As the only female flight mechanic in her U.S. Army reserve unit, Lisa Caldwell got used to being a dating target.
“Almost every weekend there was a different guy who was asking me out to dinner or something — which was entertaining,” Caldwell says.
But she didn’t want a workplace relationship, until fellow reservist Justin Poage began showing her the finer points of helicopter maintenance.
“It was like, ‘Oh, this is a bright guy,’ ” Caldwell remembers. “He knew exactly what he was doing. He was very confident. We just got along well.”
The single life is unpredictable. But for single veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s also another step in their journey back to normalcy.
Caldwell, a 30-year-old sergeant, and Poage, a 25-year-old specialist, took a chance and began seeing each other in February. It went well. They now live together in Olathe.
In their civilian jobs Poage is an auto mechanic and Caldwell (a former military flight medic) teaches doctors how to use computers during surgery.
“I have no idea why she went for me,” Poage says.
“He says that I’m one of the kindest people he’s ever met,” she says.
That each has endured life-endangering deployments continues to be a bond.
“The cold, hard reality of it is that we’ve both been over there,” Poage says. “I was in Iraq. She was in Afghanistan. We made friends over there. We lost friends over there. And it helps to be able to talk to someone who’s close to you who’s able to understand.”
Caldwell agrees. “It’s difficult if not impossible to truly grasp the experience for somebody who hasn’t been over there,” she says. “It would be like a mother trying to explain what childbirth was like to somebody who’s never had a baby.”
“A few weeks ago,” Poage says, “I was having a rough time because it was the one-year anniversary of a friend of mine dying in Baghdad. She helped me through that. One night we just kind of sat down and had a heart to heart. It means a lot.”
Any thoughts of marriage?
“We’ve talked about it here and there,” Poage says. “Every time I think about it, I get nervous.”
“You don’t join the military to find a husband,” Caldwell says. “The military is the military, not a dating service. But we’re all human.”
One month after being deployed to Afghanistan, U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Moore learned that his sweetheart had dumped him for a mutual friend back home in Baldwin City, Kan.
His Army buddies told him to get over it. He got the message.
To make the pain go away, Moore, 23, considered having a fling with a woman — any woman — upon his return home to reserve duty in March 2007.
“It definitely crossed my mind,” he says. “But, unfortunately, I’ve never been that kind of guy. Or fortunately. My character and morality get the best of me.”
While the proving ground of Moore’s Army experience has made him more ambitious professionally, it didn’t turn him into a heat-seeking ladies man.
“Approaching women is still a problem, especially in places like bars and nightclubs,” he says. “You have to advertise. And I just don’t know exactly how to get ahead of these very flashy, loud, obnoxious guys. It’s very competitive and primal out there.”
It’s on an actual date that Moore believes he really shines.
“When I’m one-on-one I can show that I have something to offer,” he says. “I’m a stable person. I have great finances for someone my age. And I am very unselfish and will do anything for anybody.
“The only problem is I’m thinking: ‘Oh, boy, is she comfortable? Make sure you keep her talking. Am I listening enough?’ Sometimes I may be trying too hard and putting too much pressure on myself.”
He’s certainly not giving up looking for someone. That includes keeping his eyes open as a full-time student at Neosho County Community College in Ottawa, Kan. Make thatwide
“I just can’t help it,” Moore says. “There are beautiful women everywhere.”
The Stephen Burns who in October 2005 left to serve his country in Afghanistan was on the shy side and tended to be bothered by little things.
The Stephen Burns who came home in October 2006 was more outgoing and no longer troubled by the trivial.
“I basically just loosened up as a person,” Burns says. “I like to go out and have a good time. Look for a date, you know? Just have fun.”
The 22-year-old didn’t have to look far for Tina Clayton, who lives next door to him in Gardner in Johnson County. The two have been casually dating, and Clayton has enjoyed hanging out with a military man.
“I actually find it fascinating,” Clayton says. “I’ve always been big on the guys serving our country. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”
Burns’ transformation in Afghanistan was no accident.
“I came to an agreement with myself — my soul, I guess you could say — that, hey, if I die over there, I die over there,” Burns says. “And all of this little stuff that I’d been worrying about back home just wasn’t worth it anymore, like getting angry in rush-hour traffic. I was glad just to come home and drive something.”
The new Burns — a U.S. Army sergeant in the reserves and full-time aircraft mechanic — is certainly someone who likes to party. Like he did on his first Halloween night back home, when he and some pals hit the haunted houses and then went carousing on the Country Club Plaza.
“Before the night was over I was passed out in my buddy’s Jeep and I had a $300 bill for nothing but shots,” he recalls. “And this was after the bartender and the bar owner were buying us drinks.”
