Nine Miles of Memories

Just outside of the world famous city of Saratoga Springs, NY, known for the inventions of the club sandwich and potato chips, the oldest horse racing track in the United States, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), the mineral springs, and the famous mineral baths that used to attract royalty and celebrities alike, lies a stretch of road nine miles long.

If you drive this nine mile stretch of road, you’ll pass through fields, over and along streams, and through wooded areas that seem to come alive with a past two centuries old. You won’t pass any convenience stores, but you’ll certainly see your share of wildlife; rabbits and deer call this place “Home.”

When you finish your drive through this landscape, you will be able to say you have driven through nine miles of the most historic pieces of land in America. You’ll step on some of the same grounds that helped shape our nation, breathed life into our independence from Great Britain, and where the turning point of the American Revolution took place.

I am talking about the Saratoga National Historical Park and the Battles of Saratoga. It was here where American patriots fought the British, defeating them and bringing the largest military force in the world closer to surrender. It was here where Benedict Arnold fought and was wounded. Yes, it’s along this road, that I not only relive history from colonial America, but also memories from my youth.

These grounds are not only home to deer, rabbits, and other wildlife. They’re not only home to centuries old trees that speak to you as you walk amongst them. They’re not only the burial sites of thousands of Continental Army and British soldiers. These grounds are home to some of my greatest memories in life.

It was along this road that I remember bike riding as a child. It was always a treat for us growing up, to load the bikes into the car and head to “the battlefield,” as we call it around here.

It was along this road that we used to come for a quiet drive, windows down (no matter how hot it was), radio off, and driving below the 25 mph speed limit on the one-way tour road. Even when I drive it today, I still turn off the radio and roll the windows down. It’s a land that although once soiled with blood, now demands peace; a land that once echoed with cannon and musket fire, now demands quietness. A land which was once filled with the battle cries of freedom, now asks for only whispers.

It was along this road that I learned to drive. My Dad once had a Ford Bronco stick-shift, and it was along these nine miles that I stalled and jerked the engine over and over. It was along this road that I learned how to push in the clutch, shift, stop on a hill, and come to a stop. It was also here that I learned the patience of a father.

Along this road I learned how to cross country ski, how to approach a deer from upwind, downwind, and everywhere in between. Along this same road is where I began to train and condition my body before joining the Air Force; running and walking the miles of pavement on cold March days in 2001.

Along these roads is where I returned in 2017 when I retired from the military. No longer a boy on a BMX bicycle, no longer a teenager learning to drive, and no longer a young man seeing how fast he could run a couple miles. I returned as an older man, weathered and experienced from life and death, war and peace, joy and sorrow. I returned to these grounds for one simple reason, and it’s the reason I keep going back.

From the very first day I rode my bike there, to the days I learned to drive, to the days my feet pounded the pavement, until now, the grounds remain the same. I return and can go to the same exact spot I went three decades ago, and it remains untouched. I can tell stories, or I can remain silent and just remember a day from years past come alive in the moment.

Nine miles of road. History shaped. Memories made. A life transformed.

For more information about this area, visit the Town of Saratoga Historian’s blog.

Complacency. The Kill Zone.

I really try and put myself in uncomfortable situations. Complacency is my enemy.

Trent Reznor

A thought came to me this morning while I was drinking my first cup of coffee. My coffee time each day is when I think about the day, what I want to accomplish, and just let my mind wander. It’s my quiet time.

I sit here this morning, enjoying my second cup of coffee. I’m outside on my patio, listening to the birds sing, enjoying Spring weather here in upstate New York, and watching the bees buzz around from dandelion to dandelion. It’s a beautiful afternoon and the cool air promises rain in the forecast. In between the smell of rain, I smell small notes of chlorine; another promise that Spring is here.

Think about the birds and the bees. Even the flowers and dandelions that appear each year. This is an ordinary day for them. What they are doing today is probably no different than what they did yesterday. The birds will fly from branch to branch, occasionally stopping along the edge of the bird feeder that I have found myself increasingly having to fill. The flowers will spend the day blowing in the wind, letting out their fragrance, and continuing to blossom into their full beauty before dying again in the coming months. It’s a wonderful time of year, because that which was dead, has come alive.

While all these things are happening around us, it’s so easy to get caught up in the everyday moments. If I wasn’t sitting outside right now enjoying my coffee, I wouldn’t hear those birds singing their beautiful songs that I cannot understand. I wouldn’t see the new leaves on the trees blowing in the cool breeze, and I wouldn’t have the privilege to observe the bees hard at work doing whatever it is that bees do. No, I would be inside missing out on all this splendor that happens every single day, whether I take the time to see and listen or not.

Let me pose a question. When was the last time you heard birds singing? Sure, you may here them in the morning through a window, but when was the last time you actually stopped and heard them?

