Because I wished to live deliberately


This morning, I walked down the sidewalk of my favorite street in America.

Home. Main Street, Cleveland, Oklahoma, USA.

I strolled down the sidewalk painted with tiger paws as I waved at friends through storefront windows. South Hill was in the distance — the cross lit up and the giant Stars and Stripes waving in the wind.

Nothing new about that scenery since I live here, except I was walking to work at the Cleveland American.

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Some things just make sense, right?

And small-town journalism always makes sense to me.

For at least the last 10 years or so, I have freelanced for my small-town weekly paper in addition to my job in the city. The newspaper’s publisher has tried for several years now to lure me away from the Tulsa World and Channel 6 to give the American a boost full-time.

I always put it off because the timing wasn’t quite right. 

Good thing timing always comes back around.

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When you have the choice to do anything or go anywhere you want, but you choose comfort and familiarity — that’s not a lack of courage. It’s an abundance of love.

I may be going from 400,000 people reading my words to 4,000, but that doesn’t matter a lick to me. I just want to do something that matters. I don’t say that to take away from any of the other opportunities I have been given over my career, because I truly have had the greatest platforms for amazing companies, and people I love and respect still work at those beacons of journalism.

But sometimes, something is so obvious to your own soul that you have to say a prayer and shout YES.

Working for a wonderful family I consider friends and passing lifelong acquaintances on the sidewalk every day is a huge positive. And for the first time in 20 years, I have weekends off, no swing shifts, and I won’t have to work around the clock during severe weather or while everyone else is enjoying holidays with their families. I will have a 9-5 life and get to spend more time with those I love. I now will be able to put in more time with the nonprofit I founded, blogging and making jewelry. I will get to experience life like folks with “normal” jobs get to do.

Most of all, I get to write stories I want to write, about the people and places that matter the most to me.

No morning pitch meetings in an attempt to be the one small-town story that gets reported in the evening news. No key demographics. No “hot zip codes.” No “Internet gold.” No sweeps. No story limits. No millions of other things on a checklist a day that take away from storytelling, which is what I love to do most.

Now it is just stories – long and short and happy and sad and silly and important. Community journalism is the only place you consistently can get that kind of coverage of a small town.

While they have their own strengths, TV newscasts are only 17 minutes, and big papers can’t cover every town in all 77 counties. It’s impossible.

Community papers are the backbone of the news pyramid. They are the ones documenting history in towns that don’t have stories sexy enough to draw attention from the bigger outfits. But those stories mean everything to the people who reside there and in towns like them.

I’ve freelanced for the American for a decade, stepping in to help when my schedule would allow. I’ve also done so when my schedule didn’t allow because I believed in the product and wanted to lend a hand. But now, it is my goal, as the new associate editor, to take a load off the publisher so he can focus on other areas of running the publication. As the publisher, he has many duties that go unnoticed if you aren’t in the business.

Sheila, Natasja and Caleb will continue offering instrumental support in the roles they have perfected over time. The place wouldn’t run without them. And I will do what I can to help pack the paper with more content every week.

In return, I hope you will see the added news and appreciate the effort by all of us. You can do that by renewing your subscription or picking up a copy at the store on a regular basis, or most of all, advertising your services. All those things ensure that the newspaper — the oldest business in Cleveland — will continue recording history and life as it unfolds in Pawnee County. While other outlets are important supplements that help us all be informed of the state, nation and world, no other entity except the Cleveland American will tell you about matters important to Cleveland, Oklahoma, just like a newspaper has been doing here since 1894.

Like when I worked in the city, I’ll still be writing about the kind of news that makes us cringe when we have to hear it (or when we have to report it). I’ll also keep records at city council meetings and school board meetings, watching your tax dollars at work. But I’ll be helping to make sure you know about the chili supper and the score to the big game. I’ll make sure your kid gets in the paper for making the honor roll and your grandma is mentioned for her 100th birthday. I’ll write features about the lives of people who make up our river valley – the farmers, ranchers, police officers, oil patch hands, nurses, business owners, clerks, mechanics, waitresses, moms, dads, retirees and veterans.

That means so much to me because those people comprise a town full of friends and neighbors I’ve known my entire life.

Those people are home. Those stories are home. And that feels really good.

And believe it or not, after five years in the TV world, it feels really good to have my shellac manicure stained with newspaper ink again, too.

While some might think a cityscape view is pretty unbeatable, I beg to differ. It’s beautiful in its own way, yes. But through my eyes, you can’t beat a small-town newspaper under your arm, walking down tiger paw sidewalks with a view of the cross and flag atop South Hill in Cleveland, America.

Home.

Because, like Thoreau, I wish to live deliberately.

 

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The day that angered us, changed us and gave us purpose

In my home, I have a framed fabric flag. The edges are worn and unraveling. The color is faded from its days in the sun.

I purchased it on Sept. 13, 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks, I sat on my couch, unmoved, for two days. I constantly watched the news. I called in sick to work. I was in college at Oklahoma State University then (on the seven-year plan), and I skipped classes that week because I was glued to the coverage. The death and destruction of average people just going about their lives was angering and  sickening. It still was unbelievable, even after the OKC bombing, even as I was watching live coverage as men and women were jumping from the Twin Towers to their deaths.

