Stories of #JoiningForces: Celebrating 5 years of Joining Forces

This week, the First Lady and Dr. Biden celebrate the 5th anniversary of Joining Forces. In 2011, the First Lady and Dr. Biden launched Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative that calls on all Americans — in both the public and private sectors — to rally around service members, veterans, and their families and support them through employment, education and wellness opportunities.

In celebration, we will be sharing a digital series called the Stories of #JoiningForces. This series will showcase short stories from servicemembers, veterans, spouses, children, parents, and caregivers across the military community. You can follow along all week long and share your own story using #JoiningForces.

I met Paul during my first assignment back in the late 90’s. At the time, the Air Force fighter squadron culture was still adjusting to the idea of women flying combat aircraft. The idea of two folks in the same F-15E squadron dating wasn’t exactly welcome by everyone. I dated him anyways. He was funny, kind, smart and adventurous. After our first date I told my mom I’d met my future husband. We’ve been married now for nearly 15 years. In that time we’ve moved 8 times, including living in South Korea and England. When our twins were one year old, Paul deployed to Afghanistan for the second time. A month later I took command of a fighter squadron. It was hard for all of us. As a family, we had no more bandwidth to give…we were maxed out. Thank goodness for Skype, the kids got to see their dad every day and he got to watch them grow. Thank goodness for our military family, they ensured we had everything we needed to get through. Shortly after his return, Paul retired after 20+ years of honorable active duty service flying the F-15E. Since then, he’s been the world’s coolest stay-at-home dad to our now 5 year old twins. He’s one of the most well respected F-15E Instructor Weapons Systems Officers of our generation. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross in the skies over Kosovo. I’m so proud to be his wife. In the end, despite the hardships, the Air Force gave me the greatest gift I could have ever asked for…Paul. — Nicole Malachowski, Executive Director of Joining Forces

Growing up a military child has given me a remarkable understanding on how I view the world. But I will be honest, times haven’t always been easy. There have been times my dad missed birthdays or choir recitals and other times when we all felt the impact of deployments. As a child it was hard to fully grasp war or foresee its impact on our family. But throughout the good and bad, there are still moments where I look up at my dad and he makes that same old goofy face that I remember as a kid. Despite the hours apart, and the miles between of us, he always makes me laugh. — Cierra Jackson, Columbus, Georgia

There is beauty in the farewell. It comes in the strength of those left behind. In the kindness that we share with one another. In generosity. In the village that forms and the relationships that are bred when we lower our walls and let friends become our family. When one woman comes to another, drill in one hand and baby in another, to fix something that didn’t quite get fixed before deployment loomed. In treats and notes left anonymously on porches, wine bought and shared to ease the transition, in babysitting and breakfasts and pity parties. Late night text messages and phone calls. There is beauty in missing our loved ones. In the reminder of their presence in our lives despite their absence. Even after decades of marriage, it is possible and wonderful to long for their warmth and the comfort of their just being home. I have said before and still believe it; I am grateful I get the opportunity to miss my husband sometimes.In our little Navy world, we have built the village that other mothers crave. We do care for each other’s kids, make each other meals, and spend holidays as “framily”. It is because of these goodbyes that we get to form such amazing bonds. Saying goodbye is excruciating. But it is also beautiful. –Jill Qualters, U.S. Navy spouse

I’m 17, and I went to an Operation Purple Camp when I lived in North Carolina while my dad was stationed overseas. We lived right outside of Pope Air Base at the time. The camp helped me so much to realize I wasn’t the only one going through deployment, and that I wasn’t alone. Operation Purple is an amazing thing and every military child should experience it. I still have my bag from camp that I got. –Military Child

