At the first blog birthday, I looked back on a year full of wonderful changes I never could've envisioned--from the creation of Valour-IT to a VIP trip to the VA, to discovering at the Milblog Conference that I really did have friends I'd never met. And yet, the following year surpassed even that as I looked back on a year of discovering that this civilian somehow fit in a military world.

But that second one was also a rough year. July 2007 was particularly bad, and improvement didn't seem in sight. Yet, looking back today at this most recent year, I can almost say I'm glad for every bit of it--because I don't think the good would've happened without the bad.

In short, you may have noticed Fuzzybear is a bit happier these days.

Here's why...

But first: about that July being bad? Here's a snapshot. The worst part was almost being hired by a veterans service organization. I had been willing to put up with my current job because for the last 2.5 months that new job had been within reach. Sometime soon after it fell apart, I think I gave up. Looking back, I see I had come to the conclusion--without ever making a conscious decision--that my current job was the best I could do. And so for the next three months I just ground it out in a demoralizing, soul-sucking, psyche-destroying job that didn't even pay a living wage in my locale.

In August I was blessed to visit Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, which threw me a lifeline. For three glorious days I lived the role I had discovered I was good at: I hung out with the wounded, networked with people in the troop support field who happened to be in town at the same time, had a crusty old Vietnam veteran eating out of my hand after he'd initially found me wanting, and had the transcendant experience of meeting a wounded Iraq veteran I had "adopted." For those three days I again knew my place. I am not enough of a writer to describe it without cliche: it fed my starving soul.

By November, every day at work was an inner argument with that little voice that said I'm outta here! In early December I was given the opportunity to visit an aircraft carrier at sea... only to have my supervisor pull the rug out from under me. And even worse, by the day after I would've been on the ship, I was without a job.

My first thought on unemployment was, "How will I pay my bills?" My second was, "Yay! I can go volunteer at the USO again!!" Walking back into the USO was like stepping back into my own skin, and I knew more than ever that I had to make that field my career.

In January, a friend insisted that I start interviewing the leadership of the then-deployed 3rd Infantry Division. And I do mean insisted. I demurred, but he pointed out I was insulting his wisdom/intelligence by telling him he was wrong suggesting I was capable of it. He even got me added to the Bloggers Roundtables. So, I started the interviews. And I learned not only about the subject matters at hand but about myself--about my strengths and weakness in areas such as thinking on the fly, researching, setting people at ease (or not), ingratiating myself where necessary, not taking things personally, and operating in a clear and succinct manner in individual and group settings over the phone.

All nice skills to develop, but why? What good were they doing unemployed me? Ah, that explanation is yet to come... ;)

I got very serious about not only finding a job, but finding a new career. And hey, after interviewing brigadier generals while they're in a combat zone, a job interview with some supervisor of a small office was a piece of cake, even if the questions were flowing in the opposite direction. I ruthlessly evaluated my career path/goals, and what I could bring to an employer. I networked, put myself out there, cold-called people in the field I was targeting... but still there was no job. And I was running into the same problem as before when I tried to find temp jobs as my bank account dried up: "You're over-qualified." But I was learning my own value and learning how to express my belief in that value with confidence and grace.

Then came the first full executive meeting of Soldiers' Angels. Patti called me and said, "You MUST be there and you must impress them." And as anyone who has met Patti knows, you just don't say no to her. Besides, my battered soul craved fellowship with kindred spirits.

And so I packed my best suit and my nicest "casual" attire, and spent my last 40 dollars (no joke) on gas for the drive up the coast to the meeting.

It was eye-opening. I'd been involved in Soldiers' Angels for nearly three years on the wounded side of things, but I had no idea how humongous and far-reaching it had become overall. It was staggering. At that point, SA had nearly 200,000 volunteers who did everything from adopt warfighters to make baby clothes for pregnant wives at home, to comfort the families of those who were KIA, and more. The hearts of the people involved and the monumental amount of work they were doing was amazing.

I sat there open-mouthed in most of the meetings and workshops, awed and humbled at all that the amazing people I was associating with were accomplishing. It was so much bigger than I had ever imagined, funneling a staggering amount of resources into caring for those who had given so much. I felt very small and humbled to see that I was a tiny wheel in an amazing machine.

