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Finding serenity

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Eric Price
  • 386th Expeditionary Security Forces
This is my story. It's a very hard story to tell because it's personal. I want it to be a happy story but I haven't seen it end yet. It's not the entire story either. Some parts of this story aren't for you. It is a story of loss, torment, inspiration, fear, anguish and family. When I say family, I don't only mean those people I see at reunions, but of family honed by sacrifice, love and dedication to the ideas we hold true as Americans.

My last deployment was to Joint Base Balad, Iraq. I was there for just over four months when I received a Red Cross message that my mother's cancer brought her close to the end of her story. I was relieved of duty and sent home on emergency leave. When I arrived home I went to my mother on what would be her death bed. She was frail, had lost weight and was delirious from the pain wracking her body. Medication could do little to ease the pain at this point.

She was babbling and saying words that made up incoherent sentences. I grabbed her hand and told her I was here and I had come back for her. She looked at me, smiled and told me she was so happy to see me. I told her I loved her and she told me she loved me. That was all she had left. The pain took over and those words were the last she said before she died hours later.

Days later we buried her. Still confused by the daze fresh grief puts you in, we shook hands, hugged, and accepted statements of bereavement from friends, family and neighbors.

There was little left for me there so I went home to my wife and daughters to spend time with them, fresh with the memory of how precious and fleeting life can be. I made the most of my time with them. We played, went to the park, went on walks and genuinely appreciated each other. At the end, my oldest daughter begged me not to go back. My middle daughter asked why they couldn't just bring the war here so I wouldn't have to go. My baby daughter waited till the end to tell me good bye in her own special way.

The time to leave was upon us. I loaded up my Wrangler with my bags and gave my love to my oldest daughter who had to head off to school. My wife and I headed to the airport with my other daughters.

We pulled up to the terminal where I hugged and kissed each of my girls while saying good bye. I then unloaded my bags and hugged and kissed my wife good bye. I turned to grab my bags and head inside to get ticketed when my youngest daughter said, "I love you Daddy! You go to work." I knew what she meant and was simply astounded. She wanted to spare me the guilty feeling of leaving her behind which is uncharacteristic of anyone her age. She, of all my girls, shouldn't have understood, but in that one moment burned into my mind, on replay every day, moved me to give her one more hug and kiss before leaving.

I met up with other military members in Philadelphia returning from emergency leave at the same time. We all had stories of grief and time spent with family. I commented about what my daughter said to me, amazed that someone so young could be so graceful.

It was a long trip back. It took us all four days to get back to Balad. We waited at the terminal every day hoping to catch the next aircraft headed that way and we were all dirty and exhausted. When we got back I grabbed one of my section's vehicles and took the others around to get fed. One was staying on Balad and two soldiers were heading back to their forward operating base the next day. I took them to get showers and then dropped them off at their accommodations giving them instructions on how to get to the helicopter transports they needed.

From there, I went back to my room desperate for a shower and unpacked my bags. I put a hand in my last bag ready to grab my shower shoes and towel for a shower when there was a loud knock at my door. I opened the door to see my entire leadership section standing outside my trailer.

"MSgt Price, I have some bad news." I noticed the chaplain standing close to my commander. "Your youngest daughter has passed away."

Life went into a spiraling nose dive. I headed home on a C-17 equipped with a critical care unit to carry injured military members back to Germany. I remember heading back, looking at the finest young men and women America had to offer tormented with the realization that I would give anything to trade places with all of them at once if it would mean I could have my daughter back.

I arrived home early in the morning the next day. I asked to see my daughter before her autopsy. I finally showered and got a couple hours of sleep then headed to the hospital. For anyone who is reading this who has children, I can only relate the feeling to one thing.

Nearly all parents I know have walked past their slumbering infant's room checking on them to see them motionless. Fear drives us to walk up to the crib and lean down to touch their chest just to see if they are breathing. That absolute fear is what I was feeling when I went to the hospital.

I was led to a chapel in the basement. I entered the room where her body laid atop an altar, on a large metal sheet I knew would hold her body parts shortly after I left. I slowly walked to her. I looked down at her little body and placed my hand on her chest hoping I could feel the rise and fall - Nothing. I told her I loved her and someone escorting me began to cry. She was obviously a parent too. It was now real and the fear boiled over to grief.

