TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – Happy Birthday, Cheryl Brown. Or, as my brother and I say, "Happy birthday, mom." Let me tell you a little about her.
Cheryl joined the Air Force Reserves in the late 80s as a mental health professional; appropriate, I think, for a newly single mother of two boys. Not long after, the Air Force sent her to the Middle East to dodge Scuds during Desert Storm. Her mother, formerly of the British Army and a World War II veteran herself, deployed to Travis Air Force Base to take command of us boys while our mom was off to war. These were our formative role models, these two women warriors; little wonder why my brother and I would later join the Air Force ourselves.
Despite Saddam's best efforts, Cheryl survived the war and returned home in late spring, I think, of '91. And despite my brother and I’s best efforts, our grandmother survived her tour of duty as guardian-in-chief.
Soon after Desert Storm, Cheryl retrained to Disaster Readiness, a career field she would retire from decades later as Senior Master Sgt. Brown. I was so proud of her.
This same time she started her long career as an Air Force civilian. And that's probably how you know her, if you do. Because Cheryl Brown is Wing Plans, and Wing Plans is Cheryl Brown.
Anyone who has served in a leadership role can testify to a simple truth: civilians are the unsung heroes of our Air Force. They are the institutional knowledge and continuity that allow our enterprise to function, day after day and year after year, in the face of never-ending changes of command, assignment and deployment cycles, and military separations and retirements.
They provide the steady hands and calm skies that allow uniformed warriors to rush off to exotic lands, secure in the knowledge that our squadrons, groups and wings will still be standing back home when the fighting is done. Commander after commander, deployment after deployment, the continuity of our civilians keeps the home base mission on track.
Travis relies on thousands of the Air Force's best civilians, and Cheryl Brown is one of them. For years, Cheryl managed the Wing's Plans program. Chemical spill? There's a plan for that. Earthquake? There's a plan for that. Terrorist attack? Yeah, there's a plan for that, too. For several years she also ran the Wing's Operational Security program, an increasingly daunting task as social media replaces the water cooler and the cloud replaces pen and paper.
But senior leaders probably know her best for her work with the Crisis Action Team. You see, anytime something out of the ordinary occurs – which happens with surprising frequency – Travis's senior leadership and their advisors oversee the incident in a secure command and control center. Cheryl's job was to manage this control center. Year after year, wing commander after wing commander relied on her knowledge and continuity during a crisis. Until last November.
The Monday before last Thanksgiving, mom was driving to work like every other day. But this day, for some reason, she couldn't see very well, and she couldn't remember how to keep her car on the road. She pulled over and called her office. Her coworkers took her to the emergency room. And just like that, without warning, her life changed.
She was diagnosed with an incurable brain cancer called Glioblastoma Multiforme, or GBM. The next morning, a neurosurgeon at University of California Davis Medical Center removed an orange-sized tumor from her brain. Coincidentally, this was the same hospital that had removed my lymph nodes just a few years earlier when cancer ended my loadmaster career. Another holiday season, another UC Davis cancer surgery. We have to stop meeting this way.
We didn't know what was going to come next. Removing part of her brain was going to have side effects, but the alternative would be letting the tumor kill her, probably within a few weeks. So she had brain surgery. She stayed at UC Davis for a couple of weeks before she was moved to a rehab center. The tumor and the surgery had damaged her vision and cognition, and some of her motor skills. She was going to need to relearn how to walk and write her name, as well as a hundred other mundane tasks we all take for granted.
After a month in rehab, she finally went home to start radiation. A few weeks after that, she started chemotherapy; she'll stay on chemo at least through the end of the year.
Life has changed for all of us, but for no one more than my mom. She can't drive anymore. She lost a good portion of her peripheral vision, and her reaction time is a bit slower than it used to be. Sometimes "chemo brain" makes her exhausted, affects her memory and slows her processing speeds. Other days, she's so much the woman I remember that it's easy to forget the terrible monster lurking inside her brain.
I love my mom. I know that's a ridiculous thing to say, but it's true. I spent my last years on active-duty with the 60th Air Mobility Wing Inspector General, and my office was feet away from hers. During that time, I got to know some of the people she was professionally close to, which brings me to the end, and the real reason I'm writing this: Thank You.
Thank you to the members of Team Travis who worked with Cheryl over the years. She talks of her colleagues and friends with fondness and joy.
Thank you to the men and women at Wing Plans who first took her to the emergency room, and who have been so incredibly supportive over the last several months. And thank you to the emergency room staff who recognized her need for immediate specialized care. Her coworkers and the USAF David Grant Medical Center that saved her life.
Thank you to Col. Corwin Pauly, former 60th Air Mobility Wing vice commander, for reaching out, offering sincere support and being her advocate when she needed it the most.
And a special thank you to the civilians of Team Travis who have selflessly donated leave time. The outpouring of support from that fantastic group has been tremendous. I've even heard of military members who tried donating leave to her. You can't possibly know how much that support and peace of mind means to her, and how grateful she is to each of you.
She just celebrated her 64th birthday, but we celebrate each day we get to have with her. The generosity and support of her friends at Team Travis have helped make her ongoing treatment possible and given us all the gift of more time.
From our family, and on behalf of my mom, Cheryl Brown: Thank You.