09 September, 2008

How it All Started, Part III

[Significantly revised. Explanation here.]

Conclusion of the story of Valour-IT and how this civilian became a milblogger...


That very week I had been toying with the idea of blogging, going so far as to have set up an as-yet-unpublished first post...I decided [the blog] would be largely fluff and it would be in my Fuzzybear persona, complete with a cute little Anime avatar. And I had a name to suit: Fuzzilicious Thinking.

Oh, if only I'd known... I might've been more circumspect...
On July 25, 2005 a random, high-strung, anonymous music teacher in Arizona dipped her toe into the blog world. Of course, once one starts blogging, one must have content. Within a week that problem was solved, though the subject matter was not what I'd had in mind when I created my fluffy (fuzzy?) little blog...

Chuck made his first injury-encumbered post the same day I started blogging, tapping with his two or three functional fingers that peeked out from the cast and bandages and severed nerves of his hands. Three days later he put up a post that changed my life:
I could really use voice to text software

Or I could keep up the two line posts.

I have so much I want to blog but can't. maybe someone could cajole them into helping a wounded soldier...

working hard, chuck
The response from his readership was overwhelming, and he and I apparently had an idea at the same time: this should be available to all the wounded who can't type, and there are a lot of people who want to help!

Just over 5 weeks from being wounded, Chuck was of course living in a haze of surgeries, painful therapies, and mind-fogging painkillers. So I ran with it. It became my instant obsession; everything I had learned about our warriors in the last year drove me to find a way to make our dream happen. A year before, I hadn't even known anyone in the military. Now I was on a mission for the men and women to whom I'd learned I owed so much. My eyes would pop open at 4 a.m. and my mind would do an instant "zero to sixty" on the subject. My fluffy, light little blog became all-wounded, all the time. I brainstormed constantly, writing quick notes to myself between the music classes I was teaching--my desktop became a sea of colorful sticky notes covered in scribbles.

By email, Chuck and I formulated our plans for how we thought we could make voice-controlled laptops available to others. But the issue was money, and we had two options: try and do it ourselves or find an existing charity to run it with us funneling all these supporters their direction.

Wracking my brain for people who could help, I replied to John Donovan's offer for assistance. "Do you have ideas who we could approach to sponsor this project?" The reply: Soldiers' Angels. I'd heard about them, but all my troop support had been through AnySoldier. I scoped out their website, formulated my pitch, and called the number given. A woman answered the phone and I said, "I have this crazy idea and someone suggested SA might be able to help, but I don't know who I need to talk to."

It was several days before I understood that I had been talking to the founder of Soldiers' Angels. She had apparently been thinking along the same lines, but grilled me about why I wanted to do it and what level of seriousness I possessed. She wanted to know how I was going to raise the money required--hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said.

Wide-eyed and innocent but on a mission, I told her, "I don't know exactly how we will do it, but I am committed to doing whatever it takes. This must be done, so we'll find a way." Looking back I know I had no idea what I was setting myself up for, but ignorance was bliss; I thought I was just handing off an idea, but next thing I knew she said, "You'll lead this, and we'll handle the money and distribution."

What?! I'd never led anything more mature than a class of 15-year-olds in my entire life. And now she was trying to put me in charge of a charity project?! I was both excited and terrified.

But here's where it all came together, and where I later realized that it was a series of amazing coincidences. All those coincidences led to something wonderful. I don't hold myself up as something special because I had a role in making it all happen (in fact, I kept trying to get other people to make the decisions, haha!). Simply, I was lucky and blessed enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Patti put me in touch with Holly Aho, and within 9 days of talking to Patti, we had a professional-looking website, corporate sponsors giving us discounts, contacts on the ground at Bethesda and Walter Reed, and a team of people covering everything from PR to graphics to an official blog. And the Castle--a place uniquely positioned to lead the way, but which I'd hardly known six months before--became Internet Central for Project Valour-IT.

As for me, I soon felt like I'd grabbed a tiger by the tail--I didn't know where it was taking me, but I didn't dare let go.

When I look back, here's the progression, the reason why I say it was an amazing chain of coincidences, each dependent on the previous:

1. Adopt through AnySoldier
2. Find milblogs in a search for better information about the people I was adopting (meet people and learn from them)
3. See Sergeant B's comment
4. Write to Sergeant B and become friends
5. Join Castle at B's encouragement—getting to know the Denizens and continuing my military education
6. Discover Chuck's blog
7. Ask John for advice after Chuck is wounded
8. Brainstorm with John, leading to the Valour-IT competitions (our solution to the way people’s generosity had been tapped out by Hurricane Katrina)
9. The Milblog community makes it all happen--the skills, the PR, the contacts, etc.

Lots of people had the skills to make it happen, but they had lives. I was stuck in the middle of the desert, living with two cats and craving adult conversation after spending the day with elementary school students. It was a great way to fill my time and has been such a blessing and brought about such changes in my personal and professional life that I almost feel guilty—I’ve gained far, far more value from all this anything I’ve supposedly given.

Now I work in the military support field full time and find that after all these experiences I am neither civilian nor military, but some kind of bizarre hybrid. When I’m at the USO I often get the question (especially if I demonstrate significant military-related knowledge), “So you’re prior service or a dependent, huh?” How do I explain my answer? I get the weirdest, disbelieving looks from people when I tell them I'm not, and I sit there wondering how int he world I can explain all of this to someone who has never heard of milblogs, or who didn’t know me four years ago and thus cannot comprehend how astonishing I find my situation today.

I am so blessed.