Beautiful souls with families and life left to live, but the cowards gave them no choice. They already had stolen their futures long before that — the second they decided and planned to use planes as weapons to kill.

Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror with an overwhelming want to pitch in, but I didn’t know how or what to do. On the 13th, I went to Walmart and purchased one of those 10-inch fabric flags on a stick. Since I lived a few blocks from campus in an apartment over a garage, I didn’t have a place to fly a big flag from a porch.

I settled for my little Walmart flag instead. I removed the stick and I stapled the corners of it to the rail of the stairs that went up to my apartment. When I moved to Chicago, it was taped up in the tiny window in my bedroom closet, which faced the courtyard of my building in Wrigleyville. When I moved to North Carolina, it had its own place in my underwear drawer. I framed it when I moved home to Oklahoma, and I am reminded of its meaning every day.

Back then, that $2 flag made me feel like I was doing something to help, or at least to recognize, those directly affected by horrific acts of terror – acts of war.

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A few years ago, I decided to take it a step further and I asked myself, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”

I recalled sitting in an upper-level history class the week after the 9/11 attack. My professor made an announcement. He said he wanted all of us to know that the young man who usually sat on the end of the third row had withdrawn from school to join the Air Force. He went to enlist on Sept. 12. We had a moment of silence to pray individually for him and then all 100 of us sat unmoved for what seemed like forever before the prof dismissed class early with these words…

“Whatever your calling is in life, do it with purpose.”

It took me a few years to establish my purpose. With family members and dear friends who have served the United States in uniform, I figured there was no better way to honor their bravery, and those still sacrificing, than to “adopt” members of the military,

I first chose a group of Texans, because a PFC who was serving as his unit’s liaison wrote a moving care package request to AnySoldier.com that said this:

“It would be nice to read not only things from the national scene, but local things as well. Things like which kid won the area spelling bee, or the 4-H competition. It doesn’t really matter which state or town the paper’s from… any city in America is home to us all.”

I sobbed instantly, and through the tears, I requested that particular unit’s address. Reading that excerpt made me realize I most definitely was doing the right thing by writing to random soldiers fighting for America’s protection. Because, like he wrote in that email, no matter who read my letter, no matter what state or town the soldier was from …any soldier serving America is a hero to us all.

After a few care packages, some correspondence and many thank yous on both ends, the military moved “my” unit to an undisclosed location where it was unable to receive mail. I was worried about those soldiers like I would have been about my own brother or sister. Every time bad news hit about Iraq, I shuddered. I almost was too scared to find out to which unit the fallen belonged. Two months later, I found out my entire unit was resting on America’s shores, safe and sound until its next mission. I was relieved, but I knew there were others out there, fighting in much worse areas of the world, some very remote and practically uncivilized.

So again, I went to AnySoldier.com and scrolled through the list, but this time I just closed my eyes and chose a name. With a click of the mouse, I was new friends with a unit from Virginia serving in Afghanistan.

And the next day I wrote, among other more lighthearted things, this message in a letter:

“…Because I don’t know what information you are able to receive about life back in the states, I feel as though it is necessary to tell you this: I suppose there always will be clashing opinions when it comes to war, but know that everyone I come in contact with and everyone I know has an enormous amount of respect and supports your mission fully. Like you, we all hope that casualties will be low and morale will remain high.

I can tell you that DAILY, I pray for peaceful resolutions and the safe return of all the men and women who are on foreign soil. I try to say a silent “thank you” often. And, in case you are wondering, I am not even close to being alone in doing so. I hear so many people talk about how proud they are of those who are showing such courage. It makes me think about how wonderful God is, in that there are so many people suited for so many different things in life, but He made the hearts of soldiers so large that they are willing to protect people they don’t even know. American people. Iraqi people. Afghans. People all over the world are on the receiving end of your courage, and they live better lives for it. I am not sure of your religious beliefs, but I do know that the Lord is protecting you, just as you protect complete strangers.”

I received a heartfelt email response from the unit’s 1SG (typos included):

“Dear Ms. Ball,
Thank you for your support of the troops. The letter you wrote made our men and women tear up and even smile. They are soldiers and trained well but the appreciation shown by civilians like you are what keeps them goin. Words cant express what it means when these soldiers receive a letter from the states. i believe that the Lord will bless you in your life because of the kindness you have in your heart.

The hunting and sports magazines and newspapers you sent are a good distraction. The women are thankful someone thought to send a Cosmo or two. They were fighting over them!!! It is nice to take a break and read things like magazines and books and pretend that there isn’t a war going on and it’s nice to remember that there are people back home who depend on us and who appreciate the sacrifices our men and women are making everyday. Please pass this along to all of your friends that we hope they will keep praying for us all!!!

