Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is an Active Drilling Reservist (serving in Troop Program Unit status) and has more than 22 years of services in the Army Reserves. She was commissioned in 1991, has served two terms of deployment (one 6 month deployment to Kuwait, and a one year deployment in Afghanistan), and is a wife and mother of two. She is also a Civil Engineer and, as she puts it, over the course of her “entire professional and adult life, I have been the minority gender.” She shares her experience as a woman in the military and explains how she manages being a soldier and a mother, as well as describing her struggles with returning to the realities of civilian life.
TSR: When you enrolled in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corp) , did you ever foresee being a Mom and an active service member?
I enrolled in ROTC to appease my mother’s request that I apply for a scholarship. When I got the scholarship, she had second thoughts, but I figured I ought to at least give it a try. My dad’s advice has always been to ‘keep doors open,, so accepting the scholarship and enrolling in ROTC as a freshman was in keeping with that advice. I did not think much beyond that, and was ambivalent about being a mother in the future.
TSR: How have you resolved the pull between the roles of being in the military and being in a parent?
My maternal instinct is not particularly strong, and I have a husband with a much stronger maternal instinct than mine! Having a partner who is more engaged that I ever wanted to be in the day-to-day aspects of raising children has made it much easier to be in the military. We have taken the approach that we each specialize in our respective roles, so I can go off and do this work without (too much) guilt.
TSR: When you returned to civilian life, did you and your husband maintain the roles that exist while you were in Afghanistan – where he is the primary caregiver?
Yes, we started that after my first deployment in 2004. When I returned, I decided to go into business for myself and that necessitated that we continue the same division of responsibility. Since 2004, I have mostly forgotten how to cook, do crafts, and pay the bills.
TSR: How has this impacted your marriage?
Well, this system has governed over half of our married life, and almost our entire children’s lives; and we’re still together (pretty happily, I might add). So I would say it’s made the marriage very strong. Although occasionally, I threaten to become a stay-at-home mom, just to keep Jeff on his toes.
TSR: How has the adjustment between military service and civilian life been?
Not so great. And I am pretty pissed about it, because I thought I was prepared for the transition. A couple of months after I returned home, I was overwhelmed with strange and out-of-character feelings: shame, self-loathing, guilt, isolation, embarrassment, boredom, weakness and despair. I hated everything… my friends, my job, my life. But I couldn’t tell you why. I wasn’t unhappy, but really empty. And very ashamed. I felt like I wasn’t living up to this idealized version of the returning citizen soldier. Who was I to ask for help, when I had seen no trauma, knew no combat deaths, experienced no bombs or gunfire? I felt like a complete fraud. I thought of all those service members who had bravely faced danger every day, and who are still facing that danger. And what help could I ask for? I had a good job, supportive friends and family, very little stress. So mostly, I continued to put on a fake smile, go to work, and participate in life while at the same time walking around in my funk and waited for the cloud to lift.
I still am seeking answers to why I experienced this when others do not. I have felt that it is weak to not be able to resist the depression. I am curious to know how others explain this phenomenon. We’ve been trained to recognize it and cope with it, but it still surprises me each time it happens. And frankly, the transition is much worse than the deployment itself; and makes me wary of deploying again.
TSR: How has being a woman impacted your time in the military?
It’s hard for me to say. I am also a Civil Engineer, so my entire professional and adult life, I have been the minority gender. I suppose in the early years, I spent a lot of time trying to fit in; and also to prove myself as smart. But I have been in the Army Reserves for my entire military career, and as a citizen-soldier, I come to my military career with a lot of self-confidence derived from my civilian experience. So I guess I would generally say that I project a non-nonsense approach and in return, I receive no-nonsense feedback.
TSR: What are you most proud of when it comes to your accomplishments, both professionally and personally?
I am proud that my style of leadership – which is kind of quiet – is valued and effective. Besides being an Army Reserve Engineer and having deployed twice, I am also a project developer and have developed some major regional projects that have enhanced the Pittsburgh region (MLB Ballpark, NHL Arena, a Performing Arts High School, and riverfront park projects.) By taking deliberate risks while also building resilience both in myself and within my family, I feel like I set a good example for my children and for the community.
ShriverReport.org interviewed Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak via email.
Lt. Col. Chris Cieslak is an Active Drilling Reservist (serving in Troop Program Unit status) and has more than 22 years of service in the Army Reserves. She was commissioned in 1991 has served two terms of deployment (one 6 month deployment to Kuwait, and a one year deployment in Afghanistan), and is a wife and mother of two. She is also a Civil Engineer.