Since I was a young kid, my parents taught me about the importance of relationships — of seeing the good in others and following the Golden Rule. Through my time at West Point and over the course of three deployments, I came to realize the power of my parents’ advice. There’s no way I could’ve gotten through some of those times without the help of my friends and family. In grad school, I was blessed to have Dr. Chris Peterson, one of the founders of the field of positive psychology, as my mentor. Chris taught me the simple, but powerful truth: Other People Matter. With his advice, I founded Team Red, White & Blue (Team RWB), a non-profit organization that enriches veterans’ lives by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. Now, with Chris’ words echoing in my head, I have founded a new non-profit organization called The Positivity Project. We partner with K-8 schools with the mission of helping America’s youth build stronger relationships by seeing the character strengths in themselves and others. Our vision is to create citizens and leaders who will enhance our communities and country by internalizing the belief that “Other People Matter.” –Mike Erwin, U.S. Army Veteran

My Airmen and I are high school sweethearts. We grew up together; and stepped into this military life hand in hand, ready to face the adventure together. You can’t be entirely prepared for what this life throws your way. No ones’ experience is quite the same. As an Air National Guard family it is easy to feel isolated. We have never lived in base housing, near a commissary or an Exchange. But we serve too. We are part of a larger military family, joined together by common experiences and a uniform. My children are some of the most resilient kids I know, and despite the hard times of missing their daddy, like me, they are proud of him and proud to be part of a military family. –Rheana Bernard, An Air National Guard spouse

As my husband enters his 21st year of service in May, we’ve been reflecting on our experiences of the last 20 years — how our lives have changed, our family grown, our horizons broadened by each duty station or deployment or opportunity for travel. We’ve been very blessed by our time in the Navy, as I know we’d not be the same family if not for it. People assume that after 20 years, my husband will automatically retire….which is not true. It’s hard to know what life will be like outside of service, especially for my husband as his father was a career Army man and the military life is all he’s known for 42 years. It’s the only life our family has known, and we’re not quite ready to give that up yet. Have 6 deployments (and countless partial ones or shorter training periods) been enough of a sacrifice? Is it time to start putting our family priorities before the military? Possibly, as our oldest is entering high school in the fall and we’d love some stability for her and our twins. We’re moving this summer to a place where we can see ourselves doing that, and hopefully the Navy will see fit to leave us there for a while. “Home is where the Navy sends us”, and we’re hoping that with this move, we’re going home! –Jenn Stone, A U.S. Navy spouse and Blue Star Families member

I am a veteran caregiver for my beautiful and talented wife Natalie, an Army veteran with 20 years of distinguished service. Natalie medically retired from the Army as a result of injuries she sustained during two tours in Iraq. She now suffers from a Traumatic Brain Injury, a seizure disorder, severe migraine headaches, a cognitive disorder, and severe PTSD. I also retired from the Army, following 28 years of service. And while I did not envision spending my retirement years as one of the relatively few male veteran caregivers joining my wife on all of her medical appointments and helping her live with the wounds she suffered serving our nation, we make the best of the situation as a team, and I could not be prouder to serve in this role. Brian Vines, a U.S. Army veteran, spouse and caregiver

I can’t say I was born and raised in one town, but I can say that I was born and raised in the United States Coast Guard. With eight moves from birth to 12 years old, I sojourned in 49 states! This is the life of a military child. One time, while living in Alaska, a group of us families couldn’t get back to the lower 48 to visit our relatives for Thanksgiving. Instead, we bonded together and celebrated the holiday weekend with our Coast Guard and church families at a lighthouse. I was six years old and still remember the feeling of everyone staying at the lighthouse — how it carried a special, unspoken warmth and love, despite the fact that we weren’t physically able be with our own relatives. Feeling such security and a sense of camaraderie with our military and church families was a blessing, it’s a source of strength, and a testament to what it means to grow up with my military family. The adventurous spirit and warm love of being together with my family, no matter where we venture to, will always mean the most to me. — Alena Deveau, a child of the U.S. Coast Guard

