OIF one was the first deployment for most of us and most of the memories we carry from those days are from the firsts of that experience. At one point in the deployment I ended up in charge of a 5’10” former entrepreneur and Rutgers Hockey player named Jenny. Her responsiveness as a Soldier inspired me to be a better leader. Jenny helped me work through the problems of that deployment and I was grateful to have someone of such great character working for me.
One of the firsts for this deployment was taking the time as a leader to contact one of my Soldier’s parents and thank them for the time with the child they raised. The first letter I ever wrote home to say thank you was to Neil Smith, Jenny’s dad.
Even though we were communicators, the world was considerably less connected in 2003/2004 than it is now. We still relied heavily on snail mail to get and send news from home. I grabbed a sheet of lined yellow paper on shift one day and wrote Neil to say thank you. I don’t remember how long the letter was, or what the exact were I used, but I do remember hearing later that Neil had framed it.
How did I find out? After we got back Neil came to visit. When he did he made a particular point to meet with me. When we talked he made me feel like his trip was less about seeing his daughter and more about saying thank you for the words I had written. We’ve kept in touch ever since.
The daughter he raised continued to mature in uniform. Her character and competence has allowed her to move up from Specialist to First Sergeant. Neil and I have used every moment of success to stay in touch and thank each other for the time when our lives have crossed paths. He’s been quick to comment when I needed a friend online.
I woke up this morning to find that this man who towered over me in stature had moved on from this life. The world has been a brighter place because he lived in it. Being religiously minded, I full well believe that Neil is now making the place we go after death a little brighter for those around him.
Neil’s legacy in my life isn’t just a wonderful relationship with Jenny. Because of his positive response I have been known to contact Soldier’s parents from time to time to say thank you. It’s one of the best privileges of being a leader in the Army.
The last one was the mother of Larry who wouldn’t quite let me finish saying thank you without interrupting. “Oh, no!” she said. “Thank YOU! Larry was in a bad place with no direction and the Army’s helped him be successful. If it weren’t for leaders like you I don’t think my son would be doing anything positive.” After hearing Larry’s story she did end up listening to me say thank you and the conversation ended cordially. Larry beamed the next time I saw him. He’d obviously talked to his mom and she told him I called and that she was proud of him. That conversation made a larger impact than any award on his chest.
Larry’s story is one of many. There are quite a few parents out there who got a personal insight to their children’s lives in uniform because of the overwhelmingly positive experience from writing Neil. Our lives on earth intersect for a very short time but they help us change the direction we take. Neil was the sort of person who helped every life he intersected with change for the better. Thank you for teaching me how important it is to express gratitude.
Over the next few days there will be many better words composed about this man’s time on earth. I would be remiss for not contributing mine. If this were 12 years ago I probably would have written it on a sheet of yellow lined paper, but now I wouldn't know who to send it to.