Sometimes its tough but I guess the thing that gets most of us by is that we know that a few months of danger for us means lord willing many years of safety for our families and our country. Life here for me isn’t really so bad. Im proud to be here and proud to serve and i miss my wife and girls, but i belong to my country and i am proud to be here helping guide these young soldiers in their paths. Things could be worse and for some of these guys it is. One of the men here just found out that his wife back home in South Carolina has cancer. When i start to feel sorry for myself in this hell hole -I think about him and how strong he is to be here and be so far away from his loved ones and how strong his beautiful Chelsea is to be going through her illness alone right now. Soldiers like that are everywhere here and they just get up and keep going because they feel like they have a purpose.

please keep the mail coming, because they need all the morale boost they can get. mostly everyone is focused and keeps up their spirits, but this is a rough country and sometimes we spend weeks in places you would not dream about going but we’ll get through and be better people because of it. Hopefully we’ll have a better country because of it also.

Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. We look forward to your next package. We enjoy the things you sent and if they’re donations please extend thanks for us. You don’t have to send things but we sure do appreciate it. sometimes a nice letter is enough.

God Bless you and God Bless The USA.”

And I sobbed again. That was not my first correspondence with a soldier in battle, but it’s something you never get used to. It still is mind-boggling to think there are people out there who care so much for my freedom, my safety, my corner of the country… that they would put their lives on the line.

Sure, we hear that every day. Soldiers are heroes, yada, yada, blah, blah. People sometimes say those words with such ease that I wonder if they even understand their depth. But I urge you — the next time you say them — think about it. Really, really think about the power behind those words and try to picture, for one moment, what a day in the life of a military member in time of war would be like.

And think about “my” First Sergeant, who had the right to ask his fellow Americans for anything and everything he wanted. He, and thousands like him, gave up their own lives because they felt a calling to protect us. He could have asked for ANYTHING and he should have.

But instead, he simply said, “a nice letter is enough.”

That little worn-out flag stapled to my staircase in 2001 made me feel as though I was doing something to help. And now, I suppose this blog post is my way of helping. Please utilize the AnySoldier.com service. Do it with your children. The idea of it is decades-old, dating back to when Americans would address a handwritten envelope to “Dear Any Serviceman,” and send it abroad during World War II. Now you can use the Internet to narrow it down to hometown kids or people from your state. There also are sister organizations: AnyMarine, AnySailor, AnyAirman, AnyCoastGuard.

If America is to succeed in suffering as few casualties abroad as possible, it really does begin with support on the homefront.

I didn’t pen this post looking for a pat on the back for what I’ve done in this regard, so please, no thank yous to me are necessary.

But a simple thank you card sent to “Any Soldier” could be your little worn-out flag moment.

Like the young man at the end of the third row — whatever your calling is, do it with purpose.

 

 

Silly girl, tears don’t put out wildfires

My family always has been my refuge.

I was blessed with good examples. As a child, I was blessed with food on my plate and parents who insisted we eat a home-cooked supper together, at the kitchen table, every night.

I was blessed with a roof over my head.

I was blessed with a grandpa and daddy who built that home with their blood, sweat and tears.

Five years ago this week, however, the tears falling were mine.

I leaned against the end of the house, in the driveway where my brother learned to ride his tricycle and where my sister and I practiced our dribbling drills and cheer routines and would wave at high school boys driving past on the county road.

I leaned against the garage. And I cried hard.

Then I heard my Grandma Peggy’s loving and wise voice:“Brandi Lynn, it doesn’t do any good to cry. Now straighten up and quit it. You quit that right now.”

She handed me a box of items my mama wanted to save and told me to take it to the car.

She was right. Tears weren’t productive. The flames in the pasture across the road were nearing the neighbors’ house and moving at a rapid pace toward us.

As my brother was climbing on my parents’ roof and wetting it down, it seemed like we were up against Goliath. A little garden hose against a merciless opponent.

I felt defeated.

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As a journalist, I try to have the utmost sensitivity for the people I write about. I’ve lost sleep over other people’s struggles. I’ve taken notes as I watched people sift through soot or tornado damage as they searched for heirlooms. I’ve sneaked into a newsroom bathroom stall and wept after talking to someone about their mom’s cancer battle. I have sat shaking in my car after interviewing someone about brutal domestic abuse. I’ve sobbed alone because I don’t want to have to write about someone’s crime or bad decision.

And when interviewing a mother who lost a daughter to a tragic accident, my wall of professionalism fell. Instead of retreating to privacy, I just cried alongside her. Still, every Labor Day weekend, I remember Jen’s family.

For about 15 years or so, I’ve helped report the news. From Big 12 Championship games to school board meetings to murder trials, I have been busy scribbling shorthand, detailing life as it happens to everyone else.

But on that day of the 2011 wildfire, neighbors were praying, firefighters were against all odds, and my extended family drove from more than an hour away to help.

News helicopters circled overhead. Fellow reporters stood at the property’s edge.

I was in the story and not writing it.

As much as I pride myself on being a compassionate journalist, it’s much different when your pains are first hand instead of second hand.

It may be only a house. It may have insurance and it may be replaceable. My parents may be able to carry on just fine if a fire were to destroy it.

While material things aren’t important, the experiences are.

