Get on Your Back and Breathe

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By Lois Hicks-Wozniack

My age-group wave went out into the water to begin the West Point Triathlon. I tried to keep up with all of the fast women; after all, I had been training all summer, and I felt ready. Nervous, but ready. I found myself in the back of the pack, arms, feet, waves – I was not ready for this, and as we curved around out of the cove I could see the buoy off in the distance. “I’m never going to make it. It’s too far. I can’t catch my breath.”  A full-blown panic attack set in. Vertical and swallowing water, I looked at the people on the shore. I started screaming, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I CAN’T do this!!”…

My Dad was a career Army Officer (retired LTC) and he fought in WWII in the Pacific. I was his youngest child, a late-in-life “surprise”. I knew he had seen terrible things in the war. My Dad was a proud man. He loved his country. He loved the U.S. Army. (Heaven forbid we hear Elvis sing, “Love Me Tender” for Dad would remind us that the melody was really “Army Blue”). He suffered from Bipolar disorder, or what they called manic depression back then.  Looking back on it now, I think he, like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” suffered deep wounds from their service, and it was treated too late or not at all.

I don’t think I ever planned on joining the military when I was a child. I’m a professional musician, a saxophonist by trade. It’s what I always wanted to be. I was living in New York City and had won a competition, and part of the prize was a partially funded debut recital in Weill Recital Hall in Carnegie Hall. I had also just auditioned for, and won, a position in the United States Military Academy Band at West Point. So, four days after my New York recital, I shipped off to basic training. Imagine my surprise when the Drill Sergeant didn’t really care that I had performed in Carnegie Hall, or my chagrin when the 1SGT informed me that there was “no place in today’s Army for an ‘entertainer’.”

I reported for duty at West Point following basic training. I proudly served as a saxophonist in the West Point Band – performing concerts, marching reviews with cadets, playing football games, funerals for Veterans, saying “Job well done, Be Thou at Peace,” performing at state dinners and countless other events. All the while, giving a little wink skyward to my Dad, as I stood at attention and played “The Army Song”. Dad is buried at Arlington and he never got to see me in my uniform or watch me perform with the West Point Band. I knew he was so proud. I loved being in the Army. I loved the physical fitness aspect – feeling strong and looking strong in uniform. I loved being a soldier and serving my country with my unique talents and skills. However, sometimes there was a nagging feeling that maybe I wasn’t a “real soldier” because I only played music. I didn’t fight in battle.

I served for 8 years, from 1996-2004. Upon the birth of my second set of twins (yes, you read that correctly), my husband and I, both in the West Point Band and a Dual-Military couple, were faced with a challenging decision. Raising four children with both of us in the Army and with the exact same schedule, seemed an impossible task. One of us would need to ETS and resign our position. I decided it needed to be me.

What ensued was the worst bout of depression. Raising four children isn’t easy, but don’t misunderstand me – I love my children. I wouldn’t change a single thing. It was a blessing to stay home with them. However, I suffered loss. Loss of a career, loss of the Army. Finding a job as a performing musician again? Those are hard to come by. Besides, I barely had time to get meals fixed or dishes washed. Practicing music was out of the question. I missed wearing a uniform. I missed being a part of the band, being a part of the Army, being a part of the team. I was so depressed that I considered taking my own life. I could not see into the future. I felt hopeless.

Fast forward, my faith and some counselors managed to get me through. I started performing again. I started exercising again. My children grew, and when the youngest set of twins entered Pre-K, I signed up with a personal trainer at the gym. The more I exercised, and the stronger I got, the more confidence I had. I started spinning classes and tried other strength training classes. If it was an exercise class, I was in it! Eventually, with the encouragement of other fitness instructors, I became certified to teach Spinning and other group fitness classes!

Today I’m a wife, mom of four, a performing musician, a music teacher, a fitness instructor and now – a member of Team RWB! When I joined Team RWB, they were very clear that I was a Veteran. It didn’t matter what my job had been in the Army.

So…back to the water and the Triathlon. A dear friend, an Army wife, and a Team RWB member, who had already prayed with me at the beginning of the race, heard my screams for help. She was ahead of me, but she turned around and yelled, “Lois, you are strong. You are an endurance athlete. You can do this! GET ON YOUR BACK AND CATCH YOUR BREATH! GET ON YOUR BACK AND BREATHE.”  I did. I looked up at the sky and was angry. “Didn’t I train enough? I feel so weak! Nobody else is on their back. This is stupid.”  I did the backstroke, getting off-course, but I finally caught my breath.  Starting forward into freestyle, I swam slowly. Really slowly. My feet kept falling because I kept raising my head to look. Other waves of swimmers passed me. I alternated between freestyle and resting on my back. I got off-course and had to make up more distance. I didn’t give up. Finally, I made it to shore – exhausted and disappointed in myself. (OK, I’m a little “Type A”)  As I made up a lot of time on the bike and run, I noticed the greatest thing. Every time I passed a Team RWB member, we cheered for each other. Fist pumps, high fives, “whoo-hoo’s” to keep us going. We were in this together.

After the Triathlon, I thanked my friend for pulling me together and telling me to get on my back. I also saw Craig Dietz going to his car. If you don’t know Craig’s story, here it is: Craig was born without limbs and he swims Triathlon distances and more!

I had seen Craig featured on a YouTube video that went viral on Facebook. He and I started talking about the swim, and he gave me lots of swimming advice and tips for the next time. After talking to Craig, I felt completely uplifted. Actually, the experience of seeing many of our “Wounded Warrior Athletes” was nothing short of awe inspiring. It wasn’t until I got home that I stopped and realized, Craig swims every race on his BACK. If swimming on his back is good enough for him, it’s good enough for ME!

So, how about YOU? Do you miss the teamwork and bonding you experienced in the Military? Are you struggling to find some meaning, or do you just need some inspiration to get moving and keep physically fit?

It doesn’t matter WHAT you did in the military. Every skill-set is important. What matters is that YOU MATTER. Join Team RWB. You won’t regret it. If you’re a family member or even a civilian who never served in the Military, join Team RWB. Take the opportunity, take the encouragement. Someone is there to lift you up. Before you know it, you’ll be encouraging someone else. Get on your back and breathe!

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