Seven years ago I was finishing my deployment to Iraq when my wife called — our first baby would be delivered early for medical reasons. Thanks to a Red Cross message, I was able to make it home from Iraq in 72 hours, 26 hours before my son was born. All along that frantic journey home, the airline staff and other travelers went out of their way to ensure I made it back in time, thanking me for my service along the way. With Iraq mud still on my boots, I walked into the hospital and hugged my wife, and welcomed the birth of my son. — Andy Anderson, U.S. Air Force

Being a military child has filled me with pride. Most families have one parent in active duty, but both of my parents were active in the Air Force. I didn’t understand the threat growing up, with the risk practically doubled down, luckily they returned home safe and sound. I had a childlike fantasy of them protecting the world like heroes, and now I’m certain of it. — Jamal Ballard, son of two U.S. Air Force veterans

In Iraq, we received packages and gifts from people all over the country. They had no idea who we were, only that we were serving our country. I was truly touched and inspired by the support and generosity of so many strangers. 8 years after returning from Iraq, my fiancé bought me a homebrewing kit, and two years later launched Service Brewing Company in Savannah, GA. Our company is dedicated to giving back to those who serve and in less than 2 years, we have donated over $24,000 to charities that support those who serve their country and their community. –Kevin Ryan, a U.S. Army veteran and small business owner

Three of my four grandparents served in WWII and I loved all their stories, but Grandma Dorothy’s stories of being part of the Women’s Reserve fascinated me most. The idea of a woman serving in her time was revolutionary. I knew I wanted to do something amazing with my life so I followed in her footsteps and served in the Navy Reserve. Though I’m no longer serving in that way, the military touches every aspect of my life. I’m married to a sailor, and my professional passion is to combat the issues facing career-minded military spouses with my work at In Gear Career and Hiring Our Heroes. –Amanda Crowe, a U.S. Navy veteran and spouse

I was inspired to serve in the Army after seeing the positive impact my dad, uncle, and cousin made through their military service. During my time as an ROTC cadet at Middlebury College and later while serving in Colorado and Afghanistan, I heard stories about veterans who struggled to find meaningful work after leaving the military. My sister, Betsy and I launched Sword & Plough, a social impact brand that works with American manufacturers who employ veterans. We repurposes military surplus and other military grade fabrics and donate 10% of profits back to veteran organizations. We are very dedicated to fulfilling our mission of empowering veteran employment, reducing waste, and strengthening civil-military understanding. It is an honor to be able to lead both in the Army and at Sword & Plough. –Emily Núñez Cavness, a U.S. Army veteran and small business owner

I often think about my grandfather, who served in the Pacific Theater as a Navy firefighter in World War II. I could see the legacy of service in the eyes of veterans like him, and decided to enlist. During my career in the Army, I deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. I came home with a Purple Heart and a love of culture and language. With my enlistment over, I traveled to the Middle East, Africa, and Latin American to see these places — and myself — without war as a backdrop. But what I really needed was a challenge to seize and overcome. Thankfully, I found The Mission Continues Fellowship Program. I served my fellowship in an outpatient ward helping doctors prepare therapy for severely wounded troops. Now that I’m finished with my fellowship, I continue to serve by volunteering alongside fellow veterans in my local Service Platoon, a group that improves the health and wellness of underprivileged youth. –Joseph Alotto, a U.S. Navy veteran

My journey as a veteran caregiver began when I looked at my husband Aaron in the ICU, missing both of his legs, casts on each arm, and bandages on his face. He was wrapped on every part of his body and sedated to the point that he doesn’t remember those early weeks of his recovery. My journey has continued for nearly five years since that time. Some days are filled with pain, but mostly they are filled with joy. I still have moments when I realize how challenging the rest of our lives will be, missing out on those dreams I held on to for so long. However, I now focus on the moments when I see just how lucky we are to still be together, to enjoy the lives we have, and to overcome the injuries that almost kept us from having our miracle daughter AJ — our bright, shining star. –Kat Causey, a U.S. Army spouse and caregiver.