Throughout the world, many people are at a standstill. Seems as if COVID-19 has caused all that was once normal, to be completely abnormal. Daily routines have come to a halt for most of mankind, and it really has caused many to return back to the basics. At least for me it has. I have spent a lot of my time, what was once spare time and now most of the time, reading and thinking about life in general. The season of life we are in has forced a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities, returning to that which was foreign to them because of their busy schedules, routines, sports, jobs, or whatever else filled their weekly calendar. We have unwillingly been taken back to what this life should have been all about to begin with; less work, less busy-ness, stress from external sources outside of our control, and taken out of our comfort zone. We have been taken out of our world and life of complacency, and given new opportunities.

I’m reminded of my seventeen year old daughter. Like most teenagers, and adults for that matter, they have no idea how to live simply. They don’t know how to put their phones down for more than hour, checking the screen multiple times to see if they have any incoming notifications, scrolling through social media, or sending out a text message. They have never been in situations where they are forced to just take in the moment and be content. If you talk to families and individuals who don’t seem to be effected by all that’s going on in the world today, most of them will probably reveal to you that they’ve been living these simple lives for years. Those that haven’t been seem to be struggling more than ever, concerned about tomorrow, stressed, worried, confused, anxious, and trying to grasp at a life that will probably never return to what it once was. Why?

Complacency kills. During my time in law enforcement and in the military, we were always taught not to become complacent. In a security situation, complacency could be the one thing that ends up killing you. Complacency could be the difference between noticing a vehicle loaded with explosives, or allowing it to pass by and potentially kill hundreds. The thought, “I’ve searched hundreds of vehicles today and every dump truck was the same. I’m tired, hot, and hungry. I’ll let this one go by unchecked,” could result in catastrophic results. Complacency. How many of us lock our doors at night when we go to sleep? I do. Just because I haven’t had someone break into my house ever since I’ve been old enough to live on my own, doesn’t mean that tonight I will leave the doors unlocked. It could be that one time I leave it unlocked, that some home invader decides my house looks like a great place to stop by for a 2AM visit. Complacency such as that could have devastating effects to myself and my family.

Relationships that have become complacent don’t tend to work out well either. Regardless of the type of relationship, those which grow stagnant usually die. The moment you allow complacency to settle in, you better do something really quick to shake things up.

I like to think of the area of complacency as a kill zone. During my time serving overseas in combat zones, I was an M60 gunner. I was usually placed behind the entry control point (ECP) of a restricted area or onto the camp, forward operating base (FOB), or camp. Between that entry point and my location was the kill zone. There were signs letting all who entered, know they were in the kill zone and deadly force was authorized. My job? Stop any vehicles or individuals who became hostile within that small area. If they got past me, they had access to hundreds or thousands of Americans or coalition forces; many of which were unarmed and unaware. Many of which were carrying about their day like the birds in my yard are doing right now.

What if one day I thought to myself, “Steve, you’ve been sitting in this same spot for the last four months and nothing has ever happened. You’ve watched many of the same vehicles pass by, and some of the drivers even waved to you! Surely this next fourteen hours won’t be any different than all those before it.” So what if I decided to take out a book, take my eyes off what was in front of me, and allow my attention to be drawn to something else?

Now, you may be saying, “Steve, we aren’t in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other combat zone! And I’m not sitting here with a machine gun either.” You may be 100% correct. You’re not and I no longer am either. But that still doesn’t stop you nor I from settling into complacency, and being comfortable in the place where we are currently at.

Shake things up today. My thought this morning as I enjoyed my first cup of coffee was that today is not yesterday. It’s not the day before either. It’s today. While many things may be similar to all the days before it, it’s not the same. Therefore it shouldn’t be approached in the same way. Stay vigilant to those things creeping in to destroy your happiness, or allowing you to become stagnant. Change things up! Do something different! Get away from your routine and don’t allow yourself to get comfortable. Stop and actually listen to the birds sing. Don’t just hear them. Listen to them.

Stay out of the kill zone.

Depression – The Silent War

I have really debated the past couple of days on whether to write this or not. It’s personal and deep, and involves taking a journey down a road that although familiar, isn’t a pleasant one to travel. But I am a traveling man, and not all roads are easy to travel down.

Depression. Depending on who you speak to, you will get different responses regarding this word. Even within the last decade, my own personal thoughts and opinions regarding depression have changed.

Why am I writing this? Don’t I usually choose topics that are a little easier and pleasant to absorb? Yes, but I also dedicate this blog site to impacting those near and far and trying to positively influence those who read it.

This particular topic and blog entry has been on my mind constantly for the past two days. For those of you who don’t know, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2016, which led to my early retirement from the United States Air Force after sixteen years active duty. Part of having MS is trouble falling asleep. Because I have trouble sleeping, I was prescribed a sleeping medication recently. This particular medication has caused me to have extremely vivid dreams, none of which have been great dreams.

I will skip the details of the dream I had two mornings ago, but immediately upon waking, I took the contents and overall theme of the dream, as a prompt to write this and hopefully inspire others to share their own stories.

I’m not a doctor, a psychologist, psychiatrist, or mental health professional. I have zero textbook experience on the subject of depression. What I do have however, is years of hands-on practical knowledge, experience, and coping mechanisms used to deal with this silent killer.