As the blaze danced on, I had a flashback to times I’d deliver water jugs or sandwiches out to daddy and grandpa or sat on a sawhorse and dangled my legs as I watched them work harder than I’ve ever seen any two people work.

I thought about how my parents would time our sibling leg races or watch us catch fireflies or play with us in the yard — made-up games or real ones — every night like we were a chapter in an Ozzie and Harriet biography.

It was the house that daddy and grandpa built, but it also was the house that built me.

Watching the fire rage out of control, a pit in my stomach increased as it crept toward a poor and unprepared defense. For a moment I leaned again — on a tree. I remembered when I was a kid and daddy brought home what seemed like a billion trees for our new 3-acre yard, which at the time really was an extension of our pasture and in need of a lot of TLC.

It was raining that day, but we had to plant them before they would die. Rain coats and galoshes in the mud, we planted those suckers all day, and I thought it was the most horrible experience of my short, little life. I muttered under my breath.

Torture to a preteen.

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But as the fire grew five- or six-stories tall just 200 yards away from the house full of my memories, I leaned against that tree and nearly lost my legs from under me.

I cried thinking about how I hated planting it years ago and how I didn’t want it to burn.

I thought about how I would plow over the little runt tree on the southwest side of the house every summer when I mowed the yard to earn my allowance.

“Bubba, do you ever pay attention?” daddy would ask me what seemed like every week.

On that day five years ago, ash raining from the sky and heat radiating off the prairie as the flames raced across it, I was paying attention.

The grass wasn’t in need of a lawn mower. In fact, it was so dry, brittle and brown it could have been December instead of summer. The Oklahoma drought was a monster, and the blades of dead grass were eaten alive instantaneously by growing fire, likely caused by the careless toss of a cigarette.

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And my brother, with his measly garden hose, was climbing on the back porch and wetting down the house while other relatives used the sprayer on the tractor to add a moisture barrier to the ground.

We didn’t stop. The firefighters, who were dwarfed by walls of towering flames that were engulfing cedars and bales of hay in nanoseconds, didn’t stop either.

We all kept on trying to outsmart the Goliath standing in our midst. We kept working diligently — not with tears, but with hope and lightweight garden hoses and a barren pond. We did it all while praying for heavenly reprieve. A shift in the wind, some rain, something.

We got a little of both in the knick of time.

The firefighters were able to stop the inferno mere feet from the neighbors’ house, and the house across the street, the one that built me, was saved.

As everyday struggles of all types continue to come in this life, sometimes I catch myself leaning and crying. Sometimes I feel helpless to the roller coaster. Confused. Alone. Mistreated. Outmatched. Smaller than David with a slingshot.

But then I straighten up, determined not to give up, and I go after those giant flames with my puny garden hose.

I pray.

I rise from the ashes.

Then I become the fire.

The shift in the winds of circumstance surely will follow.

 


(This column also was published on Aug. 10 in my hometown newspaper, The Cleveland American, for which I often report as a special correspondent.)

 

 

We’re all just 16-year-old girls working on loving ourselves

Knock, knock. Real talk.

I chatted with a sweet teenager today who came to me for advice. 

Whenever this happens, I am:

1.)  Shocked anyone would want my advice, and then I start to sweat.
2.)  Terrified of steering someone else’s child in the wrong direction.
3.)  Always end up learning something about myself.

Maybe that’s part of the grand plan. The Big Guy knows I need to hear what comes out of my mouth as much as a 16-year-old girl does, so He’s really sending her to teach me

Maybe we’re all 16-year-old girls inside.

I wholeheartedly believe no one is above learning and growing, even if you are someone a teenager thinks is pretty together.

Newsflash: I am not pretty together. Hardly. More like “ugly together.” I’m stitched together with premium mascara and adequate spellcheck. 

I’m good at navigating the rough spots and good at smiling and good at letting things roll off my back. In other words, I have the uncomfortable pageant wave down when people are watching.

But I’m a mess like the rest.

I get nervous. I’m an extrovert who is intensely private. I second-guess myself. I agonize over my body. I have trust issues. I worry. I have irrational fears.

Quite the catch, eh?

Enter my sweet teenage friend.

“Brandi, I don’t understand boys. I need advice.”

“Sweetie, don’t feel bad because I don’t understand boys and I’m 20 years older than you. And I don’t think they understand us either, so it’s actually a level playing field.”

After deciding that dissecting matters of the heart would require a year-long retreat in the woods, complete with professors, flow charts and a works cited page, she decided to abandon that for a related topic.

“I wish I was more like [name omitted]. She’s always perfect. I’m nothing like her and won’t ever be.”

“Well, that’s good. Because I like her the way she is and I like you the way you are. If there were two of you the same, how would you stand out? You’d be robots. Robots are creepy.”

“[Sigh] I wish I was like you, Brandi.”

Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

“An awkward worry wart who only trusts like four living beings and trips on her own feet and dribbles ketchup on herself every time she eats french fries?” I asked.

She was taken aback to find that I had issues as well.

“Whatever. You’re funny and always laughing and pretty and everyone likes you and you have an awesome job and you do lots of things for the community. You’re so confident.”

Blink. Blink. Blink. Blink.