The world around me stopped mattering. Grief turned the world to a haze where no matter how clear my path in front of me was I couldn't see it. My home was no longer my home. I walked around my house expecting to run into her only to be tortured by the quiet. Everything reminded me of her and I yearned to hold her and hug her and feel the peace she brought to my heart.

She was a remarkable child. Her name was Mikayla Serenity Price. Mikayla came from the Archangel Michael the protector. Serenity is often quoted as "not the absence of the storm, but the peace within the storm." She certainly lived up to her name. This young toddler would step between her feuding sisters and stop them from fighting with a grace I had never seen. My daughters weren't the only ones subject to her spell. Our two Dutch Sheppard dogs were brother and sister and would occasionally fight with each other in an attempt to establish dominance. One day, they launched into a vicious bout and before I could stop her Mikayla stepped between them. It was as if her very essence brought peace to them and they were easily subject to her commanding gift. Even her mother and I were not immune. Of all my children worthy to wear my security forces shield, it would be Mikayla who was truly a protector of peace.

My peace had been taken and I was lost. I felt that my career was over. The people who should have looked out for Mikayla failed miserably. How could I ever trust the world enough to ever do my job to the best of my abilities? I had a career I was ready to give up.

"I love you Daddy! You go to work."

I continued on not sure I was doing the right thing. My emotions were raw and intense. Things I once loved to do no longer mattered. I had some good days occasionally, but most were bad days where I plastered a "can do" expression on my face and went to work, but my drive was gone. I talked to my supervisor, my chief and my commander. All of them encouraged me by saying I had a very promising career ahead of me and it would be a shame to give up. However, I always had a great deal of doubt as to whether I was even up to the task.

For the longest time I couldn't carry a gun. What was the point of doing a job that required arming when you couldn't arm? I ended up working in a job where I didn't need a weapon. I staffed, coordinated, drafted emails, proofread, advised, but I didn't do the job I loved most as a security forces member.

One particularly bad day, I was on the verge of what I knew was going to be an enormous break down. I had stopped sleeping. If I did get to sleep it was only for an hour or so. My mind no longer got the cleansing rest it needed and combined with my raw emotions it made for some pretty bad episodes. I went to one of the officers I worked with and asked her to take me to the hospital.

She asked me if I wanted to hurt myself. I really didn't know but knew I couldn't continue on like I was. She then asked me if I wanted to hurt others. I tearfully told her that was what I was really afraid of. My biggest fear was that it would be a fellow defender who had to put a bullet in me to stop me. Many of the defenders on that base have worked for me and I knew them all. What would that do to them?

She took me there and stayed with me. I thanked her for bringing me there and told her she didn't have to stay. She didn't leave my side. I went back for an evaluation and talked to a mental health technician. Eventually, I was given some medicine that would help me sleep and dull my depression. I'll never forget that officer's determination to stand by me when I was at my worst. She is now my commander here at the 386th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, Maj. Sarah Isbill.

Through some trial and error with medications and a great deal of intense counseling life started to get back to a more normal cadence. Eventually, I was able to get my authorization to arm. My grief has never left and there is still a haze it creates around me but over time it has faded.

There has always been a fellow defender standing beside me throughout my recovery who believed in me and even if I couldn't see my path covered in the haze of grief and anguish they never left my side. Most didn't know my story but they were always there to walk with me and I think they can see where I am meant to go but sometimes, I still don't.

Every day I wake and I'm met with the grief I feel when I fell asleep. With that I am inspired with the words that have maintained me through the years. "I love you daddy! You go to work."

Since all of this happened, I have earned another stripe. Some would argue it is the hardest stripe to achieve. The day I sewed it on was the day before the fourth anniversary of her death. The day after that anniversary is her birthday.

I think I am still doing what I should be doing and I'm blessed to work around heroes willing to protect our Air Force at all costs. I owe a lot to my Defender brothers and sisters. I am beginning to find my serenity again. Occasionally, I see a glimmer of the peace Mikayla brought me in the spirit of young Defenders I meet.

This is my story. As you can see, I hope this story will never be told in anyone else's life.

"I love you Daddy! You go to work."