I call depression a silent killer for many reasons. Almost more times than not, those who deal with depression will keep silent about it. For different reasons, they’re ashamed, and don’t want it to become evident to those around them, let alone themselves. These silent victims walk through their daily routines, wearing masks and hiding the pain they feel inside.

I am no stranger to wearing masks. For years, I became an expert at changing them often, and creating different ones for various occasions in life. I have never been one that is talented in the area of hiding facial expressions. Those around me could usually tell how I felt inside by the way I looked on the outside. So I created masks. I portrayed a smile on the outside while my heart and soul screamed on the inside.

Many times over the past years, I’ve talked about silent warriors fighting silent battles, and the battlefield being hidden within the four walls of their home or within their minds. They’re fighting these silent battles in a silent war, and if they make it through the night and into the next day, they’re winning. I’ve talked about this often and it’s so true.

When I was in the military, depression wasn’t something people talked about very much. The perception was there, especially in my career field and carrying a weapon, that any sort of mental or emotional health problem was a career killer. So you ended up having so many kill themselves on the inside to save their careers. With a rise in mental health awareness programs to combat Post Traumatic Stress and Suicide, the stigma has started to be shunned out of most units. Those who were in positions that did nothing but support the stigma mentioned above, have found themselves either getting with the program and following suit with other leaders, or being hidden in places where they will have minimal influence and impact on others. Good!

It’s a hard place to be when you’re standing in a room full of people, only to feel completely and utterly alone. For those who have never been surrounded but feel an intense loneliness and emptiness, it’s hard to fathom. To be surrounded by happiness and light, but feel as though you’re standing in a dark corner, is excruciating. To want nothing more than to break and scream at the top of your lungs, but thinking you can’t because they’re depending on you to be the happy person you always present yourself to be, is nothing short of painful. It’s like being stung over and over by the same bee.

Many think that someone who is depressed is suicidal. Not true at all. Someone could be in such a state of loneliness, sadness, and emotional despair, they don’t want to continue. They lay down at night praying they won’t wake up, unable to fathom another day in pain. But they’re not suicidal. They just want their pain to go away. Imagine the most excruciating toothache. Everything you tried to do to make the pain go away, failed and you’re left walking around with this pain that no one can see but only you can feel. Wouldn’t you do anything, including the removal of the tooth, to make the pain subside?

If you’re reading this and can relate, I’m here to tell you there is hope. I can also tell you that you can think all the happy and positive thoughts in the world, and it isn’t going to work. Why? Because that’s not you and that’s not how you were wired. And you know what else? That is okay!

I started this post by telling you I am not a doctor and have zero professional experience in the case of mental and emotional health. But I have experience, and if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here writing this for you today. I’m going to talk about things I’ve done to help in my next entry. It might just save you hundreds of dollars or another long period of pain and darkness. Maybe you won’t have to wear that mask so much. If none of the above, at least you will know that there’s another person fighting alongside you and cheering for your victory.

Walking Amongst Giants

Many of you who have kept up on my blog posts and who have gone further to check out my website, www.patriotimages.org, know that I am now heading into the second year of a project titled, “Faces of Veterans.”

The project, now turned into more of a journey, is focused on traveling across New York State and photographing as many of the 838,000 military veterans living within the state. Last year, over the span of ten months, we traveled to nine different NY counties and photographed approximately 1300 veterans and their guests. It has made a tremendous impact not only on the veterans and their families, but on me as well. So much, that I decided to pick it back up in 2020 and label it “Season Two.”

During Season Two, I am taking some of the feedback I received in 2019. Many viewers of the project expressed their interest in getting to know the veterans more personally. So this year, through the use of audio and video interviews, as well as photos, I am focusing on the more personal side of veterans and their lives.

Today was the first of what I hope to be many interviews. I met with a ninety-six year old WWII veteran named Mario in Lake George, NY. Mario was drafted after Pearl Harbor and became an Army medic. He spent eleven long months in Germany before returning home to his family. One of the things that I took away from today was his statement about why he joined.

“After the attack on Pearl Harbor, we had to do something. We couldn’t let this happen again. There wasn’t a man in my age group at the time who didn’t want to do whatever they could so this wouldn’t happen again.”

Mario “Doc” Mazzeo, WWII Veteran, United States Army

We live, breathe, and walk amongst giants. Mario’s generation, coined “The Greatest Generation,” is sadly a generation of brave American men who are passing away. There aren’t a lot of them left. Just several weeks ago, fighting infection, Mario was sent home from the hospital under hospice care. Thanks to his family by his side, his strong will to keep going, and his perseverance, Mario was full of energy and humor this afternoon when we spent a few hours together in his home.

Mario (left) and myself (right)

May God bless our men and women in uniform. May we never forget their sacrifices and their service to this great nation. May we honor them, their legacy, and forever remember that freedom is always a generation away from extinction.

Thank you Mario and family for such a great afternoon, for allowing me into your home, and sending me home a rich man with a full heart.