✔️Lame jokes. And 99 percent of the time I’m laughing at something dumb I did because life’s too short to take yourself seriously. [Plus, it’s a better workout than crunches]
✔️Makeup. All the makeup. All the kinds.
✔️Get paid peanuts for intense, stressful work.
✔️Anyone can volunteer in the community. [Do it!]
✔️The confidence honestly is a mirage with more shoreline than the Pacific.

“So, you see, I’m nothing special,” I said.

Light bulb.

“Except, you know what? I am special, and so are you.”

We went into a deeper discussion about how we see ourselves, what our worth is and how we can project the good parts from the inside so people see them on the outside as well.

But here’s the gist of what I told her, and in turn, need tattooed on my own arm. It’s an everyday lesson with which I also struggle.

Whether we are 16 or 38, it is human to have insecurities. We all have them. We all fight them. No one is exempt — not by gender or class or education level.

The difference in being insecure and being secure despite our insecurities is all in the approach. I simply have learned am learning to be empowered by my insecurities instead of letting them imprison me.

Everyone is a work in progress.

We all have moments when we feel “less than” another, which basically is nonsense because we are meant to be an exclusive version of a person. Even if you are a twin, your heart and soul are exclusive editions.

The sooner we realize this, the sooner we understand that comparison is not even possible between people. You can’t rightly compare two or more things if they have different components making them tick.

It’s a false test.

You are meant to be you. You are an exclusive.

So when you feel “less than,” remember that you are “more than” in the eyes of others who are on the outside looking toward you.

Sometimes you are a 38-year-old paradox who is surprised others see past her oddities and focus instead on her positives. Sometimes that 38-year-old has trouble accepting compliments — whether out of modesty or embarrassment or disbelief. 

“You look really great today.”

“Oh, hi. [Me, looking away] Do you like sandwiches? Sandwiches are good.”

Accept that others see you for who you are — not for who you think you aren’t.

The scars and blemishes prove you show up for life. The tears leave stains like train tracks to your heart so the right person can find their way to it. The failures are not anchors to hold you down, but they are weights you can hoist to increase your own strength.

Your life is not supposed to be like anyone else’s life.

Your face is not supposed to look like anyone else’s face.

Your body is not supposed to curve like anyone else’s body.

Your mind is not supposed to function like anyone else’s mind.

You are you. 

Be messy. Be silly. Be forgetful. Be weird. Be unorganized. Be full of faults. But constantly be working to overcome your faults, and have the grace to recognize some things you consider to be faults aren’t faults at all.

They are your fingerprint.

Be proud of your mind. Be beautiful with your deeds. Be merciful with your words. Be a mix of all the things that make up your soul.

Just be you.

When something is considered to be valuable, it isn’t because there are a million replicas. It’s because it is rare and unique and full of character.

Be authentic. Be a collector’s item. Be an enigma. 

Just be you, and watch your relationships with other people and yourself grow.

Then watch your world change like the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy goes from seeing black and white in her otherwise monochromatic life — to bright and vivid wonder.

Only you can color the scenes of your life.

Only you can outmuscle your thoughts and put your insecurities to sleep.

Don’t concentrate on what others have and what you have not. Don’t stay stuck in a daydream about being someone else’s understudy and miss the opening to morph into your own starring role full of color.

Sweet 16 or closing in on 40 — it’s never too late to start embracing yourself.

It’s a great, big place out there. We’re all specks on specks of tiny matter that make up an entire universe on a ball suspended in the atmosphere. That universe, believe it or not, depends on every skill and every quirk of the people inhabiting it.

And it is breathtaking.

So be a beautiful mess. Write your name all over the insecurities and triumphs, click those heels and truly believe that there’s no skin like your own.

Be who you need to be, but be honest about who that is.

Never forget there is a 16-year-old girl out there watching you. And be the someone she needs to take the lead.

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Related post: Birthday presence — 37 things I tell myself about life

 

One came home. One didn’t.

The house full of love waiting for SSG Kirk Owen’s return sat on Freedom Street in Sapulpa. Fitting for a man who went across the globe to give his all in the name of freedom.

Owen never returned to kiss his wife or to see his children’s milestones.

SFC Mike Hamilton (now retired) was a 29-year veteran from Cleveland, Okla., when he was awarded the Purple Heart in 2014.

In accepting the medal, he selflessly deferred all references to heroism and placed them on the memory of Owen and the others who were killed in action during the tour.

Owen died protecting the platoon, Hamilton said.

Memorial Day is about honoring centuries of fallen military members and vowing never to take for granted the ultimate gesture of love for country.

Please pause this Memorial Day and think of Owen and those who have given their all in battle.

Some of them came home. Some of them didn’t.

Two years ago, I was privileged as a journalist to write about the brotherhood that binds Hamilton and Owen… even in death.

Here’s the story as it appeared in The Cleveland American newspaper, May 21, 2014.

 

A warrior’s heart

Humble Cleveland soldier awarded prestigious badge of merit

By Brandi Ball

Lined up in formation at the 41st Street Armory on Sunday, the men and women of the Oklahoma National Guard stood together not only as one group but as one family.

One by one, the soldiers of the HHC First Battalion, 279th Infantry marched off to the side, leaving Sergeant First Class Michael S. Hamilton, of Cleveland, standing at attention.

As his family and friends watched with pride, mouths curved into joyous smiles and eyes brimming with tears, Hamilton reached his hand up to his forehead and saluted his superiors as he was pinned with the Purple Heart.

The world’s oldest military decoration still in use, the Purple Heart is given to a soldier who is wounded or killed in battle. It is wounds like Hamilton’s – incurred during patrol in Afghanistan in 2011 – which mark a soldier’s body and serve as a constant reminder of triumphs and sacrifices alike.

For the 29-year military veteran who has served on three overseas tours (Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan), the piece of brass signifies everything the Army stands for and the promise soldiers make to do whatever it takes.

For some, it took their lives.

Like Staff Sergeant Kirk Owen, who Hamilton said courageously put himself in danger in order to spare his fellow soldiers.

Thankfully, Hamilton’s family – including wife Trish and their children – welcomed him home. Owen’s family didn’t get the same blessing. It’s something Hamilton has vowed never to forget about his fallen friend.

Hamilton said Sunday’s ceremony was “a chance to reflect and give honor to those who didn’t make it home or have already received the Purple Heart.”

After resisting a public ceremony at first out of humility, which most soldiers seem to have in abundance, Hamilton said he later realized he shouldn’t look at the Purple Heart as an individual award. It’s an award for the last name sewn across his chest, yes, but it’s also a way to stand up and honor every member of the Army who risked, fought and paid a price: His military family, his American brothers.

“It is like Col. Kinison said, the Purple Heart is not about me, it is about the soldiers,” Hamilton said. “After some thought, he was absolutely right. It’s about giving honor to those soldiers that didn’t make it home. It is about being humble and grateful that I was not killed and was able to come home to my family. It shows other soldiers that even though you are wounded, you continue with the mission.”

Honoring another’s sacrifice

Hamilton’s last mission, along with others deployed, was to search and face the enemy and protect the people of Afghanistan, he said.

“Each time we left the gate of our forward operation base, we all knew the real mission; it was to protect each other no matter what the cost,” he said. “That is what Kirk Owen did. …The day that Kirk was killed, he chose to be in the lead vehicle. He told SFC Bliss that for this particular mission, he was best suited for the lead vehicle. He knew the route was going to be dangerous. We all knew something bad was going to happen that day. It almost made us sick to our stomachs. Kirk knew and everyone in his platoon knew the risk.”

It’s memories like those of Owen’s final act of bravery that can bring soldiers to their knees. Even though sacrifice is the basic tenet of their jobs, realizing someone else risked it all so you could live changes a soldier. Soldiers not only give of themselves to civilians, but also receive that same gift from their comrades.

“For 8 hours we would stop, soldiers would exit the vehicle, skirt the road searching for IEDs and check every culvert along the route,” Hamilton said. “The members of the platoon would volunteer to change out with the lead vehicle to give those soldiers rest — not just from being tired, but from the mental stress of putting their lives on the line. Those men that I had the privilege of being attached to [the day Owen died] are true heroes. I knew that every time I was attached to the Scout Platoon any one of those soldiers would risk the ultimate sacrifice. Not just for me but anyone that was with them.”

Injuries Hamilton sustained while he was in Afghanistan are lasting. He carries with him many wounds that still plague him daily, although he tries not to let his pain show, and it’s not something on which he wants to focus. His family, however, knows his private struggles.

“I am very proud of Mike,” wife Trish said. “This last deployment has been really tough on him. He knows that he could be consumed by anger if he allowed it, so he tries to stay positive, to cherish life, to cherish family and friends and to remember that The Lord must have a plan for him that still needs to be fulfilled or he wouldn’t be here.”

The greater purpose

As Hamilton said, the mission doesn’t stop because a soldier plants his feet back on American soil again. Likely, for him, it won’t even end with his retirement in June. Soldiers always seem to find a way to keep giving back to society. They hang up the fatigues, but they still are partial to metaphoric camouflage, sowing seeds in private without need for thanks. They might think they are sneaky, but people notice good works.

Trish loves her husband’s servant heart because it has a domino effect on her children and teaches them lessons about life, community and appreciation.

“My kids have always known that their dad did something special, and it was never because of something he did or I said,” Trish said. “Our wonderful community taught them that. They saw the way people looked at him when he was in uniform. They saw how they went out of their way to shake his hand, to say a word of thanks and sometimes even secretively buying his lunch. They saw that he was respected and that is something I am very grateful for.”

And each of the times he was deployed, Trish, who is a teacher at Cleveland High School, saw the community band together to ensure her family was doing OK with its leader across the globe in grave danger. She shared her husband with America, so Cleveland stepped in and took special care of her.

“I know that not all military families have this kind of support,” Trish said. “My mother-in-law, who isn’t from here, was amazed by how our community went out of their way for us. It was proof that we live in the best little town in the world.”

For military families, the fears of the unknown loom every second of every day.

“Seeing an unfamiliar car pull in your driveway can take your breath away as it may mean that they are coming to tell you face to face the devastating news that your soldier didn’t make it,” Trish said. “And I can’t describe the different feeling you get when you miss a call from your soldier in comparison to missing a call from anyone else.”

The cold, hard reality of battle is that the bravest and the best, like Hamilton, sometimes are wounded. The good guys, like Owen, sometimes don’t get a parade or a special ceremony. Sometimes they get a funeral.

“Getting awarded the Purple Heart is a honor, but the true honor of being awarded this medal is always remembering the cost that soldiers like Kirk placed themselves in arms way to protect soldiers like me, that I might come home to (my wife) and the kids,” Hamilton said.

Like many soldiers before him, Hamilton refuses to look at himself as a hero, even though he went through the same risks and dangers as the others. You’ll never hear him admit it.

The real heroes, he says, are the ones like Owen. The real heroes, according to SFC Michael S. Hamilton, are the 14 fellow soldiers in his group who put their lives above everything else and were sent off with a 21-gun salute after a trip home from Afghanistan in a pine box.

Hamilton doesn’t only know about their sacrifices, he benefitted from them. He witnessed them. He lived because of them.

“It is one thing to hear about [heroes] in ceremonies or at a graveyard service,” Hamilton said. “It is another thing to be able to witness it firsthand, to be one of those soldiers that Kirk and the members of his crew protected. So for me, it gives a different meaning of being awarded the Purple Heart.”

And on Sunday in that armory, the true colors of a soldier’s heart bled through.

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A first kiss under a tree. Now he’s forever 14.

If there was one thing I could bank on when I was a kid, it was that Jason would be on my front porch, waiting for me to finish my supper so we could play basketball.

It was like clockwork.

Every day, Daddy came home from work at the same time — nearly to the second.

Mama would have home-cooked goodness ready 30 minutes later. Then we’d all sit down together and eat.

As long as it wasn’t raining or snowing, my neighbor Jason would be sitting right past the screen door, ready for a game of H-O-R-S-E.

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My comfort. My conscience. My Mama.

I believe in love.

I believe in it because my Mama gives of it so freely to me. Every day I have had breath in my lungs I have felt love because Mama has made sure of it.

As I’ve aged, she’s become one of my best friends.

She’s my comfort. She’s my partner.

She’s still my guidance. But she’s foremost my Mama.

One of my favorite things is when people meet Mama for the first time. Almost always, they tell me afterward how sweet and kind and cute she is.

Mama is all of those things and so much more. If her giggle could be bought and sold, the world would be even lovelier. She’s a force to be reckoned with, but she still has the laugh and demeanor of a sweet little girl.

I was blessed with a Mama who comes from a long line of incredible Mamas. They all showed me how to be a lady. They also showed me that being a lady is many things. They engrained within me that compassion and strength can co-exist — that a lady can be both soft and smart, both silly and serious, both vulnerable and independent — all at the same time.

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. -Proverbs 31:26″

I also have a Daddy whose Mama raised him to be the man needed to raise a challenge like me. The lessons she passed down to him as a mother live on in him as a father. His work ethic, his honesty, his unfailing love for his children – that’s him, but it’s helped along by her example. It’s an example he furthered by choosing the perfect woman to be my Mama.

All of those mothers in my family taught me a woman’s mind and heart and soul should be the most beautiful things about her.

Pretty is as pretty does. Exercise your brain. Guard your heart. Share your soul.

That’s what they taught me.

Home is where Mama is, and Mama always is with me, where it counts. Along with Jesus, she’s my conscience.

No matter how old I grow to be, I know Mama will be right there offering the same unstoppable love.

I’m 38 years old, but she still holds me tightly when I am hurting. She lifts me up when I feel weak. She praises me when I am successful. She supports me when I am doubtful. She prays for me. She never stops teaching me how to navigate this crazy life.

No one knows about love more than a mother.

Mama sent handwritten note cards to me while I was in college, a confused girl with emotions abound. Years and years later, her sage words remain some of my prized possessions. She explained what love is and what it is not. She reminded me that love – actual love – is the purest form of God. Her words… written by her hand… formed by her heart… straight to mine.

Good looking out, Mama.

Thank you for always being the one who guides me.

There’s an age-old question people ask all the time: Who would you be if you could be someone else?

I could quote an eloquent wordsmith or poet, but in the spirit of “pretty is as pretty does,” maybe simple lines from a rough-around-the-edges Red Dirt band say it all:

“I guess what they say is true, all you need is one good friend. And in the next life, we’ll wanna be ourselves again.”

My friend. My Mama.

I’d always pick to be me. Because then I’d have her.

 

From Mama to me, years ago. The best advice I’ve ever been given…

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#OKLegacies: The standard of grace and hope

It’s time for another anniversary of a dark day.

“The Oklahoma Standard” has guided me in many things throughout my life. Most of all, it has taught me that if you look really hard — grace floats to the top of the depths of pain.

Below is an editorial I wrote for the Cleveland American three years ago, a day after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The Oklahoma Standard sort of took over my mind that day, so I started writing.

Watching the news come out of Boston served as a reminder of OKC. It was a reminder of hopelessness and of pain.

But even though grace is tough to come by during times of confusion and anger — the 168 souls that perished on April 19, 1995 still teach us grace every single day with their brave Oklahoma spirit still very much alive in the loved ones they left behind.

And the countless compassionate people who led our state through the tunnel and toward the light — then and now — keep our eyes focused on carrying that grace forth.

Here’s that column on Boston from three years ago, which I think is fitting for us on this anniversary of when Oklahoma City was terrorized by cowards.

God bless the 168.


Rescue hope by choking out the hate
By Brandi Ball

Published: 4/17/2013, The Cleveland American

What happened in Boston on Monday rocks my soul.
Bombs placed in a crowd of people, only to incite death and destruction?
I heard someone say afterward: “Bad has always existed. It’s not hard to believe this happened. It’s actually pretty easy to believe it. People are just evil.”
While evil is a concept that dates back almost to the inception of good, I still gasp with disbelief when things like this happen. Because no matter how much tragedy is in our world, I still believe in the good.
I believe that kindness and love reign on this Earth, no matter how much evil tries to encroach.
McViegh blew up OKC, bin Laden blew up NYC, and people all over this world are killed by hate every minute. There are unfeeling people and racists and bullies and people who live to see others suffer.
And, yes, even knowing all of that, it still jolts my soul when an intentional act does harm to others.
Perhaps that’s just my hopefulness taking root, but I always want to be stopped in my tracks with a “this is unbelievable,” look on my face when it comes to seemingly malicious matters. Because the minute I become accustomed to an idea that evil acts inherently occur in my world, that is the moment goodness begins to lose the battle.
I don’t ignore the bad. I’m very aware of its existence. But when we find it easy to believe people can callously take another’s life, that is the moment we feed oxygen to the fire. When evil becomes routine instead of anomaly, that’s when evil begins to take bigger breaths and grow and reproduce. And that’s happening right now, this week, while folks’ hearts are hardening, because constantly being on the outside looking in on tragedy is getting too painful.
My heart is hurting. I overwhelmingly trust in good and believe, on all levels, that it outweighs evil. But some days, in some places like Boston, it wasn’t strong enough. My heart is shattered because I’m disappointed brotherly love can’t always be the victor.
Instead of choosing hatred for those who do evil acts, let our hearts be softened by the heroism performed by clergy, first-responders, police, doctors, nurses, volunteers and even innocent children who are dropped to their knees in prayer.
Why? Because the alternative is too risky.
The only other option will ensure we become caught in raging flames of those evil fires. We can’t be trapped in the backdraft.
Through all the noise, never forget that things of beauty and acts of understanding and kindness are happening in all corners of this Earth. In every country. In every city. In every village. And no matter how many times evil happens this world over — no matter if it’s women being persecuted in the Middle East or genocide in Africa or murderous drug lords in Central America or dictators stealing the dignity of their countrymen or guns being shot at innocent schoolchildren or theater-goers or bombs being set off in a cheerful Boston crowd or an Oklahoma City daycare — I will still be in disbelief, time and time again.
It’s OK to be sad. I am, and deeply so. But take solace in knowing that for every one hateful coward, there are a million-plus good shepherds of society… male, female, young, old, black and white and every other shade of complexion.
We outnumber them.
When bad happens, my heart still will waver in its beating upon the announcement. My soul still will search for a way to write it off as a dream, even though it isn’t possible or logical. And my eyes always will search for those who, instead of flippantly saying, “people are just evil,” are already at work trying to choke out the hate and water the garden of kindness.
Good will win. Honor will prevail over grace.
We can’t succumb to a belief that hate cannot be overcome.
Love is alive.
But we must keep nourishing it or else we also are guilty — not of murder or of evil, but of apathy.
We will be guilty of allowing people to die in vain, all because we forgot the strength of goodness and hopefulness when they stand together as one.
Never forget to look for the grace.

 

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My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s. Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.

#OKlegacies: The Hag is gone, but I think he’ll stay

Merle Haggard’s baritone. I mean, c’monnnnn.

It’s smooth. It’s strong. It’s unmistakeable.

Yes, I’m talking about his voice in present tense even though he died today.

That’s the beauty of artists, of people who create. Their physical presence is missed by their family, those who love them most. But because they are artists, writers, musicians who have living, breathing documentation of their life — their talents and connection to people are preserved for all time.

Artists are timeless beyond the grave.

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Sundays in my city: Donna was our head cheerleader

I am a firm believer in “encouragers.” They make our world softer and kinder and lovelier.

Encouragers are people who always are finding someone else to support and cheer on to success. They are a breath of fresh air in a polluted “it’s-all-about-me” world.

Competition is everywhere; trust me, I work in one of the most competitive industries on the planet, so I know it all too well.

Sometimes it’s tough to find the encouragers because everyone is so focused on their own victories. But those bright lights are out there, shining sweetly, waiting on a chance to uplift someone else.

Donna Alburty Davis was one of the beacons that lit the paths of my hometown. The lights flickered last week when word came of her sudden death at a very youthful 69 years old.

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