The following article appeared on StudentSportsSoftball.com on January 1, 2008, and was written by Garland Cooper.
During the holiday season it is easy to get caught up in the lights, food and presents. However, holidays are really about family and how blessed we are to have people in our lives that we love and who love us.
It is important to remember, however, that there are countless people who did not get to experience the warm feelings that holidays bring. Many American citizens are overseas fighting for our country and didn't make it home for Christmas.
StudentSportsSoftball.com had the opportunity to talk to one of those women, Ashlie Christian, who is overseas and played softball at the United States Military Academy in West Point. She helps us put everything in perspective this holiday season.
"I am the Troop Executive Officer and have been acting as Detachment Commander while deployed. Our Troop is comprised of two platoons with a total of 10 Blackhawk UH-60L Helicopters. We are split between two locations so our Commander is usually at one location and I have been the acting commander at the other FOB (forward operating base)," Christian explains.
She continues, "I am also a UH-60L Pilot in Command and Air Mission Commander so I fly at least four times a week on missions. We primarily conduct battlefield circulation missions transporting troops from one FOB to another and VIP missions, but also do air assaults and vehicle interdictions where we stop vehicles and insert special ops teams."
Christian has been gone since May of 2007 and won't return home until September of 2008. Since she left she has been all over the Middle East, flying all over Northern Iraq.
"Our battle space is from the Syrian border to Iranian border (west to east) and north to the Turkish border and we go as far south as Baghdad."
Although this aspect of her life now consumes her time, she wasn't always a helicopter pilot. Back in Payette, Idaho, she was just a typical small town girl who loved to play ball.
"Growing up in a small town in Idaho there wasn't a lot of softball. We didn't even have fastpitch until I was in sixth grade, so I kind of had a slow start," Christian states.
Even then, she was a determined individual and wanted to do whatever she could to become a great softball player. To jumpstart her fastpitch career, she got help wherever she could, from her dad and even her rival high school's coach!
"Wes Worrell, the softball coach for Bishop Kelly High School, was one of the main reasons I was able to play Division I softball. Between him and my dad I had more coaching than I wanted sometimes! Even though Bishop Kelly was a rival to my high school and in the same league he was still willing to help me whenever I asked."
She continues, "Through Coach Worrell I was able to get on an ASA team, Golden Gloves. It was a two-hour drive for practice but I made it everyday without fail. My parents driving me before I could drive, even in the winter through the snow storms, I never missed a practice."
She was recruited by Army in Boulder, Colo. at the Fourth of July tournament. After visiting the school she knew West Point was the place for her.
"Army allowed me to have the best balance of everything I wanted to accomplish. A top quality education, the chance to play Division I softball, plus I didn't have to pay to do any of it. They actually paid me, and I was guaranteed a job when I graduated. There are so many opportunities that arise from going to West Point," says Christian.
She excelled there all four years as the starting pitcher for the team. As team captain, she led them to a Patriot League Championship and to the NCAA Tournament.
After her softball career ended, the skills that she learned in her four years playing at Army became driving forces behind her success as a soldier. In many ways, what she learned as a softball player has helped her to overcome the obstacles she has faced.
"The main thing softball has helped me with is helping me be a leader. As a captain and acting commander it has required me to deal with many different situations and be strong even when something happens that upsets me. Playing softball and being a leader on the team has helped me do that here too."
She adds, "Teamwork has been one of the biggest things that prepared me for Army life. Out here you have to work as a team or you won't survive. Along with hard work and dedication, being in the Army is a very physical job. You get tired and want to quit or go home, but you can't. People's lives depend on what you're doing and there's no room for error, especially when it comes to flying."
Christian keeps listing all that softball has done to prepare her stating, "All the additional skills I learned from softball I use all the time. Conflict resolution between teammates, hard work and maintaining composure have been skills that I have used in both softball and the Army."
These skills that she maintains from her days as a pitcher at the Academy have unfortunately been to use while she has been away. Tragedy seems inevitable for those at war, but Christian especially has overcome some tremendous hurdles in her position.
"We had only been in the country about three months when we had an aircraft crash and 14 people were killed, including 4 men from my troop. My commander who was a good friend and mentor, another pilot who was a good friend, and two crew chiefs who everyone liked all died, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with in my life," she shares.
Christian adds reluctantly, "Unfortunately that wasn't my first experience with tragedy as we had a Blackhawk crash in Fort Lewis last December and three men from my platoon were killed. Those experiences are by far the hardest to deal with, but as a leader you have to be strong for the rest of the soldiers, maintain composure, and be there for them to talk to. They are hardest while you're deployed because the war doesn't stop just because something happens, we had to keep flying and accomplish our missions. Those are experiences that I would never wish on anyone."
Christian even suffered a personal loss, when her grandpa died in September of 2007.
"My grandpa died in September and I wasn't able to go home and be with the rest of the family. One of the things I miss most about being in the United States is being with my family and being able to be there when something happens."
Christian has had to be strong for herself and for her colleagues. Her softball has contributed to her strength over the years, but she admits that she never thought her softball would lead to this.
"Not in a million years. I never thought I would be flying helicopters everyday and getting paid to do it!"
Just like her younger days as a softball player, driving hours in the snow to practice and getting help wherever she could, she is motivated and willing to do whatever it takes to succeed in those opportunities that Army presented her, but she credits her parents for her success.
"My parents are the main reason I got where I did. If it wasn't for their support and dedication to my success it wouldn't have happened. My mom never missed a game until I got to college and then she even took the last semester off work so that she wouldn't miss my senior season at Army. My dad would spend countless hours sitting on a bucket catching for me, took time off work to coach me all growing up and then volunteered as an assistant to the high school team when I was in high school. There have been no two bigger fans than my parents!"
Because her parents are so instrumental in her life, it makes this holiday season especially difficult.
"This is my first Christmas that I have missed. I am an only child and very close to my parents, so it's hard not being able to be there with them," she admits.
Christian continues, "I will miss my family the most. I know my parents are having a hard time with me being gone and I miss them and wish it was easier for them."
Although she couldn't be home, Christian did have plans for Christmas.
"We flew around delivering food to all the soldiers at the other FOBs and out on patrols. We decorated our hangar all up and had a tree with presents to hand out on Christmas Eve."
Those soldiers are all there for each other, lifting each other's spirits but sometimes, as Christian admits, it is just easier trying to forget the holiday.
"The chow hall is really decorated too and they had a nice meal for Christmas as well, but basically it's just another day for us. It makes it easier to just think of it as a normal day instead of a holiday."
While we are at home enjoying our holidays it is important to think of those that have fought for us and are still fighting for us to be able to do so.
Christian gives some advice to any who need it starting the new year, "You just have to keep working hard. Don't ever give up on anything you want to accomplish. If you work hard enough and put enough effort into it then good things will happen," she shares.
She concludes with some words of thanks for those supporting the soldiers.
"I want to thank everyone who supports all of us who are deployed. It is hard being away from family and friends for so long, but the support we receive from home makes it bearable. Thank you."
Happy New Year.