As a member of the 20th Special Forces Group, my peers and I were constantly asked to solve challenges when lives were on the line. It was a calling, and I was happy to answer whenever my country asked. Eventually the time came to hang up my uniform. I knew it would be tough. I was leaving behind the rush that came with deploying to dangerous places and knowing that my team had my back no matter what. So when I was asked to lead The Mission Continues’ San Antonio 1st Service Platoon, a group of local veteran volunteers, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I was ready to answer the call to serve again. Today I’m proud to have lead more than 400 veterans, volunteers and their families help others in our community. –George Davila, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran

Being a part of the military community (I was a navy sister for nearly 20 years before I became a Marine Corps wife) for most of my life has taught me about family — those that you are born into and those you are “sworn into.” Family means throwing a baby shower for your new neighbor, who is having her first baby thousands of miles from home. It means hosting a “friendsgiving” with 30 friends who can’t get home for the holidays. It means cooking meals for the family of a recently wounded warrior from your unit. It means Friday night dinners every week for the 7 months that your spouse is deployed and the unspoken anxieties of what deployment can bring and the shared shrieks of joy and happy tears when you finally receive news of an official return date! But most importantly, a military family means unbreakable bonds-no matter where you go, no matter what stage in life, civilian or military, that someone always has your back. Even though my Marine has transitioned from active duty service, I am still proud to be a part of this community, and proud to work on behalf of our service members, veterans, and their families. — Rory Brosius, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran spouse

I wanted to share my friend Allison’s story. Allison is a military spouse and one of the strongest women I know. She’s been by her husband’s side through two deployments, undergoing tests for P.T.S.D and made three moves over the past couple of years. On his second deployment, while raising her daughter, she attended school to study photography and opened her own business. She continues to beat the odds time and time again. I truly look up to her and her passion for life and helping others. –Samantha Curtis, sharing the story of her friend Allison

For the first 18 years of my life, I moved between 13 different foster homes and five group homes in Chicago. All the indicators suggested that I was heading down a negative path, but I didn’t want to become a statistic. I wanted to be a leader. So I joined the Marine Corps. As a Marine, I found a purpose and a mission. Most importantly, I found a family. When the time came to take off my uniform, I confronted challenges that made me afraid I’d fall into the same traps I feared earlier in life. Then, at a community service project with The Mission Continues, I found a new team and mission. I found a network of veterans, full-time employment, and with the support of my volunteer group, a new home for me and my family. –Tina Thomas, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran

I’ll never forget the day I called my mother sobbing, saying I should never have gone to college, since due to the unpredictable nature of being married to a military member, I’d never be able to piece together any sort of career or professional identity. Despite a set plan to become a teacher, overseas orders early in my military marriage showed me teaching wasn’t the “guaranteed” career path everyone promised. After melting down entirely, my mother, a military spouse of 27 years, calmly asked me, “Now why do you think you’d ever allow yourself to settle for less than what you truly want out of life?” That conversation, military spouse to military spouse, became my a-ha moment. After working in a few roles and blogging on the side, I realized that the military spouse community had a powerful message to share, but there was no place yet for our voice. So I created NextGen MilSpouse and the military spouse blogger network, MSB New Media. I’ve called these ventures a happy accident, but looking back now I can’t imagine life any other way. Momma is always right. — Adrianna Domingos-Lupher, military spouse

When I was wounded I thought my ability to have an active lifestyle with friends and family was over. However, through adaptive sports and the Invictus games I found that, even though my body works differently now, I can pursue my passions and live a full and active life. — Yancy Taylor, U.S. Army and Invictus Games athelete

The Invictus Games 2014 was the first major adaptive competition I competed in after my cancer diagnosis. I was able to represent my country while playing the very sports that allowed me to heal and recover. Those games and the Invictus Games 2016 are much more than who wins a medal, they are a celebration of life and the achievements we have made after significant adversities. I am honored to participate and excited to have my family in attendance to cheer on the U.S. Team. — CPT Kelly Elmlinger, U.S. Army and Invictus Games athelete