And true to my job search training ("make the most of every opportunity"), I brought resumes with me and networked like crazy for both myself and for Valour-IT. Little did I know how carefully I was being watched...

Incomprehensibly at the time, Patti asked me to sit in on one of the board meetings on the second day. I sat down next to a well-known blogger-turned-consultant who was going to be assisting SA. I handed him my resume and gave him my practiced spiel about my attributes and the kind of work I was looking for, and then we continued to converse when the topics of the board went over our heads. Afterward, he and I cornered the vice president charged with technology matters and told him straight up what we thought needed to change about SA's website and online presence (summary: EVERYTHING).

The next day at home, I sat down to an empty bank account praying for a miracle. The phone rang; the blogger-turned-consultant wanted to hire me for some piecemeal work with the possibility of it growing into much more. I jumped on it, of course.

An hour later, the phone rang again. Soldiers' Angels wanted to make me the third paid person in the organization! Though it began with the title Website Assistant and was only part-time, within a month that had changed to fulltime, as I was also doing project development, presentation materials, and some public relations work.

Beyond the joy of a decent paycheck was the striking realization that all the skills I'd developed in the years since I'd discovered the military world, stepped out of my shell with Valour-IT, and then benefited from the wisdom and guidance of so many special people in my life were now being put to use. It all came together.

And then the year started to go full circle…

One of the first big things at Soldiers' Angels that dropped into my lap was this. And it was after the first teleconference with the two high-powered women proposing the thing that I realized how much preparation all those interviews and Blogger Roundtables had been, and how much the job search training and the years of networking for Valour-IT had taught me. What they needed from Soldiers' Angels was two-fold: 1) military knowledge/guidance for their vision, and 2) contacts in the military and military support world. Could I do that for them? Not only yes, but... Hell, yes! As we got closer to completion on the project, they asked for more help targeting organizations that might want to make use of the site or help spread the word. And they asked me a question that blew my mind: "Do you know anybody at [redacted veterans support organization]?"

Remember this email that let me down so gently in July 2007?:
I have no doubt that you will break into the VSO [Veterans Service Organizaton] field and the organization that is smart enough to hire you will be making a good decision and a wise investment. When you do land that position, please contact me - I would enjoy working with you in some capacity.
Yes, that was who they wanted to talk to. And no, she hadn't been just trying to let me down gently. When I called her she was excited about the project. "I told you that you'd end up in this field," she said triumphantly.

Since that time I have held numerous conference calls with established charities wanting to partner with Soldiers' Angels, talked with musicians/artists/companies who want to donate, rewritten a huge chunk of the SA web content, had the privilege of helping SA leaders of all kinds put their wonderful ideas and visions into a professional-looking format, and represented Soldiers' Angels to a group of California CEOs on a DV Embark, and presided over more project than I can count (I list these not to brag, but to share my excitement and surprise at what I've found myself doing).

Frankly, life has just been getting better and better. It's amazing the ridiculous lies we can tell ourselves ("I'll never have a better job than this"), and the power those lies can have over us. And it's amazing what you can learn to do when you step out in a balance of confidence and humility (knowing what you do know and what you don't know, clearly seeing what you can offer and what you shouldn't even attempt).

Probably the highlight of my year was when a Soldiers' Angel I've known and volunteered with for years said to me in regard to a project I'd just completed, "Where the hell have you been hiding?!"

"Right under your nose," I teased. But the truth is, I'd done such a good job of hiding from myself that I shouldn't have been surprised to know she hadn't seen me, either.

So, in many ways the end of this calendar year has been the result of the two awful years from the spring of 2006 to the spring of 2008. But (I can't believe I'm writing this!) I don't think I'd trade those two for anything. In these last two years I've learned my limits, my weaknesses, my blind spots, my immaturities, and my ugly side. But I've also learned my potential, my strengths, my "gifts," my courage, and my true self… and so much more.

Earlier this week I talked to a friend with whom I'd been in only (intermittent) email contact since last fall. "I can hear your smile through the phone," she wrote after our conversation.

Yeah, that about covers it.

Now if only I’d figured this out back when I was thirty… ;)