Just as the title of the program suggested, the First Lady’s Series program at the Tennessee Residence on Tuesday night explored the “Other Side of War.”
Far removed from news accounts from the battlefield, far from policy debates, it was about real people coping with the day-to-day aspects of a military family, including its tragedies.
With a focus on the Tennessee Army National Guard and with Memorial Day approaching, an audience at Conservation Hall heard personal stories of a wounded soldier, a woman whose husband died in battle and a young woman dealing with the absence of her often deployed father.
First Lady Andrea Conte noted before the program that the subject was truly not about war but about the side not usually seen, and Gov. Phil Bredesen said after the program that he had looked around the room and noticed the audience was riveted by the discussion.
Sgt. (Ret.) Kevin Downs of Ashland City was seriously injured when his vehicle was hit with explosives in Iraq. Cassandra Flanigan’s husband, William T. Flanigan, was killed in an Apache helicopter crash on July 2, 2006 in Afghanistan. Keeley Stewart, of Winchester, is a junior at St. Andrews Sewanee and daughter of Lt. Comdr. Kevin Stewart.
“A military family is wondering when they’re going to go the next time, and when they do go, if they’re going to be safe,” Flanigan said. “So I didn’t get my wish. Mine didn’t stay safe.”
Flanigan talked a lot about her two children — Meghan Caley now 15, and William Brodie, now 13 — and how she has focused on caring for them and protecting them. She said her husband was committed to his job.
“He wanted to go. He loved his job more than anything. He wouldn’t be him if he didn’t go,” she said.
She said she would worry every day.
“My worries became my reality,” she said. “I had to figure out how to be this new person.”
She said CNN had the accident on before she was notified.
“They did not, of course, say who,” she said. “But we knew one had come down, and one didn’t.
“There’s no way to know until they come to your door or not come to your door.”
Flanigan said the experience made her avoid watching military reports on television.
“I can’t watch it anymore,” she said. “I love the military. But we just don’t watch it.”
That was a constant refrain in the discussion, how even with some of the worst experiences imaginable, they still cared about the military and said how supportive the military had been for them.
“They were there for me in many ways,” Downs said. “A lot of the guys would come down to Texas to see me in the hospital. They would constantly call or write letters and keep in contact with my family. They helped me and my whole family.”
Downs was injured in August 2005 when his vehicle was hit by five explosives, causing broken bones and severe burns. Three troops were killed. Downs spent years in a hospital. He said the only reason he survived was because he was launched from the vehicle. He now works full-time at the Ashland City armory.
Stewart said the first time her father left, for her it was a feeling of mourning.
“My father and I e-mailed a lot,” she said of the times he was away. “And we didn’t really talk about what was going on. But he would also call our house about once a week and tell us whether or not we needed to be worried.”
At one one point, Stewart was asked if she ever considered going into the military.
“I did think about it once,” she said. “But my mother said no.”
At another point, moderator Vicki Yates asked Stewart if she would marry a military man, and Stewart immediately said, “No,” which brought laughter from the audience.
Downs said there were difficult times for him, dealing with anger and that it was hard for those around him, seeing him without knowing how to help him.
“I finally realized there were things I could still do,” he said. “I thought, I’m going to do this. I’ve just got to figure out how to do it.”
Flanigan said time helped in her emotional healing.
“It’s such a cliche. People say time makes it better, and it did make it better,” she said. “I literally counted the days. I did a lot of walking. You just keep going. Thank goodness I had my children, because it kept me busy, and I had to take care of them.”
Yates asked the panel about any fond memories they might have about the military experience, and Flanigan credited technology.
“A Web cam,” she said. “I remember him getting a laptop and going outside in Afghanistan and, I try to get it straight because it was eight-and-a-half hours difference, whether it was the sunrise or the sunset.
“I got to see it with him.”