But that brand of excess “kind of got old and expensive,” Burns acknowledges, and he has since cut back on the bar scene. Now he’s as likely to be at the mall.
“If I’m out doing stuff, like buying clothes,” he says, “I’ll see an attractive girl and say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you having a good day?’ I’ll start up a conversation. And if it feels like things are going OK, I might get a little risky and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing next week?’ ”
Burns’ batting average?
“Not so good,” he says. “But, honestly, I’m most comfortable like this. I enjoy making women laugh and having a good time and getting a little rise out of them. As far as I can tell, it’s who I am. The way I see it, I’m not any different than any other guy, except that I spent a year in the sand.”
Christina Farquhar is single, but it might be some time before Mr. Right — or even Mr. Maybe — makes it through her gauntlet of trust.
It was forged in large part by her military service in the Arab state of Qatar, where Farquhar was a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force who serviced aircraft that protected troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’m not anti-social,” says Farquhar, 24, now an inactive reservist who lives in Leawood. “I just don’t trust people until they prove themselves.
“In the military, when you’re a female in a male world, you’re a piece of pizza and they all want a bite,” she says. “So I’m pretty good at saying, ‘Get the hell away from me.’ That’s why I’m so selective.”
The base where Farquhar was stationed in Qatar fell under occasional threat of terrorist attack. Yet she felt routinely unnerved by the improper advances made by some of her military peers — especially when married people didn’t act married.
“I hate the fact of people cheating on their wives or husbands,” she says. “It just disgusts me, really. Everybody knows everybody’s business over there, and I knew more than my share of people who were sleeping with someone else.”
And that has made it tough for Farquhar to size up a potential mate without being cynical.
“It’s made me realize that I have to be even more careful,” she says. “I know what men are capable of, and I know exactly what they’re thinking.”
So what kind of guy stands a chance with Farquhar?
“Someone who hasn’t been to jail,” she says wryly.
Farquhar is working toward a psychology degree at Johnson County Community College and is employed as a public service officer for an area police department. If anything, she prefers the company of cops and firefighters.
“Some of those individuals have served in the military as well, so they understand,” she says. “It’s one of those common ground things.
“You’ve heard the saying, ‘Once a soldier always a soldier’? That’s how I feel. It was a huge part of my life. That was all I knew for four years. And then to be taken out of it and for people to say, ‘You’re not there anymore; you need to start acting like you’re in civilian life now’ — it’s hard. You know, it’s still a transition.”
This year active-duty U.S. Army Capt. Craig Colucci — a veteran of Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and recipient of the Bronze Star for Valor — moved from Leavenworth to a loft in downtown Kansas City.
After almost two years back in the States, it seemed like the thing to do to further his reconnection with American society.
“I’m part of the military community, but now I feel part of the Kansas City community,” Colucci says. “The military take the oath to protect the Constitution and the people of this country. But when you become detached from the people that you’ve sworn to protect, that is a bad thing. I just want to be able to live a normal life.”
That includes finding romance.
“At Fort Leavenworth there isn’t much to appeal to a single guy,” Colucci says. “This is the place to be to meet people.”
Two previous relationships were casualties of his military deployments. The first was with a woman he met in Germany, and it ended over the phone while he was in Baghdad.
“I’m talking with her, and I could just feel the tension,” Colucci remembers. “And I was like, ‘Hey, look, I haven’t showered in 30 days, I’m dirty, I’m tired — can you just chill out?’ And she says, ‘Well, you’re throwing a pity party for yourself tonight.’ I’m like, this girl has noclue
. And that was it. I was done.”
The second relationship was leading to a big wedding with an “absolutely awesome girl” from his home state of New Jersey. But Colucci had to admit his mistake.
“I broke off the engagement,” he says. “Because for essentially the last three or four years of my life I was completely told what to do and where to be in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. She was incredible … but I had changed. I just needed time.”
Colucci’s time in KC has been fruitful. This past spring he earned a master’s degree in business administration at Rockhurst University. And at a recent First Friday in the Crossroads Arts District he met his current girlfriend, an elementary school teacher who shares his passion for helping others.
Do they talk about his deployments?
“If I had a significant issue, then I think I’d be able to talk about it with her,” Colucci says. “There were some great things that I did over there, especially helping the people in Afghanistan, but there are some parts where it is what it is. What happens in Iraq stays in Iraq sometimes.”
This week we’re talking to new veterans about coming home (read previous installments on KansasCity.com).MONDAY:
Coming back lucky and lost.TUESDAY:
The new veteran goes to college.WEDNESDAY:
Redeploying to the family.TODAY: Mission: Get a date. FRIDAY: