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Serving During Combat Taught Me How To Serve My Family, by Erin Thielman

Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do. These are the three core values of the United States Air Force. But I added a fourth, dedication. Without dedication none of the other core values would be achievable. I enlisted in the USAF fresh out of high school in 1999. My first assignment was at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. I turned 19 years old in Basic Training.

In 2001, the world changed with the attacks of 9/11. I remember being gathered in the common area of the dorms and being briefed by First Sergeants on what to prepare for and who was going into combat. There was an eerie silence on what was normally a rambunctious base filled with F-16’s and their crew. But those F-16’s left and so did I. We were in combat.

Over the years I have never forgotten those years of service. For the past 13 years I have been married to my amazing husband and we have three children who are 11, 8, and 3 years old. I credit my years of service during combat for my ability to now serve and fight on behalf of my family. God blessed me with a steadfast heart. Over the past 21 years, I have known that Jesus stands right next to me as we battle storm after storm. Each and every time, there is always tribulation after the storms. And I am thankful for this.

When Andrew was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome, I viewed it as a storm to navigate with Christ at the helm of the ship. But, oh! Andrew having Down syndrome was NOT the storm! Instead, it was the doctors that wanted to abort him simply because of his prenatal diagnosis. When Andrew was born, it was another storm to navigate because he needed to have surgery on his intestines when he was a mere 15 days old. But the tribulation was his recovery.

Now, Andrew is a hurricane running around the house and tearing it apart just like any other toddler would do. He delights in going to school each morning and his days are made brighter when his brother and sister come home from their school days. (Sometimes I think that Andrew likes Alexander and Abby more than his mom and dad, and that’s totally okay!)

Integrity first, service before self, excellence in all we do and dedication: if I could go back in time and talk to my 19-year-old self, I would tell her that these core values will continue to play a role in the vocation of being a wife and mother. Without integrity, I would fail to raise my children in the image of God. Without having learned the value of service before self, our days would have been incorrectly centered. If I don’t strive for excellence and teach my children to do the same, then I am not serving them well. If I am not dedicated to these values, then our days would unravel.

As special needs parents, we hold onto various values in order to fight for and defend our family in the best way we know how. But we are not fighting alone. I didn’t serve in combat by myself, I served with others. Now, the Down syndrome community and my parish community are my new “brothers in arms.” Christ was at the helm of my ship 20 years ago and he will always remain there. He is there for you, too. Let him take control.

Erin Thielman is a mother of three, and speaker, who blogs at

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